The protracted conflict known to US history as the Indian wars was due to the vigorous resistance of Native American tribes of the Great Plains to the remorseless expansion westwards of white settlers. The Sioux were one of the largest such tribes, with vast homelands that included the sacred Black Hills of Dakota. When an 1874 expedition into the Hills led by George Custer himself gave rise to tales of gold strikes, the resulting influx of prospectors and settlements inflamed the Sioux who refused a government offer to buy their lands.
When the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered all Sioux bands to enter designated reservations early in 1876, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Chiefs of the Lakota Sioux, refused to leave the traditional hunting grounds. During a ritual sun dance Sitting Bull had a vision of white soldiers falling out of the sky. Seeing this as presage of victory, a force of 1,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fought a fierce but inconclusive battle against US troops.
Shortly afterwards General Custer, now at the head of the Seventh Cavalry, was sent to locate the villages of the tribes involved. On June 25 he came across a large encampment by the banks of the Little Big Horn River in eastern Montana. Fatally underestimating the Native American numbers, Custer, who had developed a reputation for both flamboyant bravery and a decidedly cavalier attitude to the lives of the men under his command, resolved to attack the camp immediately, without waiting for the main army. Custer divided his cavalry forces in order to launch attacks from three different directions. Soon realizing they were outnumbered, two groups retreated over the river; Custer, however, remained on the east bank where his small force was surrounded and ruthlessly cut down by some 4,000 warriors.
When: June 25 1876
Where: Little Big Horn River, Montana, USA
Death toll: It is generally agreed that Custer and his entire detachment of 264 soldiers were killed at the Little Big Horn. Native American casualties are unknown, with estimates varying between 45 and 200.
You should know: The alternative name by which the battle is known, Custer’s Last Stand, says it all about the place it has come to occupy in American mythology. A more truthful and authoritative assessment was given by President Grant, himself a famous Civil War general: ‘I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary.’