Annotation: Hollywood film star Errol Flynn portrayed George Armstrong Custer as the personification of American heroism, as an officer who died with his boots on. Decades later, the film Little Big Man depicted him as a narcissistic goldilocks and a psychopathic killer. Today, Custer’s defeat at the battle of the Little Big Horn remains the single most studied military engagement in American history, and writers still debate whether Custer was a racist murderer; a swaggering, egotistical self-promoter; or a martyred hero betrayed by his subordinates. Historians tend to view him as an officer whose vanity, youth, and desire for victory clouded his tactical judgment.
The Ohio-born Custer graduated last in his class at West Point in 1861, but by the age of 25, he had risen to the rank of brevet major general, the Army’s youngest. He fought in many Civil War battles including Gettysburg and became one of the heroes of the Union army.
At the end of the Civil War, he reverted to his Army rank of captain and served stints in Louisiana and Texas before being placed in command of the 7th Cavalry on the Great Plains.
In 1874, he led an expedition into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota, which was then reserved for the Sioux. He brought along reporters and geologists, who informed the public that there was “gold in the grass roots.” This led to a stampede of prospectors and miners into the Black Hills. President Ulysses Grant ordered all Indians to register at reservations. Many Sioux and Cheyenne gathered in southeastern Montana and decided to resist.
On June 25, 1876, Custer’s scouts had observed what they thought was a retreating Indian village along the Little Big Horn River in what is now Montana. Custer knew that the Plains Indians usually scattered when attacked in order to protect non-combatants. He expected them to disperse when his men struck. Only two years earlier, Custer had staged a surprise, early morning attack on the camp of a southern Cheyenne Chief, Black Kettle, along the banks of Oklahoma’s Washita River–in which 103 Indians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, had been killed.
But this Indian village was far larger than Custer imagined. It contained an estimated 8,000 Indians and more than 3,000 warriors and was led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The village was three miles long and a half mile wide. (Custer had initially estimated the village’s population did not exceed 1,500).
Custer divided his command of 645 soldiers into three columns. Major Marcus Reno’s detachment approached the Indian camp from the southeast and lost a third of its men. Reno’s men retreated to a nearby ridge, where they were under siege for nearly two days.
Meanwhile, the buckskin-clad Custer and his men tried to open an attack on the Indians’ flank. But the Indians had watched Custer lead his men along the bluffs overlooking the Little Big Horn, and 1,500-2,500 warriors attacked Custer’s forces. His men, many of whom were raw recruits, were ill-prepared for combat. Lacking cover and relying on single-shot rifles, Custer’s troops fired few bullets. In contrast, many of the Indians were carrying repeating rifles and carbines. Within an hour, every soldier in Custer’s command had died. Indian losses in the battles totaled less than a hundred.
Surviving letters and other documents give a human dimension to the battle. Many of Custer’s troops were young immigrants and farm boys who lived a miserable existence on the Plains. They were forced to wear wool uniforms year-round and ate salt pork and hardtack, a cracker-like food that had to be soaked in water or coffee to be edible. The men drank heavily in order to pass the time.
One of Custer’s men, Isaiah Dorman, was a former slave who had lived among the Sioux for several years before serving as a translator for Custer during the Little Big Horn campaign. His corpse was particularly mutilated because he was regarded as a traitor for leading the Americans to the Sioux.
A 25-year-old second lieutenant, George D. Wallace, described Custer’s camp at the mouth of the Big Horn River. “The Indians surrounded us & poured in a deadly fire, but we had to lie still and take it…,” he wrote. “The next morning we moved to the scene of Gen’l Custer’s fight, but the sight was too horrible to describe. We buried 204 bodies and encamped near Gen’l [Alfred H.] Terry. But the smell of dead horses forced him to move camp several miles.” Wallace died in 1890, one of 31 soldiers killed during the assault on a group of 350 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
Custer’s “Last Stand” also marked the Plains Indians’ last stand. The shocking news of Custer’s defeat arrived in the east two days after the nation’s centennial, and encouraged a thirst for revenge. The Plains Indians suffered a series of defeats following the battle. The Indian alliance was shattered and Sitting Bull and some of his people fled to Canada. Buffalo Bill Cody would advertise himself as the first soldier to scalp an Indian in retaliation for Custer’s defeat. Within a year, nearly all the Plains Indians had been confined on reservations.
In 1877, during a meeting under a flag of truce in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, an American soldier killed Crazy Bull by stabbing him with a bayonet.
Black Elk, an Indian medicine man, said that before his murder Crazy Horse had told him: “I will return to you in stone.” In 1998, a Connecticut sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, completed an 87 foot tall bust of Crazy Horse in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Located 17 miles from Mount Rushmore, where the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt were carved in a mountainside in the Sioux homeland during the 1930s, Crazy Horse’s face rises higher than the Washington Monument and is more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.
Document: The Little Horn Massacre
Latest Accounts of the Charge
A Force of Four Thousand Indians in Position Attacked by Less Than Four Hundred Troops–Opinions of Leading Army Officers of the Deed and Its Consequences–Feeling in the Community Over the Disaster
Special Dispatch to the New York Times
Dispatches from Gen. Terry: Particulars of the Plan of the Movement Under Custer as Agreed on Before the March
The Causes and Consequences: Fruits of the Ill-Advised Black Hills Expedition of Two Years Ago–Ability of the Army to Renew Operations Effectively Discussed–The Personnel of the Charging Party Still Undefined
Views at the War Department: The Confirmatory Dispatches from Sheridan’s Head-Quarters in Chicago–Feeling Among Custer’s Friends
Miscellaneous Dispatches: A List of Officers Killed–Feeling Over the Disaster–A Regiment of Frontiersmen Offered from Utah
Sketch of Gen. Custer
Record of the Regiment: The Officers, and What They Have Done–The Dates of Their Promotions
An Interview with Col. Crofton, Commanding Governor’s Island–His Recollections of Gen. Custer and the Officers of the Seventh
A Tilden Electioneering Trick: State Engineer Van Buren’s Report to the Canal Board–What It Really Is and What It Purports To Be
OTHER HEADLINES Mr. Blaine’s Illness: No Change in His Condition–A European Trip Recommended
The Democrats in Washington: A Weak Ratification of Tilden–A Four-Minute Torch-light Procession
French Politics: Differences Among the Republican Deputies on Municipal Matters–Reported Attempt to Shoot the Duc de Chartres The dispatches giving an account of the slaughter of Gen. Custer’s command, published by The Times of yesterday, are confirmed and supplemented by official reports from Gen. A.H. Terry, commanding the expedition. On June 25 Gen. Custer’s command came upon the main camp of Sitting Bull, and at once attacked it, charging the thickest part of it with five companies, Major Reno, with seven companies attacking on the other side. The soldiers were repulsed and a wholesale slaughter ensued. Gen. Custer, his brother, his nephew, and his brother-in-law were killed, and not one of his detachments escaped. The Indians surrounded Major Reno’s command and held them in the hills during a whole day, but Gibbon’s command came up and the Indians left. The number of killed is stated at 300 and the wounded at 31. Two hundred and seven men are said to have been buried in one place. The list of killed includes seventeen commissioned officers.
It is the opinion of Army officers in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, including Gens. Sherman and Sheridan, that Gen. Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians, Sitting Bull’s force being 4,000 strong. Gen. Sherman thinks that the accounts of the disaster are exaggerated. The wounded soldiers are being conveyed to Fort Lincoln. Additional details are anxiously awaited throughout the country.
Details of the Battle
Graphic Description of the Fighting–Major Reno’s Command Under Fire for Two Days– Every Man of Custer’s Detachment Killed Except One Scout–Affecting Scenes When Relief Arrived
Special Dispatch to the New York Times
Chicago, July 6.–A special to the Times tonight from Bismarck, recounts most graphically the late encounter with the Indians on the Little Big Horn. Gen. Custer left the Rosebud on June 22, with twelve companies of the Seventh Cavalry, striking a trail where Reno left it, leading in the direction of the Little Horn. On the evening of the 24th fresh trails were reported, and on the morning of the 25th an Indian village, twenty miles above the mouth of the Little Horn was reported about three miles long and half a mile wide and fifteen miles away. Custer pushed his command rapidly through. They had made a march of seventy-eight miles in twenty-four hours preceding the battle. When near the village it was discovered that the Indians were moving in hot haste as if retreating. Reno, with seven companies of the Seventh Cavalry, was ordered to the left to attack the village at its head, while Custer, with five companies, went to the right and commenced a vigorous attack. Reno felt of them with three companies of cavalry, and was almost instantly surrounded, and after one hour or more of vigorous fighting, during which he lost Lieuts. Hodgson and McIntosh and Dr. Dewolf and twelve men, with several Indian scouts killed and many wounded, he cut his way through to the river and gained a bluff 300 feet in height, where he entrenched and was soon joined by Col. Benton with four companies. In the meantime the Indians resumed the attack, making repeated and desperate charges, which were repulsed with great slaughter to the Indians. They gained higher ground than Reno occupied, and as their arms were longer range and better than the cavalry’s, they kept up a galling fire until nightfall. During the night Reno strengthened his position, and was prepared for another attack, which was made at daylight.
The day wore on. Reno had lost in killed and wounded a large portion of his command, forty odd having been killed before the bluff was reached, many of them in hand to hand conflict with the Indians, who outnumbered them ten to one, and his men had been without water for thirty-six hours. The suffering was heartrending. In this state of affairs they determined to reach the water at all hazards, and Col. Benton made a sally with his company, and routed the main body of the Indians who were guarding the approach to the river. The Indian sharpshooters were nearly opposite the mouth of the ravine through which the brave boys approached the river, but the attempt was made, and though one man was killed and seven wounded the water was gained and the command relieved. When the fighting ceased for the night Reno further prepared for attacks.
There had been forty-eight hours’ fighting, with no word from Custer. Twenty-four hours more of fighting and the suspense ended, when the Indians abandoned their village in great haste and confusion. Reno knew then that succor was near at hand. Gen. Terry, with Gibbon commanding his own infantry, had arrived, and as the comrades met men wept on each other’s necks. Inquiries were then made for Custer, but none could tell where he was. Soon an officer came rushing into camp and related that he had found Custer, dead, stripped naked, but not mutilated, and near him his two brothers, Col. Tom and Boston Custer. His brother-in-law, Col. Calhoun, and his nephew Col. Yates. Col. Keogh, Capt. Smith, Lieut. Crittenden, Lieut. Sturgis, Col. Cooke, Lieut. Porter, Lieut. Harrington, Dr. Lord, Mack Kellogg, the Bismarck Tribune correspondent, and 190 men and scouts. Custer went into battle with Companies C, L, I, F, and E, of the Seventh Cavalry, and the staff and non-commissioned staff of his regiment and a number of scouts, and only one Crow scout remained to tell the tale. All are dead. Custer was surrounded on every side by Indians, and horses fell as they fought on skirmish line or in line of battle. Custer was among the last who fell, but when his cheering voice was no longer heard, the Indians made easy work of the remainder. The bodies of all save the newspaper correspondent were stripped, and most of them were horribly mutilated. Custer’s was not mutilated. He was shot through the body and through the head. The troops cared for the wounded and buried the dead, and returned to their base for supplies and instructions from the General of the Army.
Col. Smith arrived at Bismarck last night with thirty-five of the wounded. The Indians lost heavily in the battle. The Crow Scout survived by hiding in a ravine. He believes the Indians lost more than the whites. The village numbered 1,800 lodges, and it is thought there were 4,000 warriors. Gen. Custer was directed by Gen. Terry to find and feel of the Indians, but not to fight unless Terry arrived with infantry and with Gibbon’s column. The casualties foot up 261 killed and fifty-two wounded.
Source: The New York Times, July 7, 1876.