Determined to resist the efforts of the U.S. Army to force them onto reservations, Indians under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse wipe out Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and much of his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Sioux Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had been successfully resisting American efforts to confine their people to reservations for more than a decade. Although both chiefs wanted nothing more than to be left alone to pursue their traditional ways, the growing tide of white settlers invading their lands inevitably led to violent confrontations. Increasingly, the Sioux and Cheyenne who did try to cooperate with the U.S. government discovered they were rewarded only with broken promises and marginal reservation lands. In 1875, after the U.S. Army blatantly ignored treaty provisions and invaded the sacred Black Hills, many formerly cooperative Sioux and Cheyenne abandoned their reservations to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. They would not return without a fight.
Late in 1875, the U.S. Army ordered all the “hostile” Indians in Montana to return to their reservations or risk being attacked. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse ignored the order and sent messengers out to urge other Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians to unite with them to meet the white threat. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Indians had gathered in a massive camp along a river in southern Montana called the Little Big Horn. “We must stand together or they will kill us separately,” Sitting Bull told them. “These soldiers have come shooting; they want war. All right, we’ll give it to them.”
Meanwhile, three columns of U.S. soldiers were converging on the Little Big Horn. On June 17, the first column under the command of General George Crook was badly bloodied by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse. Stunned by the size and ferocity of the Indian attack, Crook was forced to withdraw. Knowing nothing of Crook’s defeat, the two remaining columns commanded by General Alfred Terry and General John Gibbon continued toward the Little Big Horn. On June 22, Terry ordered the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer to scout ahead for Indians.
On the morning of this day in 1876, Custer’s scouts told him that a gigantic Indian village lay nearby in the valley of the Little Big Horn River. Custer dismissed the scouts’ claim that the village was extraordinarily large-certainly many thousands of Indians-as exaggerated. Indeed, his main fear was that the Indians would scatter before he could attack. Rather than wait for reinforcements, Custer decided to move forward immediately and stage an unusual mid-day attack. As the 7th Cavalry entered the valley, Custer divided the regiment of about 600 men into four battalions, keeping a force of 215 under his own command.
In the vast Indian encampment (historians estimate there were as many as 11,000 Indians), word quickly spread of the approaching soldiers. Too old actually to engage in battle, Sitting Bull rallied his warriors while seeing to the protection of the women and children. The younger Crazy Horse prepared for battle and sped off with a large force of warriors to meet the invaders.
As Custer’s divided regiment advanced, the soldiers suddenly found they were under attack by a rapidly growing number of Indians. Gradually, it dawned on Custer that his scouts had not exaggerated the size of the Indian force after all. He immediately dispatched urgent orders in an attempt to regroup his regiment. The other battalions, however, were facing equally massive attacks and were unable to come to his aid. Soon, Custer and his 215 men found themselves cut off and under attack by as many as 3,000 armed braves. Within an hour, they were wiped out to the last man. The remaining battalions of the 7th Cavalry were also badly beaten, but they managed to fight a holding action until the Indians withdrew the following day.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn was the Indians’ greatest victory and the army’s worst defeat in the long and bloody Plains Indian War. The Indians were not allowed to revel in the victory for long, however. The massacre of Custer and his 7th Cavalry outraged many Americans and only confirmed the image of the bloodthirsty Indians in their minds, and the government became more determined to destroy or tame the hostile Indians. The army redoubled its efforts and drove home the war with a vengeful fury. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne would be confined to reservations. Crazy Horse was killed in 1877 after leaving the reservation without permission. Sitting Bull was shot and killed three years later in 1890 by a Lakota policeman.