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Battlefield: Little Bighorn

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s defeat of the flamboyant Colonel George Custer at the Little Bighorn has become one of the most famous and controversial episodes in American military victory. Julian Humphrys tells the story…
LAST ONES STANDING A watercolour by Kicking Bear, which depicts a fallen Custer and the some of the surviving Native Americans

People in Washington were getting ready for a party. It was 4 July 1876 – the centenary of the birth of the USA – but news arrived that day that brought the celebrations to a halt. The US Army had suffered a devastating defeat in Montana at the hands of the Lakota Sioux and their Cheyenne allies. The Lakota called their victory the Battle of the Greasy Grass, but it would go down in history as the Battle of the Little Bighorn – or simply Custer’s Last Stand.

Faced with a volatile situation following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the US authorities decided to force the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne to the reservations set aside for them. Colonel John Gibbon would head east from Fort Ellis in Montana, General George Crook would strike north from Fort Fetterman, Wyoming and General Alfred Terry would head west along the Yellowstone River from Fort Abraham in Dakota. The 7th Cavalry, commanded by Lt Col George Armstrong Custer, made up the bulk of Terry’s 900 men.

The government troops only had a sketchy idea of where their enemies were and had also underestimated their strength, which they reckoned to be no more than 1,000 warriors. But they had failed to take into account the fact that large numbers of warriors had left the reservations and joined Sitting Bull and his supporters. In fact, their main concern was that their enemies would scatter before they could be dealt with. But, encouraged by one of Sitting Bull’s visions that foretold the defeat of the white man, the Lakota were ready for a fight. On 17 June, Crook’s men were resting on the banks of Rosebud Creek on the present-day border between Wyoming and Montana when they were suddenly attacked by the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse with nearly 1,000 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. The fighting went on for some six hours and both sides suffered around 100 casualties before the natives drew off. Crook claimed a victory but he fell back and took no further part.

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The November 2016 issue of History Revealed.