A Military Debacle

 G.A. Custer, Lieutenant Colonel Seventh Cavalry, is young, very brave, even to rashness, a good trait for a cavalry officer–William T. Sherman

On June 25, 1876, while leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes, he and all his regiment—which included two of his brothers—were killed. The battle is popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer and his regiment was defeated so decisively at the little bighorn that is has overshadowed all his prior achievements.

George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars.  Armstrong Custer’s first charge as a General, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, was a disaster, and he barely managed to escape with his hide (though not his horse). His final charge, against a large Plains Indian village on the banks of a winding river, was also calamitous. Between the two, he led a charmed life, attributable by some to chance – “Custer’s luck,” as he and both friends and enemies termed it — and by others to good fortune’s true components: preparation, analysis, confidence, and decisive action.

During the Civil War, Custer was frequently termed “The Boy General” in the press, reflecting his promotion to brigadier general at the age of 23.

During his years on the Great Plains in the American Indian Wars, his troopers often referred to him with grudging admiration as “Iron Butt” and “Hard Ass” for his physical stamina in the saddle and his strict discipline, as well as with the more derisive “Ringlets” for his vanity about his appearance in general and his long, curling blond hair.

His detractors claimed that he loved nothing better than a charge. They were right. They also accused him of recklessness, of acting without thought or deliberation. They were wrong about that. Custer had an uncanny ability to process what he saw, what he heard, and what he knew — the intelligence available in a situation — and then make a considered decision in an incredibly short amount of time. “He was certainly the model of a light cavalry officer,” said one of General Wesley Merritt’s staff members, “quick in observation, clear in judgement, and resolute and determined in execution.” Time and again in the last two years of the Civil War, after his promotion to Brigadier General, his subordinate officers observed ” the Boy General” decide on a split-second course of action that turned out to be the right thing to do at the time. It did not take more than a charge or two to make a believer out of anyone. By war’s end, only a few skeptics remained, and they tended to be resentful officers who were older and less successful. The men who served under Custer swore by him and claimed that they would follow him into hell itself.

After the Civil War, Custer remained a major general in the United States Volunteers until they were mustered out in February 1866. He reverted to his permanent rank of captain and was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the 7th Cavalry Regiment in July 1866. He was dispatched to the west in 1867 to fight in the American Indian Wars. On June 25, 1876, while leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes, he and all his regiment—which included two of his brothers—were killed. The battle is popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer and his regiment were defeated so decisively at the Little Bighorn that it has overshadowed all his prior achievements.

On July 28, 1866, Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas. He served on frontier duty at Fort Riley from October 18 to March 26, and scouted in Kansas and Colorado to July 28. 1867. He took part in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s expedition against the Cheyenne. On June 26, Lt. Lyman Kidder’s party, made up of ten troopers and one scout, were massacred while en route to Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was to deliver dispatches to Custer from General Sherman, but his party was attacked by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne (see Kidder massacre). Days later, Custer and a search party found the bodies of Kidder’s patrol.

Following the Hancock campaign, Custer was arrested and suspended at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to August 12, 1868 for being AWOL, after having abandoned his post to see his wife. At the request of Major General Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne, Custer could return to duty before his one-year term of suspension had expired and joined his regiment to October 7, 1868. He then went on frontier duty, scouting in Kansas and Indian Territory to October 1869.

Under Sheridan’s orders, Custer took part in establishing Camp Supply in Indian Territory in early November 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign. On November 27, 1868, Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment in an attack on the Cheyenne encampment of Chief Black Kettle — the Battle of Washita River. Custer reported killing 103 warriors and some women and children; 53 women and children were taken as prisoners. Estimates by the Cheyenne of their casualties were substantially lower (11 warriors plus 19 women and children). Custer had his men shoot most of the 875 Indian ponies they had captured. The Battle of Washita River was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Southern Plains War, and it helped force a significant portion of the Southern Cheyenne onto a U.S.-assigned reservation.

In 1873, Custer was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Lakota. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment clashed for the first time with the Lakota. One man on each side was killed. In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custer’s announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. Among the towns that immediately grew up was Deadwood, South Dakota, notorious for lawlessness.

Grant, Belknap and politics

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Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, 7th U.S. Cavalry, ca. 1875

The expedition against the Sioux was originally scheduled to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln on April 6, 1876, but on March 15 Custer was summoned to Washington to testify at congressional hearings. These concerned the corruption scandal involving U.S. Secretary of War William W. Belknap (who had resigned March 2), President Grant’s brother Orville, and traders at Army posts in Indian Country, who were charging troops double what they would have paid for the same goods in Bismarck, North Dakota. (Soldiers were required by regulations to purchase goods from the traders.) Belknap had been selling trading post positions.

After Custer testified on March 29 and April 4 before the Clymer Committee, Belknap was impeached and sent to the Senate for trial. Custer left Washington on April 20, but instead of immediately returning to Fort Lincoln, he visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and planned to travel to New York City to meet with publishers. Custer’s testimony was a sensation, both because of what he said and because he was the one saying it. Custer was sharply criticized by the Republican press and praised by Democratic editors.

President Grant held up Custer’s departure from Washington. Grant and Custer did not get along. Earlier, Custer had arrested Grant’s son, Fred Grant, for drunkenness. Now, Custer was accusing Grant’s brother and Secretary of War of corruption. Additionally, Custer was writing magazine articles criticizing Grant’s peace policy towards the Indians.

Brigadier General Alfred Terry determined there were no available officers of rank to take command, but Sherman refused to intercede. Stunned that he would not be in command, Custer approached the impeachment managers and secured his release. General Sherman advised Custer not to leave Washington before meeting personally with President Grant. Three times Custer requested meetings with Grant, but was always turned down.

Custer gave up and took a train to Chicago on May 2, planning to rejoin his regiment.  On May 3, a member of Sheridan’s staff greeted Custer in Chicago. President Grant had ordered Custer’s arrest for leaving Washington without permission. President Grant had designated General Terry to command the expedition in Custer’s place. Custer took a train to St. Paul to meet General Terry.

Brigadier General Terry met Custer in Fort Snelling, Minnesota on May 6. He later recalled, “(Custer) with tears in his eyes, begged for my aid. How could I resist it?” Terry wrote to Grant attesting to the advantages of Custer’s leading the expedition. Sheridan endorsed his effort, accepting Custer’s “guilt” and suggesting his restraint in future.

Grant was already under pressure for his treatment of Custer. His administration worried that if the “Sioux campaign” failed without Custer, then Grant would be blamed for ignoring the recommendations of senior Army officers. On May 8, Custer was informed at Fort Snelling that he was to lead the 7th Cavalry, but under Terry’s direct supervision.

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President Ulysses S. Grant

 

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Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer’s mentor

Plan

By the time of Custer’s Black Hills expedition in 1874, the level of conflict and tension between the U.S. and many of the Plains Indians tribes (including the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne) had become exceedingly high. Americans continually broke treaty agreements and advanced further westward, resulting in violence and acts of depredation by both sides. To take possession of the Black Hills (and thus the gold deposits), and to stop Indian attacks, the U.S. decided to corral all remaining free Plains Indians. The Grant government set a deadline of January 31, 1876 for all Lakota and Arapaho wintering in the “unceded territory” to report to their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered “hostile”.

 Sheridan to Terry & Crook at Omaha HQ: order for operations against hostiles on Feb 8. 1876. Before leaving Fort Snelling, Custer spoke to General Terry’s chief engineer, Captain Ludlow, saying he would “cut loose” from Terry and operate independently from him. Several companies of infantry will accompany the 7th to man the supply depots while Custer searched for the enemy from his base up the Yellowstone River. Steamers would freight supplies up the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Dakota Column comprised 12 companies of 7th Cavalry, 3 infantry companies & battery of Gatling Guns.

The Campaign

Sioux War Country 1876; The Little Bighorn Campaign 1876; Area in Detail; The Battlefield 25 June 1876.

 

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Area Detail

 

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June 25, 1876

Battle of the Little Bighorn

Montana Column from Fort Ellis– eastwards in western Montana Territory; Colonel John Gibbon; 5 companies of infantry & 4 cavalry troops under Major James Brisbin, 400 men, 2 Gatling Guns. 

At the outset of the campaign, Terry had ordered Gibbon’s smaller command to move down the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn River, prevent any Indians from getting away to the north, and strike a hostile camp only if the opportunity arose. His Montana column had been encamped some twenty miles east of the mouth of the Bighorn since April 20. The next day a dispatch from Terry ordered him to stay put until the weather delayed Dakota column got underway.

May 16: Lieutenant James Bradley spotted  an immense Lakota camp on Rosebud Creek. Upon hearing Bradley’s report, Gibbon ordered his command on May 17 to cross the Yellowstone and strike at the encampment but the fast flowing river prevented a surprise attack. 

Gibbon moved his command downstream to the mouth of the Rosebud  on May 21, four days after the failed river crossing in response to his scout’s report of a large body of Indians headed that way. He found no Indians but established a new camp there. 

On May 27, Bradley reported that the village he had espied eleven days earlier had now grown to almost five hundred lodges and moved from the Tongue River to Rosebud, the next waterway to the west. Gibbon did not take any action but wrote to Terry about the sighting of a large enemy village. The report was delivered to Terry by courier a week later. 

On May 28 pursuant to fresh orders from Terry to move east toward the Little Missouri, he began marching downriver Yellowstone to join the Dakota column against the hostiles then believed to be in the vicinity. After more tan 5 weeks on the Yellowstone, Gibbon’s command of almost 500 men had accomplished little. Indians seemed indifferent to the soldiers in the north.

Wyoming Column from Fort Fetterman-north from Wyoming, Brigadier General George

March 1. two companies of infantry & ten troops of cavalry under Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds (55 years age).

March 8: wagon train sent back with all tents and bedding to increase mobility.

March 16-Crook splits command into Reynolds with strike force of 400 men and remained behind with 4 companies.

Cheyenne band of 50 lodges led by Old Bear attacked Crook’s column which blundered and returned to Fort Fetterman.

June 11: Crook reached Goose Creek to establish a base camp there.

June 16: Crook marches out with four days rations leaving wagon train and pack train behind under guard to increase mobility. (1300 men, including 175 infantrymen mounted on green wagon mules). Spots the Indian camp which shifted from Rosebud to Little Big Horn on June 15.

On the afternoon of June 16, two Cheyenne hunting parties stalking a herd of buffalo came upon Crook’s Wyoming column. The chiefs of all the tribal circles met in one large council and after a discussion advised prudence. A course of action was decided upon the insistence of young warriors. The Indian force comprised at least seven hundred warriors and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse rode with them. But Sitting Bull would not participate in the battle, and for good reason.

Battle of Rosebud is a debacle for Crook, and he turns back to Goose Creek. Crook loses strategically for he retreats the next day and abandons the mission. No attempt made to communicate with Terry or Gibbon though he notifies Sheridan on June 19. Intelligence reached Terry on July 9.

Dakota Column from Fort Abraham Lincoln: west from Dakota Territory.

May 17: Custer & 7th Cavalry + 1 infantry battalion & artillery departed from Fort Abraham Lincoln, part of a larger army force planning to round up remaining free Indians.

June 7: reached Powder River,a few miles below the Yellowstone. Three scouts from Gibbon’s command  rode up and delivered the news that the Indians were in considerable force south of Yellowstone. Supplies received at Stanley’s Stockade (Yellowstone & Glendive Creek) by river steamers.

Meanwhile, in the spring and summer of 1876, the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull had called together the largest ever gathering of Plains Indians at Ash Creek, Montana (later moved to the Little Bighorn River) to discuss what to do about the whites. It was this united encampment of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians that the 7th met at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

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About June 15, Reno, while on a scout, discovered the trail of a large village on the Rosebud River.

On June 22, Custer’s entire regiment was detached to follow this trail.

On June 25, some of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts identified what they claimed was a large Indian encampment in the valley near the Little Bighorn River. Custer had first intended to attack the Indian village the next day, but since his presence was known, he decided to attack immediately and divided his forces into three battalions:

  • One led by Major Marcus Reno, sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment.
  • One by Captain Frederick Benteen sent south and west to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians.
  • One by himself; rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs and planning to circle around and attack from the north.

Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train.

Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village but halted some 500–600 yards short of the camp, and had his men dismount and form a skirmish line. They were soon overcome by mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who counterattacked en masse against Reno’s exposed left flank, forcing Reno and his men to take cover in the trees along the river. Eventually, however, this position became untenable, and the troopers were forced into a bloody retreat up onto the bluffs above the river, where they made their own stand. This, the opening action of the battle, cost Reno a quarter of his command.

Custer may have seen Reno stop and form a skirmish line as he (Custer) led his command to the northern end of the main encampment, where he apparently planned to sandwich the Indians between his attacking troopers and Reno’s command in a “hammer and anvil” maneuver. According to Grinnell’s account, based on the testimony of the Cheyenne warriors who survived the fight, at least part of Custer’s command attempted to ford the river at the north end of the camp but were driven off by stiff resistance from Indian sharpshooters firing from the brush along the west bank of the river. From that point, the soldiers were pursued by hundreds of warriors onto a ridge north of the encampment.

Custer and his command were prevented from digging in by Crazy Horse, however, whose warriors had outflanked him and were now to his north, at the crest of the ridge. Traditional white accounts attribute to Gall the attack that drove Custer up onto the ridge, but Indian witnesses have disputed that account.

“Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”—Famous words reportedly said by General Custer shortly before being killed.

For a time, Custer’s men appear to have been deployed by company, in standard cavalry fighting formation—the skirmish line, with every fourth man holding the horses, though this arrangement would have robbed Custer of a quarter of his firepower. Worse, as the fight intensified, many soldiers could have taken to holding their own horses or hobbling them, further reducing the 7th’s effective fire.

When Crazy Horse and White Bull mounted the charge that broke through the center of Custer’s lines, pandemonium may have broken out among the soldiers of Calhoun’s command, though Myles Keogh’s men seem to have fought and died where they stood. According to some Lakota accounts, many of the panicking soldiers threw down their weapons and either rode or ran towards the knoll where Custer, the other officers, and about 40 men were making a stand. Along the way, the warriors rode them down, counting coup by striking the fleeing troopers with their quirts or lances.

Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota-Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors.  Historian Gregory Michno settles on a low number around 1000, based on contemporary Lakota testimony, but other sources place the number at 1800 or 2000, especially in the works by Utley and Fox. The 1800–2000 figure is substantially lower than the higher numbers of 3000 or more postulated by Ambrose, Gray, Scott, and others.

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As the troopers were cut down, the native warriors stripped the dead of their firearms and ammunition, with the result that the return fire from the cavalry steadily decreased, while the fire from the Indians constantly increased. The surviving troopers apparently shot their remaining horses to use as breastworks for a final stand on the knoll at the north end of the ridge. The warriors closed in for the final attack and killed every man in Custer’s command. As a result, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.

Death

Some eyewitness reports state that Custer was not identified until after his death by the Native Americans who killed him. Several individuals claimed personal responsibility for the killing, including White Bull of the Miniconjous, Rain-in-the-Face, Flat Lip, and Brave Bear. In June 2005, at a public meeting, the Northern Cheyenne broke almost 130 years of silence about the battle. Storytellers said that according to their oral tradition, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Northern Cheyenne heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud, struck the final blow against Custer, which knocked him off his horse before he died.

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A contrasting version of Custer’s death is suggested by the testimony of an Oglala named Joseph White Cow Bull, according to novelist and Custer biographer Evan Connell, who relates that Joseph White Bull stated he had shot a rider wearing a buckskin jacket and big hat at the riverside when the soldiers first approached the village from the east. The initial force facing the soldiers, according to this version, was quite small (possibly as few as four warriors) yet challenged Custer’s command. The rider who was hit was mounted next to a rider who bore a flag and had shouted orders that prompted the soldiers to attack, but when the buckskin-clad rider fell off his horse after being shot, many of the attackers reined up. The allegation that the buckskin-clad officer was Custer, if accurate, might explain the supposed rapid disintegration of Custer’s forces. However, several other officers of the Seventh, including William Cooke and Tom Custer, were also dressed in buckskin on the day of the battle, and the fact that each of the non-mutilation wounds to George Custer’s body (a bullet wound below the heart and a shot to the left temple) would have been instantly fatal casts doubt on his being wounded or killed at the ford, more than a mile from where his body was found. The circumstances are, however, consistent with David Humphreys Miller’s suggestion that Custer’s attendants would not have left his dead body behind to be desecrated.

During the 1920s, two elderly Cheyenne women spoke briefly with oral historians about their having recognized Custer’s body on the battlefield and had stopped a Sioux warrior from desecrating the body. The women were relatives of Mo-nah-se-tah’s, who was alleged to have been Custer’s one-time lover. In the Cheyenne culture of the time, such a relationship was considered a marriage. The women allegedly told the warrior: “Stop, he is a relative of ours,” and then shooed him away. The two women then shoved their sewing awls into his ears to permit Custer’s corpse to “hear better in the afterlife” because he had broken his promise to Stone Forehead never to fight against Native Americans again.

When the main column under General Terry arrived two days later, the army found most of the soldiers’ corpses stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Custer’s body had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one just below the heart. Capt. Benteen, who inspected the body, stated that in his opinion the fatal injuries had not been the result of .45 caliber ammunition, which implies the bullet holes had been caused by ranged rifle fire.

Following the recovery of their remains, Custer’s body and that of his brother Tom were buried on the battlefield, side-by-side in a shallow grave, after being covered by pieces of tent canvas and blankets. One year later, Custer’s remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back east for re internment in more formal burials. Custer was buried again with full military honors at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877. The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.

Criticism and controversy

President Grant, a highly successful general, bluntly criticized Custer’s actions in the battle of the Little Bighorn. Quoted in the New York Herald on September 2, 1876, Grant said, “I regard Custer’s Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.”

 General Nelson Miles (who inherited Custer’s mantle of famed Indian fighter) and others praised him as a fallen hero betrayed by the incompetence of subordinate officers. Miles noted the difficulty of winning a fight “with seven-twelfths of the command remaining out of the engagement when within sound of his rifle shots.

The controversy over blame for the disaster at Little Bighorn continues to this day. Major Marcus Reno’s failure to press his attack on the south end of the Lakota/Cheyenne village and his flight to the timber along the river, after a single casualty, have been cited as a causal factor in the destruction of Custer’s battalion, as has Captain Frederick Benteen’s allegedly tardy arrival on the field, and the failure of the two officers’ combined forces to move toward the relief of Custer.

When writing about Custer, neutral ground is elusive. What should Custer have done at any of the critical junctures that rapidly presented themselves, each now the subject of endless speculation and rumination? There will always be a variety of opinions based upon what Custer knew, what he did not know, and what he could not have known…”—from Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer by Louise Barnett.

General Phillip Sheridan and other critics have asserted several tactical errors in Custer’s final military actions.  While camped at Powder River, Custer refused the support offered by General Terry on June 21, of an additional four companies of the Second Cavalry. Custer stated that he “could whip any Indian village on the Plains” with his own regiment, and that extra troops would simply be a burden. At the same time, he left behind at the steamer Far West, on the Yellowstone, a battery of Gatling guns, knowing he was facing superior numbers. Before leaving the camp all the troops, including the officers, also boxed their sabers and sent them back with the wagons.

On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command, despite being faced with vastly superior numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne. The refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.

Custer’s defenders, however, including historian Charles K. Hofling, have asserted that Gatling guns would have been slow and cumbersome as the troops crossed the rough country between the Yellowstone and the Little Bighorn. Custer rated speed in gaining the battlefield as essential and more important. The additional firepower had the potential of turning the tide of the fight, given the Indians’ propensity for withdrawing in the face of new military technology. Other Custer supporters have claimed that splitting the forces was a standard tactic, to demoralize the enemy with the appearance of the cavalry in different places all at once, especially when a contingent threatened the line of retreat.

 

 

Posthumous legacy

Custer Monument

Custer monument in Ohio

After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that he had sought on the battlefield. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and exemplary gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, who had accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, did much to advance this view with the publication of several books about her late husband:

Boots and Saddles,

Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885),

Tenting on the Plains (1887), and

Following the Guidon (1891).

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an adoring (and often erroneous) poem.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s lavish praise pleased Custer’s widow.

Connell concludes: “These days it is stylish to denigrate the general, whose stock sells for nothing.  Nineteenth-century Americans thought differently. At that time, he was a cavalier without fear and beyond reproach.”

 

Biography

Family, ancestry and early life

From the beginning of his life, Custer never lacked for confidence. Its source, as with anyone, can only be guessed at–what a man is born with, what he develops, what he is accorded– but a good portion of Custer’s share of that attribute likely was his upbringing. A middle child of a large family, he was loved, encouraged, and admired by his parents and all his siblings.

Custer’s ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, immigrated to North America around 1693 from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatine refugees whose passage was arranged by the English government to gain settlers. According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout mother’s hope that her son might join the clergy.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882). He had two younger brothers, Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, who both died with him on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. His other full siblings were the family’s youngest child, Margaret Custer, and Nevin Custer, who suffered from asthma and rheumatism. Custer also had several older half-siblings. Throughout his life Custer was known by a variety of nicknames. He was called “Autie” (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name) and Armstrong.

 

USMA Cadet George Armstrong 'Autie' Custer, ca. 1859

USMA Cadet George Armstrong ‘Autie’ Custer 1859

Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school. Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio.

Custer entered West Point as a cadet on July 1, 1857, to become a member of the class of 1862. At the time, West Point’s course of study was five years long. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, the course was shortened to four years allowing Custer and his class to graduate on June 24, 1861. He was last in a class of 34 cadets. Throughout his life, Custer tested boundaries and rules. In his four years at West Point, he amassed a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy.

Under ordinary national conditions, Custer’s low-class rank would represent a ticket to an obscure posting, but Custer had the ironic fortune to graduate as the Civil War broke out. During his rocky tenure at the Academy, Custer came close to expulsion in each of his three years, due to excessive demerits. Many of these were awarded for pulling pranks on fellow cadets.

Civil War

Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment and was assigned to drilling volunteers in Washington, D.C.

On July 21, 1861, he was with his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run during the Manassas Campaign, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle, he continued participating in the defenses of Washington D.C. until October when he was sick and absent from his unit until February 1862.

In March 1862, he participated with the 2nd Cavalry in the Peninsula Campaign (March to August) in Virginia until April 4.

On April 5, he served in the 5th Cavalry Regiment and participated in the Siege of Yorktown, from April 5 to and May 4 and was aide to Major General George B. McClellan; McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign. On May 24, 1862, during the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, when General Barnard and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped, and Custer overheard his commander mutter to himself, “I wish I knew how deep it is.” Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river and turned to the astonished officers of the staff and shouted triumphantly, “That’s how deep it is, Mr. General!” Custer then could lead an attack with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, resulting in the capture of 50 Confederate soldiers and the seizing of the first Confederate battle flag of the war.

McClellan termed it a “very gallant affair” and congratulated Custer personally. In his role as aide-de-camp to McClellan, Custer began his life-long pursuit of publicity. Custer was promoted to the rank of captain on June 5, 1862. On July 17, he was reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. He participated in the Maryland Campaign in September to October, the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, the Battle of Antietam on September 17, and the March to Warrenton, Virginia in October.

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Lincoln and generals at Antietam (Custer (extreme right) with President Lincoln, General McClellan and other officers at the Battle of Antietam, 1862)

On June 9, 1863, Custer became aide to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Pleasonton (rank since September 17, 1862), who was now commanding the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac (June 7 to March 26, 1864); after the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), Pleasonton’s (Brigadier General, July 16, 1862, U.S. Volunteers) first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Brigade command and Gettysburg

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Custer (left) with General Pleasonton on horseback in Falmouth, Virginia

Pleasonton was promoted on June 22, 1863 to Major General of U.S. Volunteers. On June 29, two days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3), Pleasonton promoted Custer to brigadier general of volunteers, commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade (“Wolverines“). Despite having no direct command experience, Custer became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Two other captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—were promoted along with Custer, although they did have command experience. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Major General J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.

In his first command, Custer affected a showy, personalized uniform style that alienated his men, but he won them over with his readiness to lead attacks from the front (in contrast to many other officers); his men began to adopt elements of his uniform, especially the red neckerchief. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, beginning with the Battle of Aldie on June 17. Pleasonton was Custer’s introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant had become his protégé, serving on Pleasonton’s staff. Custer was quoted as saying that “no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me.”

Custer’s style of battle was often claimed to be reckless or foolhardy, but military planning was always the basis of every Custer “dash”. As Marguerite Merrington explains in The Custer Story in Letters, “George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemy’s weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the ‘Custer Dash’ with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time.” One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was what Custer wrote of as “luck” and he needed it to survive some of these charges.

Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick against the brigade of Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the enemy and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by Private Norvell Francis Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot Custer’s nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.

One of Custer’s finest hours in the Civil War occurred just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett’s Charge to the west, Robert E. Lee had dispatched Stuart’s cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg directly in the path of Stuart’s horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault. Custer’s brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry”, Custer wrote in his report. On July 3, he received the rank of Brevet Major, “For Gallant and Meritorious Services at The Battle of Gettysburg, PA.” Custer was wounded during action at the Battle of Culpeper Court House in Virginia on September 13.

Marriage

 

libbie-bacon

Elizabeth (Libbie) Bacon

 

george-libbie

George and Libbie Custer, 1864

On February 9, 1864, Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon(1842–1933), whom he had first seen when he was ten years old. He had been socially introduced to her in November 1862, when home in Monroe on leave. She was not initially impressed with him, and her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, disapproved of Custer as a match because he was the son of a blacksmith. It was not until well after Custer had been promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general that he gained the approval of Judge Bacon. He married Elizabeth Bacon fourteen months after they formally met.

In November 1868, following the Battle of Washita River, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have unofficially married Mo-nah-se-tah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock in the winter or early spring of 1868–1869 (Little Rock was killed in the one-day action at Washita on November 27). Mo-nah-se-tah gave birth to a child in January 1869, two months after the Washita battle. Cheyenne oral history tells that she also bore a second child, fathered by Custer in late 1869. Some historians, however, believe that Custer had become sterile after contracting gonorrhea while at West Point and that the father was his brother Thomas. A descendant of the second child, who goes by the name Gail Custer, wrote a book about the affair.

The Valley and Appomattox

In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac reorganized under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer (now commanding the 3rd Division) led his “Wolverines” to the Shenandoah Valley where by the year’s end they defeated the army of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. During May and June, Sheridan and Custer (Captain, 5th Cavalry, May 8 and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel, May 11) took part in cavalry actions supporting the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which Custer ascended to division command), and the Battle of Yellow Tavern (where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded). In the largest all-cavalry engagement of the war, the Battle of Trevilian Station, in which Sheridan sought to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the Confederates’ western resupply route, Custer captured Hampton’s divisional train, but was then cut off and suffered heavy losses (including having his division’s trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the enemy) before being relieved. When Lieutenant General Early was then ordered to move down the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington, D.C., Custer’s division was again dispatched under Sheridan. In the Valley Campaigns of 1864, they pursued the Confederates at the Third Battle of Winchester and effectively destroyed Early’s army during Sheridan’s counterattack at Cedar Creek.

Sheridan and Custer, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April 1865, the Confederate lines finally broke, and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued by the Union cavalry.

Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lee’s retreat on its final day and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force.

Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to him as a gift for his wife by General Philip Sheridan, who included a note to her praising Custer’s gallantry. She treasured the gift of the historical table, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution.

Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier general and major general (because of a plea by his patron General Sheridan) on March 13, 1865, in the regular army, and major general of volunteers on April 15, 1865. As with most wartime promotions, even when issued under the regular army, these senior ranks were only temporary.

On April 25, after the war officially ended, Custer had his men search for, then illegally seize a large, prize racehorse “Don Juan” near Clarksville, Virginia, worth then an estimated $10,000 (several hundred thousand today), along with his written pedigree. Custer rode Don Juan in the grand review victory parade in Washington, D.C. on May 23, creating a sensation when the scared thoroughbred bolted. The owner, Richard Gaines, wrote to General Grant, who then ordered Custer to return the horse to Gaines, but he did not, instead hid the horse, and winning a race with it the next year, before the horse died suddenly.

Reconstruction duties in Texas

On June 3, 1865, at Sheridan’s behest, Major General Custer accepted command of the 2nd Division of Cavalry, Military Division of the Southwest, to march from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Hempstead, Texas, as part of the Union occupation forces. Custer arrived at Alexandria on June 27 and began assembling his units, which took more than a month to gather and remount. On July 17, he assumed command of the Cavalry Division of the Military Division of the Gulf (on August 5, officially named the 2nd Division of Cavalry of the Military Division of the Gulf), and accompanied by his wife, he led the division (five regiments of veteran Western Theater cavalrymen) to Texas on an arduous 18-day march in August. On October 27, the division departed to Austin. On October 29, Custer moved the division from Hempstead to Austin, arriving on November 4. Major General Custer became Chief of Cavalry of the Department of Texas, from November 13 to February 1, 1866, succeeding Major General Wesley Merritt.

During his entire period of command of the division, Custer encountered considerable friction and near mutiny from the volunteer cavalry regiments who had campaigned along the Gulf coast. They desired to be mustered out of Federal service rather than continue campaigning, resented imposition of discipline (particularly from an Eastern Theater general), and considered Custer nothing more than a vain dandy.

Custer’s division was mustered out beginning in November 1865, replaced by the regulars of the U.S. 6th Cavalry Regiment. Although their occupation of Austin had apparently been pleasant, many veterans harbored deep resentments against Custer, particularly in the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, because of his attempts to maintain discipline. Upon its mustering out, several members planned to ambush Custer, but he was warned the night before and the attempt thwarted.

American Indian Wars

On February 1, 1866, Major General Custer mustered out of the U.S. volunteer service and took an extended leave of absence and awaited orders to September 24. He explored options in New York City, where he considered careers in railroads and mining. Offered a position (and $10,000 in gold) as adjutant general of the army of Benito Juárez of Mexico, who was then in a struggle with the Mexican Emperor Maximilian I (a satellite ruler of French Emperor Napoleon III), Custer applied for a one-year leave of absence from the U.S. Army, which was endorsed by Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. Sheridan and Mrs. Custer disapproved, however, and when his request for leave was opposed by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was against having an American officer commanding foreign troops, Custer refused the alternative of resignation from the Army to take the lucrative post.

Following the death of his father-in-law in May 1866, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he considered running for Congress. He took part in public discussion over the treatment of the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War, advocating a policy of moderation. He was named head of the Soldiers and Sailors Union, regarded as a response to the hyper-partisan Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Also formed in 1866, it was led by Republican activist John Alexander Logan. In September 1866 Custer accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a journey by train known as the “Swing Around the Circle” to build up public support for Johnson’s policies towards the South. Custer denied a charge by the newspapers that Johnson had promised him a colonel’s commission in return for his support, but Custer had written to Johnson some weeks before seeking such a commission. Custer and his wife stayed with the president during most of the trip. At one point Custer confronted a small group of Ohio men who repeatedly jeered Johnson, saying to them: “I was born two miles and a half from here, but I am ashamed of you.”

With Scout

Custer and Bloody Knife (kneeling left), Custer’s favorite Indian Scout

Custer presented Bloody Knife, his Arikara (“Ree”) scout, with several gifts. Custer told Bloody Knife and some Arikara scouts this would be his last Indian campaign. Custer further stated that if the scouts helped him win a victory, then he would become president and look after the Arikaras from the White House.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sitting Bull, spiritual leader of the Plains Indians, had been a renowned warrior in his prime

Sitting Bull, spiritual leader of the Plains Indians, had been a renowned warrior in his prime

 
Low Dog, Oglala war chief

Low Dog, Oglala war chief

 Wooden Leg, noted northern Cheyenne warrior

Wooden Leg, noted northern Cheyenne warrior

 
Spotted Eagle, Sans arc war chief

Spotted Eagle, Sans arc war chief

Major Marcus Reno, Custer's second in command on the expedition

Major Marcus Reno, Custer’s second in command on the expedition

 

Captain Frederick Benteen, chafed at serving under Custer, whom he despised

Captain Frederick Benteen, chafed at serving under Custer, whom he despised

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, United States Army, 1865

George Armstrong Custer

  • Born: December 5, 1839, New Rumley, Ohio
  • Died: June 25, 1876 (aged 36), Little Bighorn, Montana
  • Buried at: initially on the battlefield; later reinterred in West Point Cemetery

Allegiance: United States of America

Union: Service/Branch

  • United States Army
  • Union Army

Years of service-1861–1876

American Civil War

  • First Battle of Bull Run
  • Peninsula Campaign
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Gettysburg Campaign
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Overland Campaign
  • Battle of the Wilderness
  • Battle of Yellow Tavern
  • Battle of Trevilian Station
  • Valley Campaigns of 1864
  • Siege of Petersburg
  • Appomattox Campaign

American Indian Wars

  • Battle of Washita River
  • Battle of the Little Bighorn

Promotions and ranks

Custer’s promotions and ranks including his six brevet [temporary] promotions which were all for gallant and meritorious services at five different battles and one campaign:

  • Second Lieutenant, 2nd Cavalry: June 24, 1861
  • First Lieutenant, 5th Cavalry: July 17, 1862
  • Captain Staff, Additional Aide-De-Camp: June 5, 1862
  • Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers: June 29, 1863
  • Brevet Major, July 3, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)
  • Captain, 5th Cavalry: May 8, 1864
  • Brevet Lieutenant Colonel: May 11, 1864 (Battle of Yellow Tavern – Combat at Meadow)
  • Brevet Colonel: September 19, 1864(Battle of Winchester, Virginia)
  • Brevet Major General, U.S. Volunteers: October 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, Virginia)
  • Brevet Brigadier General, U.S. Army, March 13, 1865 (Battle of Five Forks, Virginia)
  • Brevet Major General, U.S. Army: March 13, 1865 (The campaign ending in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia)
  • Major General, U.S. Volunteers: April 15, 1865
  • Mustered out of Volunteer Service: February 1, 1866
  • Lieutenant Colonel, 7th Cavalry: July 28, 1866 (killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876)

Commands held           

  • Michigan Brigade
  • 3rd Cavalry Division
  • 2nd Cavalry Division
  • 7th Cavalry Regiment

Spouse/Relations

  • Elizabeth Bacon Custer
  • Thomas Custer, brother
  • Boston Custer, brother
  • James Calhoun, brother-in-law

By courtesy:

  • Wikipedia.org
  • A Terrible Glory by James Donovan, Little Brown & Company, New York, London, Boston, 2008

Prelude to June 25, 1876

THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN RIVER

THE DIVINE INJUNCTION: Again, we come to the great law of the right. The white race stood upon this undeveloped continent ready and willing to execute the Divine injunction, to replenish the earth and subdue it. . . the Indian races were in the wrongful possession of a continent required by the superior right of the white man–Charles Bryant, History of the Great Massacre by the Sioux Indians (1864)

1

 Philip Henry Sheridan faced a thorny problem in the fall of 1875 – several of them actually. A small contingent of Plains Indians, roaming the same lands they had occupied for generations, refused to bow to the manifest destiny of the nation he had so devoutly served for more than twenty years.

Sheridan’s dilemma was a multifaceted one. From his headquarters in Chicago, he commanded the Division of the Missouri, by far the largest and most problematic military region in the country. It comprised the Great Plains and more – indeed, almost half the nation’s territory, from the Canadian border to the tip of Texas, from Chicago to the Rockies. That expanse included most of the western states, five territories, a growing number of whites, and approximately 175,000 Indians of many different tribes. Over the past half century, most of those Indians had been herded onto reservations set aside for their use, both to keep them away from the westering whites and to facilitate the effort to make them, as much as possible, white people. The problems stemming from these relocation were monumental, though they were perceived by most whites as more humane, and considerably less expensive, than the alternative: war. The U.S. government soon found out that it was one thing to assign tribes to reservations and quite another to keep them there – especially when the food rations and supplies promised them by treaty were delayed, stolen, inedible, or simply never delivered. What had been presented as a policy designed to prevent bloodshed soon became another rationale for it.

Sheridan’s dilemma was shared by his immediate superior, General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman, President Ulysses S. Grant, and several high-ranking members of Grant’s administration. For years the two generals had advocated all-out war on the Indians, with Sheridan, who had branded the uncooperative elements of the Plains tribes “hostile,” especially single-minded on the subject. But certain legal and moral niceties, which Sheridan found supremely irritating, precluded such belligerence. Grant’s infernal “Peace Policy,” which stressed humanitarian reforms before military intervention was one. But that November, at a high-level meeting at the White House, a bold solution to the Indian problem would be revealed.

Until a few years previous, the Plains tribes had roamed at will. During the warmer months, they followed the buffalo, or bison, their source of food, clothing, shelter, and virtually every other material (and spiritual) need. Before the unforgiving winter swept down, they gathered up their stores of meat and then holed up in sheltered valleys along moving water to wait out the weather, as close to hibernation as a people could get. Until the new grass appeared in the spring, their ponies grew considerably thinner, surviving on the bark of riparian cottonwoods. The Indians too, were vulnerable in winter, but they knew the wasichus (whites) were reluctant to launch any extended large-scale campaign then. The white soldiers had waged winter war once or twice, but that kind of campaign was difficult to muster and coordinate.

As emigrant travel through the heart of Sioux country increased, the monumental job of protecting incoming miners, farmers, ranchers, tradesmen, stockmen, railroad surveyors, lawmen, barbers, saloon owners and others in an area of more than a million square miles fell to Sheridan, who commanded almost a third of the shrunken remnants of the victorious Federal army. More than two million men had served the Union in the Civil War, but more than half had been mustered out a year after its end, and the regular army had gradually been trimmed to 25,000 enlisted men by early 1870s. The nation was understandably tired of war, and a southern-controlled Congress found the idea of a large standing army distasteful.

The job Sheridan knew had been easier, or at least simpler, a half century earlier. All that was necessary then was to push the Indians west, beyond “The Line” – wherever it was at the time.

THE LINE WHICH HAD EXISTED almost since the white man had begun to penetrate the vastness to the west, was the result of more than three centuries of clashes between Europeans and the native population. Spanish conquistadors had clashed constantly with the native inhabitants of Florida during their many expeditions in search of gold and other treasures. In the epic battle of Mabila in 1540, in the area later known as Alabama, Hernando de Soto and several hundred Spaniards destroyed an entire army of thousands of Indians to the last man. To the north, in the swampy Tidewater region of Virginia, the two- hundred village strong Powhatan Confederacy had aided the ill- prepared English settlers at Jamestown since their arrival in 1607. The generous Indians had brought food to the starving colonists, given freely of their considerable agricultural knowledge, and generally made it possible for the English to survive the first few years of the settlement’s existence (They also taught the whites how to cultivate a cash crop called tobacco, which would enable the foundation and rapid rise of several more southern colonies). Their generosity was not repaid in kind. The settlers were soon told by their superiors—who were, after all, directors of a for-profit joint stock company—to do whatever it took to acquire all the land they could. Indian tempers grew short after a series of humiliations and attacks (no doubt aided and abetted by the Spaniards to the south), and fifteen years later they mounted a large scale surprise assault on the colony that resulted in 347 English deaths in a matter of a few hours. The surviving colonists vowed revenge, and fifty years of almost constant eye-for-an-eye warfare followed. By 1671 the Virginia governor could report to London that “the Indians, our neighbours, are absolutely subjected, so that there is no fear in them”—in no small part because there were only a few thousand of them left in the face of 40,000 Englishmen.

Over the next century, until the American Revolution, white men wrested North American territory from the Indians by treaty, sale, or sheer force– sometimes, truth to be told, in concert with tribes seeking an advantage in Indian vs Indian warfare. From the vert beginning the Europeans, with few exceptions, had perceived America’s native inhabitants as no more than savages– romantic perhaps, in their primitiveness, and occasionally charming, or worthy of pity, but savages nonetheless. Whites had little respect for Indian culture, their ways of life, or their concepts of government and land ownership– the latter being particularly antithetical to white views. Indians did not develop the land, nor did they measure or mark what they owned; they simply did not understand land as private property. One could no more own the earth than the sky, the Indians reasoned. Rather, their land was commonly owned and used. To the ceaselessly toiling New World colonists, whose way of life was rooted in property ownership, this outlook was positively sacrilegious. This difference, more than anything else, would lead to the struggles between the two people.

For the British, the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 resulted in huge additions of contested western territories ceded by the defeated French. But the excitement on part of the colonials– who felt somewhat justifiably that they, not their distant British landlords, had ‘won’ the new lands and should have the right to develop them.– was dampened by George III’s Royal Proclamation of 1763. The new law forbade settlement on ‘any Lands beyond the Heads or Sources of any of the rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the west and northwest,’ including the verdant Ohio Valley and all of the territory from the Ohio to the Mississippi rivers– roughly anything west of the Appalachians, from the southern limits of the province of Quebec in the north to Florida in the south. This area was referred to as ‘Indian territory,’ and all Englishmen were directed to abandon it immediately, regardless of title changes. All Indian people were declared to be under the protection of the King, and provisions for royal posts along the boundary were made.

The motivations behind the King’s proclamation were more practical than humanitarian. Relations between the Indians and the colonists were already poor. Most of the Indian tribes had sided with the French during the war, and by placating the natives, the proclamation would, it was hoped, reduce the cost of defending the frontier. The boundary and the Indian preserve it established were meant to be temporary, the first step in a controlled, deliberate settlement plan. Five years later, after considerable colonist lobbying, the Indian Boundary Line was established farther to the west and formally agreed to in treaties with the Indians. But later the same year, due to a change in the British ministry, the Crown discontinued maintenance of the plan. The increasingly restive colonists believed that the edict had another purpose– to keep them close to the eastern seaboard and easier to control– and away from the lucrative fur trade farther west.

The Proclamation of 1763 represented the last time that Indian sovereignty in the interior of the new land was considered important to the causes of peace and trade. Settlers and land speculators alike ignored the decree and worked to open the western frontier and claim the Indian lands. Thirteen years later, two of the many grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence addressed the Crown’s protection of ‘the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions’ and royal resistance to ‘new Appropriation of Lands.’ (A year earlier, at the dawn of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress had instituted an Indian Policy, largely to maintain peaceful relations during the ensuing war, though most eastern Indian tribes predictably sided with the British). Once independence was established, however, the young Republic’s first President, George Washington, sought to apply solid moral precepts to all dealings with the Indians: “The basis of our proceedings with the Indian nations,” he said,” has been, and shall be justice“. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 pledged goodwill and respect for the Indians’ property, rights, and liberty. One of Washington’s first acts as president was to issue the Proclamation of 1790 which forbade state or private-sector encroachment on all Indian lands guaranteed by treaty with the new country. But while Washington believed in the sovereignty of Indian nations and tried hard to prevent outright confiscation, states and individuals alike ignored the federal law in order to satisfy the enormous demand for land dictated by an ever increasing number of immigrants. As the new nation set to work exploring and settling beyond that short- lived Proclamation Line, land was acquired through bloodshed, treaty, crooked deals, or a mix of all three, and the absence of European powers meant that the Indians could not play one colonial interest against another.

The new century saw The Line move west quite a distance. After the Battle of Fallen Timbres in 1794, when General Anthony Wayne crushed Little Turk’s previously invincible Miami Indians, the Ohio Valley was opened to settlers. Around 1803 President Thomas Jefferson decided to relocate all eastern tribes beyond a Permanent Indian Frontier, extending from Minnesota to Louisiana west of the ninety-fifth meridian– a scheme made viable with the Louisiana Purchase that year–to an “Indian Country” of their own, far away from civilization. Reports from the explorations of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806) and Zebulon Pike (1806-1807) portrayed the lands beyond the Mississippi as mostly desert and ” incapable of cultivation”, unfit for white people. The idea of the “Great American Desert” was reinforced by Major Stephen H. Long’s 1823 report, which first used that phrase that characterized the Great Plains as ‘almost wholly unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence”. Just two years later, in 1825, President James Monroe began forcing tribes west of the Mississippi to this designated Permanent Indian Country.

The movement picked up full steam after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, passes soon after Andrew Jackson became President. The War of 1812 hero had caused an international incident when he had pursued Seminole Indians into Spanish Florida in 1818, and he still thought little of Indian sovereignty, referring to ” the farce of treating with Indian tribes”. Jackson envisioned a confederacy of formerly southern Indians in the West that would one day take its place in the Union–after they became fully civilized, of course. Some tribes went quietly, but others, chiefly the Seminoles in Florida and the Sauks and Foxes of Illinois, resisted mightily but futilely against the relentless whites. The pressure came from all directions. It mattered not a whit, for example, that the U.S. Supreme Court found the acts of the State of Georgia against the Cherokee nation unconstitutional and in violation of legally binding treaties. Jackson simply refused to support the decision. The forced eviction of the Cherokees from their native Georgia and their march west to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma)–which reduced their population by  more than 30%–came to be known as the Trail of Tears. They and the rest of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles) lost all their land throughout the South and ended up on reservations in Indian Territory, as did many other vanquished tribes.

“Indian Country” had been officially defined by the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834 as “all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi; and within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas”. Congress decreed that white men were forbidden to travel beyond The Line without a licence (though this and similar provisions in subsequent treaties were rarely, if ever, enforced), and a line of forts was constructed to prevent whites from passing to the west and Indians from attacking to the east. In 1835 Jackson promised the Indians that their new lands would be forever “secured and guaranteed to them”. By 1840 Indian removal was largely complete.

Shortly thereafter, several new simultaneous events combined dramatically to change the situation. The first wagon train carrying white emigrants reached the River Platte in modern-day Nebraska in 1841, along what later became known as the Oregon Trail. Many more followed, straight through the heart of the Lakotas’ favourite hunting grounds. These first migrants over the Great Plains were greeted with more curiosity than hostility. The Indians allowed them through and traded with them for goods that the tribes quickly became dependent on; the Indians sometimes even guided and aided the migrants. Until the mid-1840s, there was only one reported death involving the overland migrants, and that was an Indian. But the number of annual emigrants rapidly increased more than tenfold, from 5,000 in 1845 to 55,000 in 1850. The wagon trains, and the settlers and miners they carried drove away the buffalo and depleted the wood and grass along the way. The constant stream of invading whites also spread epidemic diseases such as cholera, smallpox, measles, and venereal diseases to the Indians, who had developed no immunity to these illnesses. Some tribes, particularly the Cheyenne and the friendly Mandans and Arikaras along the Missouri River, were decimated. The epidemics were viewed by some Plains Indians as the white man’s black magic, and in response, depredations against the invaders began to occur more frequently.

The Mexican War of 1846-48 added most of the West and Southwest to the United States, and the settlement of the Oregon Territory boundary dispute with England clarified the country’s holdings in the Northwest. In little more than 50 years, the original thirteen colonies hugging the Atlantic coast had become one of the largest nations on earth, stretching to the far Pacific in a wide swath from Canada to the Rio Grande. Settlement was already increasing when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, just after California had been acquired from Mexico. The rush toward the Pacific over the next few years triggered a boom in westward expansion, and the cry of manifest destiny–Americans’ belief that they had a divine right to the undeveloped lands to the west, first enunciated in a New York newspaper, the Democratic Review, in 1845– provided a handy. Creator-approved rationalisation for seizing Indian territories. The Indian question became the Indian problem, and despite attempts by various interest groups to prevent widespread subjugation, one tribe after another was conquered: the Apaches and Navajos in the West, the Commanches, Kiowas, and Southern Cheyennes on the southern plains, and many smaller groups such as the Pitt River Indians and Yumas in California.

In  the Northwest, stronger tribes such as the Yakimas and their allies put up a stiffer fight. The Yakima and Rogue River wars of 1854-56 resulted in U.S. troops being rushed to the  Oregon and Washington territories to stamp out resistance. Not until 1858 did forces led  by General George Wright eradicate the threat through an unbeatable combination of superior firepower and widespread hangings of suspicious parties. Among his soldiers was a young lieutenant fresh from West Point named Philip Sheridan.

The darkly handsome native of Ireland spent six years helping to tame the Cascade and Yakima Indians, and even learned the Chinook language, no doubt assisted by the pretty young Indian woman who kept  his house, cooked for him, and shared his bed, a common arrangement at the time. The dashing dragoon courted several young white women in the area, but for about five years he lived with Sidnayoh, known to the whites as Frances. She was the  daughter of Chief Quately of the Klickitat tribe, allies of the Yakimas. But when Sheridan left in 1861 to defend the Union and make his name, he never returned to the Northwest. After the war, Sidnayoh, her brother, and two friends visited him in Washington. He never acknowledged or spoke of her, and in 1875 he married another woman, the daughter of a U.S. army general. Sheridan called the natives in the Northwest “miserable wretches” and seemed to care little that their sad plight was due to white malfeasance. The man who would one day utter the phrase, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead“– later modified to become the hard- hitting “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”–would espouse total war, and even extermination, against Sidnayoh’s people.

During the gold rush, fortune-seeking miners, settlers, and recently discharged soldiers with an itch for adventure surged west, and it was soon clear that The Line was not an effective solution to the Indian problem. As the 1850s dawned, an idea that had been implemented on a small scale in the East became the U.S. government policy. Reservations– well defined “colonies” of land set aside for the different Indian tribes, where they could learn how to farm, adapt to the ways of the whites, and most important, keep out of the settlers’ way– were established. The next two decades witnessed a frenzy of treaties as the government methodically seized–sometimes via forced agreements, other times via force alone– virtually all of the land it wanted. Treaties had been made almost since the first white colonists had disembarked in the East, but rarely of the scope and frequency seen from the 1850s on. In 1851 alone, treaties involving 139 tribes were concluded.

In 1851 at Fort Laramie in southeast Wyoming Territory, 10,000 Plains Indians representing nine major tribes, some of them mortal enemies, gathered at the behest of an honourable Indian agent, a former mountain man named Thomas Fitzpatrick. He had convinced Congress that funding such a Congress was worthwhile, particularly if the resulting treaty could ensure the safety of emigrants travelling through the Indians’ lands. The meeting constituted the greatest assemblage of Indians ever seen on the continent. Somehow, government negotiators convinced representatives of each tribe present to sign a treaty that set boundaries for their various hunting areas, established the right of the U.S. government to construct roads and forts in their territories, and set up a system of annuities to last fifty years. Using a shameful ploy that would be repeated in years to come, the U.S. Senate reduced the time span to ten years, without telling the Indians, before ratifying the treaty.

The Fort Laramie peace would be destroyed three years later in August 1854 by an incident involving a hotheaded young army lieutenant named Grattan. When an emigrant wagon train outside the fort complained that a cow had been stolen and slaughtered by Indians ( the animal was probably lame and may have been abandoned), Grattan set out with thirty men to arrest th culprit, hoping for a confrontation. He found the Indian camp and demanded that the Lakota warrior be turned over.

These Lakota Sioux (Sioux being a bastardised French word that they despised) were smart, fearless, and wealthy by the standards of the Plains tribes–rich with horses, buffalo skins, and even guns and ammunition. They had originated in the woodlands of Minnesota. Their move westward had begun in the second half of the 1700s, abetted in no small part by the introduction at the dawn of that century of guns and horses. Both had been given to the Indians by the whites– horses by the Spanish conquistadors and guns soon after by trappers and explorers. Horses increased the Indians’ hunting range dramatically; guns did the Sam for their firepower. As the creeping tide of whites pushed eastern tribes, particularly the Chippewas, westward onto traditional Lakota hunting grounds, the Lakotas ranged steadily west, onto the Great Plains, beyond the Missouri River, in pursuit of buffalo, which were also leaving the eastern plains.

Over the next century, this happy confluence of events made these latecomers to the plains rich an powerful, as they roamed north to Canada, land of the Great White Mother, and west almost to the Rockies. Along the way they developed a warrior culture in which male status derived from war honours, and a society that revolved around the hunt and battle against neighbouring peoples. Th Lakotas fought ever tribe they encountered and pushed most of them out of heir an estral lands, establishing a hegemony on  the northern plains that would be challenged but not rivalled. Only the ferocious Cheyennes, after some initial clashes, became their allies sometime around 1826.

The Lakota refused Lieutenant Grattan’s demands after offering to pay for the cow, and th detail fired a volley into a group of Lakotas. Hundreds of nearby warriors observing the parley fell upon the detachment, and in the battle that followed, all of the soldiers were killed, including Grattan. The punitive columns sent out in response to the killings put an end to the Fort Laramie peace. But many of the tribes, unwilling or unable to understand the abstract legal boundaries that prevented them from travelling where they pleased, had returned to intertribal warring even before that. A year after Grattan’s death, an army column led by General William S. Harney, dubbed “the Butcher” for the harsh way in which he deal with the Indians, destroyed a Brule camp and killed eighty-six men, women, and. Holden. Harney’s revenge delivered a message that the bluecoats were a force to be reckoned with.

Under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, organised in 1824 as part of the War Department and transferred to the new Department of the Interior in 1849, the treaties proved highly effective in gaining for the United States dubiously legal claims. Government officials became increasingly skilled at the bait and switch, the obfuscating explanation, the manipulation of pliable Indian chiefs partial to their cause–anything to gain the ostensibly legal cession of lands.

At Fort Wise, Kansas, in 1861, Cheyenne Indians met with federal commissioners to discuss their territorial boundaries. The Cheyennes were not nearly as populous as the Lakotas–cholera and smallpox had ravaged them– but they made up for their small numbers with an unequaled fearlessness, ferocity, and pride. They warred with almost as many tribes as the Lakotas, though they had formed truces with some, such as the Kiowas and the Commanches to the south. They also got along well with the sedentary, agricultural river tribes of the Missouri–the Arikaras, Mandans, and the Hidatsas. But their only long- term allies were the Arapahos, a smaller, more peaceful tribe that nevertheless fought alongside the Cheyennes in many battles. The two had camped together and supported each other for at least a century, and there was much intermarriage between them.

Like the Lakotas, the Cheyennes were recent immigrants to the plains, having lived along the Missouri for many years in Minnesota long before that. They too, had followed the buffalo out onto the vast expanses of he plains soon after acquiring horses and guns. Their lands lay between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers, all the way to the Rockies. Several large-scale attacks by the U.S. army had reduced their numbers but hardened their resolve.

The Cheyennes agreed to a reservation south of the Arkansas River but in the process gave up virtually all the lands recognised as theirs in 1851. Shockingly, only six of the forty- four Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho chiefs took part in the talks. Many of their brethren were furious with them for having ‘touched the pen’ and refused to be bound by the treaty.

This was not an entirely uncommon phenomenon. The U.S. government never seemed to understand that the ‘chiefs’ who put pen to paper rarely represented their tribes completely, in the way of traditional white representatives. Indians who did not sign a particular treaty felt no compunction to follow the treaty’s dictates, much as the government expected them to do so. Since the government needed someone to sign eac treaty, in some cases government representative anointed a chief if one did not exist, which usually resulted in tribal strife. And treaty chiefs often misunderstood what they had signed, further complicating the compliance. Faulty interpreters Lso ensured failure.

Compounding the U.S. government’s deceitful tactics was the fact that its adherence to the treaties was arbitrary, even when the agreements were changed to the benefit of the whites after the tribal representatives had signed them. Along with the treaties, a system of annuities was developed, guaranteeing regular (usually annual) payments of money, food, and supplies, including arms and ammunition, designed to discourage the buffalo hunting.

Most treaties were violated almost immediately, on both sides. But for the most part, the situation was tolerable, as long as the Indians were powerful to respect and major warfare was avoided. Thomas Fitzpatrick, the principled Indian agent, decried the system as “legalized murder of a whole nation” as early as 1853, but it was already too late. The treaties had accomplished their main goals: the seizure of Indian lands under quasi- legal agreements, the avoidance of widespread bloodshed, and the removal of the Indians to modest-sized reservations as far away from emigrant routes as possible. Subsequently, via steamboats up the Missouri and other waterways, and railroads and wagons along regular routes and trails across the plains, a never- ending flow of settlers penetrated the land of every tribe in the West.

On Sunday in August 1862, in the frontier state of Minnesota, four young Dakota Sioux warriors returning home from a hunting trip worked themselves into a fury in an argument over some hens’ eggs spotted on a white man’s farm. The Dakotas were starving; that year’s annuities were overdue–again–although the agency warehouses were full of food and other supplies. The Dakotas had already suffered through a decade of disruption, having ceded 24 million acres of their ancestral hunting grounds for $1.6 million and the promise of cash annuities. One unsympathetic storekeeper, Andrew Myrick, summarized the feelings of many whites when he advised the Indians to eat grass or their dung.

The warriors shot and killed the farmer, his wife, his daughter, and two neighbours. When they returned to their village and confessed what they had done, the Dakota chiefs decided after a long night’s deliberation to proceed with an all- out, pre-emptive war and pressured Little Crow, an elderly peace chief–who regularly attended a nearby Episcopal church and wore white man’s clothes– to lead them. A surprise attack on a nearby settlement at dawn the next morning ignited a frenzy of massacres in the area. By the end of the day, 400 settlers had been brutally murdered. Before the uprising g was over, more than 800 lay dead. Myrick’s lifeless body was later found outside his store, his bloody stuffed with grass.

The Minnesota Massacre as it was called, was the first sign of a large-scale, organised resistance to the relentless white incursions into the Indians’ lands and the indignities heaped upon them under the reservation system. State and national authorities responded immediately. General John Pope, in charge of the Department of the Missouri, vowed, “It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux . . .They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts“. (in later years, Pope’s view towards the Indians would soften, but his words were an accurate reflection of the views of the views of most whites along the frontier. A month later, General Henry Sibley and 1,500 troops defeated the Santees at Wood Lake. The most recalcitrant among the Indians escaped to the the west into Dakota Territory and north into Canada, but 2,000 were captured, and 38 of them were hanged the day after Christmas in 1862. (The death toll would have been much higher–307 had been sentenced to death–had President Lincoln not intervened and commuted all the sentences except those of proven rapists and murderers). In addition the Dakotas paid for their actions with the loss of their strip of land on the Minnesota River, and they were moved to another reservation farther west, on the Missouri River.

But the seed had been sown. Sioux resistance spread westward with the fleeing Dakota warriors, and the next few years saw a steady increase in hostilities and depredations throughout the Great Plains. The endless stream of emigrants (300,000 during the Civil War alone) up the Missouri River and along the main trails west–the Oregon, Bozeman Bridger, and Santa Fe– angered the Sioux, who fought back the only way they knew how, with scattered raids throughout the area.
During the Civil War, army regulars on the frontier were moved to theatres of war back east, and volunteer militia took their place. These westerners were personally motivated to wreak revenge, and at dawn on November 29, 1864, they got their chance. Led by a former Methodist minister, Colonel John Chivington, the Third Colorado Cavalry militia regiment surrounded and fell upon peace chief Black Kettle’s sleeping Cheyenne village of about one lodges on Sand Creek, 175 miles southeast of Denver in Colorado Territory. The fanatical Chivington had ordered women and children destroyed–“Nits make lice,” he pointed out–and his seven hundred volunteers enthusiastically obeyed orders, chasing down, killing and then carving up the Cheyennes, who had believed themselves to be under army protection. By day’s end, some 200 Indians, most of them women and children, we’re dead, many of them hideously mutilated. Chivington’s men later marched triumphantly through the streets of Denver, proudly displaying Cheyenne body parts.

White settlers in the area applauded and made Chivington a hero. Meanwhile, the Indian survivors made their way to other Cheyenne camps, and word of the massacre spread quickly across the plains. Over the next few months, enraged Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho warriors raided towns, stage stations, ranches, and wagon trains, burning, looting, and killing wherever the could. Then, in late winter, they moved north to join their kinsmen in the Powder River country–that area between the Black Hills and the Bighorn Mountains which the Lakota considered theirs, though in fact the had wrested it from the Crows only a decade before.

The end of the Civil War saw thousands more volunteer troops shifted to the frontier and the debacle known as the Powder River campaign of 1865, a largely fruitless effort to clean out the marauding Indians. That foray into the Sioux homeland by 6,000 soldiers in three columns stirred up the entire Lakota nation for good–particularly a tall charismatic Oglala chief named Red Cloud, who had earned his reputation by collecting more than eighty coups from the time hews sixteen. (A warrior counted coup when he touched an opponent with his hand or a coup stick. Such bold acts were a measure of one’s bravery and were tallied carefully).

Over the next few years, the cunning and unrelenting Red Cloud rained havoc on any whites foolish enough to enter the Powder River country. Through the heart of this country ran the Bozeman Trail, the best route to the Montana gold mines. An attempted parley at Fort Laramie in June 1866 fell flat when the whites’ talk of peace was revealed to be just that–talk. In the middle of the parley, a battalion of regular U.S. Army infantry marched into the post on their way to build more forts on the Bozeman. Red Cloud and almost all the Sioux promptly decided to leave after warning the whites to stay off the trail. Only the Brule Sioux, led by opportunistic Spotted Tail, and some minor chiefs signed the treaty, which was good enough for the government-any signature or mark was deemed legally binding. But the document was effectively meaningless, since the signees has no stake in the Powder River lands.

As the soldiers began building three forts along the Bozeman, they were constantly harassed by Red Cloud’s warriors. In December1866, a large force of Oglalas, Minneconjous, Cheyennes, Hunkpapas, and even two friendly Crows bore down on Fort Phil Kearny. On December 21, they lured William J. Fetterman, a young captain with little regard to the Indians’ fighting ability, out of the fort with an eighty- man detail made up mostly of raw recruits. The soldiers charged over a long hill in pursuit of a small band of Indians led by an audacious warrior. At the most opportune moment, the warrior let out a war whoop, and hundreds of braves hidden in the gullies and the woods along the trail swarmed upon the stunned blues coats I. Less than an hour, it was all over. Few of the Indians had guns; most of them relied on bows and arrows, lances, stone clubs, and knives, and most of the fighting was at close range. The Sioux lost twelve warriors, but Fetterman and every one of his men were killed. Earlier, Fetterman had been heard boasting, “Give me eighty men and I would ride through the whole Sioux nation.

The daring young war chief who led Fetterman to his death was named Crazy Horse. One writer would later call him ” the strange man of the Oglalas”. It was an appropriate description, for Crazy Horse went his own way.

This warrior-mystic was born in the late fall of 1840 near Bear Butte, outside modern-day Sturgis, South Dakota, on the northern edge of the Black Hills. His father, also named Crazy Horse, was an Oglala holy man, his mother, Rattle Blanket Woman, a Minneconjou. His actual birth name was Light Hair, for his fine, sandy brown locks. His light hair, combined with his light complexion and sharp features, caused more than one settler to mistake him for a white child. An uncle died when the boy was about four, and his mother, grief- stricken, committed suicide. More than most Lakotas, Crazy Horse’s life would be coloured by the loss of those close to him.
When Crazy Horse was a boy, he went by the name of Curly, and he was known for his shy personality. Like all Lakota males, he was regaled with stories and songs that celebrated the cult of the warrior and progressed from paternal instruction and childhood games that emphasised war skills to buffalo hunts and war parties, during which older boys assisted seasoned fighters with relatively safe duties such as tending the pack horses an equipment, curly became an expert with horses at an early age, and as an adolescent he began a close relationship with a renowned warrior named Hump, who may have been an uncle. Hump became Curly’s mentor, and soon the two were nearly inseparable. As a young man, Curly was introverted and somewhat antisocial, to the point that others in his tribe considered him peculiar. Almost all Lakotas danced and sang socially, but Curly never would. He took the life of a warrior naturally.. When he came of age and displayed conspicuous bravery in fight with an enemy tribe, his father passed on his own name, Crazy Horse, to his son and took the name Worm for himself.

When fully grown, Crazy Horse was five feet seven inch tall, slight and wiry. He had a narrow face, a straight nose, and “black eyes that hardly ever looked straight at a man,” according to a close friend. When the wife of a white sout encountered him in 1877, she thought him “a very handsome young man”, despite a noticeable scar on his left cheek.

Throughout the late 1850s and early 1860s, in dozens of raids and fights against enemy tribes such as Crows and the Shoshones in and around the Powder River country, Crazy Horse proved his worth as a warrior. His reputation was so secure that sometimes h would drop back and allow others to count coup; once he did this for his younger brother, Little Hawk. He always led his men from the front, and unlike most Lakotas, he dismounted to fire his rifle. He used good judgement and planned soundly. In battle, he eschewed ostentatious dress. Instead, he wore a simple eagle feather upside down on the back of his head, a cotton shirt and breech cloth, and moccasins. His waist-length hair was braided down both sides. With one finger, he would draw a zigzag streak of red earth down the centre of his face. As a good- luck talisman, he wore a small white stone in a bag under his left arm. Whether due to the amulet or not, Crazy Horse was rarely injured, though nine horses were shot out from under him in battle. Only once he was badly wounded, in the leg, and that was before he began carrying the stone.

Most of the warfare Crazy Horse participated in during this Tom was intertribal, but that changed in the mid-1860s. The opening of the Bozeman Trail and the army’s three forts made it clear to Crazy Horse and several thousand other Lakotas that they would never walk the white man’s road. For most of the decade any soldiers or travellers along the Bozeman ran the risk of attack by a Lakota war party.

When the news of the Fetterman’s defeat reached the East, there was an immediate clamour for retaliation, particularly in the army. General William T. Sherman, a Civil War hero, and now commander of all military forces on the Great Plains, called for total extermination, if necessary. But a burgeoning peace movement, which had gained full steam after the Sand Creek Massacre and which comprised many humanitarians who had campaigned against slavery and were now turning their attention to the plight of the Indians, lobbied for a less bellicose solution. Their efforts, combined with the realisation of the precarious positions of the three isolated forts and the fact that hostilities had reduced the traffic on the Bozeman to almost nothing, paid off.

After much sabre rattling and throat clearing in the Congress, and an abortive campaign in the plains, President Andrew Jackson called for a peace commission to convene in the fall of 1867 at Medicine Lodge Creek, Kansas ( with the southern Plains tribes), and in April 1868 at Fort Laramie (with the northern Plains tribes). Sherman was one of the generals named to the commission.

The discussions at Medicine Lodge led to the permanent establishment of many reservations in Indian Territory, as, for the firs time, the idea of one big reservation was abandoned. Plans also were made for the education and assimilation of the Indians into white culture via agency schools, the encouragement of farming and Christianity, and eventually individual landownership. At Fort Laramie, the government bowed to the dictates of the resolute Red Cloud, agreeing to abandon the three forts along the Bozeman and to concede the country to the Powder River tribes. Only when the soldiers had left and the forts were put to torch did Red Cloud put pen to paper. The trail itself was closed, and no whites were allowed in this territory.

Red Cloud’s was the only war with the United States that western Indians ever won. Even then, the victory proved illusory. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 established the Great Sioux Reservation west of the Missouri in Dakota Territory, and Red Cloud and most of his followers soon became, in effect, reservation Indians. Now the government could more easily control them, which was the point. An “unceded territory” outside the reservation, where nonreservation Indians could hunt “so long as the buffalo may range therein in such numbers to justify the chase,” had been granted to the Sioux, but in classic treaty double-talk, another article dictated that he Indians were not allowed to “occupy” those lands. (Sherman was reassured by his fellow commissioners that th buffalo would not last long enough for the clause t be a problem). Thus, the very territory that Red cloud and his countrymen had fought s hard to defend– the hunting grounds along the Powder and Bighorn Rivers– would only momentarily remain theirs.
The U.S. government pledged to provide supplies and annuities while the tribes adjusted to their new homes. The treaty also allowed the construction of. Railroad to the Pacific–and virtually anything else the government decided was necessary– through the heart of Lakota country. Some of the treaty’s terms were vague, confusing, and somewhat contradictory, and only a few Indians at best understood them. In a few years, the unceded territory especially would prove to be a sticking point for the U.S. government when the rights of tribes there–particularly the nonreservation bands who lived and hunted there year- round and had never signed any agreements– clashed with the inexorable white tide working its way west. And the treaty’s essential ineffectiveness was underlined less than four months after its proclamation by a general order from Sheridan, at Sherman’s direction, that any Sioux found outside the reservation would be considered “hostile”. ( Sherman, “The Indian war on the plains need simply amount to this. We have now selected and provided reservations for all, off the great roads. All who cling to their old hunting grounds are hostile and will remain so till killed off”).

For a few years, a shaky peace held sway over the northern plains. At the same time a stunning cavalry victory on the washstand River and the subsequent round up of most of the warring Cheyennes largely eliminated hostilities to the south. The peace-keeping atmosphere in the East was augmented by the election of General Ulysses S. Grant, the architect of the Union victory in the Civil War. Grant felt sympathy for the Indians’ plight. He told a friend that, “as a young lieutenant he had been much thrown among the Indians, and had seen the unjust treatment they had received at the hands of the white men“. In 1853 he had written, “The whole race would be harmless and peaceable if they were not put upon by the whites”. Soon after taking office in 1869, he halted the army’s offensive against the Indians and implemented his own Peace Policy.

Grant’s policy consisted chiefly of moving all of the nomadic tribes onto reservations away from white expansion and attempting to civilise them. In an attempt to eliminate the rampant corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Grant’s administration hired churchmen, mostly Quakers, as Indian agents.

The War Department disagreed vociferously with Grant’s plan and proposed keeping the peace by installing fear in the Indians. They wanted to wage war at the firs sign of hostilities, since dead Indians would require no annuities–and thus no crooked traders and contractors. For a while, the two policies worked well in tandem, at least on the southern plains. Indeed, the combination of humane treatment of reservation Indians and hard war on recalcitrant had tamed most of the southern tribes. In the north, however, it was a different story.
In 1871, largely due to a squabble between the Senate and the House, Congress forbade the making of any more Indian treaties. As an alternative, President Grant was forced to make “executive agreements” with th tribes, which would be ratified by both houses of Congress. These were essentially treaties under another name, but this time the House had a say in their approval. The most unfortunate result of he new agreement system was the change in attitude toward the Indian nations. No longer would they be considered sovereign powers, but orphans or wards to be treated as any domestic group of Americans might. It was subtle but important difference, and the over meant would seek to justify its actions in the following years.

It also became increasingly clear that filling agency posts with religious men would not stem the tide of corruption. The few safeguards fortifying the Peace Policy were circumnavigated fairly easily, and even some of the churchmen were unable to resist the lure of easy fortunes. By the final years of Grant’s presidency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was marked by as much scandal as the rest of his administration, and his well-intentioned Peace Policy was completely discredited.

Into the early 1870s, the northern plains remained relatively quiet and peaceful. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ turpitude steadily increased the natives’ ire, and starving warriors stepped up their raiding. In addition to the lack of annuities and the poor quality of the rations delivered, two transcontinental railroads, the Union Pacific and the Kansas Pacific, had recently been completed and carried even more immigrants into Indian lands. Even worse, the great buffalo herds were almost gone, scared off by the railroads and then killed off – gradually at first and then more quickly. Sherman and Sheridan’s troops aided the annihilation, visiting the same “total war” of food-supply destruction upon the Plains Indians as they had upon the Confederacy. Hide hunters slaughtered more than a million buffalo a year in the early 1870s. As the plains were emptied of this great animal, whites and Indians alike broke treaties. Sioux and Cheyennes retreated into the Powder River country and rarely ventured out of it, limiting their attacks primarily to white incursions into their lands and occasional cattle raids.

The fuse to the northern plains powder keg was lit in a remote area of the Great Sioux Reservation in western Dakota Territory. Rumours of gold in the Black Hills had circulated for decades, including stories of Indians appearing at nearby trading posts with large nuggets and gold dust. Then in 1857, an army expedition detailed to explore the region discovered gold “in valuable quantities” findings corroborated two years later by another military force.

After the Panic of 1873 (the country’s most serious financial crisis up to that point), desperate men turned miners began sneaking into the Black Hills. Far from discouraging them, the army decided to send a reconnaissance expedition to find the best location for a fort, an idea that Sheridan had been pushing for a few years. Two prospectors and four newspaper correspondents accompanied the large column. The Black Hills Expedition of 1874 was led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the colourful wartime cavalry hero who had become one of Sheridan’s – and the nation’s – favourite Plains Indian fighters.

Technically, according to the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the United States was within its rights – Article II allowed “such officers, agents, and employees of the government as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties enjoined by law” – but it is highly doubtful that the Indians had ever understood the terms to allow such a massive military force. In his first dispatch, Custer reported that both of his prospectors had discovered the metal “in paying quantities” but he judiciously tempered his remarks.

By the time Custer returned to Fort Lincoln, his restraint had disappeared. He told a reporter that the Black hills would rival “the richest regions in Colorado,” later he would call for the extinguishment of the Sioux title to the region “for military reasons” and declare that the Indians had no real need for the Black hills. When these reports of gold were played up by the newspapers from coast to coast, and especially after a follow up expedition the next summer “confirmed in every particular” Custer’s dispatch – men from all over the country headed for the Hills, precipitating the biggest gold rush since the one in California in 1849.

Through most of 1875, only a few hundred miners could be found digging into the sacred land of the Sioux. By the spring of 1876, however, there were more than 10,000. The army was directed to expel trespassers, but there weren’t nearly enough troops for the job, although they did give it a try. Since the punishment was usually no more than expulsion, many of the miners escorted from the Black Hills merely turned around and headed back. The soldiers sympathized with the prospectors, and some of Custer’s men at Fort Lincoln even deserted to join them.

Since the military was unable to control the region, some people in the government began to consider the option of buying the Black Hills from their owners. After all, jobs were scarce, other western mining had cooled, and infusion of gold would be good for the precarious economy. The Panic of 1873 had ushered in a depression, and bankruptcies were frequent, crime rates up, and farm prices down, in no small part due to one of the most severe grasshopper plagues ever to hit the Midwest. Hundreds of thousands of out-of-work men, many of them civil war veterans, were desperate for employment. There was a clamor from both the public and many in the press to open the Black Hills.

spotted-eagle-sans-arc-war-chief
Spotted Eagle Sans Arc war chief

There was one slight problem. The Black Hills belonged to the Lakota Sioux, not only by birthright but also by treaty and they did not want to sell their land. Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, the two most prominent peace chiefs, made that clear when they were summoned to Washington in the spring of 1875 to negotiate. They remained adamant in the face of veiled threats that included the withdrawal of food rations at their agencies and suggestions that the government might not continue to keep the miners out of the region.

Red Cloud and Spotted Tail returned home without signing an agreement, but that September, a commission was sent to negotiate a lease. About 5,000 Lakotas gathered to meet with them near Red Cloud Agency in northern Nebraska. The hard-core nontreaty faction led by Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa Lakota Sitting Bull did not attend, but they sent word that the Black Hills were3 not for sale and would be defended to the death. By this time, however, Red Cloud and Spotted Tail could see that they had no choice – the whites would take what they wanted, deal or no deal – and they were ready to strike a bargain. When the United States refused to meet their price — $70 million – negotiations broke down.

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President Ulysses S. Grant

Thus, President Grant in 1875 found himself on the horns of a dilemma. What was good for the nation – and virtually demanded by a desperate public, particularly the frontier states and territories – would constitute a direct repudiation of the high moral ground underlying his Peace Policy. How could he justify such a brazen seizure of lands solemnly ceded to the Lakotas by treaty? The answer came in November. Sheridan took a train east, picking up General Crook in Omaha. On November 3, the two met with the President and his top advisers on Indian Affairs. Grant was persuaded/decided to follow a new course. The army was secretly ordered to no longer bar any settlers from entering or remaining in the Black Hills. To protect U.S. citizens from the sure-to-be furious Lakotas, Grant would rely on an edict built on tenuous moral and legal grounds: the government would maintain that the 1868 treaty had been abrogated by the Sioux. Of course, some depredations had occurred, but Sheridan had reported that 1874 had seen relatively few Indian problems, and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs had proclaimed that the Sioux had been more peaceful in 1875 than in any year for more than a decade.

Nevertheless, a report issued a week after the November 3 meeting by the Bureau of Indian Affairs inspector cited various trumped-up accusations and smoothly worded falsehoods regarding Indian violations. The inspector concluded: “The true policy, in my judgement, is to send troops against them in winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection.”

The army had been itching for an excuse to make all-out war on the last unyielding Indians on the plains, but their hands had been tied by the Peace policy and by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Here was justification for Sheridan’s winter campaign and the seizure of the Black Hills all wrapped in one tidy report. Still a further colouring of legality was needed. An ultimatum would be delivered to all the “wild” Lakota bands in the Yellowstone and Powder River country. Unless they left their hunting grounds in the unceded treaty and arrived at the Great Sioux Reservation by Jan 31, 1867, they would be declared hostile. The U.S government would then make war on them until they returned to the reservation to learn the white man’s ways or were exterminated.

Runners were sent from the Sioux agencies out to the hunting bands near the end of December, but by then winter had set in on the northern plains. Even if the Lakotas had wanted to come in to the agencies, it would have been impossible to do so before the ultimatum expired. The weather, their weakened ponies, and their women and children precluded their compliance. Further most Lakotas had little desire to live on the reservation, especially this winter, when worse than usual ration deliveries had led to famine and supreme distrust of any promise from the whites.

So the deadline came and went, but only a few small bands arrived at the agencies. On Feb 1, 1876, the Interior Department announced that since the nontreaty Sioux had not complied with the ultimatum they were now considered hostile and would be turned over to the army “for such action as the Secretary of War might deem proper under the circumstances.” Preparations for an immediate winter campaign moved forward quickly, built around a three-pronged attack to encircle and capture or destroy the hostiles.

All the while, whites continued to sweep across the country, beyond the Missouri River and the Great Plains, into and through the valleys bordering the Rocky Mountains, over the continent’s spine to the Pacific: settlers, miners, and adventurers; men, women, and children, tearing up the country, scaring off the buffalo and other game, chopping down the forests, destroying the grass with their cattle and other livestock, and desecrating the most sacred Indian places. Only a few tribes of the northern plains stood against them – the Lakotas, the Cheyennes, and Arapahos – and only a hard line contingent of each tribe, around 3,000 Indians (no more than 800 warriors), were unwilling to abandon the only way of life they had ever known. To be sure, these three tribes did not present a united front. Most of their people lived most of the year on reservations and were not interested in war – or at least not a year-round war. They had become too dependent on the white men and his wares, or too tired of fighting him. But their situation was far more fluid than was generally known. Quite a few of the agency Indians would spend the winter on their reservations, drawing supplies, arms, and ammunition, and then journey out in the spring, spending half the year following the buffalo and raiding their traditional Indian enemies in quest of battle honours, which led to prestige and status. This had been their way of life for generations, and the wasichu (white) threat to their homeland and their way of life would not interrupt it.

Against these superb guerrilla fighters defending their lives, lands, families, and way of life, Sheridan could muster less than 3,000 U.S. soldiers in his two northernmost military areas:  the Departments of Dakota and the Platte. This tiny force, ill trained and badly equipped by a miserly Congress, was scattered across the frontier in dozens of garrisons large and small. Regiments spent little time together in training or manoeuvres, and most soldiers spent little or no time improving their execrable marksmanship or devising tactics suited to fighting Indians. Most did not care. Aside from an educated officer corps – many of whom were graduates of West Point – the enlisted ranks were not composed of the best and the brightest. “All the really valuable survivors of the volunteer army had returned to civilian life,” wrote one historian. “Only the malingerers, the bounty-jumpers, the draft-sneaks and the worthless remained. These, with the scum of the cities and frontier settlements, constituted more than half of the rank and file on the plains.”

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General Philip Sheridan

Another major problem – or blessing, given these sentiments – was desertion. As many as a third of the enlisted men in the 1870s took the “grand bounce” before settling into their new lives in frontier garrisons. The reasons were many: poor pay ($13.00 a month), inferior food, poor sanitation, harsh discipline, immediate danger, and not to be underestimated, sheer boredom. Another temptation was gold. Many of the enlistees were unemployable, and unemployable in the hard times following the Panic of 1873, and some of them, particularly them recruited in the big cities of the East, saw enlistment as transportation west. One there, they skedaddled to the mining regions to make their fortunes.

To lead these troops, Sheridan called his favourite, the man who had been his peerless trouble-shooter and attack dog (“Sheridan’s pet” said some) during the latter days of the Civil War; the man who had blazed the “Thieves’ Road” through the Black Hills, the heart of the Lakota holy country: George Armstrong Custer.

With courtesy of, A Terrible Glory by James Donovan, published by Little Brown Company , New York, Boston, London, 2008