Little Bighorn, the Backstory

[January 9. 2022| The Montrose Mirror | By Kathryn R. Burke]

The story behind the Battle of the Little Bighorn, otherwise known as Battle of Greasy Grass, by the Lakota and other Plains Indians, or Custer’s Last Stand because of the outcome, is complicated.

The battle took place June 25, 1876, along the Little Bighorn River, on the Crow Reservation in Montana. That location is significant. It was, and long had been, contested ground between different nations (or tribes). The famous (infamous?), and still-controversial, confrontation was not just a battle between Indians and cavalrymen. It was part of a series of battles where several competing forces fought for natural resources—the land, and all that was on, in, or under it.

It was a significant event in the Great Sioux Wars—between the Sioux and Cheyenne and lesser tribes whose lands they had been confiscating, primarily to increase their hunting territory. Buffalo (the American Bison), which sustained them, were disappearing from the Great Plains due to encroaching settlement.

It was the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars, pitting indigenous peoples against the U.S. Government in its attempt to eradicate their culture in the name of Manifest Destiny—to make room for those settlers.

It was a battle between legendary fighters and forces—great Indian war leaders, like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and the 7th Calvary, led by the flamboyant, controversial, “boy general, George Armstrong Custer. And it was also, was Custer’s Last Stand.

Historians and scholars have spent a lifetime writing about and studying this battle. I am neither. But I am fascinated with Western American history and enjoy talking and writing about it. As always before a presentation, I spend time looking for new information or something I may have missed. I learned a lot from the two Interpretive Ranges at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument whose books I published: Where the Rivers Ran Red, by Michael Donahue and Little Bighorn, Voices from a Distant Wind by Steven C. Adelson. I also helped produce Adelson’s DVD, Contested Ground. Both authors are considered experts on the battle and Western American history. I’m fortunate to have met and work with them.

This is a difficult topic, filled with angst and controversy. I’ve visited with book buyers from all over the world—Custer is a cult, and the battle both famous and infamous. The impetus behind the battle is all too familiar—The Roman Empire, Egypt, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Indian Wars, Nazi Germany, and now Russia vs Ukraine. The concept of genocide is not new. Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have set out to destroy anyone whose beliefs—or appearance—is different or who has something they want and can take by force. What led up to Custer’s Last Stand is part of a continuing saga of Us versus Them.

Indian Wars & Manifest Destiny

The Indian Wars was a campaign designed to obliterate a culture that had existed on the North American continent for at least 15,000 years—probably even longer.

When the Europeans arrived, there were between 8 and 18 million Indigenous people living in North America. By the end of the Indian Wars. and compounded by white man’s diseases to which they had no immunity, approximately 80% of that population had perished!

Manifest Destiny was a concept that the United States was destined, by God (as its advocates believed) to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism—across the entire North American continent. Sound familiar?

Bighorn was one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their way of life against the onslaught of western migration and the U.S. Government opening the west to settlement and taking ownership of natural resources.

Indians refused to cede ownership of the land. They do not believe in the concept of land “ownership;” they live in harmony with it. White settlers wanted to own the land, and all that was in, on, and under it. To facilitate that determination, the U.S. Government removed (or killed) the Indians. Problem solved. The story was the same throughout the west for all the tribes as the U.S. took their lands and sent those who survived to reservations.

Despite the Indian’s victory at Bighorn, where they vastly outnumbered the soldiers, Native peoples in total were a small force compared to Euro-Americans, who just kept coming and coming. Leveraging natural resources, they forced the Indians to surrender, primarily by attacking and destroying their encampments and property.

Great Sioux Wars (or Lakota Wars).

This was an ongoing confrontation between the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne against the U.S. Government. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty allocated reservation lands to the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne to include the Black Hills in Dakota Territory and “unceded” territory in what became Montana and Wyoming.

The Lakota, who dominated the area, considered the Papa Sapa, or Black Hills. sacred, as their place of origin thousands of years earlier. Since the Treaty was signed, the Unites States had been steadily ignoring the treaty and invading their territory.

Tribal land was being seized at alarming rates. The once numerous bison herds were nearly hunted to extinction. The entire livelihood of the Plains tribes revolved around the bison, and without the resources the animal offered, their cultures rapidly lost stability and security. This forced them to rely on the United States government to provide rations and goods, or else face starvation. The way of life of these independent people was rapidly fading. And the government was not keeping its part of the bargain to sustain them.

The Sioux, led by Sitting Bull a Hunkapapa Lakota leader and Medicine man resisted. His leadership inspired his people to a major victory. In response, the U.S. government sent thousands more soldiers to the area, forcing many of the Lakota to surrender over the next year. Sitting Bull refused to surrender, and in May 1877, he led his band north to the Canadian North-west Territories (now Saskatchewan). Sitting Bull remained there until 1881, at which time he and most of his band returned to U.S. territory and surrendered to U.S. forces.

Wounded Knee

Eighteen battles were fought during the course of the Sioux Wars, a few where the Indians were victorious, more where they were not. It ended at Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern Dakota. More than 250 men, women, and children, most all unarmed, were slaughtered and buried in a mass grave.

Gen. Nelson Miles participated in the campaign that scoured the Northern Plains after the Bighorn, forcing the Lakota and their allies onto reservations. He was not present at Wounded Knee, and afterward, telegraphed Washington D.C., condemning the action as “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children”.

Nonetheless, 20 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for the slaughter.

Custer’s Black Hills Expedition

In 1874, Custer and the 7th Calvary traveled to the previously uncharted territory of the Black Hills. While Custer and the military units searched for a suitable location for a fort, civilians searched for gold. And they found it.

Publicity about the expedition prompted a mass gold rush, which in turn antagonized the Sioux Indians, who had been promised protection of their sacred land by earlier treaties. The U.S. Army ignored previous treaty agreements and invaded the area.

The Battle of the Rosebud

June 17, 1876, two years after Custer’s Black Hills expedition, 1,500 Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors, led by Crazy Horse, defeated a force of 1,300 Americans under General George Crook. The battle took place along Rosebud Creek in Montana Territory. Crook retreated.

Eight days later, the Indians were again victorious, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The aftermath of both battles was that the U.S. sent thousands of soldiers into the territory to force the Sioux and their allies onto reservations. Sitting Bull, who participated at Rosebud as a spiritual leader, and his people continued to resist, until they returned to the Pine Ridge reservation.

The Combatants – The 7th Calvary

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Calvary into battle. His Regiment consisted of 12 companies and included 646 soldiers and some civilians, as well as his brothers, Capt. Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, a civilian. Although Custer’s Crow Scouts had apprised him of the location of the village, they did not know or had not conveyed the massive size of the Indian encampment-1,800 or more warriors.

Unprepared, Custer split his regiment—into five companies, about 210 men and civilians which he kept with him, and seven companies, headed by Capt. Frederick Benteen and Major Marcus Reno, both of whom disliked him and were inclined to be subordinate. On Custer’s orders, all 12 companies would attack along the river, coming from different directions. Unfortunately. Custer was relying on inaccurate or conflicting information and depending on his own prior (and highly successful) experiences in the Indian Wars. He assumed the warriors were smaller in number and would flee. He would capture women and children to serve as hostages and human shields – a practice that had worked well for him in the past. Not this time. His five companies were annihilated. Benteen, Reno, and their companies all survived. because they were not on the hill with Custer but holed up elsewhere awaiting support and rescue.

Was Custer a doomed hero, a villain, a foolish leader, a brilliant military tactician? The question remains unanswered today.

Custer was dashing and controversial. No one, then or now, has a neutral opinion of him. He was a dichotomy: hated and loved; smart and stupid; careless and caring; possessed of an historical memory but not historical mind; a dedicated womanizer and devoted husband; considered by some to be a military genius, yet at West Point he excelled in demerits and graduated last in his class. He was vain, often wearing a red scarf and floppy hat into battle. Yet he was also fearless, always riding into battle at the head of his troops. During his day, Custer was considered a national hero because of his Civil War service. Today, the mere mention of his name is enough to incite accusatory hatred or passionate defense. He still has a cult following around the world.

He went by many names:  Autie, after early childhood attempts to pronounce his middle name; Fannie, by West Point Cadets because of his girlish looks and curly blond hair; Cinnamon because of hair oil he used; Aut or General, by his beloved wife, Libby; Old Iron Ass, by fellow 7th Cavalrymen, due to his tireless ability to stay in the saddle;  Old Leather Britches, by soldiers and Indians because of the buckskins he often wore; Pashanka, or Long Hair, by the Lakota; Ouchess, or Creeping Panther, by the Cheyenne; Son of the Morning Star by his Arika and Crow Scouts, because he seemed to be blessed by the Cosmos.

Custer began his military career in the Civil War. Following his graduation (at the bottom of his class) in 1861 from West Point, Custer was sent to the Battle of Bull Run, where he was cited for bravery under fire. He led a one-man-charge that resulted in capturing a Union officer, five enlisted men, and…the Confederate battle flag, the first one taken in the war. He became known for leading charges and rallying troops. Custer leapfrogged—captain, major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, and brigadier general—to become the youngest general in the Union ranks.

The press lapped it up. They saw a rising star, calling him “The Boy General,” and the Custer legend was born. He made excellent copy—a young, dashing hero with golden curls, who wore a decorative uniform highlighted by a bright red necktie so his troops could recognize him in battle. In addition, Custer was no ambulance general—he was always several horse-lengths ahead of his troops on any charge. And several times, had his horse shot out from beneath him! He captured the first battle flag taken by the Union Army at Williamsburg and received the white flag of surrender from the Confederates at Appomattox, April 1865. The Civil War ended on Custer’s doorstep.

Custer was appointed Lt. Col. 7th Cavalry in July 1866 and sent to fight the Indian wars the next year, where he again excelled. Then, he was court-martialed in 1867 for Absence without Leave from his command; conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline. He took some men to get medical help but was punished because he should have been pursuing Indians. He was immediately sentenced to be suspended from his rank and command for one year and to forfeit his pay for the same period. Gen. Sheridan, who became a life-long friend, reinstated him 10 months later to pursue the Cheyenne.

Odly, Custer also befriended the Indians he was pursuing, who recognized him as one of their own, or family, because of a long relationship he had with Monahseetah (Meotzi). who considered him her “husband.” This may have been the reason his body was not mutilated after the battle, as were those of the others in his company. It was also claimed that they had a son, Yellow Swallow together—so named for the Custer-like golden streaks in his hair. This was unlikely. Custer had gonorrhea at West Point and was probably sterile. Monaseetah’s child may have been fathered by his brother, Tom Custer.

Custer was married to Libby Custer, who played a major role in Custer’s story…in Bighorn, and beyond. They met in 1862, in Monroe, Michigan, where he had been staying with his sister during assignments. They were married in 1864. Custer continued advancing in his military career during the Civil War, and afterward, in the Indian Wars. Libby often accompanied him (together with their dogs and a pet pelican!) on military deployments. Gen. Sheridan, Custer’s superior, had an affection for Libbie and allowed her in the cavalry camps when other wives were barred from access. The Custers spent 12 years together until his death at the Little Bighorn in 1876. From an existing abundance of correspondence between them, and Libbie’s own testimony, they had a deep and passionate love for one another. After his death, Libbie chronicled their lives together and memorialized him in light of his military career. Her books: Boots & Saddles, Tenting on the Plains, and Following the Guidon are still available today.

The Combatants: Indian Warriors and Spiritual Leaders


To learn more about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the back story and combatants on both sides, join Kate and guest George Gleason, volunteer guide at the Battlefield, for two presentations next week: Monday, January 23rd, 1: 00 pm at the Montrose Senior Center and Saturday, February 25th, noon, Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans. For that one, bring a brown bag lunch. Hot and cold drinks will be available for a donation. Kate will also have for sale books and DVD video of the battle at both locations. More here.