Little Big Horn, 1876-1877 – Discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874, bringing an influx of miners, and extension of railroads into the area renewed unrest among the Indians, and many left their reservations. When the Indians would not comply with orders from the Interior Department to return to the reservations by the end of January 1876, the Army was requested to take action.
A small expedition into the Powder River country in March 1876 produced negligible results. Thereafter, a much larger operation, based on a War Department plan, was carried out in the early Sumner months. As implemented by Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Division of the Missouri, the plan was to converge several columns simultaneously on the Yellowstone River where the Indians would be trapped and then forced to return to their reservations.
In pursuance of this plan, Major General George Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte, moved north from Fort Fetterman, Wyoming in late May 1876 with about 1,000 men. At the same time, two columns marched south up the Yellowstone under Brigadier General Alfred Terry, commander of the Department of Dakota. One column of more than 1,000 men, under Terry’s direct command, moved from Fort Abraham Lincoln, North Dakota to the mouth of Powder River. The second of Terry’s columns, numbering about 450 men under Colonel John Gibbon, moved from Fort Ellis, Montana to the mouth of the Big Horn River.
On 17 June 1876 Crook’ss troops fought an indecisive engagement with a large band of Sioux and Cheyenne under Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other chiefs on the Rosebud and then moved back to the Tongue River to wait for reinforcements. Meanwhile, General Terry had discovered the trail of the same Indian band and sent Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer with the 7th Cavalry up the Rosebud to locate the war party and move south of it. Terry, with the rest of his command, continued up the Yellowstone to meet Gibbon and close on the Indians from the north.
The 7th Cavalry, proceeding up the Rosebud, discovered an encampment of 4,000 to 5,000 Indians (an estimated 2,500 warriors) on the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Custer immediately ordered an attack, dividing his forces so as to strike the camp from several directions. The surprised Indians quickly rallied and drove off Major Marcus A. Reno’s detachment which suffered severe losses. Reno was joined by Captain Frederick W. Benteen’s detachment and the pack train and this combined force was able to withstand heavy attacks which were finally lifted when the Indians withdrew late the following day. Custer and a force of 211 men were surrounded and completely destroyed. Terry and Gibbon did not reach the scene of Custer’s last stand until the morning of June 27th. The 7th Cavalry’s total losses in this action (including Custer’s detachment) were: 12 officers, 247 enlisted men, 5 civilians, and 3 Indian scouts killed; 2 officers and 51 enlisted men wounded.
After this disaster, the Little Bighorn campaign continued until September 1877 with many additional Regular units seeing action. Crook and Terry joined forces on the Rosebud on August 10, 1876, but most of the Indians slipped through the troops, although many came into the agencies.
Fighting in the fall and winter of 1876-77 consisted mostly of skirmishes and raids, notably Crook’s capture of American Horse’s village at Slim Buttes, South Dakota on September 9th and of Dull Knife’s village in the Big Horn Mountains on November 26, and Colonel Nelson Miles‘ attack on Crazy Horse’s camp in the Wolf Mountains on January 8th. By the summer of 1877 most of the Sioux were back on the reservations. Crazy Horse had come in and was killed resisting arrest at Fort Robinson, Nebraska in September. Sitting Bull, with a small band of Sioux, escaped to Canada but surrendered at Fort Buford, Montana in July, 1881.