The Little Big Horn Campaign occurred in 1876-1877 when the Sioux justly charged the Government with breaking the Fort Laramie Treaty by permitting encroachment on Indian land and by failing to provide the agencies with all the goods and services promised. The whites justly charged the Sioux with breaking the treaty by raiding the settlements and travel routes fringing the Indian domain.
Previously, the Sioux had fought in the Red Cloud War from 1866 to 1868 to prevent white prospectors from tramping across their country to the Montana goldfields.
The 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.
Though the Army tried to turn back the gold seekers and the Government sought to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux, both efforts were in vain.
When the Indians would not comply with orders from the Interior Department to return to the reservations by the end of January 1876, these people were labeled “hostiles,” and the Army was requested to take action.
A small expedition into the Powder River country in March 1876 produced negligible results. After that, 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. Under Terry’s direct command, one column of more than 1,000 men 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 June 17 1876, Crook’s 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. With the rest of his command, Terry 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 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. 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 destroyed. Terry and Gibbon did not reach the scene of Custer’s last stand until the morning of June 27. The 7th Cavalry’s total losses in this action (including Custer’s detachment) were: 12 officers, 247 enlisted men, five 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 Indians slipped through the troops, although many came into the agencies.
Fighting in the fall and winter of 1876-77 mainly consisted of skirmishes and raids, notably Crook’s capture of American Horse’s village at Slim Buttes, South Dakota, on September 9 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 8. By the summer of 1877, most 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.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.
Battles and Massacres of the Indian Wars
Indian Wars of the Frontier West by Emerson Hough