The Battle of Little Big
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
Lakota and Northern
tribes against the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army. The most
famous of all of the
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
Territory. The U.S. cavalry detachment, commanded by
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, lost every soldier in
In late 1875, the
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
and Northern Cheyenne,
associated with Sitting Bull and
Horse, were hostile to the U.S. interest in Indian lands. The gold-rich
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
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
who took a number of casualties and the battalion fled.
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
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.
George Armstrong Custer's Camp prior to the Battle of the Little
This image available for photographic prints
By the time he arrived, Reno had already been
driven back by the Indians,
who soon discovered Custer and his men coming towards the other end of the village. The
crossed the river and pushed into the advancing soldiers, forcing them
back to a long high ridge to the north. Meanwhile, another force of Sioux under
command swiftly moved downstream and then doubled back in a sweeping arc,
enveloping Custer and his men.
As the Indians
closed in on Custer, some 3.5 miles north of Reno and Benteen, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and stack the carcasses
to form a wall. However, the horses provided little protection
against the onslaught of bullets and arrows raining upon Custer and his 210 men. In less than an hour,
Custer and his men were killed in the worst American military disaster
While exact numbers
are difficult to determine, it is clear that the Northern Cheyenne
and Lakota outnumbered the U.S. forces approximately three to one.
After the Indians had annihilated Custer's troops, the
and Cheyenne advanced on the remaining U.S. troops under Benteen and
Reno, who had finally ventured toward the audible firing of the Custer troops. For the next 24 hours the
Indians and soldiers fought a hard battle until the U.S. lines
were finally secured when additional troops under General Terry began to approach from the north. As the
troops were fortified, the Indians began a retreat to the south.
By the time Terry arrived, the Indians had removed their own dead and wounded from the field. However, the bodies of the
remained lying where they died, many having been stripped of their
clothing and mutilated. For some, identification of the bodies was
impossible. Though the wounded were given treatment, six more would later die of their
was found near the top of the hill, where today stands a memorial
inscribed with the names of the U.S. soldiers who fought in the
battle. He had been shot in the temple and in the left chest,
but his body was left un-mutilated, some believe because he was dressed
in buckskins rather than a uniform. 210 men died with Custer while another 52 died serving under Reno. All were given
hasty burials. Only an estimated 60 Indian warriors died in the battle.
The massacre, having occurred right before
the nation's centennial birthday, substantially changed the mood
against the Indians. The U.S. Army responded by increasing the
number of soldiers in the area in an effort to "crush the Indians" and take revenge for those who died in the Battle of
It was to be three years later before the
battle became the subject of an army court inquiry in 1879. During the
investigation, Reno's, Benteen's, Terry's and Custer's actions were all carefully scrutinized. Testimony
suggested that Reno was a drunk and a coward, while Benteen was
criticized for disobeying Custer's orders. Another contributing factor was
General Terry's late arrival on the scene. However, the
primary contribution to the U.S. defeat is blamed on faulty
intelligence and poor communication. Both Reno's and Benteen’s
subsequent military careers were cut short.
In the same year as the
military investigation, the Little Bighorn Battlefield was designated a national cemetery administered by
the War Department. Two years later, in 1881, a memorial was erected
over the mass grave of the Seventh Cavalry soldiers, U.S. Indian
Scouts, and other personnel killed in battle. In 1940, jurisdiction of the
battlefield was transferred to the
Over the years, the
American Public's sentiment towards Custer's image and the Battle of Little Bighorn has changed as the recognition of the general
Americans during America's westward expansion has increased.
In 1991, the U. S. Congress changed the name
of the battlefield from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and ordered the construction of
an Indian Memorial.
Today, additional red
granite memorials have been erected that celebrate the Indians
who fought there, including Cheyenne
warriors, Lame White Man and Noisy Walking, and Lakota
warriors, Long Road and Dog's Back Bone.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located in southeastern
and administered by the National Park Service.
of America, updated September, 2017.
7th Cavalry Monument at Little Bighorn Battlefield lists
the names of U.S. soldiers killed. Photo
National Park Service.
Battlefield National Monument
P.O. Box 39
Exit 510 Off I-90 Hwy 212
Agency, Montana 59022-0039