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The Battle of Little Big Horn

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The Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, painting by Charles Russell, 1903.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!




The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also called Custer's Last Stand, was an engagement between the combined forces of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes against the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army. The most famous of all of the Indian Wars, the remarkable victory for the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne occurred over two days on June 25-26, 1876 near the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana Territory. The U.S. cavalry detachment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, lost every soldier in his unit.


In late 1875, the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians defiantly left their reservations, outraged over the continued intrusions of whites into their sacred lands in the Black Hills. Soon, the recalcitrant Indians gathered in Montana with the great warrior Sitting Bull to fight for their lands. The following spring, two victories over the U.S. Cavalry emboldened them to fight on in the summer of 1876.


On November 9, 1875, U.S. forces were sent to attack the Indians based on a report by an Indian Inspector that stated hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, associated with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, were hostile to the U.S. interest in Indian lands. The gold-rich Black Hills also played an important role in the attack.

As the largest troop under General Alfred Terry, Lieutenant Colonel Custer's force arrived at an overlook 14 miles east of the Little Bighorn River on the night of June 24, 1876, the rest of the column was marching toward the mouth of the Little Bighorn, to provide a blocking action. In the meantime, two Crow Indian scouts were sent ahead to survey the situation. Returning with a warning that a very large Indian encampment was situated at the Little Bighorn River, Custer chose to ignore this news, dividing his regiment into four commands with plans to continue with the attack. Expecting the Indians to flee at the first sign of assault, Custer moved his men forward on June 25th.

Without sufficient knowledge of the village's size, the first battalion, commanded by Major Marcus Reno, was ordered to attack. Soon, Reno's squadron of 175 soldiers prepared an assault at the southern end of the Indian village. However, they quickly realized that the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne force was much larger than they anticipated and showed no signs of fleeing at the sight of the soldiers. He soon sent a message to Custer, but when he heard nothing in return, Reno launched his offense northward.


Fearing they might be trapped, Reno halted his charging men, dismounted and fired upon the village at a distance. After some 20 minutes, the group had taken only one casualty and Custer's promised reinforcements had not shown up. Ordering a retreat into the timber and brush along the river, the soldiers were quickly pursued by a mix of Cheyenne and Sioux Indians, who took a number of casualties and the battalion fled.


Continuing to retreat uphill to the bluffs east of the river, Reno's force was met by a squadron commanded by Captain Frederick Benteen. Benteen's force had been sent by Custer to prevent Indian escape through the upper valley of the Little Bighorn River. His arrival on the bluffs was just in time to save Reno's men from being completely wiped out.


Though the combined force was then reinforced by a smaller command escorting Benteen’s pack train, the troops did not continue on towards Custer's men for at least an hour, in spite of the fact that heavy gunfire was heard from the north. This failure to move would later prompt criticism that Benteen had failed to follow orders to "march to the sound of the guns."


In the meantime, Custer's plans were to strike the northern end of the encampment, simultaneous with Reno’s attack from the south. However, Custer underestimated the terrain he would have to cover before making his assault, negotiating bluffs and ravines before arriving at a place that the soldiers could attack.




Continued Next Page


Little Bighorn River

View of Little Bighorn River from Last Stand Hill,

courtesy National Park Service.


Indian Warriors

Indian Warriors

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!


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