The Battle of the Little Bighorn is a legendary battle fought between the U.S. Army and an alliance of Indian tribes. It is also known as Custer's Last Stand. The battle took place over two days from June 25–26, 1876.
George A. Custer by George L. Andrews
Who were the commanders?
The U.S. Army was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and Major Marcus Reno. Both men were seasoned veterans from the Civil War. They led a contingent of around 650 soldiers.
The tribes were led by several famous chiefs including Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Gall, Lame White Man, and Two Moon. The tribes involved included the Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Their combined forces totaled around 2,500 warriors (note: the actual number is disputed and not really known).
How did it get its name?
The battle was fought near the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana. The battle is also called "Custer's Last Stand" because, rather than retreat, Custer and his men stood their ground. They were eventually overwhelmed, and Custer and all his men were killed.
Chief Gall Source: National Archives
Leading Up to the Battle
In 1868, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Lakota people guaranteeing the Lakota a portion of land in South Dakota including the Black Hills. However, a few years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Prospectors began to trespass onto the Dakota's land. Soon, the United States decided they wanted the Black Hills land from the Indian tribes so they could freely mine the gold.
When the Indians refused to give up the land, the U.S. decided to force the Indian tribes out of the Black Hills. An army was sent to attack any Indian villages and remaining tribes in the region. At one point, the army heard of a fairly large gathering of tribes near the Little Bighorn River. General Custer and his men were sent to attack the group in order to keep them from escaping.
When Custer encountered the large village of Lakota and Cheyenne near the river at the bottom of a valley, he initially wanted to wait and scout the village. However, once the people of the village discovered his army's presence, he decided to quickly attack. He had no idea how many warriors he was up against. What he thought was just a few hundred warriors, turned out to be thousands.
Custer split his army up and had Major Reno begin the attack from the south. Major Reno and his men approached the village and opened fire. However, they were soon overwhelmed by a much larger force. They retreated into the hills where they eventually escaped and were saved when reinforcements arrived.
The fate of the soldiers with Custer is less clear because none of them survived. At some point, Custer engaged the Indians from the north. However, his small army was overwhelmed by the much larger Indian force. After some fierce fighting, Custer ended up on a small hill with about 50 of his men. It was on this hill where he made his "last stand". Surrounded by thousands of warriors, Custer had little hope to survive. He and all his men were killed.
Battle of the Little Bighorn Source: Kurz & Allison, art publishers
All 210 men who remained with Custer were killed. The main force of the U.S. army eventually arrived and some of the men under Major Reno's command were saved. Although the battle was a great victory for the Indian tribes, more U.S. forces continued to arrive and the tribes were forced out of the Black Hills.
General Custer's buckskin Jacket at the Smithsonian Photo by Ducksters
Interesting Facts about the Battle of the Little Bighorn
The Lacota Indians call the fight the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
The battle was part of a larger war between the Sioux Nation and the United States called the Great Sioux War of 1876.
Sitting Bull had a vision before the battle where he saw a great victory over the U.S. army.
The battle has been the subject of many movies and TV shows including the Walt Disney movie Tonka.
Several of Custer's relatives were also killed in the battle including two brothers, a nephew, and his brother-in-law.