Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Battle of the Little Bighorn
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also called Custer's Last Stand, was an engagement between a Lakota-Northern Cheyenne combined force and the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army, June 25- June 26, 1876 near the Little Bighorn River in the eastern Montana Territory. The battle was the most famous incident in the Indian Wars and was a remarkable victory for the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne. The U.S. cavalry detachment commanded by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was killed to the last man, but overall, the majority of U.S. soldiers survived the fight.
The U.S. forces were sent to attack the Indians based on Indian Inspector's E.C. Watkins report (issued on November 9, 1875) that stated that hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne associated with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were hostile to the United States. U.S. interest in Indian lands (including the gold-rich Black Hills) also played an important role.
As the larger wing of the troops under Gen. Alfred Terry, Custer's force arrived at an overlook 14 miles east of the Little Bighorn River in what is now the state of Montana, on the night of June 24. The rest of the column was marching toward the mouth of the Little Bighorn, to provide a blocking action by the 26th.
The presence of what was judged a very large encampment of Indians was reported to the general by his Crow Indian scouts. Despite this warning, on June 25, Custer divided his regiment into four commands and moved forward to attack the encamped Indians, who were expected to flee at the first sign of attack. The first battalion to attack was commanded by Major Marcus Reno and preceded by about a dozen Arikara and friendly Sioux scouts. His orders, given by Custer without accurate knowledge of the village's size, location, or propensity to stand and fight, were to pursue the Indians and "bring them to battle." However, Custer did promise to "support...[Reno] with the whole outfit." Reno's force crossed the Little Bighorn at the mouth of what is today called Reno Creek, and immediately realized that the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were present "in force and ...not running away." Sending a message to Custer, but hearing nothing in return, Reno launched its offensive northward. He stopped a few hundred yards short of the village, however, and dismounted, unwilling to attack the enormous village with his roughly 125 men. In about 20 minutes of long distance firing, he had took only one casualty, but the odds against him became more obvious, and Custer did not reinforce him. Reno ordered a retreat to nearby woods, and then made a disorderly retreat to the river and up to the top of the bluffs on the other side, suffering heavy casualties along the way. Reno was at the head of this movement and called it a charge; no bugle calls were heard, and a number of men were left in the woods. The river crossing was unguarded, and a number of men died there.
At the top of the bluffs, Reno's force was met by a battalion commanded by Captain Frederick Benteen This force had been on a lateral scouting mission, and had been summoned by Custer to "Come on...big village, be quick...bring pacs..." Benteen's coincidental arrival on the bluffs was just in time to save Reno's men from annihilation. This combined force was then reinforced by a smaller command escorting the expedition's pack train. Benteen did not continue on towards Custer for at least an hour, in spite of the fact that heavy gunfire was heard from the north. Benteen's inactivity prompted later criticism that he had failed to follow orders and failed to "march to the sound of the guns." The gunfire heard on the bluffs (by everyone except Reno and Benteen) was from Custer's fight. His 210 men engaged the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne (or had been engaged by them) some 3.5 miles to the north. Having driven Reno's force if not into oblivion, as least into chaos, the warriors were free to pursue Custer. The route taken by Custer to his "Last Stand" has been a subject of debate. It does seem clear that after ordering Reno to charge, Custer continued down Reno Creek to within about a half mile of the Little Bighorn, but then turned north, and climbed up the bluffs, reaching the same spot to which Reno would soon retreat. From this point, he could see Reno, on the other side of the river, charging the village.
Custer then rode north along the bluffs, and descended into a drainage called Medicine Tail Coulee, which led to the river. Some historians believe that part of Custer's force descended the coulee, going west to the river and attempting unsucessfully to cross into the village. Other authorities believe that Custer never approached the river, but rather continued north across the coulee and up the other side, where he gradually came under attack. By the time Custer realized he was badly outnumbered by the Indians who came from the Reno fight, according to this theory, it was too late to break through back to the south, where Reno and Benteen could have provided reinforcement. Within about 2 hours, Custer's battalion was annihilated to the last man. Only two men from the U.S. side later claimed to have seen Custer engage the Indians: a young Crow whose name translated as Curley, and a trooper named Peter Thompson, who had fallen behind Custer's column. Accounts of the last moments of Custer's forces vary, but all agree that Crazy Horse personally led one of the large groups of Lakota who overwhelmed the cavalrymen. While exact numbers are difficult to determine, it is clear that the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota outnumbered the U.S. force by approximately 3:1, a ratio which was extended to 5:1 during the piecemeal parts of the battle. In addition, some of the Indians were armed with repeating Sharps and Winchester rifles,while the U.S. forces carried single-shot carbines, which had a slow rate of fire, tended to jam, and were difficult to operate from horseback.
After their fight with Custer was finished, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne came back to attack the remaining US forces under Benteen and Reno, who had finally ventured toward the audible firing of the Custer fight. For 24 hours the outcome of this struggle was in doubt, but Benteen's leadership secured the US lines. At this point, the US forces under Terry approached from the North, and the Indians drew off to the south. The Indian dead had mostly been removed from the field. The U. S. dead were given hasty burials, and the wounded were given what treatment was available at that time; six would later die of their wounds. Custer was found to have shot in the temple and in the left chest; either wound would have been fatal. He may also have been shot in the arm. He was found near the top of the hill where the large obelisk now stands, inscribed with the names of the U.S. dead. Most of the dead had been stripped of their clothing, mutilated, and were in an advanced state of deterioration, such that identification of many of the bodies was impossible. From the evidence, it was impossible to determine what exactly had transpired, but there was not much evidence of prolonged organized resistance. Several days after the battle, the young Crow scout Curly gave an account of the battle with indicated that Custer had attacked the village after crossing the river at the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee, and had been driven back across the river, retreating up the slope to the hill where his body was later found. This scenario seemed compatible with Custer's aggressive style of warfare, and with some of the evidence found on the ground, and formed the basis for many of the popular accounts of the battle.
Of the U.S. forces killed at Little Bighorn, 210 died with Custer while another 52 died serving under Reno. Six men died later as a result of wounds. Casualty figures on the Indian side included perhaps 40 killed.
The battle was the subject of an army Court of Inquiry in 1879 in which Reno's conduct was scrutinized. Some testimony was presented suggesting that he was drunk, and a coward, but since none of this came from army officers, Reno was not officially condemned. Other factors have been identified which may have contributed to the outcome of the fight: it is apparent that a number of the U.S. troopers were inexperienced and poorly trained. Benteen has been criticized for "dawdling" on the first day of the fight, and disobeying Custer's order. Both Reno and Benteen were heavy drinkers whose subsequent careers were truncated. Terry has been criticized for his tardy arrival on the scene.
Custer's contributions to the U.S. defeat were, at least, faulty intelligence and poor communication, which resulted in an uncoordinated attack against a larger force. For years a debate raged as to whether Custer himself had disobeyed Terry's order not to attack the village until reinforcements arrived. Finally, almost a hundred years after the fight, a document surfaced which indicates that Terry actually had given Custer considerable freedom to do as he saw fit. Custer's widow actively affected the historiography of the battle by suppressing criticism of her husband. A number of participants decided to wait for her death before disclosing what they knew...however, she outlived almost all of them. As a result, the event was recreated along tragic Victorian lines in numerous books, films and other media. The story of Custer's purported heroic attack across the river, however, was undermined by the account of participant Gall, who told Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey that Custer never came near the river. Godfrey incorporated this into his important publication in 1892 in The Century Magazine. In spite of this, however, Custer's legend was embedded in the American imagination as a heroic American officer fighting valiantly against savage forces. By the end of the 20th century, the general recognition of the mistreatment of the various Native American nations in the conquest of the American west, and the perception of Custer's role in it, have changed the image of the battle and of Custer. The Little Bighorn is now popularly viewed as the confrontation between a reckless and ambitious agent of U.S. expansion against courageous warriors defending their land and way of life. It should be noted that most of the occupants of the large village attacked by Custer were non-combatants.
The memorials to U.S. troops have now been supplemented by markers celebrating the Indians who fought there. Many of the Native Americans in the fight including Crazy Horse played a leading role in this battle and the Battle of Rosebud one week before. On Memorial Day 1999 the first of five red granite markers denoting where warriors fell during the battle were placed on the battlefield for Cheyenne warriors, Lame White Man and Noisy Walking The warrior markers dot the ravines and hillsides like the white marble markers representing where soldiers fell. Since then, markers have been added for the Sans Arc Lakota warrior, Long Road and the Minniconjou Lakota , Dog's Back Bone . On June 25, 2003 an unknown Lakota warrior marker was placed on Wooden Leg Hill, east of Last Stand Hill to honor a warrior who was killed during the battle as witnessed by the Northern Cheyenne warrior, Wooden Leg. The first Indian Memorial was dedicated on June 25, 2003. The bill that changed the name of the battlefield from Custer Battlefield National Monument to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument also called for an Indian Memorial to be built near Last Stand Hill. President George H. W. Bush signed the bill into law on December 10, 1991. The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located in southeastern Montana near Crow Agency, Montana and administered by the National Park Service.
- Wind on the Buffalo Grass, The Indians' Own Account of the Battle at the Little Big Horn River, & the Death of their Life on the Plains, collected and edited by Leslie Tillett, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, 1976, Illustrated hardback, 158 pages with many drawings by Native Americans, ISBN 0-690-01155-5.
- Custer: Cavalier in Buckskin, by Robert Utley, Univ of Oklahoma Pr; Revised edition (June 2001),176 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.73 x 13.28 x 10.20, ISBN 0-806-13347-3.
- Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Douglas Scott, Univ of Oklahoma Pr; Univ of Oklahoma Pr (Trd); (September 2000) 328 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.00 x 9.93 x 6.86,ISBN 0-806-13292-2.
- Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors / Stephen E. Ambrose. - 1975.
- Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed / John S.Gray, Univ. of Nebraska Pr (Trd) . - 1991.
- Nichols, Ronald H. Men with Custer revised ed., Hardin, MT: Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Assoc., 2000.
- The NPS official website
- Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield website is the only non-profit organization affiliated with the Little Bighorn Monument and includes information on the Indian Memorial dedication and warrior markers.
- Black Elk Speaks (includes first-hand accounts of the battle in Chapter 9)
- Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association
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