by Brian Awehali
(originally published by Britannica.com as part of a regular history feature called “Yesterday’s News”)
July 25, 1876 — The U.S. Army today suffered its worst defeat ever in Plains Indian warfare, as more than 260 soldiers in the 7th Cavalry were killed along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in the disputed Montana Territory. The bloodbath ensued after an evidently ill-conceived charge under the command of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. There appear to be no human survivors from the 7th Cavalry and only one equine survivor, a cavalry horse (ironically named “Comanche”). Because of the Indians’ custom of immediately removing their dead from the battlefield, it is difficult to ascertain how heavy their losses were, though estimates place the total at around 140.
Sources report that Custer may have disregarded the orders of Brigadier Gen. Alfred H. Terry—as well as the dictates of sound judgment—when he rushed ahead of reinforcements and led between 260 and 270 cavalrymen against a force of approximately 2,500 Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians, a war party believed to have been the largest that the Plains Indians have ever arrayed against U.S. forces.
According to one eyewitness, during the battle “Indians took clothing from dead [U.S.] soldiers and dressed themselves in it to confuse the soldiers,” a ruse which appears to have been successful. Further eyewitness reports indicate that many of the U.S. troops, confronted with certain defeat, attempted to surrender, but that the Indians “did not take a single soldier prisoner, [killing] all of them.”
Custer apparently decided not to wait for reinforcements from Terry, who was to bring a larger body of troops up the Yellowstone River in an attempt to trap the Indians between the two forces. It is unknown why Custer chose this course of action, but his tactic appears to have been undermined in no small part by the failure of at least one officer under his command. Maj. Marcus Reno, after assuming command of one of two flanking forces, retreated prematurely and with apparent cowardice, leaving Custer’s main force fatally exposed.
Following so soon after last week’s defeat of Gen. George Crook at Rosebud Creek by Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse and his warriors, this newest setback underscores the poor planning and lack of resolve that have come to characterize the U.S. military’s inglorious campaign against the Plains Indians. Although the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 guarantees Indians the exclusive and permanent possession of the Dakota Territory west of the Missouri River, the U.S. government has consistently failed to take measures against illegal pioneer settlements in the region. In fact, several Indian raids on such settlements have been taken as a pretext for release from the terms of the treaty. The recent discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory—recognized as a sacred hunting ground for the Sioux and Cheyenne—has only worsened matters.
The death of Custer, who takes two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew with him to a High Plains grave, brings to an end one of the more colorful military careers in recent history. Despite graduating last in his class at West Point in 1861 and, in the words of one commentator, “utterly fail[ing] to distinguish himself,” Custer achieved surprising success during the Civil War, as the Michigan cavalry brigade he commanded doggedly pursued Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and led in no small part to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Custer personally received the flag of truce that brought the war to a close.
Although Custer was court-martialed two years later for abandoning his post to visit his wife, his suspension from military service was short-lived. The decline in military enlistment and the demand for leadership in the intensifying campaign against the Plains Indians soon led to Custer’s reinstatement.
He wasted no time in stirring controversy when, under the orders of Major Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, troops under his command ambushed a Cheyenne encampment along the Washita River. Custer reported that he had killed about 100 warriors, women, and children and that he had destroyed all livestock and winter supplies. Public outcry about these events led to the creation of the federal Peace Commission, which was charged with converting the Plains Indians from their nomadic life to reservation settlement; faced with exposure and probable starvation, many of the Cheyenne at Washita accepted resettlement. Custer’s reputation as “the Army’s premier Indian fighter” is based upon such actions.
The bloody end that has befallen Custer and his men at the Battle of the Little Bighorn will surely resonate in the public mind for many years and is all but certain to intensify U.S. governmental action against the Plains Indians.
- Encyclopædia Britannica: “George Armstrong Custer and Battle of the Little Bighorn”
- Larry Sklenar, To Hell with Honor: Custer and the Little Bighorn (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000)
- The West, PBS
- Interview with Louise Barnett, author of Touched by Fire, on C-SPAN’s Booknotes