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On This Day: Custer Killed in Battle of Little Bighorn

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On June 25, 1876, Native American warriors led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeated Lt. Col. George Custer and his forces near Montana Territory’s Little Bighorn River.

Custer’s Last Stand

In 1868, the Sioux and other American Indian tribes signed the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie, guaranteeing them exclusive rights to the Great Sioux Reservation, an area that included the Black Hills, considered sacred land.

But soon there were rumors of gold in the Black Hills and white miners began settling in Sioux lands. When confrontations with the Sioux tribe followed, the government sought to remove the Sioux from the land. It offered $6 million for the land, but the Sioux refused the offer, writes PBS.

The government ordered the Sioux off the land by Jan. 31, 1876; seeing this as a breach of the treaty, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors defiantly gathered in Montana to fight for their lands. The government sent in troops under Gen. George Crook, Gen. Alfred Terry and Col. John Gibbon to subdue the uncooperative tribes.

Lt. Col. George Custer, part of Terry’s forces, marched his 7th Cavalry ahead of the other two columns and encountered a group of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors on the Little Bighorn River. Though he had been ordered to wait and launch a coordinated attack with the other columns, he decided to strike.

He ordered Capt. Frederick Benteen and Maj. Marcus Reno to lead troops on both sides of the river while he moved to surprise the Indians from the north. But opposition quickly overwhelmed Reno’s attacking troops. Benteen’s company came to Reno’s aid and both forces dug in, leaving Custer unsupported.

Crazy Horse led a force of Oglala Sioux against Custer, “enveloping Custer and his men in a pincer move. They began pouring in gunfire and arrows,” writes EyeWitness to History. Within an hour, Custer and most of his more than 200 men were dead.

“Custer had been imprudent to say the least. … [He] dropped squarely into the midst of 10,000 red devils and was literally torn to pieces,” declared The New York Times on July 7, 1876, grossly exaggerating the number of warriors.

Though most agreed that Custer had been foolish to engage in battle, he was portrayed as a hero in accounts of “Custer’s Last Stand.” The battle angered many Americans, and there were calls to send larger forces to crush Indian resistance.

“It is agreed on all hands that there must now be an Indian war till the hostile Indians of the North-west have been chastised and subjugated. … Western men freely predict that unless extraordinary efforts at defense are immediately made the miners in the Black Hills and the principal settlements in Montana will be harassed and many of them destroyed,” wrote the Times on July 8.

The government’s enlarged campaign against the tribes was successful. In 1877, Crazy Horse was forced to surrender and Sitting Bull retreated north to Canada, surrendering four years later. Later that year, Congress repealed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, reclaiming not only the Black Hills, but also 40 million other acres of Sioux land, writes PBS.

Biographies: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Custer

Sources in this Story

  • Yale Law School: The Avalon Project: Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868
  • PBS: The West: Events from 1870 to 1880
  • EyeWitness to History: The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876
  • The New York Times: Confirmation of the Disaster
  • The New York Times: What Is Thought in Washington.; How Shall the Indians Be Subjugated
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Sitting Bull
  • PBS: The West: People
  • Civil War Times: George Armstrong Custer: Between Myth and Reality
  • U.S. News: Custer’s Blunder
  • FindLaw: United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980)

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse
Sitting Bull, chief of the Lakota tribe that defeated Custer at Little Bighorn, had fought multiple battles against American soldiers by the time he led his tribe against Custer, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Pursued north by Gen. Terry after the battle, Sitting Bull and his men escaped to Canada, but the chief eventually surrendered.

PBS’ “New Perspectives on the West” offers information and multimedia resources about the life of Sitting Bull, or Tatanka-Iyotanka, and Crazy Horse, or Tashunca-uitco.

George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876)
Born in Ohio, George Armstrong Custer spent his formative years in Monroe, Mich. He attended West Point, where he amassed 726 demerits, finished last in his class and was court-martialed soon after graduation.

He may never have seen active duty if not for the outbreak of the Civil War and the resulting desperate need for officers. The ambitious Custer rose to the rank of major general at the age of 25—the youngest ever to achieve that rank—and earned a reputation for fearlessness on the battlefield, writes Jeffry D. Wert in the Civil War Times.

Gen. Philip Sheridan wrote of him, “If there ever was poetry or romance in war, he could develop it. He was perhaps the Civil War’s last knight. He had dreamed of glory and had found it in the terrible confines of combat.”

He was returned to the rank of captain after the war, and later appointed lieutenant colonel of the 7th Cavalry. He was again court-martialed in 1867, but was returned to his position to fight in the Indian wars. His death at Little Bighorn earned him posthumous hero status, which his wife Libbie actively helped to advance.

Analysis: Mysteries of “Custer’s Last Stand”

To this day, according to U.S. News & World Report, the actual number of American Indians that Custer fought, as well as the manner in which Custer and his men died, is disputed “because Custer’s men were wiped out before reinforcements arrived.” The victorious American Indians were the only witnesses, and their descriptions of the event conflicted.

Later Developments: The Sioux’s Legal Battle

In 1920, American Indians finally received access to the courts to appeal the treaty violations when Congress passed a special “jurisdictional Act” for violations of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The Sioux brought suit in the U.S. Court of Claims, alleging that the government had taken the Black Hills without just compensation, in violation of Fifth Amendment rights. The FindLaw Web site presents the text of the United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980).

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