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In the early 1870s, as surface deposits of gold disappeared in other parts of the American West, prospectors chased rumors of gold into the Blacks Hills. These lay within the Great Sioux Reservation—60 million acres west of the Missouri River established as the home of the Lakota Indians by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. At first, in order to avoid reigniting the Sioux wars that had raged sporadically since the mid-1850s, the U.S. Army regularly expelled the gold hunters who trespassed on Lakota land.

That changed, however, in 1874. A surveying expedition led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, celebrated for his dashing cavalry charges during the Civil War, and a scientific expedition sent out the following year by the Bureau of Indian Affairs both confirmed the rumors of a potential gold bonanza in the Black Hills. When the reports lured a new horde bitten by the gold bug, President Ulysses S. Grant conferred with his generals, old comrades such as William Tecumseh Sherman, general-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, and Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commander of the army in the West. Hardened veterans of the Civil War, these men saw a strategic need to remove the Plains Indian tribes as a potential military threat and believed war with the Sioux was all but inevitable. They agreed to allow the treaty-breaking gold rush to go forward unrestrained. By some estimates, as many as 15,000 miners were in the Black Hills by the end of 1875.

In response, the Indians assembled in the Black Hills in numbers estimated to be as great as 30,000. Ready to make a stand, they included among their number the Oglala, Hunkpapa and Minneconjou Sioux, as well as factions of the Northern Cheyenne and some Yankton, Teton and Santee Sioux—tribes that had remained openly and defiantly militant since 1865. Leading these groups, the Oglala Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa Sitting Bull were gaining legendary status as warrior chiefs. By the mid-1870s, the very name of Sitting Bull had become among the Indians a word for “all that was generous and great,” as one white scout observed, and his ever-growing number of followers were known as “Sitting Bull people.”

By the autumn of 1875, several U.S. agencies were in place hoping to detach the tribes from each other and render them compliant to federal control. A commission chaired by Iowa Republican Senator William Allison was appointed to negotiate the government purchase or lease of the Black Hills. But as ground considered most sacred by the Sioux people, the Black Hills were neither for rent nor for sale. The Indians rebuffed the government attempts to buy the land, and by the end of 1875 Sherman and Sheridan had decided to stop dealing and start fighting. An ultimatum was issued to the Indians: Report to an agency and reservation by January 31, 1876, or be deemed a hostile subject to attack.

If forced to settle on some reservation, Sitting Bull knew his bands could be deprived of their independence and coerced into dropping their opposition to the cession of the Black Hills. So the deadline came, and the deadline went, and still none of the Indians left the area. The timing of the ultimatum was perfect, and certainly no accident. Sheridan was preparing for a winter campaign. It was the same kind of campaign that had already proved successful on the southern Plains against Cheyennes and Comanches.

Ultimately the United States did not use the Indians’ refusal to move to a reservation as a pretext for war, instead citing Sitting Bull’s aggressions against tribes friendly to the government and his scattered depredations against whites on the upper Yellowstone River. Both, policymakers said, violated the Laramie Treaty of 1868, which neither Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse nor their comrades had signed. Indian Bureau inspector E.C. Watkins asked for military intervention, citing a host of “outrages” committed by Sitting Bull and his followers. But “the true policy, in my judgment,” Watkins declared in a report, “is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection.”

The winter campaign of the Great Sioux War of 1876 did not go well. Heavy snows kept Custer and his 7th Cavalry bottled up in Fort Abraham Lincoln near modern-day Bismarck, N.D. General George Crook and the 900 men he led out of Fort Fetterman, near modern-day Douglas, Wyo., on March 1, 1876, spent three weeks fighting storms and cold rather than hostile Indians. And even when a detachment from Crook’s army under Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds did manage to surprise a force of Oglalas led by He Dog and Cheyennes led by Old Bear along the Powder River on March 17, the Indians counterattacked brilliantly. All Reynolds had managed to do was alert Sitting Bull that the United States had gone to war.

Crook’s abortive foray galvanized the disparate Indian bands into a large and cohesive fighting force directly under the inspired leadership of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, awesome adversaries by any standard. By late spring 1876, Sheridan reorganized his forces for a three-pronged offensive against the Sitting Bull bands in the Yellowstone River basin. In mid-May, Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry led a force from the east (including Custer and his 7th Cavalry), while Colonel John Gibbon approached from the west and Crook marched from the south out of Fort Fetterman.

As the columns drew nearer, the Lakota camped along Rosebud Creek and, on June 6, held their most sacred religious ritual—the Sun Dance. There, following the ceremony, Sitting Bull related that he had had a vision, an auspicious omen. He had seen vast numbers of soldiers “falling right into our camp.”

On the morning of June 17, General Crook halted his column of more than 1,000 men at the head of the Rosebud. Crook’s Crow and Shoshoni scouts saw Sitting Bull’s Sioux and Cheyennes as they were descending to attack Crook’s position, and gave warning. Although an outright disaster was averted, the six-hour fight that ensued resulted in heavy Army casualties, and Crook was forced to retreat. Crook had experienced hard fights before, but the degree of coordination and unity of action the Indians had demonstrated now gave him pause. Plains warrior culture emphasized individual feats of prowess, not the coordinated operations practiced by European and American militaries. It was apparent that, under the likes of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, these Plains warriors had become a formidable fighting unit.

Meanwhile General Terry pushed his column to join that of Colonel Gibbon along the Yellowstone near the mouth of the Powder River. Neither commander was aware that, given Crook’s retreat, Sheridan’s three-pronged plan had lost a prong, and certainly neither was aware of the effective fighting force Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had created. On June 21, the officers of both commands, including Custer, convened in the cabin of the Yellowstone steamer Far West to plan out a detailed campaign strategy. Using all available reconnaissance information, they determined that the Sioux encampment, which they estimated might contain as many as 800 warriors, was on the upper Rosebud in the valleys of the Bighorn River—the stream the Indians called the Greasy Grass and the whites called the Little Bighorn.

While their thoughts on the location were correct, their estimate of the size of the force arrayed against them was not. With the arrival of agency Indians who left the reservation for the spring and summer, the village now consisted of about 7,000 people, including more than 2,000 warriors. Blissfully ignorant of the enemy’s strength, the commanders working in the cabin of Far West decided that Custer would lead his 7th up the Rosebud, cross to the Little Bighorn and march down its valley from the south as Terry and Gibbon marched up the Yellowstone and Bighorn to cut off and block the Indians from the north.

It was a classic pincer movement, a tactic that had proven effective before in dealing with highly mobile Indians. But it required careful coordination, and, as events on the morning of June 22 suggested, Custer was little concerned about coordinating his actions with anyone’s.

That morning, to the lusty tune of “Garry Owen,” the 600 men of the 7th Cavalry passed in review before Terry, Gibbon and Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln. As the last man rode by, Custer shook hands with his fellow officers and rode off to join his men. It was reported that Colonel Gibbon called after him half seriously, “Now, Custer, don’t be greedy, but wait for us.”

To which Custer replied, “No, I will not.”

Custer discovered the Sioux village early on June 25. Though given a great deal of latitude in how he chose to execute the Far West plan, Custer was supposed to follow the Rosebud beyond the point where the Indians’ trail was expected to turn west so he would cross to the Little Bighorn valley south of the Indians’ position, thereby ensuring that the enemy would be caught between the 7th Cavalry and the forces of Gibbon and Terry. He departed from this plan because he found an Indian trail that was very fresh.

As Custer saw it, this meant that the Indians were not in the upper valley of the Little Bighorn, but much closer. Adhering to plan and continuing up the Rosebud would take the 7th far afield from the Indians’ position. So Custer sent scouts to follow the trail and locate the Indian village. He intended to defer his attack until the next day, but the Indians discovered him, and he advanced at once to the attack. With his characteristic flamboyance, Custer failed to amplify his scouts’ intelligence. What he did know was this: To wait even one day to attack might result in the Sioux taking flight. It had happened many, many times before, and Custer was determined that it would not happen again.

Custer divided the regiment into three battalions, one under Captain Frederick W. Benteen, one under Major Marcus A. Reno and the third and largest under his own immediate command. Benteen departed on a mission to ensure that there were no Indians camped in the Little Bighorn Valley above the main village. Custer and Reno approached the village itself. Custer led his men across the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn. As he approached the Little Bighorn River, he spotted about 40 warriors. Although Custer’s plan remains speculative and controversial, apparently he intended to strike from two directions. He sent Reno to cross the Little Bighorn and charge the southern end of the encampment, while he turned north to hit the other end. Custer had not actually seen the village, and had no idea of the size of the force they would be fighting. In addition, he was maneuvering on entirely unfamiliar terrain. To face more than 2,000 warriors, Custer had a combined strength of a mere 600—and he had divided that force.

Reno’s detachment was immediately engulfed in masses of Sioux. He ordered his command to dismount and set up a skirmish line. When his left flank came under attack, he withdrew to a cottonwood grove. Again, his position was penetrated, and he ordered his men to remount for a run to the bluffs across the river. By the time they reached this position—about 45 minutes after they had first engaged the enemy—half his command had fallen. And where, Reno must have cursed, was Custer?

The colonel had mounted a bluff, from which he at last saw the vast Sioux encampment, and watched Reno advance. Unable to warn or support Reno directly, Custer summoned his trumpeter, an Italian immigrant named Giovanni Martini, and handed him a hastily scribbled note to deliver to Captain Benteen, ordering him to bring the ammunition packs and join the fight. Martini would be the last surviving cavalryman to see George Armstrong Custer alive.

Custer led his soldiers down toward the village and posted three companies on the north slope of the ravine he had just descended. These men were to join and direct Benteen when he came. Custer’s remaining two companies were sent to threaten the village, a maneuver Custer thought would buy him time until Benteen’s arrival. Instead, warriors led by a Hunkpapa named Gall raced across the Little Bighorn, pushing the troopers back before them. Having repulsed Reno and driven him from the valley to take up a defensive position atop high bluffs lining the east side of the river, Sioux warriors were free to concentrate on Custer at the northern end of their village. The Indians kept him out of the village and confined to rough country east of the river. As Gall pressed from the south, Crazy Horse pushed in from the north. Custer retreated, fighting a delaying action as he moved back to a long, flat hill and reunited all five companies.

Here Custer’s men dismounted, making their stand. But the Indians were able to stampede the cavalry’s horses, their saddlebags filled with ammunition and carbines, and Custer’s command lost all cohesion and coordination. An Oglala woman who watched the action said, “The Indians acted just like they were driving buffalo to a good place where they could be easily slaughtered.”

And, in panic, the bluecoats behaved very much like herded animals. They bunched, making easy targets, and fell by the score. As they scattered in smaller bunches, the combat became fiercely hand-to-hand. Within an hour, the Indians had wiped out Custer and his entire command.

In the meantime, Benteen, having received Custer’s note, joined the remnants of Reno’s command as it withdrew from the Little Bighorn valley. They could hear the sound of firing, which could only mean that Custer was engaged. Several officers wanted to ride off to his support, but Reno refused, protesting that it was fruitless to oppose so many. Some, out of a sense of honor and loyalty, did go, but were quickly turned back by warriors returning from Custer’s last stand.

The combined forces of Reno and Benteen numbered 368 officers and men. They dug desperately into the bluffs and fought off a daylong siege. On the next day, June 26, the siege was renewed, and the battle wore on until early afternoon. At the approach of Terry and Gibbon from the north, the entire village moved southward.

Casualties among the combined commands of Reno and Benteen were heavy. Far grimmer, of course, was the Custer battlefield. It was strewn with the naked and mutilated corpses of some 200 men. The body of Custer, found near his personal pennant, had been stripped naked, but, in this single instance, the Indian attackers had refrained from scalping and mutilation.

For the Sioux and Cheyennes, the Little Bighorn was a great triumph. For the United States, it was a major military disaster. The death of Custer, a flamboyant popular hero, and his entire immediate command, stunned the American people and led ultimately to greatly intensified military activity in the West. Controversy immediately surrounded the battle and its protagonists and has raged ever since.

Custer, Reno, Benteen, Terry, the Army high command—Sheridan and Sherman—and even President Ulysses S. Grant all had their partisans and detractors. The Battle of the Little Bighorn became firmly embedded in the history and folklore of America. The spectacle of Custer and his little band of troopers dying on their Montana hilltop became one of the most vivid and enduring images in the popular imagination: Custer erect on his hilltop, his long yellow hair blowing in the wind, his six-shooter blazing, his troopers falling around him, “bloodthirsty” Sioux closing in for the kill. “Custer’s Last Stand” stunned and angered white Americans, but it also forever awarded Custer the dashing immortality he had longed for all his life.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here