Looking Back: Little Big Horn Dooms Custer

The most profound military loss in US history also marked the height of Sioux power. The Battle of Little Big Horn, known as The Battle of the Greasy Grass (to the Lakota tribe) and Custer’s Last Stand, was a turning point for both the Sioux Nation and the relationship between the United States and American Indians.

Incited to Battle

From 1854 to 1890, the Northern Plains Indians fought with the US government in what was called the Sioux Wars. The American Indians were being forced into smaller and smaller reservations, out of the lands they once roamed freely. While many acquiesced and retreated to the reservations, a number of American Indians resisted, fighting the government in skirmishes that covered much of the Northwest.

The 7th Calvary attacked a village of innocent natives in Kansas on the Washita River, inciting the tribes of the area to fight back harder. Notable chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were leading attacks in the Northwest at this time, and they were amassing their troops for a great battle.

Spies from the Calvary reported their movements, and General Armstrong Custer gathered his troops to attack them on June 25th, 1876, near the Rosebud River.

The Last Stand

George Custer led 600 men at the time of the battle

George Custer led 600 men at the time of the battle

Custer led a group of close to 600 soldiers toward the encampment, then split his men into three groups. He had Captain Frederick Benteen guard the upper valley and prevent the natives from escaping. He sent Major Marcus Reno to the southern end of the encampment to provide a secondary attacking force to his own. Taking 210 men, Custer headed toward the gathered Sioux and Lakota warriors.

His information was spotty and erroneous, and he was going to meet a force that was three times bigger than he had anticipated. He had planned to fight along a river and on open grassland, but he didn’t know that between him and the American Indians was a series of ravines and bluffs. He would never be able to move his men across the terrain in an effective attacking formation or join the attack with his comrades at the right time.

Reno’s men were quickly routed in the South. They were forced to retreat before they could become trapped by the terrain and were chased uphill by overwhelming numbers of natives.

Tombstones mark the site of Custers famous Little Big Horn defeat

Tombstones mark the site of Custer’s famous Little Big Horn defeat

By the time Reno and his men had been routed, Custer’s group was starting to cross the river. The Sioux and Lakota turned from Reno’s fleeing men to Custer and his men and forced them back to a high ridge. Another group of Sioux moved in from a second direction and boxed Custer in. He had nowhere to run as the American Indians closed in. The general ordered his men to pile bodies of soldiers and horses into a high wall to provide some cover from the hail of bullets around them.

Custer and his men were wiped out in less than an hour in a decisive victory for the Sioux. Reno’s group began to reorganize with Benteen, but before they could get back to the encampment, the Native Americans had already left.

The Aftermath

This battle showed that the Native Americans, and particularly the Sioux, were not to be trifled with, that they could fight back as hard as any US army and that going up against them in battle was often a foolhardy tactic.

A memorial marks the field of battle that the Lakota call the Battle of the Greasy Grass

A memorial marks the field of battle that the Lakota call the Battle of the Greasy Grass

Relations between the Sioux and the US government took a drastic turn following the battle. When news of Custer’s defeat reached white settlers and the US capitol, retribution was demanded. The government acted quickly in redrawing the lines of the American Indian territory in the Black Hills, opening up the way for white settlers to take over the land. The Sioux nation was subsequently devastated by surging settlers and soldiers to the area. They were forced to give up their lands, and even lobbying for those lands back until the 1980s brought them no closer to reclaiming their property.

While General Custer was immediately branded as a hero following the battle and the Sioux as outlaws, the lasting effects would be quite the opposite. History has revealed Custer as a foolish leader and his actions as a byword to future military commanders. The Sioux, though all but wiped out after the battle, have been seen retrospectively as the heroes of the story, noble warriors defending their lands and unjustly punished by a spiteful government.


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