Custer's Last Stand: Facts & History

Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

In 1876, the nation was forcing itself to reunite after a brutal civil war. Another war was still being waged in the western part of the nation, including one of the most discussed battles to have ever taken place on American territory. Learn here about Custer's Last Stand.

Background

The Panic of 1873, an economic depression, led for pressure to be placed on the United States Government to open the Black Hills area of South Dakota for gold mining. The Black Hills were Sioux and Cheyenne Indian territory, and the tribes were already bitter toward the military for protecting those trying to take that land.

In 1874, General George Armstrong Custer led an expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln, in North Dakota, to the Black Hills to see if it was suitable for mining and to find an ideal spot to place a fort. General Custer reported that there was a large amount of gold in the Black Hills, which led to even more pressure on the government to open the land of the Sioux and Cheyenne.

The Sioux were skilled warriors and were already having to fight for their land. In 1875, the U.S. government ordered all Sioux Indians to move onto the Great Sioux Reservation east of the Black Hills. In February of 1876, when many Sioux refused to comply with those demands, the U.S. Department of the Interior deemed those outside the reservation as being hostile. This allowed the military to pursue those outside the reservation, mainly Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull was the Sioux Chief who led the coalition of Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Indians during the Great Sioux War of 1876. During this war, the U.S. Military chased the Indians from the Black Hills and pursued them into Montana. Lt. Colonel George Custer was sent to find their camp and meet back with the main group at the mouth of the Little Bighorn River. Custer was not known for his excellent decision making, and he would soon show why.

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer

Lt. Colonel Custer had an extensive resume from his leadership during the Civil War and was known to be somewhat reckless in battle. His brigade lost the most of any Union cavalry brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg. Still, Custer was known to be arrogant and believed he performed his duties better than most.

After the war, Custer was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the 7th Cavalry, which was the newest post-Civil War cavalry, and was stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. From there, Custer was ordered to move south into the Oklahoma Territory with the 7th Cavalry. In 1868, he led an attack on the Cheyenne Indians called the Battle of Washita River. Custer claimed to have killed over 100 warriors, while the Cheyenne claimed he killed 11 warriors and 19 women and children.

In 1874, Custer led an expedition from Fort Abraham Lincoln, in North Dakota, to the Black Hills to see if it was suitable for mining and to find an ideal spot to place a fort. General Custer reported that there was a large amount of gold in the Black Hills, which led to even more pressure on the government to open the land of the Sioux and Cheyenne.

Battle of Little Bighorn

In May of 1876, Custer and the 7th Cavalry left Fort Lincoln to round up any Sioux or Cheyenne Indians not on the Great Sioux Reservation. The 7th Cavalry was part of a three-pronged attack on a large group of Indians being led by Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. During movement in June, Custer was sent off from the main force to gather reconnaissance.

On June 25, Custer's Indian scouts reported a large encampment at the Little Bighorn River in southeast Montana. Custer went ahead of his troops to see for himself, but could not see the large gathering that his scouts claimed. He could, however, see smoke from his camp's fires from 10 miles away. Worried the Sioux would be alerted and scatter, he decided to move for a quick attack although his orders were to report back to the larger force.

Troop movements around the Little Bighorn River
little bighorn map

Custer split his roughly 600 men into three battalions and attempted to surround the Indians. A battalion under Major Marcus Reno was sent north to charge the southern end of the camp. Captain Frederick Benteen was sent southwest to block a possible escape route. Custer took his battalion northeast to circle the camp and attack from the north. Custer planned a two-pronged attack. Major Reno was to attack from the south and force the Indians into a retreat, where Custer and his men would finish the battle.

Major Reno began the attack, but stopped short of the camp to form an attack line. The Sioux and Cheyenne were skilled horsemen and quickly overcame most of Major Reno's battalion. The rest were forced to retreat into some nearby trees for cover. Reno was again forced to retreat into bluffs for better protection. At this point, Reno had already lost at least 25% of his battalion. Reno's men were then joined by Captain Benteen's battalion and attempted to regroup.

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