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What Was Custer's Last Stand?

Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Updated May 17, 2024
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At the height of the Indian Wars in the United States, a bloody battle ensued between the United States Army and a combined fighting force of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians. The battle, known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, saw the demise of the Army’s 7th Cavalry, lead by General George Armstrong Custer. On June 25 and 26, 1876, Custer’s cavalry was slaughtered by the combined Indian forces in the fateful battle, known commonly and colloquially in the United States as Custer's Last Stand.

After the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne agreed to an alliance, both tribes began wandering near the Little Big Horn River in Eastern Montana, part of an area known as the Black Hills. Because gold had recently been discovered there, white settlers came to the area in droves to capitalize on the wealth, even though a treaty had given the Indians rights to the Black Hills. Despite this treaty, the United States government then issued an order forcing the tribes back to their reservations and sent the army to ensure the tribal retreats.

Custer held his troops less than fifteen miles from the Indian camp and waited for reinforcements, but when his scouts returned with information that the Indians had discovered the Cavalry’s trail, Custer prepared to attack without further delay. This set the stage for Custer's Last Stand. Custer was worried that the tribes would take up a scattered position that would allow them to attack from all angles, and Custer had been relying on a surprise attack on the village. On June 25, Custer ordered his troops to attack the village.

The Indian resistance was prepared for the attack. Custer intended to flank the camp on three sides, sending in Major Reno and Captain Benteen first while Custer proceeded upriver to join the attack. But by the time he got there, Reno and Benteen were in retreat and Custer was too late to realize he was badly outnumbered. The slaughter that was Custer's Last Stand began as the panicked troops fought off attacks from many angles, including a charge led by Crazy Horse.

Custer was killed in battle along with more than two hundred of his men after the Lakota-Northern Cheyenne warriors surrounded the Cavalry. The battle lasted less than an hour and by the end of it, the Lakota-Northern Cheyenne had won a significant but short-lived victory as Custer’s reinforcements finally arrived two days later. While Custer's Last Stand may have been in vain, the Indians were forced to finally retreat.

The size of the village and the number of warriors contained therein has been a major source of contention among scholars. Much of the village had already left the site in search of antelope, so when Custer’s scouts spied the village, they may not have gotten an accurate assessment of the size and scope of their enemy. Immediately following Custer's Last Stand, the tribes moved on from the camp, leaving only their dead to be counted. By most accounts, however, Custer’s scouts had warned him in advance that the camp was unusually large. In addition, details of Custer’s Last Stand are cloudy at best, since none of his men survived the battle and accounts from various Lakota and Northern Cheyenne vary greatly.

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Discussion Comments

By Buster29 — On May 02, 2014

If I remember right, a horse did survive the battle, and went on to become a legend in the cavalry. I don't think it was Custer's horse, though.

By mrwormy — On May 01, 2014

I used to think General Custer was less-than-intelligent from the beginning to the end of this conflict. Now I can see where he followed what he thought would be a good military strategy against the number of Indian fighters he thought he was facing. I think a lot of other military commanders in his position would have done a lot of the same things, at least at the beginning when they still had the element of surprise.

What I think did Custer in was youthful arrogance. He should have listened closer to his scouts and any friendly Indians in the area. I have no doubt that people gave him sound advice all along, but he chose not to accept it.

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