Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
Of all the battles between Indians and soldiers, the best known is "Custer's Last Stand," commemorated by this national monument. On a hot June Sunday in 1876, hordes of painted warriors swarmed over a treeless ridge rising from the Little Bighorn Valley and wiped out a battalion of the 7th Cavalry, 220 blue-shirted troopers led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer. When the guns fell silent and the smoke and dust of the battle lifted, after probably no more than an hour, every soldier lay dead. Four miles to the southeast, battalions under Maj. Marcus A. Reno and Capt. Frederick W. Benteen beat off repeated assaults and held out until the approach of reinforcements the next day caused the Indians to withdraw. Reno and Benteen lost 47 men. All told, more than half of the 700 men in the regiment died or received wounds; Indian losses have never been authoritatively estimated.
Custer sustained the most spectacular defeat suffered by the Army in the Indian wars. His Sioux and Cheyenne opponents, making one of the last major armed efforts of the northern Plains Indians to resist white encroachment on their homeland, won one of the greatest triumphs of the American Indians in their four-century struggle against the alien tide that was finally to inundate them. Thus Little Bighorn Battlefield serves as a reminder of the long and poignant struggle for possession of the North American Continent. But more particularly it pays tribute to the courage of the soldiers and the Indians who fought in the battlerepresentatives of two clashing civilizations, one group believing firmly in the inevitability of its advance and the other equally as determined not to yield.
The catalyst that had generated the unified Indian response represented in the Battle of the Little Bighorn was Sioux and Cheyenne anger at the invasion of the Black Hills by miners and prospectors in 1874-75. More broadly involved was the resentment that had smoldered among the tribes since the Fort Laramie Treaty (1868). A group of Indians had subsequently elected to live in the unceded Powder River hunting grounds of Montana and Wyoming, west of the Black Hills and south of the Yellowstone River. Prominent among their leaders were the Hunkpapa medicine man Sitting Bull and the Oglala war chief Crazy Horse. They demonstrated their contempt for the treaty, as well as their fury at violations of it, by attacking isolated settlements and travelers and by contesting the advance of surveying crews mapping a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The bulk of the Sioux had settled on the Great Sioux Reservation, created by the Fort Laramie Treaty in the western half of South Dakota and including the Black Hills, sacred to the Sioux. In 1874 Custer led and expedition into the hills and confirmed and publicized the already known presence of gold in paying quantities. Living up to treaty commitments, the Army barred prospectors from the hills, but many kept clandestinely slipping in. In September 1875 Government representatives, in negotiations near Fort Robinson, Nebr., tried to buy the hills from the reservation Sioux, but they refused. Foreseeing the inevitable, the Governmentin direct violation of the Fort Laramie Treatythrew the area open to anyone willing to accept the risks involved. Miners swarmed in.
Incensed, hundreds of the reservation Sioux joined their non-reservation brethren in the unceded Powder River country. All vowed to resist further white advances. So long as they did not have to depend on the Government for food, they could not be fully controlled. And so long as they had access to the abundant game in the Powder River region, they would not be dependent. In December 1875 the Indian Bureau ordered them to report to the agencies by January 31, 1876, or be driven in by the Army. This ultimatum, which allowed insufficient time for compliance, precipitated another war. When the Indians did not comply, the Army was charged with enforcing the order.
In March 1876 an ineffectual campaign of Brig. Gen. George Crook north from Fort Fetterman, Wyo., was climaxed by the bitterly fought but indecisive Battle of Powder River, Mont. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, commanding the Division of the Missouri, then decided to conduct a three-pronged summer offensive. While Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, commanding the Department of Dakota, marched westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln, N. Dak., another column under Col. John Gibbon, his district commander, would travel eastward from Fort Shaw, Mont. Crook, heading the Department of the Platte, and his troops were to complete the envelopment by a northward push from Fort Fetterman. To insure success, Sheridan stripped the garrisons throughout the Departments of the Platte and Dakota.
Crook was the first to engage the foe. The Sioux and Cheyennes had united in one huge camp on the Little Bighorn River. Warned by scouts of Crook's approach northward down Rosebud Creek, Crazy Horse and his warriors engaged him in the Battle of the Rosebud, Mont. (June 17, 1876), and fought so fiercely that he decided to withdraw to present Sheridan, Wyo., to regroup and await reinforcements. Meantime Gibbon, who had acquired additional troops at Fort Ellis, and Terry, both unaware of what had happened to Crook, had met on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Rosebud. Terry's largest contingent consisted of the flamboyant Lt. Col. George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry, eager to repeat its success of the Washita campaign. Custer, a youthful major general in the Civil War and now at 36 a plainsman with a decade of experience, had fought Sitting Bull on the Yellowstone in 1873.
Scouting reports of an Indian trail in the Rosebud Valley convinced Terry that the quarry were camped in the Little Bighorn Valley. Fearful lest they escape, he decided to trap them and force a battle. He gave Custer only generalized orders and granted him latitude to alter them if the tactical situation warranted. According to the overall plan, Custer was to move southward up the Rosebud to its head, cross over to the Little Bighorn, and proceed northward until he reached the vicinity of the camp. He was not to engage the enemy until June 26, by which time Gibbon's command and the rest of Terry's forces, including slow-moving infantry as well as cavalry, would have time to reach the northern end of the Little Bighorn Valley via the Yellowstone and the Bighorn. Custer's troopers rode off confidently on June 22.
Custer soon located and followed the trail. When it veered westward he followed it instead of proceeding to the head of the Rosebud as planned. His scouts discovered the Indian village in the Little Bighorn Valley from the ridge dividing the valleys of the Rosebud and Little Bighorn. On June 25, sighting two small Indian parties as he descended to the latter, Custer decided his regiment had been detected. He made the decision to strike immediately instead of waiting until the next day. Dividing his regiment into three battalions, he directed Captain Benteen and three companies to reconnoiter along the base of the Wolf Mountains to the left, or southeast, of the main force. Custer and Major Reno, commanding five and three companies respectively, headed down what is now Reno Creek toward the Little Bighorn River. Near it they observed an Indian band a short distance ahead. Custer commanded Reno to give pursuit. Reno crossed the river and passed down the valley until the campa huge villagecame into view. A mass of warriors rode out and gave battle. Routed, Reno's men retreated back across the river and dug in along some high bluffs. Benteen's battalion later joined them there.
Meanwhile, Custer, instead of following Reno, had ridden north and then west. Possibly afraid that the entire Indian force might get away, he may have intended to assault it from the rear. Instead, thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors under Crazy Horse, Gall, and other leaders fell upon his battalion. The troops apparently fought a series of uncoordinated and separate company-sized actions along the ridges lining the river across from the village. Finally, pinned down in terrain unsuited to mounted action, the remnants of the five companies dismounted and made separate last-ditch stands on what is now Custer Hill and in the ravine to the west near the river. Reno and Benteen withstood a siege until the approach of the columns led by Generals Terry and Gibbon on June 26 scared the Indians away.
Exactly what happened after Custer led his battalion into the Little Bighorn Valley is not certain. The enigma of its annihilation spurs students of military history to infinite speculations over exactly why and how Custer met such a catastrophe. But one thing is certain. By suffering one of the worst defeats in the history of the Indian wars, he won for himself and his regiment an immortality that no victory, however brilliant or decisive, could ever have achieved.
The Indians were to have but a short time to savor their triumph at the Little Bighorn. The Custer disaster shocked the Nation, which demanded revenge. Within 2 years, most of the Indians who had defeated Custer had been forced to surrender and the power of the northern Plains tribes broken forever.
At the visitor center, museum exhibits, literature, and National Park Service personnel interpret the battle and its significance. Near the visitor center is Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, which contains the bodies of soldiers killed in other Indian battles. A road runs from the visitor center to Custer Hill, which is dominated by a granite memorial shaft erected over the mass grave of the enlisted men killed in the battle. Custer's remains are interred at the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., and those of other officers elsewhere at various locations. From the shaft the visitor is able to see most of the battlefield as well as the valley in which the Indian village was located. Interpretive signs and markers on Custer Hill and Battle Ridge describe the combat action and denote where the men of Custer's immediate command fell. In a detached section of the national monument, 4 miles to the southeast, is the site of the Reno-Benteen defense perimeter. It is accessible by a road passing through the Crow Indian Reservation. Self-guided trails lead to restored rifle pits. Reno Hill affords a fine view of the valley from which Reno retreated on the afternoon of June 25.
Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005