- Historic Sites
The Battle Of The Little Bighorn
Fate brought Custer and Sitting Bull together one bloody June evening at the Little Bighorn—and marked the end of the Wild West
Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
Act 1: The Characters
IN LATE MAY 1876, SITTING BULL climbed a butte near the Rosebud River, just south of the Yellowstone. Not far from this eroded projection of rock-capped earth was a village of more than 400 tepees spread out for almost a mile along the bright green valley of the north-flowing river. The great Lakota Sioux leader was about 45 years old, his legs bowed from a boyhood of riding ponies, his left foot maimed by an old bullet wound that caused him to amble lopsidedly. Much more than a brave warrior, he was a wicasa wakan : a holy man with an unusual relationship with the Great Mystery that the Lakota called Wakan Tanka. He could see into the ungraspable essence of life—the powerful and incomprehensible forces that most people only dimly perceive but to which all humanity must pay homage. Dreams and visions provided glimpses into this enigmatic world of ultimate meaning; so did nature, and in conversations with animals and birds, Sitting Bull found confirmation of his role as leader of his people.
On that spring day he knew that hostile U.S. cavalry troops were approaching along the north bank of the Yellowstone River; scouts had also reported that soldiers to the south were preparing to march in their direction. Perched on a mossy rock, Sitting Bull began to pray until he fell asleep and dreamed of a large, puffy white cloud drifting sedately overhead. It was shaped like a Lakota village nestled under snow-topped mountains. On the horizon to the east, he saw the faint brown smudge of an approaching dust storm. Faster and faster the storm approached, until he realized that at the center of the swirling cloud of dust was a regiment of horse-mounted soldiers.
The dust-shrouded troopers continued to pick up speed until they collided with the big white cloud in a crash of lightning and a burst of rain. In an instant, the dust—and the soldiers—had been washed away, and all was quiet and peaceful as the huge cloud continued to drift toward the horizon and finally disappeared. He now knew from where the attack was going to come—not from the north or from the south, but from the east.
AT THE TIME WHEN Sitting Bull dreamed of the approaching dust storm, there were no farms, ranches, towns, or even military bases in central and eastern Montana. For all practical and legal purposes, this was Indian territory. Just two years before, however, gold had been discovered in the nearby Black Hills by an expedition led by none other than Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. As prospectors flooded pioneers from Indian attack, the soldiers who Sitting Bull knew were coming were part of a carefully orchestrated campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne, an unprovoked military invasion of an independent nation that happened to exist within the United States. George Custer would play a major role in that campaign, one destined to enshrine his name in the annals of the American West.
He had grown into manhood during the Civil War, when the frantic, all-or-nothing pace of the cavalry charge came to define his tactical preference. But Custer was something more than the harebrained thrill junkie of modern legend. Over the course of the war, he proved to be one of the best cavalry officers, if not the best, in the Union army. He had an intuitive sense for the ebb and flow of battle; his extraordinary peripheral vision enabled him to capitalize almost instantly on any emerging weaknesses in an enemy line. And because he was always at the head of a charge, he was always there, ready to lead his men to where they were needed most.
Custer had finished last in his class at West Point, but it was because he was too busy enjoying himself, not because he was unintelligent. Whenever the demerits he’d accumulated threatened to end his days at “the Point,” he’d put a temporary stop to his antics and bring himself back from the brink of expulsion. This four-year flirtation with academic disaster seems to have served him well. By graduation he’d developed a talent for maintaining a rigorous, if unconventional, discipline amid chaos. Actual battle, not the patient study of it, was what he was destined for, and with the outbreak of the Civil War he discovered his true calling.
His rise was meteoric. Starting the war in the summer of 1861 as a second lieutenant, he became a 23-year-old brigadier general just two years later and played an important, if largely unrecognized, role on the last, climactic day of the Battle of Gettysburg. As Confederate general George Pickett mounted his famous charge against the Union forces, a lesser-known confrontation occurred on the other side of the battlefield. The redoubtable Jeb Stuart launched a desperate attempt to penetrate the rear of the Union line. If he could smash through Federal resistance, he might meet up with Pickett’s forces and secure a spectacular victory for General Lee.
As it turned out, all Stuart had to do was punch his way through a vastly outnumbered regiment from Michigan, and victory would have been his. But as the Confederates bore down on their Union counterparts (who were outnumbered by four to one), an event occurred that changed the course of the battle and, arguably, the war.
Custer, dressed in an almost comical black velvet uniform of his own design that featured gaudy coils of gold lace, galloped to the head of the 1st Michigan Cavalry and assumed command. Well ahead of his troops, with his sword raised, he turned toward his men and shouted, “Come on, you Wolverines!” With Custer in the lead, the Michiganders started out at a trot but were soon galloping, “every man yelling like a demon.”