25 June 1876

Among the modern legends generated by war, few are more compelling than the story of Custer’s ‘Last Stand’ in the Indian wars of the 1870s. Today, visitors to the battlefield are shown Last Stand Hill.

There are heroic paintings of George Armstrong Custer, surrounded by American Indians, battling vainly to the last bullet. The reality, however, bore little resemblance to the legend. The battle’s outcome was the product of Custer’s hubris – he thought of himself as the greatest Indian-fighter of his day – and of his sheer tactical incompetence. Above all it was testament to the cunning and courage of the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, among the last American Indians to bend the knee, and of their remarkable commander, Chief Sitting Bull.

This photograph of the Hunkpapa Lakota (Teton Sioux) chief Sitting Bull was taken in 1885, nine years after the battle at the Little Big Horn. By this time he had been forced to live on a reservation, a fate he had resisted in the 1870s.

The battle came at a point when the government of President Ulysses Grant had decided no longer to tolerate the alleged threat posed by Indian tribes to white settlers and prospectors in the distant Black Hills of Dakota. These tribes, which so far had eluded the policy of placing them on permanent reservations, included the many branches of the Lakota people (the Teton Sioux) and of the Cheyenne.

They were loosely grouped under the leadership of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader, Sitting Bull. The government considered any group refusing to enter the reservations to be in a state of war with the United States. Sitting Bull responded by declaring that he, too, was at war. When the 7th US Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Custer (though formally commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Terry), entered the Black Hills territory in June 1876, conflict was almost certainly unavoidable.

Thousands of his fellow warriors and their families rallied to Sitting Bull. A few weeks before Custer’s arrival, Sitting Bull had undertaken the ritual mutilation of his arms with an awl to appease the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka). He had then performed the Sun Dance for two days and was visited by a vision of white soldiers ‘falling like grasshoppers’.

The augury seemed good, and although Sitting Bull preferred to avoid open conflict by regularly moving his growing tepee camp, his people interpreted the vision as evidence that the American soldiers could be beaten. By the time the Lakota and Cheyenne had set up a camp of hundreds of tents on the banks of the Little Big Horn tributary, crowded with more than 8,000 of their people and 20,000 horses, the young warriors were eager for battle. Some had already attacked another army column under General George Crook near the Rosebud River, but had been driven off.

Had Custer known of this encounter, it might have warned him of the size of Sitting Bull’s forces, and of their willingness to engage in open battle rather than withdraw, as was often the case.

His regiment arrived in the valley of the Little Big Horn on the morning of 25 June hoping to find Sitting Bull’s camp.

An 1889 lithograph depicts Custer’s last stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June 1876. Though a romanticized view of the conflict, the narrow defiles from which the concealed warriors moved to attack the US cavalrymen can be clearly seen in the background.

The topography, of bluffs and hills shielded by forest, made it difficult to see anything ahead, so Custer took the unusual step of dividing his small regiment of around 550 troopers. Major Marcus Reno was sent to scout the south bank of the river, while Custer proceeded along the north face of the valley. Captain Frederick Benteen was detailed to go north to search out the Indian camp and was soon lost to view.

The division of his force sealed Custer’s fate. Reno led his men to a grassy slope from which some of Sitting Bull’s camp (though not its vast extent) was visible. He ordered his troop to charge, only to find, as his tired cavalrymen stirred up a heavy dust, that there were hundreds of warriors forming in front of him. The troop halted, dismounted and tried to establish a firing line, but the Lakota, angered by the unprovoked attack, swept on, with perhaps as many as 800–900 warriors against Reno’s 160 troopers and scouts.

The US cavalry were armed with the powerful Springfield carbine, but this was a single-shot firearm. Many of Sitting Bull’s men (and women) carried the Winchester repeater, which was fired with little accuracy, but which could overwhelm an enemy unit.

Reno ordered a ramshackle retreat to a small wood. While the frenzy of the Lakota was temporarily appeased as they killed the wounded, then stripped and mutilated the bodies, Reno’s survivors attempted an escape from the wood. More were caught and killed on the way but the few survivors met up with Benteen’s troops returning with Custer’s pack train.

Custer made his way with the remaining troopers, some 215 men, along a ridge beside the Little Big Horn. He decided to divide his force once again, leaving one group on a small hill to await Benteen’s expected arrival, and leading the rest of his troop towards the river to find a ford across it. If Custer had a plan at all, it is most likely that he hoped to seize women and children in the camp and use them as hostages. He still had little idea of the size of the enemy he was facing.

This was largely because the ground he had chosen was split with small, bush-covered gullies and ravines. The Lakota and Cheyenne were adept at concealment in their familiar landscape, and filed silently and almost invisibly into the network of gullies. As many as 2,000 remained hidden from the cavalry as they slowly snaked their way towards the group Custer had stationed on top of a hill.

The deception was devastating for the morale of the frightened men waiting on the hillside. Suddenly the thousands of concealed warriors, led by Yellow Nose and Lame White Man, leapt out, firing rifles and shooting arrows in a deadly, smoke-screened hail. What followed was short, sharp and bloody. ‘The firing was quick, quick,’ one Cheyenne witness later recalled; ‘Pop – pop – pop, very fast.’ The Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, found a way through a narrow defile behind the troopers and attacked them from the rear. Around twenty soldiers managed to escape to join Custer further along the small escarpment, now known as Battle Ridge. Those still alive were then rushed by the oncoming warriors and killed to a man.

How Custer reacted to the massacre can never be known. His remaining men gathered on what is now Last Stand Hill. More Lakota and Cheyenne crept forward under the cover of the ravines until, as before, they rose like an army of dragon’s teeth from the ground. Some forty troopers tried to make a break for freedom down towards the river but they were overwhelmed and annihilated. Others tried to hide in a large ravine, where they were battered to death or shot. Custer stayed at the hill and took a bullet just below the heart.

The evidence of a second wound through his temple suggests that his brother Tom may have given him the coup de grâce. Then Tom, too, joined the dead. Not one soldier survived. Custer’s naked body had awls jammed into his ears, to make him hear better, according to the Lakota account; an arrow was used to pierce his penis.

How many of Sitting Bull’s men died is not known with any precision. The following night and day his warriors tried to annihilate the 400 troopers still commanded by Benteen and Reno, but most survived behind a makeshift barricade on top of a ridge above the river. On 26 July, Sitting Bull struck his camp and moved on.

The defeat of Custer shocked American opinion, not only because of the loss of a legendary ‘Indian-fighter’, but because it was the centenary year of American independence, when defeat by indigenous peoples was no longer thought possible.

The army pursued the Lakota and Cheyenne to force them into reservations. Sitting Bull escaped to Canada but returned and surrendered in 1881. He was shot while resisting arrest in November 1890. The victory at Little Big Horn had a symbolic significance for both sides. Custer’s Last Stand was treated as an iconic act of American heroism. Sitting Bull’s victory came to be seen as a final monument to the struggle of American Indians protecting their vanishing birthright.