The battle fought this week (June 25) in 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in Montana, pitted Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and 210 members of the Seventh Cavalry against a far larger force of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians commanded by the great Lakota chief, Sitting Bull. When the Battle of Little Bighorn was over Custer and all of his men were dead, yet from their death sprang to life one of the great myths in American history, a myth we still celebrate. That myth of “Custer’s Last Stand” depicts Custer as a courageous victim, attacked by bloodthirsty savages intent upon his destruction.
So let’s destroy the myth.
First, Custer and the U.S. Army were the aggressors. In 1868 the U.S. government signed a treaty with the aforementioned Indians granting them permanent possession of lands that included South Dakota and Montana. Yet when gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills in 1872, white prospectors flocked to the area, ignoring the treaty. Although then-President Ulysses S. Grant subsequently tried to buy the territory from the Indians, Sitting Bull refused to sell, so Grant ordered all Indians to leave the land or be considered at war with the United States. Thus in June of 1876 an army commanded by General Alfred Terry was sent to South Dakota and Montana to drive the Indians off their land. Custer was a part of that army.
Second, Custer may have been courageous, but he was foolhardy in the extreme, and his defeat at Little Big Horn was entirely avoidable. For starters, he ignored Terry’s orders to coordinate his 600-man force with two other army columns that intended to surround and crush the Indians. Custer, vain and impetuous, wanted the glory for himself and was itching to go it alone.
He also wildly underestimated the size of the Indian force he faced, resulting in his disastrous decision to split his own forces into three parts, two of which were to attack the Indian village; the third was to scout. Custer’s force of 210 men was to attack from the north, but on June 25 a large Indian force attacked him instead. The battle lasted barely an hour.
And the myth-making began. His wife Libby devoted her life to enshrining Custer as an American legend, collaborating on books about her husband and starting a lecture tour. Buffalo Bill Cody expanded the myth in his traveling Wild West Show, “re-enacting” the battle with a decidedly pro-Custer slant. Thus did an incompetent, if flamboyant, cavalry officer become immortal.
Curiously, when Custer’s body was found at Little Big Horn there was a smile on his face. Perhaps he had envisioned that even a glorious defeat still meant glory.