All About History
BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN
MONTANA TERRITORY, 25-26 June 1876
As the United States’ expanded westwards, they increasingly clashed with the indigenous people who lived there. Native Americans were usually moved to ‘reservations’, pockets of remote land miles away from home. If they refused to move to a reservation willingly, they were ruthlessly attacked and purged from their ancestral lands by the American military.
Some believed resistance was futile. For instance, the great Sioux chief Red Cloud agreed to a treaty with the United States in April 1868, consenting to relocate his tribe northwards to a reservation in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. On the other hand, some Sioux factions — like the Lakota — refused to move, particularly as white settlers encroached on reservations promised to them and other tribes. Among these were the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who joined leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in defying the treaty. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 quickened the pace of white settlement.
In 1876, the US Army was charged with eliminating the threat to white settlement. A unit of cavalry was dispatched to the Montana Territory under the command of Colonel John Gibbon and Generals George Crook and Alfred Terry. They planned to trap the Native Americans and either annihilate them or force them to move.
Terry and Gibbon, hoping to trap their adversaries, headed for the valley of the Little Bighorn River. The 7th Cavalry Regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel George A Custer, was detached and ordered to follow Sitting Bull.
Custer was offered the firepower of a Gatling gun detachment. He declined, saying the guns would slow him down. He was also offered extra cavalry but rejected them, stating that his men — made up of less than 700 troopers — were capable of handling the mission. When a Lakota village was spotted along the banks of the Little Bighorn on 25 June, Custer divided his men into three groups. Fearing that the element of surprise would be lost, he impetuously ordered an immediate assault.
Major Marcus Reno made first contact with the enemy at about 3pm but a Native American force pushed Reno’s dismounted troopers to a hillside, where they were pinned down. Shortly after, Custer sent his five companies towards the other end of the village. Crazy Horse completed an envelopment of them and drove them northward.
Captain Frederick Benteen joined Reno and fought off repeated assaults and their survivors retired after another day of fighting. Custer fought a running battle with his pursuers until his five companies were finally surrounded on high ground a few miles from Reno’s position. Custer himself died and his company was annihilated.
Although they had prevailed at the Little
Bighorn, the Sioux would find themselves overwhelmed and the Black Hills taken from them within a year.