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The Battle of the Little Big Horn took place from June 25 to June 27, 1876, along the river of the same name in what is now south-central Montana. The result is well known. Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and a handful from other Northern Great Plains tribes defeated the 7th U.S. Cavalry regiment. The battle included several fights. In a separate engagement, the companies led by Major Marcus Reno (1834–1889; the regiment’s second-in-command) weathered a thirty-six-hour siege after warriors thwarted their attack on the Indian camp.
The Custer fight is historically the most visible event of the Little Big Horn affair. Shortly after Reno retreated, on a river bluff about four miles from Reno’s defense site, warriors wiped out to the man five companies (approximately 210 men) and their acting regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876).
The event is indelibly fixed in the American social consciousness. It has been a symbol of bravery and spirit, of folly, and of oppression. This symbolism is largely a function of Custer’s presence. Its perception as folly, most visible during socially liberal times, is amply illustrated in the motion picture Little Big Man (1970; Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway), and in various biographies, such as Frederic Van de Water’s Glory Hunter (1934), that portray Custer as an egotist willing to sacrifice others in his pursuit of glory.
Negative conceptions of the Battle of the Little Big Horn have their roots in the attitudes of Custer’s contemporaries. Custer had achieved national prominence for his often daring (and usually highly successful) Civil War exploits (see Urwin’s Custer Victorious ). With success came jealousy, criticism, and accusations. Little Big Horn reinforced such views, ensuring their survival to this day. Conversely, the battle guaranteed Custer and his men symbolic immortality. At a time when the nation was celebrating its centennial, many Americans saw their deaths as noble sacrifices in the service of Manifest Destiny.
Promoters of Custer capitalized on these emotions, especially Custer’s widow, Elizabeth (née Bacon; 1842–1933). Libbie (as Custer affectionately called her) never remarried and spent the rest of her long life, as Shirley Leckie chronicles in Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth (1993), carefully constructing the image of an heroic last stand—a steadfast fight to the final man against hopeless odds.
This image of the Battle of the Little Big Horn as a “last stand” has also been promoted by historians and Custer biographers. Charles Kuhlman’s Legend into History (1951) and Frederick Whittaker’s Complete Life of General George A. Custer (1876) are but two examples from a voluminous literature. Generally “last stand” symbolism assumes prominence during socially conservative periods; the wartime film epic They Died with Their Boots On (1941; Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland) exemplifies this. Here the doomed men fight bravely to the last man, in this case Custer himself.
Whatever the collective social mood of a given period, Custer’s “last stand”—as Brian Dippie argues in Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (1976)—has for the majority of Americans come to symbolize an indomitable American spirit. This is not the case in Native American circles. Rather, the Custer battle symbolizes triumph over oppression, perpetrated against not only Native Americans but also minorities in general (see Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins, 1969). Such symbolism is not confined to the Lakota and Cheyenne; it exists among Native Americans in general, and circulates widely among non-natives as well.
The symbolic value of the Battle of the Little Big Horn dwarfs its military importance. The battle, one of many during the Northern Plains Indian War Period (1862–1877), was a minor event. It had no influence on Indian policy, the foundations of which were formulated over two decades earlier. Nonetheless, followed as it was by the Army’s relentless winter campaign (1876/1877), it did indirectly hasten the surrender of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne bands (spring and summer of 1877). The defeated tribes were confined to reservation tracts, including the Great Sioux Reservation (originally the western half of present South Dakota, then reduced to small tracts in the Dakotas and Montana), established in 1868, and the Northern Cheyenne reserve (in south-central Montana), formed by Congress in 1884.
Custer the man permeates studies of the Little Big Horn battle, typically at great peril to objective analysis. Apologists are driven to absolve Custer of blame, most frequently by constructing events in ways that finger Major Reno. Like apologists, anti-Custer factions sometimes go to absurd lengths—but in order to blame Custer for the debacle, not one of his subalterns. Ultimately, the two sides find common ground in “last stand” imagery— whatever the chain of events, and whoever is blamed, Custer’s battalion fights to the end against impossible odds.
Only comparatively recently has the venerable notion of a “last stand” been challenged, by Douglas Scott, Richard Fox, and others in two books, Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle (1987) and Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1989). Using forensic analysis of firing pin marks on spent cartridges systematically recovered from the Custer battlefield, Fox shows in Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle (1993) that instead of mounting a resolute stand, Custer’s battalion fell apart. Cartridge case patterns show the command maintained tactical order (skirmish lines) initially, but subsequently lost cohesion. Denouement came amid panic and fear. Numerous eyewitness reports by Indian warriors support this interpretation. They speak of soldiers who “acted as if drunk,” “threw down their guns,” and so on. Native testimonies also indicate the end came in half an hour or so.
In the new synthesis, two independent lines of evidence—the material and documentary records—converge, providing interpretive confidence. Before the gathering of archaeological evidence, studies of the Battle of the Little Big Horn relied solely on highly contradictory historical documentation, which was easily manipulated in support of one or another preconceived notion of Custer and his men.
The historical-archaeological synthesis has not ended debate in Custer battle studies—but the case for a “last stand” is now far more difficult to argue. Authors who wish to keep this image of the battle alive—for example, Gregory Michno in Lakota Noon (1997)—are typically compelled to resort to special pleading, circular reasoning, revision, and selective use of evidence.
- Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.
- Dippie, Brian W. 1976. Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Fox, Richard A., Jr. 1993. Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Kuhlman, Charles. 1951. Legend into History: The Custer Mystery: An Analytical Study of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Harrisburg, PA: Old Army Press.
- Leckie, Shirley A. 1993. Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Michno, Gregory F. 1997. Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press.
- Scott, Douglas D., and Richard A. Fox Jr. 1987. Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle: An Assessment of the 1984 Field Season. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Scott, Douglas D., Richard A. Fox Jr., Melissa A. Connor, and Dick Harmon. 1989. Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Urwin, Gregory J. W. 1983. Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Van de Water, Frederic. 1934. Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
- Whittaker, Frederick. 1876. A Complete Life of General George A. Custer. New York: Sheldon. Reprint, 2 vols., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
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