June 25, 1876 ~ The Battle of Little Bighorn

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought today in 1876 between the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army and the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. It is considered one of the most significant actions between the native Americans and U.S. troops in the Plains Wars.

At the center of it was LTC. George Armstrong Custer, who, together with his troops, became iconic and even heroic figures in American history.

Montana, 1875 ~ After settlers began entering the sacred Black Hills in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, many formerly cooperative Sioux and Cheyenne abandoned their reservations to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. They would not return without a fight.

Late in 1875, the U.S. Army ordered all the “hostile” Indians in Montana to return to their reservations or risk being attacked. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse ignored the order and sent messengers out to urge other Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians to unite with them to meet the white threat. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Indians had gathered in a massive camp along a river in southern Montana called the Little Big Horn.

Meanwhile, three columns of U.S. soldiers were converging on the Little Big Horn. On June 17, the first column under the command of General George Crook was badly bloodied by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Rosebud. Stunned by the size and ferocity of the Indian attack, Crook was forced to withdraw. Knowing nothing of Crook’s defeat, the two remaining columns continued toward the Little Big Horn.

The 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was ordered to scout ahead for Indians. Custer sent his Crow Indian scouts to track down the hostile forces and report back. On the morning of 25th, the scouts returned and told him that a gigantic Indian village lay nearby in the valley of the Little Big Horn River. Custer initially wanted to wait until nightfall to attack, but was urged to move quickly or risk the Indian encampment dispersing. He knew his scouts were right. He followed their advice and attacked immediately.

In an effort to conduct a flanking maneuver and hopefully envelop the Indian Village, Custer divided his forces into three sections. He advanced keeping 215 men under his personal command.

When the outer edge of the Indian encampment was attacked by one of Custer’s units, Sitting Bull rallied his warriors to action while the younger Crazy Horse prepared for battle and sped off with a large force to meet the invaders. He was joined by other Indian leaders, including Chief Gall and Pretty Nose.

In short order, Custer and his 215 men found themselves cut off and under attack by as many as 3,000 armed braves. They took up a defensive position on a hill where the soldiers put up their most dogged defense. According to Lakota accounts, far more of their casualties occurred in the attack on what is known as “Last Stand Hill” than anywhere else.

The extent of the soldiers’ resistance indicated they had few doubts about their prospects for survival. According to Cheyenne and Sioux testimony, the command structure rapidly broke down, although smaller “last stands” were apparently made by several groups. By almost all accounts, the Custer’s force was destroyed within an hour.

The remaining battalions of the 7th Cavalry were also badly beaten, but they managed to fight a holding action until the Indians withdrew the following day.

The fight was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. It would go down in history as the greatest Native American victory and worst U.S. army’s defeat in the long and bloody Plains Wars.

Today, the ideas and meaning of the battle have become more inclusive. Memorials for both Cavalry soldiers and Native Americans Warriors who died at the Little Big Horn have been erected to allow visitors to adequately reflect the larger history of the battle between two cultures.

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