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Battle of Little Bighorn

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Battle of Little Bighorn

The US expanded continually westward during the second half of the 19th-century, but it was not without resistance. The American Indian Sioux tribe populated the western territories, consolidating in a region called the Great Plains. When Lieutenant Colonel Custer, a Union hero from the Civil War, was dispatched with a cavalry force to combat the Sioux at the Little Bighorn River, he was met with the largest United States defeat of the American Indian Wars.

Battle of Little Bighorn Timeline

The brief timeline below details the events leading to the Battle of Little Bighorn. Instead of focusing on tactics and strategies employed over the short battle, this timeline (and article) follows the events which led to the defeat of Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his men.

  • April 29th, 1868: The Treaty of Fort Laramie is signed, creating a reservation territory for the Sioux.

  • June 8th, 1874: Custer is ordered to scout the Black Hills in the Sioux reservation territory, discovering gold.

  • 1875: The US Commissioner of Indian Affairs issues an order requiring all Native Americans to relocate to their assigned reservations by the end of the year.

  • March 1876: Custer is dispatched with the 7th cavalry for Montana.

  • June 25th, 1876: The Battle of Little Bighorn.

Battle of Little Bighorn Location

The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought along the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana, a state in the Northcentral United States. The river itself is 138 miles long, running through ravines and ridges in the Bighorn Mountains and into the open plains. The map below details some of the geography as well as strategic movements of Custer and other US Military men.

Battle of Little Bighorn Map Study Smarter

Reason for Battle of Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought over land. The US government, in its continual westward expansionism, came into conflict with the Native American tribes. Through politics and military action, the United States pressed the tribesmen continually westwards. In the second half of the 19th-century, two Sioux leaders named Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull united thousands of Native Americans in the Great Plains to resist the continued displacement of their people.

Battle of Little Bighorn Sitting Bull Study Smarter

Tensions leading to the Battle of Little Bighorn began as early as 1868 when the Treaty of Laramie designated a reservation territory for the Sioux to live on. Despite the relative peace, an expedition was ordered for military men, led by George Armstrong Custer, to scout the Black Hills region within the newly designated Sioux reservation territory. Defying the treaty, geologists on the expedition found a rich source of gold in the Black Hills. Miners from the United States flooded the reservation territory, heightening tensions.

Who was Lieutenant Colonel Custer?

George Armstrong Custer was a United States military officer who graduated from West Point in 1861. Following graduation, he was promoted within the Union army and given command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Battle of Gettysburg, where he saw victory on the battlefield. Custer kept a strong and steady correspondence with his wife while he was at war, providing historians with much (and often embellished) information on the US officer. He continued to serve in the US military after the end of the Civil War, a symbol of an American war hero in his campaigns in the Indian Wars.

Initially, the US offered to purchase the Black Hills territory from the Sioux people. The native people denied the offer. Pressing the Native Americans even further, the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered that all Native Americans must relocate to their designated reservations. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as well as many other Native Americans, ignored this demand.

What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one.

-Sitting Bull

In March 1876, Lieutenant Colonel Custer was given command of the 7th cavalry, approximately 700 men, and sent to pursue and attack the village of 8,000 Native Americans that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had established in the Great Plains.

Why were the Sioux so discontent with the reservation system?

Native American lifestyle was largely nomadic, placing great importance on traveling animals such as bison for food and fur for clothing. The bison was a creature of great spiritual significance to the Sioux people; forcing Native Americans to settle in a single specific territory was an attack on their lifestyle of nomadic herding and hunting across the Great Plains. The United States realized this, sending hunters to destroy the bison populations to cripple the Native Americans. To the Sioux people, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the repeated defiance of treaties and slaughtering of bison meant war.

Battle of Little Bighorn Summary

The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand or the Battle of Greasy Grass, took place on June 25th, 1876. Just before the battle, it is reported that Sitting Bull conducted a ritual ceremony called the sun dance, in which the Sioux leader saw both a vision of impending battle and victory. Meanwhile, Colonel Custer was closing onto the Little Bighorn River with his 7th cavalry, scouting for the location of the Sioux encampment. He found it.

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Unwilling to lose the element of surprise, Lieutenant Colonel Custer's divided forces closed in on the approximately 8,000 villagers in the Sioux camp. Of the 8,000, roughly 2,000 were men capable of fighting. Colonel Custer's forces were overwhelmed and further divided. Custer was forced to retreat north with a few hundred men, the bulk of his forces in the south of the mountainous region.

I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life.

-George Armstrong Custer

The Native Americans followed Custer's retreat into the north. Skirmishing across hills and ridges, the US military men were whittled down until they made their last stand. About 50 men of the 7th cavalry, still led by Custer himself, defended against hundreds of Native Americans. All of Custer's men were killed, their bodies mutilated. The Sioux were victorious, having successfully defended their people.

Battle of Little Bighorn Significance

A monument now lies where Custer made his last stand, along with a cemetery for the US military men who died in the fighting. Custer's humiliating defeat became embedded in folklore as a heroic war veteran who fought to the last. Immediately following the defeat, US citizens were outraged with the Native Americans.

Battle of Little Bighorn Cemetery Study Smarter

Support poured in for further military action in the western frontier; within a year, the majority of defending Sioux in the Great Plains surrendered to the powerful US military. The Sioux victory at Little Bighorn had been hollow compared to the power of United States expansionism.

Battle of Little Bighorn - Key takeaways

  • Continued displacement of Native Americans and interest in western lands led to many conflicts in the American Indian Wars.
  • The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought in southern Montana in 1876; it was the greatest US defeat of the American Indian Wars.
  • Sioux leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy horse led a group of 8,000 Native Americans along the Little Bighorn River, which was attacked by US Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his 7th cavalry for defying an order to relocate to their assigned reservation.
  • Custer's defeat only inspired more US citizens to back military intervention in continued westward expansion.

Frequently Asked Questions about Battle of Little Bighorn

Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his 7th cavalry of the US military were defeated by Sioux warriors at the Battle of Little Bighorn. 

The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought on and around the Little Bighorn River and its surrounding mountainous terrain in southern Montana. 

Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his 7th cavalry of the US military attacked a Native American village and were defeated by Sioux warriors at the Battle of Little Bighorn. 

The Battle of Little Bighorn took place on June 25th, 1876. 

The Battle of Little Bighorn was caused by Native American resistance to continued US westward expansionism. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, two Sioux leaders, defied US orders to relocate themselves to their designated reservations. 

Final Battle of Little Bighorn Quiz

Question

What was the name of the region that the Sioux people consolidated upon in resistance to continued US expansionism? 

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Answer

The Great Plains

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Question

In what modern-day US state is the Little Bighorn River located (where the Battle of Little Bighorn took place?) 

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Answer

Montana 

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Question

What were the names of the two Sioux leaders in the Battle of Little Bighorn? 

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Answer

Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull 

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Question

What was the name of the US Military leader in the Battle of Little Bighorn? 

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Answer

George Armstrong Custer 

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Question

Why did the US suddenly become interested in the Black Hills territory in the Sioux reservation? 

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Answer

Geologists and miners discovered a rich source of gold in the Black Hills. 

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Question

What was the US government's immediate reaction to the discovery of rich gold deposits in the Sioux controlled Black Hills? 

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Answer

The US government offered to purchase the land from the Sioux. 

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Question

What was NOT another name for the Battle of Little Bighorn? 

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Answer

Battle of Great Plains 

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Question

Why did Custer advance upon the Native American encampment without waiting for support? 

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Answer

He did not want to lose the element of surprise. 

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Question

How did the Battle of Little Bighorn end? 

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Answer

Custer was defeated and killed in a last stand with 50 of his men. 

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Question

In the broader scope of the American Indian Wars, what was the significance of the Sioux victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn?

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Answer

The Sioux victory only inspired more US citizens to support further military intervention in US westward expansionism, leading to the total defeat of the Sioux people. 

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