George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn: Overview
More has been written about George Armstrong “Autie” Custer than any other American military leader. Born in New Rumley, Ohio, in 1839, he graduated from West Point at the bottom of his class in 1861. He, however, showed a superior aptitude for military action and rose swiftly in the ranks. In 1863 Captain Custer was promoted to brigadier general at age 23. They called him the “boy general.” Fearless and courageous, he led his Michigan cavalry brigade to victory after victory in the Civil War. In the famous Battle of Gettysburg, his brigade played an important role in defeating the Confederate troops.
After the war Custer accepted the peace-time rank of lieutenant colonel with the Seventh Cavalry. Stationed in Kansas he earned the reputation as an Indian fighter. His first confrontation with Indians, however, ended in failure. He drove his men to exhaustion in a chase after the Cheyenne. The army court-martialed him and sentenced him to a one-year suspension without rank or pay.
He regained his reputation during a winter campaign, 1868-69, against the Cheyenne in the Washita River Valley in present-day Oklahoma. Two years later, however, he and the Seventh Cavalry were assigned to oversee the post-war reconstruction of Kentucky—a dull interlude for one who loved the excitement of the plains.
In 1873 he and his cavalry returned to the plains—Fort Abraham Lincoln, not far from Bismarck, in Dakota Territory—to protect railroad surveys and to enforce reservation policy. In 1874 his expedition to the Black Hills discovered the presence of gold. Although by treaty the Hills was part of the Great Sioux Reservation, white prospectors flooded the Hills, setting the stage for a bloody conflict—the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Many Sioux and Cheyenne had been gradually leaving the reservations for the wilderness of present-day Wyoming and Montana. On January 31, 1876, the government ordered all Indians to return to their reservations or be considered “hostile.” Few obeyed, so the army organized military action to force them back to the reservations. That is why Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was in Montana on the Little Bighorn River. The clash between Custer’s cavalry and about 2,000 warriors on June 25, 1876, ended in the annihilation of five companies of the Custer-led regiment; 210 men, including Custer, were wiped out. It took one hour.
This was a great triumph for the Cheyenne and Sioux. The victory was short-lived. In 1877 the army revived its campaign and most of the Indians returned to their reservations. The defeat assured Custer of immortality. In death he became one of the nation’s most idolized heroes. As one of his biographers concludes, “The spectacle of his little band of troopers drying on their Montana hilltop is one of the most vivid and enduring images in the popular imagination.”
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council