Fought on steep ravines and ragged ridges, the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand and the Battle of the Greasy Grass by Native Americans, was a brutal clash between the combined Sioux Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho forces, and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army.
The fight lasted between 25-26 June 1876 and is named for its battleground along the Little Bighorn River in the Crow Reservation, southeastern Montana. Marking the worst defeat of US forces, the battle became the most consequential engagement of the Great Sioux War of 1876.
But what led to the climactic battle and why was it so significant?
Red Cloud’s War
Native American tribes of the northern plain region had come to blows with the US Army before Little Bighorn. In 1863, European Americans had cut the Bozeman Trail through the heart of Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota land. The trail provided a fast route to reach the Montana gold fields from the popular migrant trading point, Fort Laramie.
The settlers’ right to cross Native American territory was outlined in a treaty from 1851. Yet between 1864 to 1866, the trail was trampled by some 3,500 miners and settlers, who threatened Lakota access to hunting and other natural resources.
Red Cloud, a Lakota chief, allied with the Cheyenne and Arapaho to resist settler expansion into their traditional territory. Despite its name suggesting a huge confrontation, Red Cloud’s ‘war’ was a continual stream of small-scale raids and attacks on the soldiers and civilians along the Bozeman Trail.
In 1868, fearing they would have to defend both the Bozeman Trail and transcontinental railway, the US government proposed peace. The Treaty of Fort Laramie created a large reservation for the Lakota in the western half of South Dakota, a region rich in buffalo, and closed the Bozeman Trail for good.
Yet accepting the US government’s treaty also meant partially surrendering the Lakota’s nomadic lifestyle and encouraged their reliance on subsidies from the government.
Several Lakota leaders, including the warriors Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, therefore rejected the government’s reservation system. They were joined by bands of nomadic hunters who, having not signed the 1868 treaty, felt no obligation to its restrictions.
Tensions between the government and plains tribes only worsened when, in 1874, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was sent to explore the Black Hills inside the Great Sioux Reservation. Whilst mapping the area and searching for a suitable spot to build a military post, Custer discovered a vast gold deposit.
News of the gold drew in miners from all over the US, breaching the 1868 treaty and insulting the Lakota, who refused to sell the sacred Black Hills to the government. In retaliation, the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs instructed all Lakota to report to a reservation by 31 January 1876. The deadline came and went with almost no response from the Lakota, most of whom were unlikely to have even heard it.
Instead, Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho, outraged at the continued intrusion of white settlers and prospectors into their sacred lands, gathered in Montana under Sitting Bull and prepared to resist US expansion. Meanwhile, US General Philip Sheridan, commander of Missouri’s military division, devised a strategy to engage the ‘hostile’ Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho and force them back into the reservation.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
In March 1876, 3 US forces set out to find and engage the Native Americans. They had little idea where or when they would encounter the 800-1,500 warriors they expected to meet.
The tribes had met around the Powder, Rosebud, Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers, a rich hunting ground where they held annual summer gatherings to celebrate the Sun Day. That year, Sitting Bull had a vision that suggested their people’s victory against the US soldiers.
Once they learned where Sitting Bull had gathered the tribes, on 22 June, Colonel Custer had been instructed to take his men of the 7th Cavalry and approach the gathered tribes from the east and south, to stop them from scattering. The other leaders, General Terry and Colonel Gibbon, would close the gap and trap the enemy warriors.
Custer’s Last Stand
Custer’s plan was to wait in the Wolf Mountains overnight while his scouts confirmed the whereabouts and numbers of the gathered tribes, then conduct a surprise attack at dawn on 26 June. His plan was scuppered when scouts returned with news that their presence was known. Fearing Sitting Bull’s warriors would immediately attack, Custer ordered the go-ahead.
A detachment of Custer’s men led by Major Reno attacked but were quickly outmanoeuvred and cut down by the mounted Lakota warriors. At the same time, Custer followed the basin down to a Native American village where there was a skirmish, followed by Custer’s retreat to Calhoun Hill, where he was attacked by the warriors who had driven away Reno’s division. By splitting up his men, Custer had left them without each other’s support.
East of the Little Bighorn, Custer and his commanders’ bodies were later found naked and mutilated. Superior numbers (some 2,000 Sioux warriors) and firepower (repeat action shotguns) had overwhelmed the 7th Cavalry and marked a victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho.
A temporary victory
The Native American victory at Little Bighorn was certainly a significant act of collective resistance to US encroachment on their way of life. The battle demonstrated the strength of the Lakota and their allies, who suffered an estimated 26 casualties compared with roughly 260 of the 7th Cavalry. This strength threatened the US’ hopes to mine the region for both minerals and meat.
Yet the Lakota victory was also significant because it was temporary. Whether or not the Battle of Little Bighorn changed the trajectory of US policy towards the tribes of the Great Plains, and Native Americans across the continent, it undoubtedly changed the speed at which the military was deployed to ‘subdue’ their villages across the north.
When news of Custer’s death reached the eastern states, many US officials and American citizens demanded the government respond with force. In November 1876, 5 months after the Battle of Little Bighorn, the US government dispatched General Ranald Mackenzie on an expedition to the Powder River in Wyoming. Accompanied by more than 1,000 soldiers, Mackenzie attacked a Cheyenne settlement, burning it to the ground.
The US government continued to retaliate in the ensuing months. Reservation boundaries were enforced, dividing the allied Lakota and Cheyenne, and the government annexed the Black Hills without compensating the Lakota. This outcome of the Battle of Little Bighorn prompted a legal and moral battle over the sacred hills that continues today.