One of the most infamous conflicts in American history, Little Bighorn is proof that winning the battle doesn’t always result in winning the war.
The Battle of Little Bighorn was a fierce clash that occurred over 25-26 June 1876, between the US military’s 7th Cavalry division and the combined might of multiple Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Native American tribes.
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer commanded the 7th Cavalry division, while the Native American force was led by Sitting Bull.
Ending with a crushing defeat for the military’s forces – including the death of Custer and five of the 7th Cavalry’s companies – it was a key turning point of the American Indian Wars.
While the Native Americans emerged victorious from the battle, the scale of white American losses led to federal forces overrunning the region in retaliation.
The battle was the culmination of years of heightening tension between the Native American tribes and US government, with more and more of the Native American lands consumed each year by westward territorial expansion of white settlers.
These tensions boiled over when, following the signing of the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie – which promised the Indians certain territories -sacred areas like the Black Hills were invaded by prospectors hunting for gold.
This, in partnership with the US government’s indecisive policy toward the Native Americans, led to federal troops being deployed in the region to relocate any Indians not yet in reservations. This action was what sparked the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Following the battle the remaining Native American tribes fled from their lands in the wake of the US military’s retaliation. Gradually remaining Indians either were killed in other smaller skirmishes, escaped across the border into Canada or surrendered to the United States – the latter leading to the establishment of the permanent Native American reservations which still exist to this day.
Custer: hero or villain?
Following his death, Custer received much public fame, being honoured as a military hero and fearless fighter. This view was entrenched by books written by his wife, the coining of the phrase ‘Custer’s last stand’ and the production of many romanticized depictions in art. However, Custer and his actions also received much criticism. Speaking to the New York Herald in 1876, President Ulysses S Grant said that he regarded “Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary.” Further, modern historians indicate Custer was very reckless in his pursuit of the Native American tribes.
Who was Sitting Bull?
Sitting Bull – aka Tatanka lyotake – was a Teton Dakota chief who united the myriad Sioux tribes during the 1870s in an attempt to survive the influx of white Americans over the Great Plains, lyotake was born in modern-day South Dakota in 1831 and, through a series of impressive performances in wars, ascended through the ranks to become principal chief of the Sioux nation in 1867. In 1868 Sitting Bull persuaded the Sioux to agree with the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie, which guaranteed the Sioux a large area of land in South Dakota. However, after gold deposits were found in the area, prospectors invaded the protected lands leading to a series of events that would eventually culminate in the Battle of Little Bighorn.