Starting from the early 19th century, the federal government of the United States pursued aggressive policies in respect of the Native Americans. It attempted to banish various Native American tribes from the territories, which had belonged to them for generations. It established special zones called reservations and moved Native American people there by fair means or foul. In 1868, the Sioux concluded an accord with the government, which created a large reservation on the territory of three states. However, with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1873, white men started breaching the terms of the treaty on a daily basis. Outraged by the reckless behavior of gold miners, the Native Americans first applied to the federal government for assistance. However, it later decided to cope with the problem on its own. They left reservations to defy the authority of the government and protect its territories. Shortly thereafter, the Grand Sioux War broke out. The Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876 ended in a splendid triumph of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes. Assured of his military prowess and numerical superiority, Lieutenant Colonel Custer led the 7th Cavalry to fight the Native American warriors. However, he met a fierce opposition on the battlefield and perished along with every single soldier from his five companies. The remaining companies were also badly mauled, but they retreated from the battlefield in a timely manner. Overall, the Native Americans won the battle, but lost the war. They were treated even more harshly henceforth.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, a legendary armed engagement of 25 June 1876, pitted the 7th Cavalry of the US Army led by Lieutenant Colonel Custer against the combined forces of the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota tribes. The battle is also referred to as Custer’s Last Stand, because it resulted in a resounding defeat of his troops and the death of the Lieutenant Colonel himself. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was a watershed event in the Great Sioux War of 1876. Tensions between the US federal government and the Plains Indians had been mounting since the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, lands claimed by Native Americans. The immediate design of the federal troops in the Battle of the Little Bighorn was to expel Native Americans from auriferous territories. However, the defiant Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes refused to acquiesce to such demands and decided to go to war instead. When Custer’s 7th Cavalry confronted the two tribes on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, superior numbers of Native Americans easily crushed it. The Native American warriors won the battle, but lost the war. The decisive victory of the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota tribes did not herald a move towards Native American rights, as the tribespeople expected. On the contrary, the defeat at the Little Bighorn River impelled the federal government to double its efforts to subdue the tribes.

Background

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Throughout the 19th century, the federal government hounded down American Indians, trying to sequester them in the special areas called reservations. The tribespeople were henceforth barred from engaging in their traditional activities, such as angling and hunting, in the Great Plains, because the territory beckoned white people. As cowboys were reclaiming the hitherto Native American lands, tribespeople had to give up their centuries-long ways of life and take up farming in reservations (Buchholtz, 2013). Initially, many Native American Indians did not want accept the authority of a white man and challenged it wherever possible. Disgruntled Native American warriors ambushed and killed White buffalo hunters and otherwise tried to maintain control over their territories. However, the onset of the white man was inexorable; and all attempts to stop it were abortive. After the decades of forlorn resistance, many tribes opted to cede to the demands of the federal government and signed accords with it. In 1868, the Sioux Indians concluded a treaty with the federal authorities. They established a vast reservation in the territory of Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota (Connor, Scott, Harmon, & Fox, 2013). The part of the reservation, the Black Hills in South Dakota had remained a spiritual site for the Sioux for many generations. Yet, with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1873, the place became important to white men too. An economic downturn of 1873 fueled by the speculations of gold discovery in the Black Hills sent many white Americans scurrying to pan out this precious metal in the area (Connor et al., 2013). White men flouted the existing treaties, and the federal government only connived at the gold rush. At the outset of the conflict, the government set about mending forces with the Sioux, but countenanced a military campaign against them later. The Great Sioux War of 1976 erupted.

Outraged by incessant incursions of white men into the holy lands of the Black Hills, spates of Plains Indians refused to obey the authority of the federal government and move to reservations. The recalcitrant Lakota and Cheyenne Indians congregated in Montana to stand against the life in reservations and fight for their territories. Prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the US cavalrymen were pummeled in a string of ferocious, albeit insignificant, defeats (Buchholtz, 2013). Emboldened by a series of easy victories, the Sioux Indians decided to continue their struggle in the summer of 1876. They did not return to the reservations, thereby giving the federal troops a pretext for waging war. Overall, the Grand Sioux War developed with the varied success, for the federal troops also scored several victories (Lawson, 2009).

Guided by the goal of frustrating the indomitable spirit of the native Indian Americans, the federal troops launched a large military campaign in the spring of 1876. Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, who was in charge of the Division of the Missouri, employed the tactics that proved successful during the campaign on the Southern Plains (Lawson, 2009). The federal troops were supposed to force the Indian tribes into a deathtrap salient and, thus, prevent their escape. Thus, the army splintered into three different columns, which marching into different directions to later encircle and destroy the enemy. The bulk of Custer’s 7th Cavalry marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln together with Brigadier General Alfred Terry and the 20th infantry Gatling gun detachment (Lawson, 2009). They intended two rendezvous with other two columns at the mouth of the Powder River. However, the column spearheaded by Brigadier General George Crook fell behind a schedule. Crook’s detachment engaged with the Native American forces on the Rosebud River on June 17 and could not move further (Lawson, 2009). The three-pronged invasion halted, but the remaining forces continued the campaign.

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The Battle of the Little Bighorn: The Outbreak

On June 22, Colonel Gibbon and General Terry made a joint decision that Custer’s 7th Cavalry should try to circle around the American Indian forces. Meanwhile the other two columns would close in on them directly (Connor et al., 2013). The plan was to reunite with Custer on June 27. Gibbon and Terry offered Custer reinforcements in the form of the Gatling guns, but Lieutenant Colonel declined the offer on the ground that reinforcements would trammel his traveling foot (Connell, 1997). Moreover, being as haughty as he was, Custer thought the 7th Cavalry was strong enough to repel the enemy single-handedly. On June 24, Custer reached a vantage point, which offered an unbroken panorama of the Little Bighorn River. Nestled in the lee of riverbanks, Custer’s Crow scouts spotted a large encampment of Native Americans. According to the historical estimates, the gathering consisted of as much as 1,900 warriors and their relatives from different tribes (Connor et al., 2013). However, Custer received the faulty data from his intelligence officers, who adduced much smaller numbers. Persuaded that the belligerent had no more than 800 people, both warriors and civilians, Carter advanced to the encampment (Connor et al., 2013).

The 7th Cavalry was poised for an assault early next morning, but fears crept over Custer that the tribespeople became aware of his presence in the area. As a corollary of this, the 7th Cavalry sallied forth on June 26. It is necessary to note in this context that Lieutenant Colonel Custer had a force of 700 men under his command (Buchholtz, 2013). Major Marcus Reno, one of Cutler’s bravest officers, was saddled with the task of leading three groups to the Little Bighorn Valley and attacking the encampment from the south (Buchholtz, 2013). Captain Frederick Benteen led three another companies to the west to forestall the possibility of Native Americans escaping the battlefield (Lawson, 2009). Captain Thomas McDougald with his single company had to remain near the wagon train to guard it (Lawson, 2009). Custer planned to descend with remaining forces from the mountain range in the east and, thus, charge forward toward the camp of Native Americans from the north. Reno crossed the Little Bighorn River long after midnight and approached the camp. To the astonishment of Reno and his troops, the encampment was significantly bigger than reported. Similarly, Reno was haunted by fears that the Indian warriors were luring him into a trap (Connor et al., 2013). Reno’s soldiers formed a skirmish line several hundred meters short of the encampment and ordered the scouts to cover the company’s exposed left.

As uncertain as he was, Reno ultimately fired at the camp, but he failed to catch the enemy unawares. The Native American warriors launched a counterattack from a small elevation to Major Reno’s left (Lawson, 2009). The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes instantly put Reno’s force in disarray and very soon to rout. Reno retreated into the woods along the Little Bighorn River and escaped the Native American warriors in a disorganized way when they set the brush ablaze. Describing the atmosphere on the battlefield, Panzeri (1995) says the following:
Absolute chaos reigned as more frenzied warriors surged forward and terrified troopers tried to flee. More soldiers bunched together and resisted before being killed or forced to run away. Captain Keogh was killed with a small group of his men on the eastern slope of the ridge. The fight moved along the ridge from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill. (p. 77)

On the opposite side of the river, Reno’s soldiers met with Benteen’s detachment, which was on its way to reunite with Custer. Shortly thereafter, the combined force encountered McDougald and formed a defensive position together. They managed to repel the attacks of the enemy for a few consecutive hours. Interestingly, fighting around the perimeter did not abate with the approach of dawn, as Custer expected (Connor et al., 2013). It was not until General Terry’s soldiers closed in on the battlefield from the north that Native Americans began to pull back.

However, the reunited army did not hurry to chase the enemy and mop up the remaining centers of resistance. The first priority of the badly mauled army was to regroup its forces. Yet, as it soon transpired, not all companies survived the events of the last night. Thus, Custer’s force came under a surprising attack from the enemy and was quickly annihilated. Due to the fact that no single soldier from Custer’s companies remained alive, there was the little credible information about the details of the fight. Researchers conjecture that Custer divided his force into two separate units and ordered one of them to penetrate the village, for he had thought it was not properly guarded, with the Native American warriors battling his soldiers on the flanks (Connor et al., 2013). However, the unit failed to penetrate the encampment and joined Custer near Battle Ridge. The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes spearheaded by Crazy Horse extirpated Custer’s soldiers, forcing the survivors to move to the position in the Last Stand area.

Panzeri (1995) vividly describes the situation on this flank: Only a handful of troopers managed to break through to the temporary safety of the left wing. Three company guidons were now being carried about the battlefield as coup-sticks. The dead were quickly stripped of their weapons and trophies, and the wounded were dispatched, while the shocked survivors on Custer Hill looked on. Over half the battalion was gone; the remainder were surrounded and outnumbered. (p. 77)

The remainder of Custer’s troops fortified their position with carcasses of dead horses as if with a rampart, but that clever military ruse did not help them (Connor et al., 2013). Although the exact sequence of events is an infinite source of speculation, it is a fact that Custer’s force suffered a humiliating fiasco in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Aftermath of the Battle

The Battle of the Little Bighorn cost the American government approximately 250 soldiers (Connor et al., 2013). At the same time, only 35 Native Americans lost their lives at the battle (Connor et al., 2013). Interestingly, the fight marked the worst defeat for the US Army and the most convincing victory for the Native Americans in the protracted Plains Indian War. Indeed, the Little Bighorn was a zenith of the Native Americans’ power. However, their exultation at winning the battle was not long-standings. The demise of Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his battalion shocked the community of white Americans and confirmed their image of the Native American Indians as ruthless and barbaric rascals (Panzeri, 1995). O’Neill and Robinson (2011) have a divergent opinion on the matter, arguing that the majority of the American people, i.e. white Americans, “were indifferent to the conditions on the plains” (p. 72). The authors continue that Americans were tired of the “exhausting years of internal conflict” and “the horrendous drain of blood” (O’Neill & Robinson, 2011). Yet, they agree with other scholars in that white Americans were not sympathetic to the problems of the Native Americans. According to O’Neill and Robinson (2011), the nonchalance of white Americans was founded on the principle that the government should be fretted about the country’s economic development rather than anything else (O’Neill & Robinson, 2011).

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Anyway, the death of a Civil War hero on the eve of the country’s 100-year jubilee outraged many white Americans. The nation clamored for the severe retribution. The authorities did not haste to fulfill this demand. Following the defeat at the Little Bighorn River, the federal government boosted its military presence in the region and ratcheted up the pressure on the Native Americans on a legislative level. Thus, the government soon revised the treaty of 1868, depriving the Sioux of control over the Black Hills. The Native Americans had no choice but to accept the redrawn boundary lines and watch white men rape their sacred lands with tacit acquiescence. The continued onslaught of white men rent asunder the tenuous union of the Native American tribes that had coalesced to eliminate a common threat (Connor et al., 2013). Many bands of recalcitrant Native Americans that operated independently also surrendered in a long run. Within several years, the Sioux nation crumbled; and most of the Sioux tribes would be confined to reservations. On the whole, it appears that “Custer’s Last Stand” was the Sioux’s last stand as well.

Conclusion

The Native Americans had little to celebrate since the establishment of the United States, a country that aspired to grant equal rights to all people. Throughout the 18th century, the authorities persecuted the Native Americans, trying to move them into reservations. After a period of futile resistance, the tribespeople moved to the territories assigned to them. However, whenever gold or other precious metals were discovered in the territory of the reservations white men had no scruples about trespassing on it. The federal government connived at the crimes of white settlers and disregarded the position of the Native Americans. Outraged by the brutalities and impunity of white men, the Native American Indians left reservations to defend their lands. In 1876, the federal government launched a massive military campaign against the Native American tribes to bend them into submission. The campaign came to be known as the Great Sioux War and consisted of several major battles. The Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876 resulted in a glorious victory of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes. Lieutenant Colonel Custer reckoned without the strength of the enemy and led his 7th Cavalry to perdition. Yet, although the Native Americans won the battle, they lost the war. In a wake of the defeat at the Little Bighorn River, the federal government increased the pressure on the Native Americans, much to the glee of the American public.

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