Custer’s Last Stand!

Battle of Little Bighorn, AKA Custer\'s Last Stand

Back when schools used to actually teach important stuff, history students learned of the Battle of Little Bighorn, way back in 1876. I memorialize the day by getting a haircut every June 25th!

This neat summary tells the tale…

In 1874 Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led an expedition to the Black Hills of Dakota. He reported that he discovered gold in the area. The following year the United States government attempted to buy the Black Hills for six million dollars. The area was considered sacred by the Sioux and they refused to sell. Custer’s story attracted gold hunters and in April 1876 the mining town of Deadwood was established in the area.

On 17th May Sioux warriors killed and scalped five settlers in the Black Hills. Over the next couple of days seven more cases of men being murdered by the Sioux. On 17th June 1876, General George Crook and about 1,000 troops, supported by 300 Crow and Shoshone, fought against 1,500 members of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. The battle at Rosebud Creek lasted for over six hours. This was the first time that Native Americans had united together to fight in such large numbers. On 28th June General William Sherman declared: “Forbearance has ceased to be a virtue toward these Indians, and only a severe and persistent chastisement will bring them to a sense of submission.”

On 22nd June, George A. Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate the villages of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. A very large encampment was discovered three days later. It was over 15 miles away and even with field glasses Custer was unable to discover the number of warriors the camp contained.

Instead of waiting for the arrival of the rest of the army led by General Alfred Terry, Custer decided to act straight way. He divided his force into three battalions in order to attack the camp from three different directions. One group led by Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to march to the left. A second group led by Major Marcus Reno was sent to attack the encampment via the Little Big Horn River.

Major Reno was the first to charge the village. When he discovered that the camp was far larger than was expected he retreated to the other side of the Little Big Horn River. He was later joined by Captain Benteen and although they suffered heavy casualties they were able to fight off the attack.

George A. Custer and his men rode north on the east side of the Little Big Horn River. The Sioux and Cheyenne saw Custer’s men and swarmed out of the village. Custer was forced to retreat into the bluffs to the east where he was attacked by about 4,000 warriors. At the battle of the Little Bighorn Custer and all his 231 men were killed. This included his two brothers, Tom and Boston, his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and his nephew, Autie Reed.

The soldiers under Reno and Benteen continued to be attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and his army. It was claimed afterwards that Custer had been killed by his old enemy, Rain in the Face. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that this is true.

General Philip H. Sheridan concluded that George A. Custer had made several important mistakes at the Little Big Horn. He argued that after their seventy mile journey, Custer’s men were too tired to fight effectively. Custer had also made a mistake in developing a plan of attack on the false assumption that the Sioux and Cheyenne would attempt to escape rather than fight the soldiers.

Sheridan also criticized Custer’s decision to divide his men into three groups: “Had the Seventh Cavalry been held together, it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn.” His final mistake was to attack what was probably the largest group of Native Americans ever assembled on the North American continent. President Ulysses Grant agreed with this assessment and when interviewed by the New York Herald he said: “I regard Custer’s Massacre was a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary”.

After the battle Captain Frederick Benteen believed that Custer’s battalion had taken more than their own number of the enemy with them. Contemporary newspaper accounts claimed that over 200 Sioux warriors had been killed during the attack. But interviews with surviving chiefs, have put the Indian loss at about 45 killed. As Flying Hawk said after the battle: “The white men’s accounts are guesswork… for no white man knows. None left.”

After the battle false stories circulated that one of Custer’s party had survived. On 6th July, 1876, the Bismarck Tribune reported that “one Crow scout hid himself in the field and witnessed and survived the battle.” Three days later the New York Times reported that a scout had escaped through the lines by disguising himself in a Sioux blanket.”

On 26th July 1876 the New York Herald Tribune published an interview with an Indian scout who it claimed had survived the battle. The newspaper quoted the scout as saying that “General Custer was the last man to be killed.” He also added that Custer had not been scalped because the Sioux respected their brave enemy.

Custer’s scout Curly was the person most often identified as the lone survivor. He denied this, pointing out that the four Indian scouts (Hairy Moccasin, Goes Ahead and White Man Runs Him) had been sent by Custer away from Little Bighorn before the battle began. However, on 29th July, the Chicago Tribune published an article claiming that Curly had told them that “more Indians were killed than Custer had men.” John F. Finerty of the Chicago Times also claimed that Curly had witnessed Custer’s death. In a book published several years later, Finerty claimed that “Curley said that Custer remained alive throughout the greater part of the engagement, animating his men to determined resistance, but about an hour before the close of the fight lie received a mortal wound.”

Soon afterwards the St. Paul Pioneer-Press and Tribune published another account of a lone survivor. Over the next few years newspapers and magazines published several articles based on interviews with so-called lone survivors such as Williad Carlisle, W. B. Hicks, James Snepp, W. J. Baily, George Yee, John Lockwood, Jim Flannagan, Alexander McDonnell and Charles Mitchel.

In his influential book, The Life of General George A. Custer (1876), Frederick Whittaker included the story of Curly witnessing the battle of Little Bighorn as a fact. Whittaker also claimed that Custer had been killed by Rain in the Face. He also insisted that the disaster had been caused by the cowardice of Captain Frederick Benteen and Major Marcus Reno.

The U.S. army responded to the battle of the Little Bighorn by increasing the number of the soldiers in the area. As a result leaders of the attack such as Sitting Bull and Gall fled to Canada, whereas Crazy Horse and his followers surrendered to General George Crook at the Red Cloud Agency in Nebraska. Crazy Horse was later killed while being held in custody at Fort Robinson.