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June 25, 2022
Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who led the 7th Cavalry, lost his entire command to Lakota warriors after falling on them unexpectedly in their own territory. The only army survivor of the battle from Custer’s immediate command was a horse, Comanche, who became the 7th Cavalry’s mascot, trotted out draped in ceremonial black for years after the event itself.
The road to the Little Bighorn started during the Civil War. In 1862, Santee warriors in Minnesota rose up against settlers there after the U.S. government, financially strapped by the Civil War, stopped providing the food promised to the Santee by treaty. Soldiers put down the “Santee Uprising”—now known as the Dakota War—brutally, and terrified survivors fled west to what is now Montana to take shelter with their relatives, the Teton Lakotas.
The Lakotas welcomed their eastern relatives but discounted their horrific tales of the revenge enacted on the Santee insurgents (although the army had, in fact, hanged 38 Santee in December 1862 in the largest mass execution in American history). The Lakotas rarely saw an American, and they could not believe the lone traders who passed through their territory were a threat.
Lakota nonchalance ended abruptly in November 1864, when Northern Cheyennes, their allies to the south, straggled into Lakota villages with even worse stories than the Santees had told: stories of the massacre of women and children at Colorado’s Sand Creek, where drunken soldiers first killed surrendering Cheyennes and then mutilated their bodies, taking human remains as trophies. By 1864, American miners were pushing into Lakota territory over the new Bozeman Trail that stretched from the old Oregon Trail up to the Montana gold fields. Stories of the Sand Creek Massacre convinced the Lakotas that the interlopers must be resisted.
By 1865, the conflicts, now known as the Lakota War, had escalated to the point that after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, army leaders transferred General William Tecumseh Sherman from the southern battlefields to the Plains. To his intense frustration, he found it impossible to protect both the Union Pacific Railroad, which stretched across the middle of the country, and the Bozeman Trail, which went north, from Lakota attacks.
Caught between these two demands, the government chose to protect the railroad. In 1868, it abandoned the Bozeman Trail, giving the Lakotas control of what became known as the Great Sioux Reservation. This reservation covered most of the land from the Missouri River that runs through the center of what is now South Dakota west to the Big Horn Mountains. The treaty each side signed guaranteed that land to the Lakotas forever.
Forever turned out to be short.
Rising Lakota leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse vowed to keep Americans off their land, but miners wanted gold and businessmen wanted railroads. By 1874, army officers decided to build a fort in the Black Hills to intimidate the warriors skirmishing with intruders. In 1875, they sent out the Boy General, George Armstrong Custer, along with a thousand soldiers, teamsters, scouts, and reporters, to find a place to build. Custer brought back ideas for a fort, but, more importantly, he also brought back news of gold in “them thar hills”—hills that belonged to the Lakotas.
Within months, prospectors in the Black Hills had thrown up boomtowns like Deadwood, which attracted about twenty thousand people in its first year. The government tried to buy the Black Hills, but Lakota leaders refused. “We want no white men here,” Sitting Bull said. “The Black Hills belong to me. If the whites try to take them, I will fight.”
Government officials interpreted Lakota refusal to sell as hostility. In December 1875, authorities told Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other “hostiles” to report to agencies more than 250 miles away on the eastern side of the reservation by the end of January, or to expect war. For their part, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who had never frequented the agencies, made no attempt to set off on a long journey in the brutal cold of a Dakota winter. It’s not clear they even got the message.
So on February 1, 1876, the War Department commanded the army to subdue the “hostile” Lakota. A month later, General George Crook led 800 men into Lakota territory, hoping to fight the Indigenous Americans while their ponies were still weak from the winter. In mid-March, half of Crook’s men attacked a camp of Cheyennes on the Powder River, mistaking it for a village of Crazy Horse’s men. Cheyenne survivors took refuge with Sitting Bull, who had had enough. “We are an island of Indians in a lake of whites,” he told his people. “We must stand together, or they will rub us out separately. These soldiers have come shooting; they want war. All right, we’ll give it to them.”
Sitting Bull sent runners across the reservation, calling men who wanted to fight to meet at the Rosebud River to stand against the soldiers. By spring 1876, thousands of men had rallied to him. In early summer 1876, Sitting Bull’s camp was the largest in Lakota history; there were at least 1400 lodges, with individual men sleeping on their own or as guests in others’ tepees.
Badly underestimating the number of warriors he faced, Crook planned a three-pronged attack. Columns from west, east, and south would converge where the Lakotas were hunting. Crook’s plan was crippled on June 17, when his own column, moving up from the south, crossed Lakota warriors near the Rosebud River. In a confusing battle obscured by dust and gunpowder, the Lakotas managed to knock Crook’s men out of the campaign for the next six weeks.
Those weeks would prove crucial. As the other two columns continued their march, Indigenous Americans celebrating the outcome of the Battle of the Rosebud continued to pour into Sitting Bull’s camp, bringing the numbers up to about 7000 people, 1800 of whom were warriors. In the vibrant atmosphere, families visited, couples courted, and warriors danced. The numbers meant that the Lakotas and their allies had to keep moving to provide enough food for the horses. By June 24, they had settled on the river they called the Greasy Grass, the one soldiers knew as the Little Bighorn.
Unaware of the two columns approaching, the Lakotas were watching Crook’s soldiers but knew his battered troops were hunkered down. On June 25, a hot, buggy day, the Lakotas were lazing, the women digging wild turnips and the men swimming and lying about in the heat, when Custer’s troops fell on one end of their mile-long encampment. The soldiers cut down some women and children, but the Lakotas mounted their horses quickly.
Custer had divided his men into three battalions. He had sent one under Captain Frederick Benteen up the valley and out of action, and sent one under Major Marcus Reno to attack the camp. Recovering from their initial surprise, the Lakotas chased Reno and his men into the bluffs on the other side of the river. Then Custer’s battalion entered the fight. Custer ordered his men to dismount. The Lakotas promptly stampeded the army horses. Then, surrounding the desperate troops, the Lakotas killed the soldiers to a man. The U.S. Army lost 263 men that day, the Lakotas about 40.
“I feel sorry that too many were killed on each side,” Sitting Bull said, “but when Indians must fight, they must.”