Battle of Little Bighorn: Definition, Facts & Summary

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

On June 25, 1876 the United States army suffered one of its greatest and most famous defeats in the Sioux Wars. At Little Bighorn, General George Armstrong Custer and his forces were annihilated by the Sioux chief Sitting Bull and his warriors. In this lesson we examine this battle in more detail.

Introduction

The Sioux Wars were a series of conflicts that occurred on the Great Plains between the 1850s and 1890, through which the United States government attempted to force the Sioux peoples to live on reservations. Reservations were lands that were set aside for the Native American peoples (and where white settlers could not live). Unfortunately, the lands given to the Sioux were often of very poor quality. The United States government tried to force the inhabitants to take up farming and banned them from practicing many aspects of their traditional culture. Furthermore, the United States refused to honor its obligations and continued to chip away at the size of reservations, especially when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The Black Hills region was considered sacred by the Sioux.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull was a renowned warrior who became the chief of the Lakota, one of the Sioux peoples, in 1868. He had been engaged in opposing the United States since he was a young man and had taken part in many battles. In 1876, Sitting Bull was attending the Sun Dance, a sacred ceremony of the Sioux Nation. Sitting Bull danced for over 36 hours strait and reportedly had a vision where he saw soldiers falling into his camp like grasshoppers from the sky. He interpreted this to mean that he would defeat the United States in battle.

Chief Sitting Bull
Chief Sitting Bull

George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer was a military man who had first come to prominence at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he'd earned the nickname of 'The Boy General' due to his youth. Custer later led the cavalry that was responsible for helping to stop the Confederate General Robert E. Lee's retreating forces, which eventually led to Lee's surrender and the end of the war. Custer was lauded by many of his superiors for bravery and received a promotion to the rank of Major General.

Following the end of the Civil War, Custer was sent west to help secure peace on the Great Plains. Despite his popular reputation as an 'Indian Fighter', Custer showed admiration for Native Americans and complained bitterly about the reservation system, which he felt stripped people of their character and left them in poverty. Regardless, he still took his military command and his orders seriously, feeling it his duty as an officer to pursue the enemies of the United States.

George Armstrong Custer
George Armstrong Custer

The Battle of Little Bighorn

In 1875, many of the Sioux under the command of Sitting Bull left their reservation in a show of defiance against the United States government, protesting White incursion on their land. They gathered in Montana near the Little Bighorn River, where they set up a village. Sitting Bull hoped to prod the Sioux into fighting for control over their lands. The United States twice sent forces to push these Sioux back onto the reservation, and twice the army was pushed back. This emboldened Sitting Bull and his people. In the spring of 1876, the army decided to send three columns of cavalry against the Sioux, one of which was led by Custer in command of the 7th Cavalry.

On June 25, Custer came within sight of the village. Unfortunately, he also discovered roughly forty Sioux warriors who had spotted him. Showing the bravery and propensity for bold action that had marked his career up to this point, Custer disobeyed orders to simply scout the village and report back. Instead, he ordered an attack against the settlement. Custer hoped to strike quickly, before the Sioux in the village could realize that Custer and his troops were there. To do this, Custer broke his forces into three parts so he could attack from the north and south at the same time. Custer failed to send out scouts or do basic reconnaissance; he underestimated the number of Sioux in the village and also did not understand the lay of the land. When he moved to attack, Custer found that he had to maneuver through a series of bluffs and ravines in order to reach the village.

The attack was a disaster. The Sioux were able to repulse the southern attack in time to realize they were also being attacked by Custer from the north. Sitting Bull's people forced their away across the river to the north and pushed Custer's men back. Custer, realizing the position he and his men were in, ordered them to shoot their own horses and stack the carcasses up to form a defensive wall. It was all for naught, however. After an hour of fighting, Custer's position was overrun; he, and all of his men, were killed. It would prove to be one of the most iconic military disasters suffered by the United States army in its history.

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