In late 1875, thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians left their reservations, outraged over the intrusion of whites into their sacred lands in the Black Hills, despite treaties to the contrary. They gathered in Montana with Sioux Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, to fight for their lands.
To force this army back to their reservations, the US Army dispatched three columns to attack – including the Seventh Cavalry led by Lt. Colonel George Custer.
On the morning of June 25th, 1876, Custer’s scouts told him that a huge Indian village lay near the Little Big Horn River. He dismissed their estimates of thousands of Indians as an exaggeration, and attacked.
As the 7th Cavalry entered the valley, Custer divided the regiment of about 600 men into four battalions, keeping 215 under his own command. They were slaughtered. The 7th Cavalry suffered 52 percent casualties, and every single soldier in the companies with Custer was killed.
Yet Little Bighorn – the moment of decisive Indian victory – was also their downfall. Outraged over the death of a Civil War hero, the nation demanded harsh retribution; the Black Hills were redrawn on the map as outside the reservations, and open to white settlement. And within a year, the Sioux nation was completely defeated.
How does history view Custer’s actions in that tragic battle? Historians differ – as do presidents.
President Grant bluntly criticized Custer’s actions; quoted in the New York Herald on September 2, 1876, Grant said, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.”
Another president – one with far less military experience – was a staunch supporter. In a letter from the White House, he wrote:
“His image has been blurred and distorted over time but in truth he was a brilliant officer and not at all the boastful show-off his detractors would have us believe. And he certainly wasn’t on a glory ride on that fateful day. He was carrying out his orders to the letter. It isn’t well known that a brother, a nephew, and his brother-in-law died with him in that last battle.”
Five Custers died that day. Here you can see a letter penned by Lt. Colonel George Custer lobbying for a position for his brother “Bos” – a position that would cost his brother his life as well…