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Battle of the Little Bighorn

Battle of the Little Bighorn

 

Introduction

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, was a significant conflict between the United States Army and the combined forces of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. Fought on June 25-26, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, it was one of the most famous battles of the American Indian Wars and a defining moment in the history of Native American resistance.

Historical Context

  1. Westward Expansion: By the mid-19th century, the United States was rapidly expanding westward, encroaching on Native American lands. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874 further intensified this encroachment, violating the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which had guaranteed the Black Hills to the Lakota people.
  2. Tensions and Conflicts: The U.S. government attempted to force the Native Americans onto reservations through various means, including military action. Resistance from the tribes, led by prominent leaders such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and others, resulted in increased tensions and sporadic conflicts.
  3. Military Campaigns: In response to Native American resistance, the U.S. Army launched military campaigns to subdue the tribes and compel them to move to reservations. The Great Sioux War of 1876-1877, of which the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a part, was a direct result of these efforts.

The Battle

  1. Prelude to the Battle:
    • Custer’s Expedition: Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment in a campaign against the Lakota and Cheyenne. Custer was ordered to find and engage a large Native American encampment believed to be in the Little Bighorn Valley.
    • Gathering of Forces: Thousands of Native American warriors, along with their families, had gathered in the area to resist U.S. government policies. This assembly was one of the largest ever of Native American warriors.
  2. Day 1 – June 25, 1876:
    • Initial Movements: Custer divided his forces into three battalions. Major Marcus Reno was to attack from the south, Captain Frederick Benteen was to scout the left flank, and Custer himself would lead a direct attack on the encampment.
    • Reno’s Attack: Reno’s battalion crossed the Little Bighorn River and launched an assault on the southern end of the encampment. They were quickly overwhelmed by a fierce counterattack and retreated to a defensive position in the timber along the river.
    • Custer’s Assault: Custer, unaware of the overwhelming number of Native American warriors, led his battalion along a ridge to attack the encampment from the north. His forces were quickly surrounded and outnumbered by the combined Native American forces.
  3. Day 2 – June 26, 1876:
    • Destruction of Custer’s Battalion: Custer and his approximately 210 men were encircled and annihilated on a ridge now known as Last Stand Hill. Not a single soldier of Custer’s immediate command survived.
    • Reno and Benteen’s Defense: Reno and Benteen, who had regrouped and fortified their position on Reno Hill, managed to hold out against repeated attacks until the Native American forces withdrew on June 26, anticipating the arrival of larger U.S. reinforcements.

Aftermath and Significance

  1. Casualties: The battle resulted in significant casualties for the U.S. Army, with 268 soldiers killed and 55 wounded. Native American casualties were estimated to be between 31 and 135, though exact numbers are unknown.
  2. Impact on U.S. Policy: The defeat shocked the nation and led to increased military efforts to subdue the Plains tribes. The U.S. government responded with a renewed and intensified campaign, leading to the eventual surrender of the Native American forces and their confinement to reservations.
  3. Legacy of Custer: George Armstrong Custer became a controversial figure. Initially hailed as a hero, his reputation later suffered as questions arose about his tactics and decision-making during the battle. The battle has been romanticized and mythologized in American culture, often focusing on the heroism and tragedy of Custer’s Last Stand.
  4. Native American Resistance: The Battle of the Little Bighorn remains a symbol of Native American resistance and resilience. Leaders like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are celebrated for their role in this and other battles that sought to defend their lands and way of life.
  5. Cultural and Historical Significance: The site of the battle, now the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, serves as a memorial to both the U.S. soldiers and Native American warriors who fought there. It stands as a testament to the complex and often tragic history of the American West.

Conclusion

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was a pivotal moment in the American Indian Wars, highlighting the fierce resistance of the Plains tribes against U.S. expansion and the devastating consequences of that conflict. The battle’s legacy endures in American history and memory, symbolizing both the bravery and the tragedy of this tumultuous period.

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