The Little Big Horn Campaign of 1876 Part One – Background

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Custer’s last stand from the painting by Edgar Samuel Paxon

I’ve always had a fascination with the events surrounding the Battle of the Little Big Horn and General Custer’s Last Stand. This goes back to my childhood in the 1960s and those Sunday afternoon films, in black and white, watched on a television with a screen as big as postage stamp, in a wooden cabinet the size of a wardrobe. They Died with Their Boots On, Little Big Horn and Fort Apache may have been to accurate history as Theresa May is to leadership, but they were a Sunday staple and I loved them.

Errol Flynn may have portrayed General Custer a as a fun-loving, dashing figure who chooses honour and glory over money and corruption. The battle against Chief Crazy Horse was portrayed as a crooked deal between politicians and a corporation that wants the land Custer promised to the Indians. But where lies the truth? It is interesting to compare the portrayal of Custer in the 40s and 50s, to the grim and gritty films such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man. The pendulum of history has swung and there will always be unscrupulous people who have turned the plight of the Native Americans into a grudge industry of the liberal left. The peace loving natives, even if they could accurately be called such, were slaughtering and enslaving each other with aplomb, long before whitey stepped off those boats. It’s almost impossible now to portray Custer without painting him as some vainglorious, hubristic popinjay, or the white settlers as blood-crazed, expansionist, genocidists. Although many undoubtedly were, driven perhaps by greed rather than racial superiority.

For more than 120 years, people have speculated about how Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry were overwhelmed in south-eastern Montana Territory by a combined force of Lakota and Cheyenne Indians on June 25, 1876. And yet, the controversy if it really exists does not appear any closer to resolution today. And this will be no exception.

I will refer to the native combatants as The Plains Indians or by their tribal named such as Crow or Lacota etc. What is a Native American? Native Americans, also known as American Indians, Indigenous Americans and other terms, are the indigenous peoples of the United States, except Hawaii. According to the US Census, Native Americans currently number 5,220,579 ~ 1.6% of the total U.S. population.

George Armstrong Custer

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer in field uniform

George Armstrong Custer was born in 1839 and was admitted to West Point Academy in 1857. He graduated as last in his class in 1861, but every single military academy has someone who graduates in last place of their intake or class. At the outbreak of the American Civil War Custer served as a cavalry officer in the Union Army. Shortly after graduating from West Point, Custer was court marshalled when as duty officer, he failed to stop a fist-fight between two junior officers and was found in dereliction of duty. This could have ended his career, but the Civil War had broken out and the Union forces needed all the officers they could get. Despite his unpromising time at West Point and court martial, which are used as a stick to beat his character, Custer gained a strong reputation during the Civil War and was present at the first major engagement of the First Battle of Bull Run, July 1861. His association with several important officers helped his career as did his success as a highly effective cavalry commander. Custer was brevetted to brigadier general at the age of 23.

At the Battle of Gettysburg Custer led a cavalry charge that prevented Confederate cavalry from attacking the Union rear, in support of Pickett’s Charge. He was wounded in action at the Battle of Culpeper Court House and played a decisive role in the Appomattox Campaign. He was brevetted to Major General Rank in 1864 and was present at General Robert E Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S Grant on 9th April 1865. Custer remained as a major general in the United States Volunteers and was mustered out in 1866, when he reverted to the permanent rank of Captain on the retired list.

During this time Custer considered careers in railroads and mining and was offered $10,000 in gold to become adjutant general of the army of Benito Juárez of Mexico, who was then in a struggle with the Mexican Emperor Maximilian I (a satellite ruler of French Emperor Napoleon III), Custer applied for a one-year leave of absence from the U.S. Army, which was endorsed by Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. Sheridan and Mrs. Custer disapproved, however, and when his request for leave was opposed by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was against having an American officer commanding foreign troops, Custer refused the alternative of resignation from the Army to take the lucrative post.

In July 1866 he was appointed as a lieutenant colonel in the 7th Cavalry regiment and detached west in 1867 to fight in the American Indian Wars. He was based at Fort Riley in Kansas and took part in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s expedition against the Cheyenne. On June 26, Lt. Lyman Kidder’s party, made up of ten troopers and one scout, were massacred while en route to Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was to deliver dispatches to Custer from General Sherman, but his party was attacked by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne. Later, Custer and a search party found the bodies of Kidder’s patrol.

Following the Hancock campaign, Custer was arrested and suspended at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to August 12, 1868 for being AWOL, after having abandoned his post to see his wife, who was very sick at the time. At the request of Major General Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne, Custer was allowed to return to duty before his one-year term of suspension had expired and joined his regiment to October 7, 1868. He then went on frontier duty, scouting in Kansas and Indian Territory to October 1869. During this period of his military career, Custer became known in some circles as the army’s premier Indian fighter.


In 1875, the Grant administration attempted to buy the Black Hills region from the Sioux, because of the discovery of gold. When the Sioux refused to sell, they were ordered to report to reservations by the end of January, 1876. Mid-winter conditions made it impossible for them to comply. The administration labelled them “hostiles” and tasked the Army with bringing them in.

Custer was to command an expedition planned for the spring, part of a three-pronged campaign. While Custer’s expedition marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near present-day Mandan, North Dakota, troops under Colonel John Gibbon were to march east from Fort Ellis, near present-day Bozeman, Montana while a force under General George Crook was to march north from Fort Fetterman, near present-day Douglas, Wyoming.

On 15th March 1876 Custer was summoned to Washington to testify at congressional hearings. Representative Hiester Clymer’s Committee was investigating alleged corruption involving Secretary of War William W. Belknap, President Grant’s brother Orvil and traders that had been granted monopolies at frontier Army posts. It was alleged that Belknap had been selling these lucrative trading post positions where soldiers were required to make their purchases. Custer himself had experienced first-hand the high prices being charged at Fort Lincoln.

Custer was reluctant to go to Washington because of the imminent military campaign and asked to give his evidence in writing. Clymer was adamant that he should attend in view of the strong nature of Custer’s testimony. He tried “to follow a moderate and prudent course, avoiding prominence.” Despite his care, his testimony was a sensation: Custer was sharply criticized by the Republican press and loudly praised by the Democratic press. After Custer testified on March 29 and April 4, Belknap was impeached and the case sent to the Senate for trial. Custer asked the impeachment managers to release him from further testimony. With the help of a request from his superior, Brigadier General Alfred Terry, Commander of the Department of Dakota, he was excused, but then President Ulysses S. Grant intervened.

The Congressional investigation had created a serious rift with Grant. Custer had written articles published anonymously in The New York Herald that exposed trader post kickback rings and implied that Belknap was behind the rings. Moreover, during the investigation, Custer testified on hearsay evidence that President Grant’s brother Orvil was involved. Grant had also not forgotten that Custer had once arrested his son Fred for drunkenness. Infuriated, Grant decided to retaliate by stripping Custer of his command in the upcoming campaign.

General Terry protested, saying he had no available officers of rank qualified to replace Custer. Both Sheridan and Sherman wanted Custer in command but had to support President Grant. General Sherman, hoping to resolve the issue, advised Custer to meet personally with President Grant before leaving Washington. Three times Custer requested meetings with Grant, but each request was refused.

Custer had had enough and took a train to Chicago on May 2, planning to re-join his regiment. A furious Grant ordered Sheridan to arrest Custer for leaving Washington without permission. On May 3, a member of Sheridan’s staff arrested Custer as he arrived in Chicago. The arrest sparked public outrage. The New York Herald called Grant the “modern Caesar” and asked, “Are officers… to be dragged from railroad trains and ignominiously ordered to stand aside until the whims of the Chief magistrate … are satisfied?”

Grant relented but insisted that Terry personally command the expedition instead of Custer. Terry met Custer in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 6. He later recalled, “(Custer) with tears in his eyes, begged for my aid. How could I resist it?” Terry wrote to Grant attesting to the advantages of Custer’s leading the expedition. Sheridan endorsed his effort, accepting Custer’s “guilt” and suggesting his restraint in future. Grant was under pressure for his treatment of Custer. His administration worried that if the “Sioux campaign” failed without Custer, then Grant would be blamed for ignoring the recommendations of senior Army officers. On May 8, Custer was told that he would lead the expedition, but only under Terry’s direct supervision. Elated, Custer told General Terry’s chief engineer, Captain Ludlow, that he would “cut loose” from Terry and operate independently.

The Ground and the Plains Indians

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Map showing the principle engagements of the Lakota Wars 1854-1890

There is general misconception that the disparate tribes of the Plain Indians, lived in peace and harmony until the white settlers spread from the east. The Cheyenne had migrated west to the Black Hills and Powder River Country before the Lakota and introduced them to horse culture about 1731. By the late 18th century, the growing Lakota tribe had begun expanding its territory west of the Missouri River. They pushed out the Kiowa and formed alliances with the Cheyenne and Arapaho to gain control of the rich buffalo hunting grounds of the northern Great Plains. The Black Hills, located in present-day western South Dakota, became an important source to the Lakota for lodge poles, plant resources and small game. They are considered sacred to the Lakota culture.

In the early 19th century, the Northern Cheyenne became the first to wage tribal-level warfare. Because European Americans used many different names for the Cheyenne, the military may not have realized their unity. The US Army destroyed seven Cheyenne camps before 1876 and three more that year, more than any other tribes suffered in this period. From 1860 onwards, the Cheyenne were a major force in warfare on the Plains. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, signed with the US by Lakota and Northern Cheyenne leaders following Red Cloud’s War, set aside a portion of the Lakota territory as the Great Sioux Reservation. This comprised the western one-half of South Dakota, including the Black Hills region for their exclusive use. It also provided for a large “unceded territory” in Wyoming and Montana, the Powder River Country, as Cheyenne and Lakota hunting grounds. On both the reservation and the unceded territory, white men were forbidden to trespass, except for officials of the U.S. government.

And then in 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills. The US Government was unable or unwilling to stem the growing number of miners and settlers encroaching in the Dakota Territory. The sacred timber of the Lakota tribe was felled in huge numbers for pit props or floated down the Cheyenne River to the Missouri, where new plains settlements needed lumber. The geographic uplift area suggested the potential for mineral resources. When a commission approached the Red Cloud Agency about the possibility of the Lakota’s signing away the Black Hills, Colonel John E. Smith noted that this was “the only portion (of their reservation) worth anything to them”. He concluded that “nothing short of their annihilation will get it from them.”

In 1874, the government had dispatched the Custer Expedition to examine the Black Hills and the Lakota were alarmed at his expedition. Before Custer’s column had returned to Fort Abraham Lincoln, news of their discovery of gold was telegraphed nationally. The presence of valuable mineral resources was confirmed the following year by the Newton–Jenney Geological Expedition. Prospectors, motivated by the economic panic of 1873, began to trickle into the Black Hills in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty. This trickle turned into a flood as thousands of miners invaded the Hills before the gold rush was over. Organized groups came from states as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

In May 1875, Sioux delegations headed by Spotted Tail, Red Cloud, and Lone Horn travelled to Washington, D.C. in a last attempt to persuade President Ulysses S. Grant to honour existing treaties and stem the flow of miners into their territories. They met with Grant, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs Edward Smith. The US leaders said that the Congress wanted to pay the tribes $25,000 for the land and have them relocate to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. The delegates refused to sign a new treaty with these stipulations. Spotted Tail said:

“You speak of another country, but it is not my country; it does not concern me, and I want nothing to do with it. I was not born there … If it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.” Although the chiefs were unsuccessful in finding a peaceful solution, they did not join Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in the warfare that followed.

In the Autumn of 1875, a US commission was sent to each of the Indian agencies to hold councils with the Lakota. They hoped to gain the people’s approval and thereby bring pressure on the Lakota leaders to sign a new treaty. The government’s attempt to secure the Black Hills failed. While the Black Hills were at the centre of the growing crisis, Lakota resentment was growing over expanding US interests in other portions of Lakota territory. For instance, the government proposed that the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad would cross through the last of the great buffalo hunting grounds. In addition, the US Army had carried out several devastating attacks on Cheyenne camps before 1876.

The 7th Cavalry

The 7th Cavalry was constituted just after the American Civil War, with mainly veterans of that war. A large number of the Regiment had served an unhappy four-and-a-half-year tour at Fort Riley in Kansas where they had fought one major engagement and numerous skirmishes with Plains Indians, losing 36 killed and 26 wounded. Six troopers died of drowning and a further 51 died during a cholera epidemic. In 1868 the Regiment under Custer routed a Cheyenne camp on the Washita River that even at that time, was described as a “Massacre of innocent Indians” by the Indian Bureau.

The Regiment’s morale was reduced as half of its companies had recently returned from eighteen months of constabulary duty in the south. About 20% of the troopers had enlisted in the previous seven months (around 139 of 718) and many were immigrants from Ireland, England and Germany. Some were described as being malnourished and in a poor physical condition, lacking in frontier and combat experience. There was a chronic shortage of officers and 22% of the Regiment was detached to other units for other duties. Training in disciplined fire and marksmanship was insufficient as was to be proven at the tributary to the Yellowstone River.


Wiles, Jr. Richard I. “The Battle of the Rosebud: Crook’s Campaign of 1876” Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College.
David, Saul “Military Blunders” Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2012,
Kershaw, Robert (2005). Red Sabbath: The Battle of Little Bighorn. Ian Allan Publishing.

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