Geography of War - The Battle of Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Bighorn (The Great Sioux War)

June 25, 1876

Modern Location:
Southern Montana, United States

Indian confederation, including Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe tribes (led by Sitting Bull) vs. United States Army (led by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer)

On Nov. 6, 1868, the United States concluded signed the Fort Laramie Treaty with 181 Sioux and Arapaho leaders to end Red Cloud's War, ceding the lands of the Black Hills to a group of Indian tribes that considered the land to be sacred.  Six years later, however, the US Army sent an expedition into the region under the command of George Custer to determine a location for a new fort and to survey the area's natural resources.  When the report came back that there was abundant gold in the hills, American settlers began relocating to the area in breach of the treaty's guidelines.  President Ulysses S. Grant, recognizing the obvious problem and seeking to avoid a deadly confrontation, made an offer in 1875 to purchase the land for the sum of $6 million or lease it for $400,000 per year.  Sitting Bull, backed by many other tribal leaders, turned down the offer without serious consideration.  In response, Grant decided that the US would not attempt to stop settlers from moving onto Indian lands, and instead had the Bureau of Indian Affairs order all non-reservation natives to relocate by the end of January, 1876.  Local chiefs recognized the impossible task facing them and replied that negotiations would be considered the following spring, but the Grant administration instead authorized the seizure of the Black Hills by force.  When the arbitrary deadline passed Gen. Sheridan ordered military action to commence against the non-compliant Indians and the Great Sioux War began.  Generals from three forts across Montana and the Dakota and Wyoming territories mobilized and began searching for the nomadic camps of those who were not on their reservations.  Among the last units dispatched was the 7th Cavalry under the command of Gen. George Custer.

As summer began, many of the Indian tribes had come together to celebrate the sun dance ceremony, during which Sitting Bull saw a vision that he interpreted as a sign of a great victory.  Gen. Alfred Terry had come west from Bismark's Fort Abraham Lincoln and, having been informed of the encampment, he instructed Custer to pursue Sitting Bull's trail along the river and drive him northward into Terry's force.  Three days later, on the morning of June 25, Custer's scouts located evidence of Sitting Bull's camp but warned that they had been spotted and might have lost the element of surprise.  Believing the camp would disperse and having poor intelligence about the size of the enemy force, Custer chose to press the attack in the heat of the day rather than await reinforcements.  Outpacing his supply line, he sent three companies under Major Marcus Reno into the camp while he took five companies along the high side of the creek in an attempt to prevent the escape of any remnants.  An additional three companies commanded by Captain Frederick Benteen were sent south of the camp to trap fleeing Indians, but they returned to a defensive high ground when none were found.  In fact, the Indians were not dispersing or retreating, but had instead quickly gained an upper hand.  A stand of trees that obscured Reno's troop movements also served to hide the unexpectedly large size of the camp, and when the first Cavalry units engaged their enemy it was soon routed into a disorganized retreat.  Reno's men sustained heavy fire as they attempted to cross the Little Bighorn River and scale the steep banks to join up with Benteen's men.  Neither of the leaders, however, led their companies to reinforce Custer's units that had suddenly been met by an enormous force father north.  By the time Benteen and Reno were relieved the next morning by Gen. Terry's troops out was too late for the 210 men under Custer's command.  After engaging a well-armed force of Indians that numbered well into the hundreds (perhaps over 1,000) the remnants of the five companies fought to the last man but were all overwhelmed and cut down on a grassy hill overlooking the riverside camp.  The Indians took no prisoners and left no survivors. 

View of the battlefield from the perspective of Reno's advance, with Last Stand Hill along the right:

Many of the important land features across the battlefield were later named for participants in the battle, including the Reno Ford river crossing and the defensive high point now known as Weir Point.  The Little Bighorn River itself is the most important and obvious location, as it served as an important factor in the camp's placement.  Reno's initial advance was hidden by a stand of trees that also hindered an accurate assessment of Sitting Bull's forces, and his retreat was hampered by several cliffs that either gave his pursuers prime shooting positions or blocked his men from quickly riding away.  Custer's own units made it a few hundred yards from the river at the northern edge of the camp but were forced into a fighting retreat uphill from that point.  Eventually they were simply overwhelmed as Indian forces filled the adjacent ravines and the Americans could not withstand their advances. 

The outcome of the battle shocked the Americans.  George Custer had been a popular officer during the Civil War before his involvement in the West, and his death was romanticized as a heroic last stand.  While Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other chiefs and leaders enjoyed the high water mark of their resistance, it would be short-lived.  Many of the Indians returned to reservations and the US Army sent many more troops into the region to crush their opposition.  Within a year, most of the leaders had surrendered or been killed, and control of the Black Hills was in US hands without compensation.  In 1980 the US Supreme Court awarded the Sioux Nation over $105 million in damages for violating the 5th Amendment, which they have refused to accept despite compounding interest causing that figure to balloon to well over $1 billion today. 


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