An excerpt from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
Though he had graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point, Colonel George Armstrong Custer had so distinguished himself during the Civil War that he had won the admiration and gratitude of General Philip Sheridan. Since July 1866, when he was appointed to command the Seventh Cavalry in the West, Custer had earned the reputation of a skilled Indian fighter. This reputation was bolstered by a good dose of dash and histrionics — a small band of musicians accompanied his expeditions, and he always had a journalist tagging along to report on his heroic deeds.
Reports had reached military authorities that the Sioux were raiding the Pawnee in the lands south of those guaranteed to the Sioux by the Treaty of Fort Laramie. General Sheridan recommended to Sherman that the army establish a military post on the reservation to watch and control the activities of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Custer was chosen to lead a reconnaissance of the reservation to ascertain where such a fort might be located. Dressed in buckskin, Custer led a force of 1,200 men, including a 16-man band of musicians, along with miners and geologists. The latter were going to ascertain whether there was anything to reports of gold coming out of the Black Hills.
As it turned out, Custer’s party did find gold in the Black Hills, though not much. Western newspapers, however, exaggerated the reports, and soon about 800 miners had entered the Black Hills illegally, while many more demanded that the government open up the land for prospecting. In the summer of 1875, agents of the government met with leaders of the Sioux to offer them money in return for the Black Hills. Though the Black Hills were sacred to the Sioux, several chiefs, including Red Dog and Red Cloud, were in favor of selling the land. But when they were told the sale price — $400,000 a year for mining rights and $6 million to buy the land — they refused to negotiate further. It was not enough money.
The government now decided to play tough — if the Sioux would not sell the Black Hills for the amount offered, they would receive no further subsidies of food. Sioux warriors now began to rally around Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other chiefs who refused to compromise. Sitting Bull was a shaman and had a reputation for unwavering courage. Crazy Horse had been a great warrior since his youth and had fought at the side of Red Cloud in his wars against the forts on the Bozeman Trail. Crazy Horse was determined not to trade his people’s traditions for wealth; he refused to accept any sale of the sacred Black Hills. The 1,200 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who gathered around him agreed.
The Indian Bureau now ordered all the Cheyenne and Sioux to gather at Fort Laramie. It was winter. The snow lay so deep and the cold was so bitter that only one tribe was able to make the journey to the fort. General Sheridan, though, would not take snow or excessive cold as an excuse. Those tribes, he said, who had not come to Fort Laramie were to be considered, henceforth, enemies of the United States of America.
Sheridan planned his campaign against the Sioux. It would include a three-pronged attack that would converge at the junction of the Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. Meanwhile, Sitting Bull had summoned Sioux and Cheyenne warriors to his camp on Rosebud Creek near the Little Bighorn. There, he led them in the Sun Dance, imploring the Great Spirit to send them victory. Sitting Bull himself tore one hundred strips of flesh from his arms and chest and then fell into a trance in which he said he saw soldiers falling into the Sioux camp, like a myriad locusts, from the sky.
Crazy Horse took Sitting Bull’s vision as an omen of victory. At the head of his warriors, he fell on General George Crook’s division as it advanced up Rosebud Creek in Montana on June 16, 1876 to attack Sitting Bull’s camp. The fight between the Sioux and Crook’s soldiers lasted until nightfall, when Crazy Horse abandoned the field. Crook claimed victory, though he turned back, making no further advance against Sitting Bull.
General Alfred Terry, who commanded another of Sheridan’s divisions, had concluded that Sitting Bull was encamped on the Little Bighorn River. Sending Colonel John Gibbon up the Bighorn, he ordered George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry to ride up the Little Bighorn to flank the enemy if Gibbon attacked. On June 25, 1876, Custer spotted the Sioux and Cheyenne village on the Rosebud River, but instead of waiting (as he was ordered) for Gibbon’s larger force, he decided to take the village himself. He did not realize that the village contained 4,000 Indians, over a third of whom were warriors.
Custer divided his own force into three divisions. He sent one division under Captain Frederick Benteen to the northern end of the valley to prevent the Indians from escaping by that route. Custer ordered Marcus Reno and his division of 175 men to cross the river and attack the north end of the village, while he himself, with the remaining 210 men, attacked the southern end.
Reno, crossing the Little Bighorn, soon found himself assailed by 1,000 Sioux warriors. Vastly outnumbered, he ordered his men to fight dismounted while retreating across the river. By the time he had retreated to the bluffs on the east side of the river, Reno had lost half of his men. On the bluffs, Reno held his position against the swarming hosts of warriors until Benteen reinforced him and took command.
While Reno was retreating, Custer moved down the east side of the river. As he prepared to attack the village, an overwhelming force of Indians swarmed over a nearby ridge. Custer tried to dispose his small force for defense, but before he could do so, another wave of warriors under Crazy Horse assailed him. The fight lasted less than an hour.
The next day, scouts from General Terry and Colonel Gibbon discovered the remains of Custer and his men. Their naked and mutilated bodies lay strewn across the field. There lay the dead horses whose bodies Custer and his men had used as shields against the relentless fire of the Indians. In the midst of all this carnage lay the body of Custer himself, stripped naked, but not mutilated. Some say the Indians had refrained from harming the body in respect to so a great a warrior.
The slaughter of Custer’s force at the Little Bighorn seemed to fulfill the promise of Sitting Bull’s vision. But while the Sioux exulted, voices throughout the United States clamored for revenge. In August, Sheridan reinforced General Terry, who set out after the Sioux and Cheyenne. During this campaign, Colonel Nelson A. Miles drove Chief Gall and Sitting Bull into Canada, while throughout the winter of 1876–77, General Crook pursued Crazy Horse. Worn down, his people starving, Crazy Horse surrendered to Crook in May 1877.
As for Sitting Bull — though he was offered a pardon if he agreed to settle on a reservation, he defiantly refused to leave Canada. But four years later, with the buffalo almost gone and his people starving, Sitting Bull returned to the United States, surrendering his gun at Fort Buford. Proud to the end, he said he wanted it to be remembered “that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender his rifle.”
The Clock that Stopped, When the Old Man Died
The well-known American song writer, Henry Clay Work, wrote this oft-performed song, "My Grandfather's Clock," the year of Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn. Here is a 1905 performance of the song, performed by the Edison Quartet and recorded on an Edison Cylinder.