George A. Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn

George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer was elevated to the rank of General by a battlefied commission during the Civil War. He had emerged from West Point at the bottom of his class where he had amassed a huge number of demerits. His success in the Civil War might be attributed to his unorthodox methods and the wild charges he led with no concern for the scouting reports, if he ever read them. He had the highest casualty figures among the Union division commanders. However, he himself emerged unscathed. He personally accepted the white flag of surrender from Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.

After the war, he was stripped of his battlefield commission and returned to the regular army as a captain. He was assigned to Texas to restore order, a task he felt was inconsequential. In 1867 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the 7th Cavalry. This began his career as an Indian fighter. He was not well loved, drove both men and horses hard while he would go off, alone or with a small group, to hunt.

In 1867 he was brought up on charges of abandoning his command (to visit his wife) and having (other) deserters shot on the spot, sans hearing. He was convicted, on both counts, and sentenced to a year's suspension from rank and pay, including forfeiture of salary. But 10 months later he was reinstated by General Sheridan to lead the campaign against the Southern Cheyenne in Oklahoma Territory.

It was in Oklahoma that the unusual strategy of a winter campaign would be tried, to catch the Indians when they had become immobile, in their winter camps. The culmination of this campaign was the massacre of Black Kettle's Southern Cheyennes in the Battle of the Washita, November 27, 1868, with 103 Cheyennes dead in the mud and snow. The animals were all slaughtered, at Custer's order. All captured possessions were burned.

Custer's luck had held. He had had no scouting done before the dawn attack and had no knowledge that thousands of other southern plains Indians were in the immediate area. The effect of this was a result, the small detachment led by Major Joel Elliot, which had ridden off in pursuit of escaping Indians, was wiped out. Custer returned to his post without even searching for these men. Their fate was not discovered for two weeks until their remains were chanced upon. However, Custer had a way of making himself a public hero, and therefore difficult to control by his superiors.

The campaign in the northern plains was to be a winter campaign also. However, the weather was so bad that it was greatly delayed. A three pronged "pincer" attack was planned. However the Sioux defeated General Crook's forces in the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17. On the morning of the 18th, the Indians saw the soldiers returning south, leaving the field of battle. Thus one of the columns of the pincers was eliminated.

Custer's luck did not hold this time either. He would not believe his scouts about the size of the camp he was about to attack. He divided his forces to attack from two directions and thus was undermanned in both places. When the young scout, Curley, a Crow, made his way back to the waiting riverboat on the Big Horn River to tell the story of the battle, he was not believed, nor were other Indian versions of the battle. The myth took precedence over the truth. Only recently has his version of the battle been found to contain the basic truths, from new archaeological work on the site.

The man and the battle have attained mythological proportions, in large measure because the white man lost. It represented a denial of the entire premise of Manifest Destiny. The Northern Plains tribes were challenging the entire religious basis for the settlement of the west. Walt Whitman, upon hearing the news, wrote the poem From Far Dakota's Cañons and rushed it to the newspaper office for publication.

In contrast, this battle does not have a large place in the Sioux history, as they see it. In fact, the Indians knew immediately that they would be badly punished for this victory. They immediately broke camp and split up, to make it difficult for the U.S. Cavalry to track them all.

In addition to Walt Whitman's poem, Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote the epic poem Custer.
A second's silence. Custer dropped his head,
His lips slow moving as when prayers are said--
Two words he breathed--"God and Elizabeth,"
Then shook his long locks in the face of death
And with a final gesture turned away
To join that fated few who stood at bay.
Ah! deeds like that the Christ in man reveal
Let Fame descend her throne at Custer's shrine to kneel.

Photographs from the National Archives taken during Custer's campaigns and found in the Gallery of the Frontier and the PBS The West websites.

A panoramic view of the camp at Hidden Wood Creek. By Illingworth, 1874, during Custer's Black Hills expedition.
Our First Grizzly, killed by Gen. Custer and Col. Ludlow." By Illingworth, 1874, during Black Hills expedition.
Column of cavalry, artillery, and wagons, commanded by Gen. George Custer, crossing the plains of Dakota Territory. By W. H. Illingworth, 1874
Hunting and camping party of Custer (standing in center) and invited guests. Fort A. Lincoln on the Little Heart River, Dak. Terr., 1875.
Gen. Crook's headquarters in the field at Whitewood [Dak. Terr.]. On starvation march 1876." Closeup of camp scene shows tents improvised from wagon frames during the Black Hills expedition.
Cinching and loading pack mule with flour during starvation march of Gen. George Crook's expedition into the Black Hills.
Valentine T. McGillycuddy, surgeon and topographer on hunger march with General Crook's expedition to the Black Hills, Dak. Terr., 1876.
Scene of Gen. Custer's last stand, looking in the direction of the ford and the Indian village.
A few more photographs of the battle scene and related portraits are available at the PBS site for the series The West.

Portraits of George A. Custer available from the American Memory Web site of the Library of Congress A story on the newspaper reporter who was with Custer and killed in the battle.

Little Big Horn Associates page on Custer history.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument Crow Agency, Montana
from Outside Magazine

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Pine Ridge Reservation, Yesterday and Today, Gregory Gagnon & Karen White Eyes, Badlands Natural History Association, Interior, SD

Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight, Richard G. Hardorff, Univ. Nebraska Press.

Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight: New Sources of Indian-Military History, Richard G. Hardorff, Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat, Gregory F. Michno, Mountain Press Pub.

The Arikara Narrative of Custer's Campaign and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Orin Grant Libby (Editor), Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Killing Custer, James Welch, Norton. (Video)

Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell, North Point Press. (Video)

Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Reexamined, Richard Allan Fox Jr., W. Raymond Wood, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn, Douglas D. Scott, Richard A. Fox, Jr., Melissa A. Connor, Dick Harmon, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle: An Assessment of the 1984 Field Season/With Map, Douglas D. Scott, Richard A. Fox, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

The Mystery of E Troop: Custer's Gray Horse Company at the Little Bighorn, Gregory Michno, Mountain Press Pub.

They Died With Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Douglas D. Scott, P. Willey, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

I Fought With Custer: The Story of Sergeant Windolph, Last Survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Charles Windolph, Robert Hunt, Univ. Nebraska Press.

A Dispatch to Custer: The Tragedy of Lieutenant Kidder, Randy Johnson & Nancy P. Allen, Mountain Press Pub.

Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed, John Shapley Gray, Robert M. Utley, Univ. Nebraska Press.

Custer and the Great Controversy: The Origin and Development of a Legend, Robert M. Utley, Univ. Nebraska Press.

Court Martial of General George Armstrong Custer, Lawrence A. Frost, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Custer and Company: Walter Camp's Notes on the Custer Fight, Walter Mason Camp & Bruce R. Liddic, Paul Harbaugh, Bruce R. Liddie (Editors) , Univ. Nebraska Press.

Custer in '76 : Walter Camp's Notes on the Custer Fight, Walter Mason Camp, Kenneth Mason (Editor), Univ. Oklahoma Press.

In Custer's Shadow: Major Marcus Reno, Ronald H. Nichols , Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, Robert M. Utley, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Custer and Little Bighorn: The Man, the Mystery, the Myth, Jim Donovan & Richard S. Wheeler, Voyageur Press.

Elizabeth Bacon Custer And the Making of a Myth, Shirley Anne Leckie, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

'Boots and Saddles' Or, Life in Dakota With General Custer, Elizabeth B. Custer, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Following the Guidon into the Indian Wars with General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry, Elizabeth B. Custer, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Tenting on the Plains or General Custer in Kansas and Texas, Elizabeth B. Custer, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

The Civil War Memories of Elizabeth Bacon Custer : Reconstructed from Her Diaries and Notes, Elizabeth B. Custer, Univ. Texas Press.

My Life on the Plains: Or Personal Experiences With Indians, George Armstrong Custer, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Custer and the Cheyenne : George Armstrong Custer's Winter Campaign on the Southern Plains, (Custer Trails Series), Louis Kraft, Upton & Sons

The Custer Album: A Pictorial Biography of General George A. Custer, Lawrence A. Frost, Univ. Oklahoma Press.

The March of the Montana Column: A Prelude to the Custer Disaster (The American Exploration and Travel Series, Vol 32), James J. Bradley & Edgar I. Stewart (Editors), Univ. Oklahoma Press.

Troopers With Custer: Historic Incidents of the Battle of the Little Big Horn (The Custer Library), E. A. Brininstool & J. W. Vaughn, Stackpole Books.

The Story of the Little Big Horn: Custer's Last Fight (The Custer Library), W. A. Graham, Stackpole Books.

The Reno Court of Inquiry: Abstract of the Official Record of Proceedings (The Custer Library), W. A. Graham & Brian C. Pohanka, Stackpole Books.

Legend into History and Did Custer Disobey Orders at the Battle of the Little Big Horn? (The Custer Library), Charles Kuhlman & Brian C. Pohanka, Stackpole Books.

Personal Recollections of a Calvaryman With Custer's Michigan Calvary (Collector's Library of the Civil War), James Harvey Kidd.

The Custer Myth : A Source Book of Custeriana (The Custer Library), W. A. Graham, Stackpole Books.

Look for more books on George Armsrong Custer & the Battle of the Big Horn

In Association with

Return to Day 4
back4 picture

© 1995 - Karen M. Strom