The Battle Of Little Big Horn In 1876
The Battle of Little Bighorn was by far one of the most tragic examples of human violence in history. Learn more about it.
Outraged over the incessant attacks executed by whites, in late 1875, the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians insolently left their reservations in the Black Hills and congregated in Montana with the great warrior Sitting Bull. It was then that they first began to devise a strategy to protect their sacred lands. Two separate triumphs over the US Cavalry earlier that year helped to encourage the Indians to confidently enter into battle in the summer of 1876.
In an attempt to drive the massive Indian forces back to the reservations, the U.S. Army sent out three lines to attack in a synchronized manner, one of which included Lt. Colonel George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. Spotting the Sioux village about fifteen miles away along the Rosebud River on June 25, Custer unexpectedly encountered a nearby group of over forty warriors. By this time, the 7th Cavalry had ridden 105 miles and had been traveling for over six weeks. The men were exhausted, filthy and raw. Their horses were also weary, but despite these obstacles, the 7th Cavalry was still a very formidable military organization by Indian wars' standards.
Custer was determined to attack before the main party could be alerted, so ignoring orders to wait, he went forward with the assault. Unfortunately, Custer had no idea of the sheer numbers he was up against, not to mention the level of hostility. Custer was worried that the clan would get away through the upper valley of the Little Bighorn River. Thus he naively split his forces in three, and dispatched troops under Captain Frederick Benteen to thwart any efforts of escape on the part of the Indians. In a letter to former 7th Cavalry Private Theodore W. Goldin, Benteen wrote:
"I've been a loser in a way, all my life by rubbing a bit against the angles--or hair--of folks, instead of going with their whims; but I couldn't go otherwise--'twould be against the grain of myself."
Major Marcus Reno was ordered to cross the river and attack the Indian village in conjunction with the remaining troops that were under his command. His plan was to attack the Indian encampment at the northern and southern ends simultaneously, but once again, he made this decision without “doing his homework”. Custer and his troops were not sufficiently prepared to cross the kind of terrain laid between them and their destination of attack. He discovered too late that he would have to negotiate a formidable labyrinth of bluffs and ravines before he could carry out his plan.
Reno's squadron of 175 soldiers attacked from the North. The Indians crossed the river below Reno and swarmed up the bluff on all sides and the soldiers soon found themselves to be in way over their heads. Consequently, Reno’s assault, had it not been for the sheer horror of it, played out like a scene from an old black and white comedy movie. Reno and his men fought furiously and unsuccessfully for approximately ten minutes, and ultimately withdrew into the woods, utterly defeated.
Just moments after the Indians had driven out Reno’s troops, they suddenly spotted over two hundred of Custer's men coming towards the other end of the village. While this helped to take some of the pressure off of Reno's men, the fallout for these advancing troops was equally horrendous. Cheyenne and Hunkpapa Sioux simultaneously crossed the river and assaulted the oncoming soldiers, forcing them back to a long high ridge to the North. Meanwhile, another force, largely Oglala Sioux under Crazy Horse's command, quickly moved downstream and then doubled back in a sweeping arc, surrounding Custer and his men as both bullets and arrows began to frenziedly pierce the air and the flesh of dozens of men.
As the Indians continued to close in, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and build a wall with their corpses, however this strategy did little to protect against the attack. In less than an hour, Custer and his men were slain in what has been called the worst American military disaster in history. After another day's fighting, Reno and Benteen's now united troops managed to flee when the Indians ended the fight in an effort to circumvent the subsequent attacks that were rumored to occur.
In the wake of the battle, the Indians returned to the scene of the crime to ravage the remains of the uniformed soldiers. They did this believing that the soul of a mutilated body would be forced to walk the earth for all eternity and could not ascend to heaven. The Indians wanted to punish the soldiers for eternity for the atrocities they had committed upon them.
Inexplicably, the returning warriors stripped Custer's body and cleaned it, but did not scalp or mutilate it. He had been dressed in buckskins instead of the standard blue uniform, and some believe that the Indians thought he was not a soldier, and that their reluctance to dishonor an innocent party caused them to leave him alone. Another explanation offered centers on the shortness of Custer’s hair and its lack of “scalp appeal”. Additionally, directly after the battle, the myth emerged that the Indians did not completely defile Custer out of respect for his fighting ability. However, it is said that very few of the Indians who participated in the battle would have been able to correctly identify Custer. To this day, no one knows the real reason.
The Battle of Little Bighorn was the summit of the Indian’s short-lived period of glory. In the face of the incessant white onslaught, the Indians’ power was eventually diminished. Within a year following "Custer's Last Stand”, the Sioux nation had experienced their last stand as well. As tragic as the incident was, the following telegraph message sent by The Bismarck Tribune (from which reporter, Mark Kellog, died on the scene), managed to sum up the calamity in a few brief sentences:
"General Custer attacked the Indians June 25, and he, with every officer and man in five companies were killed. Reno with seven companies fought in intrenched [sic] positions three days. The Bismarck Tribune's special correspondent was with the expedition and killed."