Battle of the Little Bighorn Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The end of the Sioux wars marked the destruction of traditional Sioux lifeways.

Summary of Event

In 1875, the Sioux, or Lakota, people—a confederation of seven Native American tribes—had many grievances against the United States. Conditions on their reservations were deplorable, chiefly because of maladministration by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Supplies promised to the Sioux by treaty were inadequate, consisting chiefly of shoddy blankets and food unfit for human consumption. This situation caused many Native Americans to leave their reservations, which resulted in confrontations with miners, cattlemen, and settlers. Little Bighorn, Battle of the (1876) Native American wars;Sioux Custer, George A. Montana;Battle of the Little Bighorn Sitting Bull [p]Sitting Bull;and Battle of the Little Bighorn[Battle of the Little Bighorn] Crazy Horse Crook, George Terry, Alfred H. Sioux;and Battle of the Little Bighorn[Battle of the Little Bighorn] [kw]Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876) [kw]Little Bighorn, Battle of the (June 25, 1876) [kw]Bighorn, Battle of the Little (June 25, 1876) Little Bighorn, Battle of the (1876) Native American wars;Sioux Custer, George A. Montana;Battle of the Little Bighorn Sitting Bull [p]Sitting Bull;and Battle of the Little Bighorn[Battle of the Little Bighorn] Crazy Horse Crook, George Terry, Alfred H. Sioux;and Battle of the Little Bighorn[Battle of the Little Bighorn] [g]United States;June 25, 1876: Battle of the Little Bighorn[4890] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 25, 1876: Battle of the Little Bighorn[4890] Gall Benteen, Frederick W. Gibbon, John Reno, Marcus A. Reynolds, Joseph J.

The gold rush Gold rushes;Black Hills Dakota Territory;gold rush that followed the discovery of gold in the Black Hills Black Hills gold rush in 1874 goaded the Sioux into rebellion. The first prospectors who entered the hills, which the Sioux regarded as a holy land, had been evicted but were determined to return. When U.S. general William T. Sherman Sherman, William Tecumseh [p]Sherman, William Tecumseh;and Native Americans[Native Americans] ordered Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer to lead an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 and report on conditions there, a considerable number of gold seekers accompanied Custer’s men. The Indian Office tried to purchase Sioux lands and open hunting rights along the Platte River. When negotiations broke down, the federal government opened the area to all miners willing to enter at their own risk.

By 1875, the Black Hills were being overrun by prospectors. Knowing that many young warriors who were eager to fight were leaving their reservations, officials from the Department of the Interior ordered all Sioux to return to their reservations by January 31, 1876, despite prior treaties that permitted the Sioux to hunt on the northern plains. The major Sioux leaders Sitting Bull (who was a Hunkpapa), Crazy Horse (an Oglala), and Gall Gall (a Hunkpapa) ignored the order and established an encampment on the Little Bighorn River to the west that included large numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne Cheyennes;and Sioux[Sioux] Sioux;and Cheyennes[Cheyennes] followers. The Department of the Interior, viewing these actions as hostile, turned the entire situation over to the U.S. Army.

Army leaders made plans for a punitive expedition against the Sioux. Troops were to converge upon the enemy in the Bighorn country from three directions: General George Crook was to move north from Fort Fetterman, located on the North Platte River in Wyoming; Colonel John Gibbon Gibbon, John was to march east from Fort Ellis, Montana; and a third column was to head west from Fort Abraham Lincoln at Bismarck, North Dakota North Dakota , under General Alfred H. Terry, who was to have overall command of the campaign. Terry was not eager to undertake the assignment. Custer, in command of the Seventh Cavalry under Terry, had hoped for the command, but he was out of favor with President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had publicly rebuked Custer for testifying at congressional investigations against the secretary of war and the president’s brother, who had been engaged in fraudulent Indian trading activities. Aggrieved by this personal attack, Custer sought to regain his prestige by distinguishing himself on the battlefield.

In March, 1876, Crook left Fort Fetterman, moving north toward the rendezvous until he came upon an Indian camp on Powder River that contained about a hundred lodges of Sioux and Cheyenne. Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds, Reynolds, Joseph J. in immediate command of the attack, burned half the village, destroyed much of its food supply, and captured its herd of ponies. Reynolds then unaccountably withdrew his troops from the battle, allowing many Indians to escape. When a blizzard developed, the Indians reorganized and even regained many of their lost ponies. They then headed east to unite with Crazy Horse. The demoralized soldiers returned to Fort Fetterman.

Indians advancing on the cavalry position at the Little Bighorn. From a 1903 painting by Charles M. Russell (1864-1926).

(Library of Congress)

Late in May, Crook moved his force north a second time. He engaged the Sioux on the South Fork of the Rosebud River on June 17, 1876. By that time, the Indians could no longer tolerate the encroachment of whites. Their anger was reinforced by reports of Sitting Bull’s dreams, which depicted a great Indian victory over the white soldiers. One of Sitting Bull’s visions during the Sun Dance not only predicted a total victory for the Sioux but also forewarned them not to desecrate the bodies of their enemies.

The Indian warriors attacked Crook’s forces during the soldiers’ midmorning coffee break. The Indians’ tactics and tenacious advances astounded and confused Crook’s men. Crazy Horse actively participated in the Battle of the Rosebud, while Sitting Bull, whose arms were weakened by his sacrifices of flesh during the Sun Dance, rallied his men and inspired them to action. As a result of the hard-fought battle, Crook’s army left the battlefield and he was delayed from joining Terry and Gibbon. The victorious Indians buried their dead and celebrated their triumph for several days. Later they relocated their camp at Greasy Grass, which was known to the white Americans as Little Bighorn.

Terry left Fort Abraham Lincoln in May and late in the month joined forces with Gibbon along the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Powder River. Gibbon Gibbon, John reported that his scouts had seen signs of a Native American trail along the Rosebud River. Terry immediately dispatched Custer to follow the Indians’ path up the Rosebud River. Despite later interpretations to the contrary, Custer did not disobey Terry. His standing orders were to engage the enemy in battle when he came in contact with them. Terry had hoped that Custer would not attack until he arrived with the main force, because he wanted time to ascend the river to the Indians’ camp and prevent their escape into the Bighorn Mountains. This plan, however, was not realized.

On June 25, 1876, Custer came upon a large encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne along the valley of the Little Bighorn. Approximately one thousand Indian lodges housed seven thousand people, of whom two thousand were warriors. Although vastly outnumbered, Custer ordered a charge. Major Marcus A. Reno, leading three troops of cavalry, was sent across the valley floor to attack the Indians, while Custer took five units along the nearby hills in an encircling movement to shut off the Indian retreat. Captain Frederick W. Benteen led three companies to scout the south.

As Reno’s troops approached the Indian village, he was met by superior forces, which caused him to dismount and fight on foot. When promised support from Custer did not materialize, Reno Reno, Marcus A. retreated to a safer position, where Benteen Benteen, Frederick W. ’s forces later joined him. Meanwhile, Custer moved along the bluffs overlooking the village. Although there is uncertainty about his exact actions, he attempted to join the attack. However, he was forced to withdraw to higher ground because of overwhelming forces sent against him. Soon, the warriors of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall surrounded and killed Custer and his 225 men.

Gall Gall later recalled that the battlefield was a dark and gruesome sight and related the effectiveness of the warriors’ charges against Custer’s dismounted men. A similar fate would undoubtedly have befallen Reno’s command had not General Terry’s column arrived.

Significance

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand, was a short-lived victory for the Sioux. Despite the destruction of Custer’s force, General Terry’s campaign, as well as others led by General Nelson A. Miles Miles, Nelson A. and Crook, relentlessly pursued the Sioux and Cheyenne. For example, Terry entrapped them in the Tongue River Valley and forced them to surrender and return to the reservation. Crazy Horse himself was killed at Fort Robinson in 1877. Sitting Bull and his followers escaped to Canada Canada;Native American immigrants , but the threat of starvation forced them to return to the reservation in 1881.

The Indian victory at the Little Bighorn can be attributed to their inspirational leaders, their superior numbers, and their determination to fight. Although Custer must bear major responsibility for the debacle, he was not solely responsible. He certainly underestimated the enemy’s numbers and ability to fight. His earlier attacks on Indian villages had usually resulted in the Indians panicking and fleeing, so his orders to attack the village were tactically sound. However, the Indians did not scatter but launched a counterattack of their own. In addition, Custer’s relationships with Reno Reno, Marcus A. and Benteen Benteen, Frederick W. were strained as a result of his inclination to practice favoritism among officers.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn aroused the ire of the United States, as whites sought reasons for the annihilation of Custer’s forces. However, the battle proved ultimately to be a defeat: It ended the freedom and independence that the western Sioux cherished and ushered in the devastating dependence and restraints of the reservation era.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. New York: Anchor Books, 1996. Comparative biography of two of the major leaders in the Battle of the Little Bighorn; written for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carroll, John M., ed. General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn: The Federal View. Mattituck, N.J.: J. M. Carroll, 1986. Collection of official government documents relating to the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, John S. Centennial Campaign: The Sioux War of 1876. Ft. Collins, Colo.: Old Army Press, 1976. Provides the best synthesis of the campaign and battle at Little Bighorn.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatch, Thom. The Custer Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Life of George Armstrong Custer and the Plains Indian Wars. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2002. Comprehensive reference work on Custer’s life and military career that devotes considerable space to controversies surrounding Custer’s disastrous defeat at the Little Bighorn.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Joseph, III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. New York: Viking Press, 2004. Biography of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse by Lakota raised on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation who drew on the recollections of his grandfather and other oral histories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sajna, Mike. Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. Detailed biography, offering new perspectives on Crazy Horse’s role in the battle at the Little Bighorn and his eventual surrender and murder.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. Revealing examination of Custer’s complex personality that analyzes his actions at the Little Bighorn. Utley argues that Custer lost the battle because of poor intelligence and his underestimation of the ability and determination of his opponents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. Describes the character of Sitting Bull and his prominent role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

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