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Great Sioux War: Battle of the Little Bighorn

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Great Sioux War: Battle of the Little Bighorn

Major General George A. Custer, USA, 1865

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of the Little Bighorn - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought June 25-26, 1876, during the Great Sioux War (1876-1877).

Armies & Commanders

United States

  • Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer
  • approx. 650 men

    Sioux

  • Sitting Bull
  • Crazy Horse
  • Gall
  • approx. 900-1,800 men

  • Battle of the Little Bighorn - Background:

    In 1876, hostilities commenced between the US Army and the Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne as a result of tensions regarding the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota. Striking first, Brigadier General George Crook dispatched a force under Colonel Joseph Reynolds which won the Battle of the Powder River in March. Though a success, a larger campaign was planned for later that spring with the goal of breaking the hostile tribes' resistance and moving them to reservations.

    Utilizing a strategy that had worked on the Southern Plains, the commander of the Division of the Missouri, Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, ordered multiple columns to converge in the region to trap the enemy and prevent their escape. While Colonel John Gibbon advanced east from Fort Ellis with elements of the 7th Infantry and 2nd Cavalry, Crook would move north from Fort Fetterman in the Wyoming Territory with parts of the 2nd and 3rd Cavalries and 4th and 9th Infantries. These would be met by Brigadier General Alfred Terry who would move west from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory.

    Intending to meet the other two columns near the Powder River, Terry marched with the bulk of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry, part of the 17th Infantry, as well as the 20th Infantry's Gatling gun detachment. Encountering the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, Crook's column was delayed. Gibbon, Terry, and Custer rendezvoused at the mouth of the Powder River and, based on a large Indian trail, decided to have Custer circle around the Native Americans while the other two approached with the main force.

    Custer Departs:

    The two senior commanders intended to reunite with Custer around June 26 or 27 at which time they would overwhelm the Native American camps. Departing on June 22, Custer declined reinforcements from the 2nd Cavalry as well as the Gatling guns believing that the 7th possessed sufficient strength to deal with the enemy and that the latter would slow down his column. Riding out, Custer reached an overlook known as the Crow's Nest on the evening of June 24. Approximately fourteen miles east of the Little Big Horn River, this position allowed his scouts to spot a large pony herd and village in the far distance.

    Moving to Battle:

    The village that Custer's Crow scouts saw was one of the largest ever gatherings of Plains Native Americans. Called together by the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull, the encampment consisted of several tribes and numbered as high as 1,800 warriors and their families. Among the noted leaders in the village were Crazy Horse and Gall. Despite the size of the village, Custer moved forward on faulty intelligence provided by Indian Agents which suggested that the hostile Native American force in the region numbered around 800, only slightly more than the 7th Cavalry's size.

    Though he considered a surprise attack for the morning of June 26, Custer was prompted to action on the 25th when he received a report stating that the enemy was aware of the 7th Cavalry's presence in the area. Devising an attack plan, he ordered Major Marcus Reno to lead three companies (A, G, & M) down into the Little Bighorn Valley and attack from the south. Captain Frederick Benteen was to take H, D, and K Companies to the south and west to prevent any Native Americans from escaping, while Captain Thomas McDougald's B Company guarded the regiment's wagon train.

    The Battle of the Little Bighorn Begins:

    While Reno attacked in the valley, Custer planned to take the remainder of 7th Cavalry (C, E, F, I, and L Companies) and advance along a ridgeline to the east before descending to attack the camp from the north. Crossing the Little Bighorn around 3:00 PM, Reno's force charged forward toward the encampment. Surprised by its size and suspecting a trap, he halted his men a few hundred yards short and ordered them to form a skirmish line. Anchoring his right on a tree line along the river, Reno ordered his scouts to cover his exposed left. Firing on the village, Reno's command soon came under heavy attack (Map).

    Reno's Retreat:

    Using a small knoll to Reno's left, the Native Americans massed a counterattack which soon struck and turned his flank. Falling back into the timber along the river, Reno's men were forced from this position when the enemy began setting fire to the brush. Retreating across the river in disorganized fashion, they moved up a bluff and encountered Benteen's column which had been summoned by Custer. Rather than pushing on to unite with his commander, Benteen switched to the defensive to cover Reno. This combined force was soon joined by McDougald and the wagon train was used to form a strong defensive position.

    Beating off attacks, Reno and Benteen remained in place until around 5:00 PM when Captain Thomas Weir, after hearing firing to the north, led D Company in an attempt to unite with Custer. Followed by the other companies, these men saw dust and smoke to the northeast. Drawing the attention of the enemy, Reno and Benteen elected to fall back to the site of their earlier stand. Resuming their defensive position, they repelled assaults until after dark. Fighting around the perimeter continued on June 26 until Terry's large force began approaching from the north at which point the Native Americans retreated south.

    The Loss of Custer

    Leaving Reno, Custer moved out with his five companies. As his force was wiped out, his movements are subject to conjecture. Moving along the ridges, he sent his final message to Benteen, stating "Benteen, Come on. Big Village, be quick, bring packs. P.S. Bring pacs." This recall order allowed Benteen to be in position to rescue Reno's beaten command. Dividing his force in two, it is believed that Custer may have sent one wing down Medicine Tail Coulee to test the village while he continued along the ridges. Unable to penetrate the village, this force reunited with Custer on Calhoun Hill.

    Taking positions on the hill and nearby Battle Ridge, Custer's companies came under heavy attack from the Native Americans. Guided by Crazy Horse, they eliminated Custer's troops forcing the survivors to a position on Last Stand Hill. Despite using their horses as breastworks, Custer and his men were overwhelmed and killed. While this sequence is the traditional order of events, new scholarship suggests that Custer's men may have been overwhelmed in a single charge.

    Aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

    The defeat at the Little Bighorn cost Custer his life as well as 267 killed and 51 wounded. Native American casualties are estimated at between 36 and 300+. In the wake of the defeat, the US Army increased its presence in the region and began a series of campaigns which greatly increased the pressure on the Native Americans. This ultimately led to many of the hostile bands surrendering. In the years after the battle, Custer's widow, Elizabeth, relentlessly defended her husband's reputation and his legend became embedded in American memory as an brave officer facing overwhelming odds.

    Selected Sources

  • National Park Service: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
  • Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield
  • PBS: Battle of the Little Bighorn

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