On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer and the 265 men under his command lost their lives in the Battle of Little Big Horn, often referred to as Custer’s Last Stand.
Educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Custer proved his brilliance and daring as a cavalry officer of the Union Army in the Civil War. Major General George McClellan appointed the twenty-three-year-old Custer as brigadier general in charge of a Michigan cavalry brigade. By 1864, Custer was leading the Third Cavalry Division in General Philip Sheridan‘s Shenandoah Valley campaign. Throughout the fall, the Union Army moved across the valley—burning homes, mills, and fields of crops.
This sketch of Custer’s division retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley on October 7, 1864, is by Alfred Waud, a Civil War sketch artist who documented the war for the press. Sketch artists provided the public’s only glimpse of battle at a time when the shutter speed of cameras was not fast enough to capture action. Waud routinely ventured dangerously close to the fighting, portraying more intimately than any other artist, the drama and horror of the Civil War.
Tapped to pursue General Robert E. Lee‘s army as it fled from Richmond, Custer himself received the Confederate flag of truce when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. At the end of the Civil War, he was commissioned to the western frontier as part of an army campaign to impress and intimidate hostile Plains Indians with a show of U.S. military might.
After gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, white miners flocked into territory ceded to the Sioux less than ten years earlier. Although the second Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) clearly granted the tribe exclusive use of the Black Hills, in the winter of 1875, the U.S. ordered the Sioux to return to their reservation by the end of January. With many Indians out of the range of communication and many others hostile to the order, the U.S. Army prepared for battle.
On May 17, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel Custer led the 750 men of the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Commanded by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, Custer’s division was part of an expedition intended to locate and rout tribes organized for resistance under Chief Sitting Bull. Hoping to entrap Sitting Bull in the Little Big Horn area, Terry ordered Custer to follow the Rosebud River while he brought the majority of the men down the Yellowstone River. After meeting at the mouth of the Little Big Horn, they planned to force the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne back to their reservations.
Custer found Sitting Bull encamped on the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Instead of waiting for Terry, the lieutenant colonel chose to wage an immediate attack. He divided his forces into several groups and headed out. Quickly encircled by their enemy, the five companies under Custer’s immediate command were slaughtered in less than an hour. Over the next two days, the remnants of the 7th Cavalry fought for their lives as they waited in vain for Custer to relieve them.
On June 27, the Indians retreated as reinforcements arrived. Expecting to meet Custer and prepare for battle, General Terry discovered the bodies of Custer and his men. Nearly a third of the men of the 7th Cavalry, including Custer and his brother, died at Little Big Horn. A stunning but short-lived victory for Native Americans, the Battle of Little Big Horn galvanized the public against the Indians. In response, federal troops poured into the Black Hills.
While many Native Americans surrendered to federal authorities, Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada in 1877. Four years later, with his supporters on the brink of starvation, Sitting Bull returned to the U.S. at Standing Rock Agency in North Dakota. There, he fought the sale of tribal lands under the Dawes Severalty Act and participated in the Ghost Dance Movement—a cultural and religious revitalization among Native Americans. Threatened by a religious awakening that promised the end of white dominance, federal authorities attempted to take custody of Sitting Bull in 1890. He was killed in the affray sparked by the attempted arrest.
- Relevant Today in History pages include features on Tecumseh and the Revolutionary War, the Creek War, Cherokee Chief John Ross, Nez Percé Chief Joseph, and the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.
- Search on Sioux or Cheyenne in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 to access texts of recollections of encounters between European Americans and the Plains Indians. Read the interview “History of a Buffalo Hunter,” in which Don Manuel Jesus Vasques of Taos, New Mexico, recalls an 1877 hunt.
- Search Custer in Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints and in the Photo, Print, Drawing collection to locate additional photographs and depictions of Custer from that time.
- Although he was soundly defeated, Custer quickly was elevated to the status of hero. The collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 includes “Gen. Custer’s Military March” (1878) and “General Custer’s Last March” (1879), both of which immortalized him in song.
- From the collection, California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties listen to the ballad, “Custer’s Last Charge”, an unsparing depiction of the battle. A transcription is also provided.