George Armstrong Custer (1839-76) graduated bottom of his class from West Point Military Academy in 1861. He distinguished himself as a messenger for the Union commanders at several important battles, and played a part in forcing General Lee to surrender at Appomattox (he took away the treaty signing table as a souvenir). After gaining the rank of brigadier general at only 23, he became a national hero. A relentless self-publicist, he wrote several books, and captured the public imagination because of his bravado and theatrical nature. From contemporary accounts, he seems to have been a highly emotional man, given to gestures and speeches, who wept at touching parts in plays and enjoyed lounging around listening to zither music. He cultivated a dashing appearance, and his long fair hair won him numerous nicknames. But in the absence of a war, what use was a soldier, no matter how popular? Custer needed war to keep him happy, and happily, in 1876 a war seemed very likely.
The Trouble with Treaties
The Sioux Indians were one of the last great free Indian nations. They considered the Black Hills of Dakota to be sacred territory, and the US government had guaranteed that they should keep it1. However, in 1875 rumours began to circulate that there was gold in the Black Hills, and golden boy George was sent to find it. He led a party into the hills and, to cut a long story short, he found the gold. When news of the discovery spread, settlers started flooding into the area, setting up towns and staking claims. This put the government in an awkward position, but not for long. In a case of settlers against Indians, there could be only one outcome. At a meeting at Fort Robinson, the Black Hills treaty was conveniently forgotten, and the Sioux were ordered to go into reservations by 1 January, 1876. Even supposing they had been inclined to obey, it was impossible to get word of the decree to all the Sioux tribes in their winter quarters. As 1876 began, it was clear to the government that further action must be taken to rid themselves of these 'hostiles'.
The defiant tribes were gathering in Powder country in Montana Territory, between the Bighorn and the Powder rivers. There were tribes of Cheyenne, Brule, Oglala, Minneconju, Sans Arc and Hunkpapa, who rallied to the leadership of Crazy Horse, Gall and Sitting Bull2, all chiefs completely opposed to negotiating with the people who would take their land away. This defiance, though not unexpected, surprised the government, who did not believe that the tribes would fight them. So as the summer of 1876 approached, a campaign was being planned to flush the 'hostiles' out and send them to the reservations. And Custer knew one thing; he had to be a part of it. The United States had become terribly quiet of late, and a land without enemies is no place for a soldier. He might have to go into politics, as Ulysses S Grant had done, or even (perish the thought) learn a new trade. Custer had already earned a name as an Indian fighter after burning Black Kettle's village on the Washita river, and combined with his high public profile this practically guaranteed him a part in the upcoming frolics. To his mind, the Sioux campaign might be his last opportunity to indelibly stamp his name in the history books, and he had to seize it with both hands. Of course, his name has gone down in history - though not, perhaps, in the way he had planned.
First there was a small complication. Custer had incurred the disfavour of President Grant by testifying in a case against the Secretary of War, Belknap. Already regarded as something of a maverick, Custer had to use all his pull in political circles to get himself a position of command. He was certainly distrusted by old, experienced heads, who were wary of his gung-ho nature and fragile temper. How he persuaded Grant to give him the job is still a mystery, but in any case the upshot of it was that Custer found himself given command of the 7th Cavalry, and had his last grasp at immortality. Now, let's get on to the gory bits.
The Campaign Begins
On the foggy morning of 17 May, General Custer led his troops out of Fort Lincoln. They consisted of his cavalry and Indian scouts, and as they left the band struck up 'Garryowen', Custer's favourite military tune. The men wore cavalry uniforms or buckskins, and carried Springfield 1873 carbines and Colt revolvers. Little brother Captain Thomas W Custer was coming along too, and leaving nothing to chance, Custer brought along Mr Kellog, a correspondent for the New York Herald. Every sage decision of the brave commander would be recorded and reported to the admiring public. Meanwhile, at the Sioux camp on the Little Bighorn River, Sitting Bull had a vision in which soldiers fell into the camp upside down. Apparently this was a good sign.
The steamboat Far West, with Brigadier General Terry, went along the Yellowstone River, which ran straight from east and west. The Bighorn and Powder rivers flowed north from the hills to join it at right angles, and it was the territory in between the two rivers which was the target of the campaign. Custer's column of men met the steamboat at a temporary camp where the Powder river met the Yellowstone, to plan their strategy.
Strategy, and the Lack Thereof
On 21 June, there was a staff meeting in the lounge of the steamboat. The object of the campaign was to box the Sioux in. Brigadier General Crook was already advancing from the south. Colonel Gibbon was ordered to take his troops down the Bighorn River (the one on the left), while Custer was to advance down a smaller river which went into Powder country, and prevent the Sioux from slipping out of the trap.
There were several fateful mistakes made at this meeting. For one, the number of hostile Indians was vastly underestimated, based as it was on scouts' reports of the winter. So Terry believed that there were maybe three thousand Indian braves, five thousand tops, and that they would be scattered around in different camps. Custer said that it didn't matter even if they were all together, he would wipe the floor with them.
The second mistake was in the orders given to Custer regarding contact with the Sioux. Terry basically left it up to Custer to judge whether or not to attack immediately upon sighting them. This pleased Custer greatly; one of the lieutenants at the meeting commented:
It is understood that Custer is at liberty to attack at once if he deems it prudent. We have little hope of being in at the death and Custer will undoubtedly exert himself to get there first and win the laurels for himself and his regiment.
Gibbon too was anxious, afraid that Custer would be over-zealous and bite off more than he could chew. 'Don't be greedy, Custer, but wait for us', he said. Custer replied: 'I won't'. Pausing only to refuse Terry's offer of Gatling guns (they would slow him down), Custer rode south, no doubt humming 'Garryowen' to himself. On to glory! Four days later he found his 'hostiles', and not a man under his command survived.
The course of the battle of Little Bighorn has been a source of controversy ever since news of the major defeat spread, and there have been several different interpretations of it, most of them based on the position of the corpses on the field of battle. What follows is certainly not a definitive version, but the broad details are verifiably true and it is widely accepted. First, a description of the battlefield: the Little Bighorn River runs north to south. On the right of the river are steep bluffs of yellow grass, with deep gullies cut through them. On the left there is lower land, with a fringe of trees. This is where the vast Sioux camp was situated.
Trail signs and scout reports led Custer to the bluffs over the river on Sunday 25 June. Shortly before this he had divided his force by sending one of his captains, Benteen, on a futile scouting mission with 115 troops. Now, on the bluffs, he must have known he had found his enemy. The camp stretched out for more than two miles along the opposite bank of the river. It is now estimated that there were more than seven thousand people in it, from all the tribes of the Sioux nation. After sending Benteen away, Custer had a grand total of about 350. The fact that he didn't quietly slink away to wait for reinforcements says a lot about his feckless nature. It's hard to imagine why he decided to proceed with an attack against these overwhelming odds. Perhaps he still believed that the Sioux would put up only token resistance. Perhaps he was underestimating their numbers. Perhaps he was simply arrogant. The fact is, we will never know what made him do what he did next. Instead of waiting for Gibbon's column of soldiers to arrive, Custer decided to have a whack at these 'redskins' himself.
Custer divided his force again, and under Major Marcus Reno sent 140 cavalry south along the bluffs. They slipped down the slope, crossed the river and charged the southern end of the camp at about 3 o'clock. Red Horse said of the event: 'The Sioux mount horses, take guns and go fight the soldiers. Women and children mount horses and get out of the way...'. The Sioux, who had already defeated Crook's column (remember, the one that was advancing from the south), slapped on their war paint, picked up their tools and proceeded to trounce Reno with a fierce resistance. It was a rout; 40 cavalrymen died. The rest turned tail and made a strategic withdrawal to a hill on the bluffs, fighting off Sioux attacks all the while. They dug in with cups and plates (their shovels were with the pack train, an hour behind) and defended themselves there until Benteen, back from his scouting mission, swelled their numbers. This group managed to fight off the Indian attacks until they broke camp and left the area. But it is what happened to Custer, and his remaining cavalry, that has become an event of mythical stature.
'A Fool who Rode to his Death'?
Having sent Reno south, Custer rode up along the bluffs until he came to a deep gully. At this point in its flow the Little Bighorn was no more than a stream, and there was a ford in it. Across the ford was the heart of the Sioux camp. While Reno distracted them in the south, Custer would strike in their midst and sweep all before him. That was the plan, anyway. In fact, Reno's attack had been turned, and had merely whetted the Sioux's appetite for revenge. Sergeant Bouyer, a scout, warned Custer: 'If we go in there we don't come out'. Ignoring this, Custer sounded the dismount, and his men advanced down the deep gully, which was called the Medicine Tail Coulee, to the ford.
This is where it gets a bit confusing. It isn't certain whether Custer made it across the ford, or was stopped before getting that far. One thing is certain: the Indian braves drove him back, then scrambled up the sides of the gully to snipe at the troops, slowly picking them off. One theory says that Custer himself was killed here, but of course, nothing is certain, and his body was found elsewhere. With his men dying all around him, he ordered them to remount. They retreated up the steep northern side of the Coulee, pursued by a huge force of braves and Indian cavalry, who used rifles, pistols, hatchets and bows. This was another mistake, though no doubt it made sense at the time. Had Custer retreated south rather than north he could have forced his way to join Reno at his dug-in position on the hills to the south, and could perhaps have salvaged the majority of his 7th Cavalry. Instead he had cut himself off from them, and was forced to aim for a distant hill, where he might be able to fortify the cavalry and defend himself.
Over the crest of the gully and down into another one the troops advanced, firing back at the braves. Here, another difficulty manifested itself. Due to manufacturing faults, some of the rifles jammed, and couldn't be fired. With all the slopes and channels it was perfect ambush territory, and the 7th Cavalry died the death of a thousand cuts as the nimble Sioux outmanoeuvred them and struck them down. The remnants of the cavalry still headed north and reached the flatlands in front of the hill. This small slope is called Greasy Grass, and was the site of Custer's last stand. At this point, with a trail of dead and dying behind him and the Sioux relentlessly advancing, Custer (or whoever was in command) sent out a messenger, Sergeant Butler, to ride to Reno. His message is unknown, because he never delivered it. His body was found over a mile from Greasy Grass, and the Indian chiefs later praised 'the soldier with the braid on his arms' as the bravest soldier in the battle.
The Last Stand
Custer might have made it to the hill, dug himself in and survived, were it not for the actions of a greater soldier than himself. Sitting Bull, in a masterful use of the terrain, led his cavalry north out of the camp and they climbed the bluff. Just as the survivors of the massacre of Greasy Grass reached the hill for which they had been headed (now called Last Stand Hill), Sitting Bull's horsemen rode over the crest of it, coming from the direction least expected.
The 7th cavalry had killed some of their horses to provide cover, but now their feeble defences were overrun and the last exhausted survivors were cut down. This was where Custer's body was found. It isn't known who killed him, though dozens of Indians later claimed the honour; the fact is that they didn't know who he was when they killed him. The body of Tom Custer was also found here. He was so badly mutilated that he could only be identified by a tattoo on his arm.
Estimates of how long the battle took vary; it may have been anything from 15 minutes to an hour and a half. The corpses were looted and scalped, as was common practice in those days. As Gibbon's column drew near many of the Sioux tribes drifted northwards, heading for Canada and refuge from the wrath of the US government. Sitting Bull thought that Custer was 'a great chief'. He was also dubbed 'a fool who rode to his death'. On reaching the battlefield some days later, Gibbon found a scene of carnage, with corpses strewn across the yellow hillside. There was just one survivor - Comanche, a horse. For years afterwards he appeared in 7th Cavalry parades, rigged for riding but with an empty saddle.
News of the defeat hit the east coast as people were celebrating the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence. It caused massive consternation, and led to greater efforts against the Sioux than ever. Elizabeth Custer, the adoring wife, was his greatest ally until her death in 1933. She campaigned tirelessly to preserve his memory, writing two books, and generally continuing the promotion work he had started. It is largely due to her that he has attained the status of a national hero. The battlefield at Little Bighorn has not changed since 1876; marble markers show the positions of the soldiers' bodies. There are no markers for dead Sioux braves. The battle continues to cause controversy today. There is no definitive version of the battle, and there is a theory that Custer committed suicide. None of these theories can be proven, although after a brushfire in 1983 archaeologists were able to collect shell casings and better understand the battle. Some Native American groups are still rankled by terms such as 'hostile', and protest against the Custer-centric battlefield centre.
Although they were victorious in 1876, both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse died in reservations. The loss of the buffalo herds and their nomadic way of life forced them to eventually accept the dubious hospitality of the United States government. Little Bighorn was the free Indians' last stand, too.