Custer's Last Stand

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Custer's Last Stand
Custer's last charge.jpg
Date 25–26 June 1876
Location Little Big Horn
7th Cavalry Regiment Native American Indians
George Custer
Colonel, US Army
''Crazy Horse''
Sioux Nation
647 800, 20,000[1](depending on the source)
Killed: 268
Wounded: 55
Killed: 20-30 (including 6 women and 4 children)[2]

Wounded: 30-170[3]

Custer's Last Stand (also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn) was a foolhardy attack by Colonel George Armstrong Custer in 1876 that resulted in the defeat of his 7th Cavalry Regiment by Native American Indian warriors. The battle involved several hundred US Cavalry and northern tribe Indians, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho.


The US 7th Cavalry Regiment under Colonel George Custer was attempting to force the Indians back to their reservations and Custer divided into three columns to attack. His orders were to locate the Sioux encampment in the Big Horn Mountains of Montana and screen them until reinforcements arrived. But the prideful Custer sought to engage the Sioux on his own.

Custer was perhaps the most flamboyant and brash officer in the United States Army. He was confident that his technologically superior troops could easily defeat the Native American Indians. Armed with modern weapons, including the rapid-firing Gatling Gun, Custer and his officers felt that the opposing Indians had no chance in a military confrontation.


On 25 June 1876, Colonel Custer discovered a small Indian village on the banks of the Little Big Horn River. He confidently ordered his columns to attack, not realizing that he was confronting the main Sioux and Cheyenne encampment. About three thousand Sioux warriors led by Chief Crazy Horse quickly descended upon Custer's regiment, and within an hour Colonel Custer and his entire column were massacred.

Outnumbered three to one, Custer and his column were forced to retreat to Last Stand Hill.[4]The rest of the 7th Cavalry, led by Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, were desperately holding off another large force of Indians under Two Moons five miles south of Custer's doomed column. While waiting for reinforcements from the other Cavalry columns, another group of Indian forces, led by Crazy Horse, effectively overran Custer and his men. In a desperate attempt to hold off the Indian warriors, his men shot their horses and stacked them in order to form a barricade to protect them from the Indian bullets and arrows. The Indians killed some of the cavalry soldiers with their tomahawks. Two Moons claimed that when Custer's soldiers were surrounded, an officer stood in full view on Last Stand Hill waving his sword in order to rally the survivors. This was probably First Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey. Custer's wounded were finished off with tomahawks and clubs.[5]

Crushing defeat

Custer's Last Stand symbolizes the crushing defeat that may await an arrogant, disliked, and foolhardy leader. It took less than an hour for the bullets and arrows of the Indians to wipe out Colonel Custer and his column. In Chris Malone's documentary Custer's Last Stand (Battlefield Detectives, Ep. 7), Dr Richard Allan Fox tells a story of chaos and panic in the ranks of the 7th Cavalry, saying there was no gallant last stand by Custer. The documentary claims that over 1,500 shells from the troopers' Springfield carbines and the Indians' Henry .44-cal. rifles were collected from the battlefield then numbered, bagged and plotted on maps. The shells established the troopers were hardly firing back on Last Stand Hill and indicated that by battle's end the Indians were using Army carbines taken from dead 7th Cavalry troopers.

An eyewitness described what happened:

Reno took a steady gallop down the creek bottom three miles where it emptied into the Little Horn, and found a natural ford across the Little Horn River. He started to cross, when the scouts came back and called out to him to hold on, that the Sioux were coming in large numbers to meet him. He crossed over, however, formed his companies on the prairie in line of battle, and moved forward at a trot but soon took a gallop.

The Valley was about three fourth of a mile wide, on the left a line of low, round hills, and on the right the river bottom covered with a growth of cottonwood trees and bushes. After scattering shots were fired from the hills and a few from the river bottom and Reno's skirmishers returned the shots.

He advanced about a mile from the ford to a line of timber on the right and dismounted his men to fight on foot. The horses were sent into the timber, and the men forward on the prairie and advanced toward the Indians. The Indians, mounted on ponies, came across the prairie and opened a heavy fire on the soldiers. After skirmishing for a few minutes Reno fell back to his horses in the timber. The Indians moved to his left and rear, evidently with the intention of cutting him off from the ford.

Reno ordered his men to mount and move through the timber, but as his men got into the saddle the Sioux, who had advanced in the timber, fired at close range and killed one soldier. Colonel Reno then commanded the men to dismount, and they did so, but he soon ordered them to mount again, and moved out on to the open prairie."

The command headed for the ford, pressed closely by Indians in large numbers, and at every moment the rate of speed was increased, until it became a dead run for the ford. The Sioux, mounted on their swift ponies, dashed up by the side of the soldiers and fired at them, killing both men and horses. Little resistance was offered, and it was complete rout to the ford. I did not see the men at the ford, and do not know what took place further than a good many were killed when the command left the timber.

Just as I got out, my horse stumbled and fell and I was dismounted, the horse running away after Reno's command. I saw several soldiers who were dismounted, their horses having been killed or run away. There were also some soldiers mounted who had remained behind, I should think in all as many as thirteen soldiers, and seeing no chance of getting away, I called on them to come into the timber and we would stand off the Indians.

Three of the soldiers were wounded, and two of them so badly they could not use their arms. The soldiers wanted to go out, but I said no, we can't get to the ford, and besides, we have wounded men and must stand by them. The Officers before the battlesoldiers still wanted to go, but I told them I was an old frontiers-man, understood the Indians, and if they would do as I said I would get them out of the scrape which was no worse than scrapes I had been in before. About half of the men were mounted, and they wanted to keep their horses with them, but I told them to let the horses go and fight on foot.

We stayed in the bush about three hours, and I could hear heavy firing below in the river, apparently about two miles distant. I did not know who it was, but knew the Indians were fighting some of our men, and learned afterward it was Custer's command. Nearly all the Indians in the upper part of the valley drew off down the river, and the fight with Custer lasted about one hour, when the heavy firing ceased. When the shooting below began to die away I said to the boys 'come, now is the time to get out.' Most of them did not go, but waited for night. I told them the Indians would come back and we had better be off at once. Eleven of the thirteen said they would go, but two stayed behind.

I deployed the men as skirmishers and we moved forward on foot toward the river. When we had got nearly to the river we met five Indians on ponies, and they fired on us. I returned the fire and the Indians broke and we then forded the river, the water being heart deep. We finally got over, wounded men and all, and headed for Reno's command which I could see drawn up on the bluffs along the river about a mile off. We reached Reno in safety.

We had not been with Reno more than fifteen minutes when I saw the Indians coming up the valley from Custer's fight. Reno was then moving his whole command down the ridge toward Custer. The Indians crossed the river below Reno and swarmed up the bluff on all sides. After skirmishing with them Reno went back to his old position which was on one of the highest fronts along the bluffs. It was now about five o'clock, and the fight lasted until it was too dark to see to shoot.

As soon as it was dark Reno took the packs and saddles off the mules and horses and made breast works of them. He also dragged the dead horses and mules on the line and sheltered the men behind them. Some of the men dug rifle pits with their butcher knives and all slept on their arms.

At the peep of day the Indians opened a heavy fire and a desperate fight ensued, lasting until 10 o'clock. The Indians charged our position three or four times, coming up close enough to hit our men with stones, which they threw by hand. Captain Benteen saw a large mass of Indians gathered on his front to charge, and ordered his men to charge on foot and scatter them.

Benteen led the charge and was upon the Indians before they knew what they were about and killed a great many. They were evidently much surprised at this offensive movement, and I think in desperate fighting Benteen is one of the bravest men I ever saw in a fight. All the time he was going about through the bullets, encouraging the soldiers to stand up to their work and not let the Indians whip them; he went among the horses and pack mules and drove out the men who were skulking there, compelling them to go into the line and do their duty. He never sheltered his own person once during the battle, and I do not see how he escaped being killed. The desperate charging and fighting was over at about one o'clock, but firing was kept up on both sides until late in the afternoon.[6]

Indian witnesses, including Two Moons claimed between 20 and 30 Indians killed.[7][8]Most of the bodies of the 7th Cavalry fallen were mutilated by the women of the local Indian encampment.[9][10]That night while the 7th Cavalry survivors tended their wounded, the Indian warriors, women and children celebrated with their ritual fire, dance and feast.

Despite having won this battle, reinforcements under General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon soon arrived and chased the Sioux from their lands over the next few months. By October, much of the fighting had ended. Crazy Horse had surrendered, but Sitting Bull and a small band of warriors escaped to Canada. Eventually they returned to the United States and surrendered because of lack of food.


  2. " 31 warriors, six women, and four children were killed on 25 and 26 June 1876. These numbers are stated with a fair degree of certainty. Estimates have ranged from 11 to “hundreds” but once all the different names are reconciled with all the known listings and testimony “30 some” appears more often than not. Other names remain in research and even if verified will increase the number only by a few." Indian Casualties of the Little Big Horn Battle
  3. "There is no consensus on Indian casualties, which were probably 50–200 or more." Battles That Changed American History: 100 of the Greatest Victories and Defeats, Spencer C. Tucker, p. 177, ABC-CLIO, 2014
  4. "Custer chose a high ridge to make his famous last stand." Surrounded by his officers and approximately forty enlisted men, including his brother, Capt. Thomas Custer, Custer drew his little force up into a circle and resisted the Indians as long as they could." At Custer's Side: The Civil War Writings of James Harvey Kidd, James Harvey Kidd, p. 112, Kent State University Press, 2001
  5. "The most common type of mutilation mentioned was the crushed skull. Lieutenant James Bradley claims to have seen most of the dead and he says he noted little mutilation, mainly an occasional scalping. He further states he believed most of the disfigurement seen in the dead resulted from a blow with a hatchet or war club to kill a wounded man. William White, Second Cavalry, helped bury the dead and states that "a few (bodies) were hacked or pounded with tomahawk or war club but not mutilated the way folks have said. It looked to us as though the Indians took that way to finish off the wounded."" Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Douglas D. Scott, Richard A. Fox, Melissa A. Connor, Dick Harmon, p. 85, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013
  6. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876
  7. "Interview of Chief Two Moons, of Lame Deer, Montana ... He says there must have been between 20 and 30 Indians killed at the battle of the Little Big Horn." Indian Views of the Custer Fight, Richard G. Hardorff, p. 108, University of Oklahoma Press, 2005
  8. "Many of the attacking Indians advanced up numerous side gulleys, thus protecting themselves from the fire of the soldiers. In this manner, the total losses among the indians were kept exceedingly low considering the magnitude of the engagement. Only about 30 Indians were killed, but the portion of the 7th cavalry under Custer's immediate command, which was wiped out, numbered some 220." The Custer Reader, Paul Andrew Hutton, p. 429, University of Nebraska Press, 1993
  9. "Most of the bodies of the troopers of the 7th Cavalry were mutilated by the women of the Indian village after the fighting ended." At Custer's Side: The Civil War Writings of James Harvey Kidd, James Harvey Kidd, p. 112, Kent State University Press, 2001
  10. "Severing of external genitalia was not limited to the Little Bighorn battle ... some of the dead ... were found with their genitals cut off and placed in their mouths ... perpetrated on the vanquished foe to make their life in the hereafter less fullfilling" They Died With Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Douglas D. Scott, P. Willey, Melissa A. Connor, p. 314, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013

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