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Delve into the Deadly, Insurmountable Odds of Custer’s Last Stand

This unexpected U.S. defeat was the most significant action of the Great Sioux War of 1876.

custer's last stand
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Custer's Last Stand may also be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn, or as the Lakota and other Plains Indians call it, the Battle of the Greasy Grass. This armed conflict was the most notable event of the Great Sioux War of 1876. From June 25th to June 26th of 1876, the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes engaged in battle with the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army along the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. This battle would go down in history as a notorious loss for the U.S. forces.

Tensions between the Indigenous people of the Great Plains and the increasing number of US settlers were growing daily in the mid-19th century. As the settlers pushed in on Indigenous land, some Native Americans chose the safer path of relocating to reservations. Others fiercely resisted the appropriation of their lands. It was this refusal to leave that led Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry to confront the tribes at Little Bighorn.

Unfortunately for Custer, the U.S. army vastly underestimated the size of the Indigenous forces. A column of U.S. soldiers marched in mid-June toward the camp commanded by Indigenous generals Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, but the 1,200 native warriors had them turn tail on June 17th. A few days later, Custer was ordered to take his cavalry and scout ahead. When Custer approached the camp on the morning of June 25th, he decided to move forward with an attack rather than wait for reinforcements.

Custer and his 600 men entered the Little Bighorn Valley at mid-day. Once alerted to the approaching U.S. troops, Sitting Bull roused the warriors and minded the safety of civilians. Crazy Horse took his large force of approximately 3,000 warriors to confront Custer's meager march. It only took an hour before Custer and five of the 7th Cavalry's 12 companies were dead.

The role of Crow Indians in the Battle of Little Bighorn

In May of 1868, conflict arose between the Sioux and Crow tribes when the valley of the Little Bighorn became a passage through the new Crow Indian Reservation. The tribes experienced repeated scuffles with each other, and when the Sioux camped in the valley in 1876, the Crow Nation supported the U.S. efforts to expel them.

Crows aided the U.S. army both as scouts and as warriors in the Battle of the Rosebud, which preceded Custer's Last Stand.

the battle of little bighorn illustration
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Stacked odds at Custer's Last Stand

Under orders from Custer, Major Reno's second detachment was the first to attack. Due to misinformation about the size and willingness of the tribes to fight, Reno was ordered to draw the Native Americans into battle. At 3:00 pm Reno's detachment crossed Little Bighorn, and immediately found a massive force which was not inclined to retreat as it was previously believed they would. As it dawned on Reno how badly they had underestimated the size of the camp, he suspected he had charged head-on into a trap.

Reno had his men dismount and deploy in a standard skirmish line. As the soldiers fired into the village, they killed several wives and children of Sioux leader Chief Gall. In response, Indigenous warriors flooded out to engage in the battle. Though Reno had only lost one man after 20 minutes of long-distance conflict, Custer had yet to reinforce him, and the odds were only stacking higher against him.

As the warriors began to surround Reno's detachment, the soldiers quickly fled toward timber along the river. The warriors set the brush alight to draw the soldiers out. After Reno's scout, Bloody Knife, was shot in the head, he abandoned the wounded and mounted an escape. He made no efforts to protect the rear from attacks, and their retreat was further disrupted by the Cheyenne engaging at close quarters. Reno later reported that three officers and 29 troopers were killed during the retreat, and another 13 to 18 men were missing.

Half an hour after the retreat, the troops were joined (on what is now called Reno Hill) by Captain Benteen's column. They arrived from the south, returning from a scouting mission where they had received word from Custer to arrive at the village. The men resupplied and were soon reinforced by McDougall's Company B. They organized an all-around defense and set about digging rifle pits.

Though gunfire could be heard from the north, Benteen prioritized reinforcing Reno's battered detachment over joining Custer. What happened during Custer's battle is based largely on conjecture, considering none of the battalion survived to recount the tale, and accounts from the surviving Native Americans were conflicting and unclear.

Though Reno and Benteen—and their men—could assume from the noise Custer was engaged in a fight, it wasn't until June 27th that they received news of the fate of Custer and his men. Though the army examined the battle site, it was impossible to make any conclusions about what exactly had occurred during the battle. Evidence suggests a skirmish line on Calhoun hill, and a fortification using dead horses on Custer Hill.

It seems that relocating to the hilltop—known now as Last Stand Hill—was a grave error, as it was likely incapable of holding all of the surviving and wounded soldiers. There was no way for the cavalry to secure a defensive position as they took fire from the southeast. Lakota accounts say that the soldiers fought viciously here, having no apparent misconceptions about their odds of survival.

Crazy Horse led a large force of warriors in a surprise charge against the cavalry, which overwhelmed them and threw them into a panic. This caused a quick breakdown in the command structure. Almost every recorded account attests to the fact that Custer's men were taken down within an hour. David Humphreys Miller, who interviewed the Lakota survivors, recorded that the engagement lasted less than half an hour. Some Indigenous warriors artfully claimed the battle only took "as long as it takes a hungry man to eat a meal."

the battle of little bighorn
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Custer's mistakes in the Battle of Little Bighorn

Custer rushed ahead into battle after hearing word that his Indigenous enemies had discovered his army's trail approaching their camp. Rather than launching a surprise attack the following morning, he panicked at the thought of being exposed. Unfortunately for him, he had more than just a smaller army working against him.

Many of his cavalry's soldiers were relatively new recruits, and about a fifth of them had only basic training and zero combat experience. Additionally, it's believed, due to archaeological findings, that a large portion of the soldiers were malnourished and physically unfit.

It was also reported by some that Custer made a number of strategic errors, though the largest might have been refusing to use Gatling guns. Custer felt that Gatling guns would slow down his march, and considering he and his men managed to travel an average of 30 miles a day, it appears that his theory was at least correct. But was speed more important than firepower? While Gatling guns frequently jammed, the weapons were able to fire up to 350 rounds a minute. This impressive rate of fire might have at least leveled the playing field.

Custer also turned down the offer of an additional battalion. He was certain the 7th Cavalry could handle anything the Indigenous people could throw their way. He didn't think adding the 2nd Cavalry to his march would change the outcome at all. Despite reconnaissance from scouts that informed him of a large Indigenous force, Custer divided his forces into four detachments. This meant that his force was not only small, but now scattered and unable to offer support to different battalions.

The casualties of Custer's Last Stand

When the U.S. army came to retrieve the bodies of their dead, it was clear the Lakota and Cheyenne had already passed through collecting their own. Additionally, Custer's cavalry had been stripped of their clothing and ritually mutilated. This, plus their state of decomposition, made it impossible to identify most of the dead. The fallen soldiers were quickly buried where they had died.

Custer's body was discovered bearing two gun shot wounds—one to his chest and one to his temple. The placement of both shots would have been fatal, but considering only the chest wound bled, it's believed this is the first bullet he took, and the head wound came postmortem.

Estimates for the death toll of the Indigenous forces vary greatly, from as low as 36 to as high as 300. As far as native noncombatants, six women and four children are known to have been lost from Reno's initial charge.

For the whole of the 7th Cavalry, the casualties totaled 52 percent. 16 offices and 242 troopers died, while one officer and 51 troopers were wounded. Every soldier in the five companies with Custer was killed. 

The aftermath of Custer's Last Stand

The first people to receive word of Custer's defeat were the people aboard the steamboat Far West, who had provided supplies for the expedition. The boat was converted into a hospital to transport 52 wounded soldiers to Fort Lincoln. Traveling nonstop, the boat arrived in Dakota Territory in a record 54 hours, and delivered the news of the army's devastating defeat, which came to be known as the "Custer Massacre."

While the reputation of the soldiers and Custer himself was fiercely guarded—particularly by Custer's wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer—the battle only further vilified the Indigenous people in the minds of the U.S. settlers. The brutal loss framed them as blood-hungry savages.

The decisive victory of the Native Americans in the Battle of Little Bighorn marked the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars. Within two days after the battle, the large camp dispersed into smaller groups because their initial mass was unsustainable in terms of supplies. Through July, the separated groups of Sioux and Cheyenne celebrated without a threat from the U.S. army. Many then returned to the reservation, dwindling the number of roaming warriors down to roughly 600.

The U.S. army, however, was quickly expanding its forces. Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry and Brig. Gen. George Crook refused to strike again until they had amassed at least 2,000 men. In August, they set out for battle against the Indigenous forces once more. General Nelson A. Miles took command in October 1876, and the Great Sioux War came to an end on May 7th, 1877, after the defeat of the last band of Miniconjou Sioux.

The Sioux were forced to cede their land to the United States, under threat that their reservations would no longer receive rations if they didn't. With no choice but to "sell or starve," they gave up their land—though the Sioux refused to recognize it as a legitimate transaction. They later went on to lobby Congress to create a forum to decide their claim. After four decades of litigation, the United States Supreme Court came to the 1980 decision of United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, which acknowledged that the United States had taken the land without fair compensation. When the Sioux were offered money, they refused, insisting instead on their right to occupy the land.