The Little Bighorn: Custer’s Last Stand
Ah, the quintessential Native American victory, Custer’s Last Stand. Occurring just a year prior to the flight of the Nez Perce, the Great Sioux War of 1876 was largely fought over greed. Eastern Montana and the Dakota’s are hopelessly flat, except for the Black Hills region that was loaded with gold and happened to belong to the natives.
When negotiations to buy the land failed, the U.S. went to war with several tribes, including the Lakota, Cheyanne, and Dakota. General Custer was on campaign with twelve companies of troops and guided by Indian scouts when they spotted a massive Indian camp in the distance.
The Camp was a Lakota camp run by Sitting Bull but was bolstered in number by other tribes joining in religious festivals and preparing for the coming war. Some say Custer’s scouts urged him to attack, other say Custer wanted glory and chose to attack even after his scouts urged him not to. Custer probably had confidence in his men and a desire to pin the Indians down into one area to win one large battle before the tribes scattered away.
Custer split his army into two wide flanking columns of three companies and a central attack column of five companies under Custer’s personal command. Again with such a studied and infamous encounter we have conflicting views such as if Sitting Bull and the camp knew that Custer was coming and planned the decisive counter, but more than likely it was a well-handled surprise.
The central column under Major Reno was quickly checked and the attack stalled. Reno was known to be an alcoholic and may have also been rattled when his personal scout was shot in the head right in front of him, and the combination of the two led to a disastrous retreat and last stand on a hill.
The southern column under Major Benteen was forced to march north to reinforce Reno’s survivors, leaving Custer to fend for himself. Custer was commanding the wide flanking column to the north that was supposed to be the crushing blow to the village while Reno’s attack kept the Native warriors busy.
Without Reno and Benteen’s support, the remaining warriors in the camp were able to send Custer’s force back towards the ridges they had attacked from. Meanwhile, the famous Crazy Horse planned on giving Custer a taste of his own medicine by riding on a wide flanking attack. By the time Custer’s men reset their positions on the ridge they were hit hard by Crazy Horse and surrounded. They died to the last man, each soldier desperately trying to build their own fortresses out of dead horses and loose rock.
The battle is a great example of overconfidence but also a show of Native American tactics. One key aspect of the battle was that the natives had recently purchased hundreds of brand new repeating rifles. Custer’s army mainly had older breech-loading weapons, meaning that U.S. troops were actually fighting at a technological disadvantage, a rare occurrence in the Indian wars. The repulsion of Reno’s first attack as well as the defense of the village in the face of Custer’s surprise attack and Crazy Horse’s attack were all great examples of battlefield tactics.