- 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
Once the soldiers’ fire had dwindled to nothing, a warrior cried out, “All of the white men are dead!” This unleashed a mad scramble for the hilltop. “The air was full of dust and smoke,” Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg remembered. “It looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight.”
Instead of fighting the soldiers, the warriors were fighting with one another over plunder. “There was lots of fussing and quarreling . . . over the horses and guns that were captured,” Cheyenne survivor Brave Bear remembered. The women, many of whom had lost loved ones that day, took a leading role in mutilating the dead, using sheath knives and hatchets.
Sitting Bull, his nephew and adopted son One Bull later claimed, had insisted that the Lakota and Cheyenne stay away from the dead on Last Stand Hill. One Bull also said that his uncle predicted that, because of their failure to comply with the wishes of the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka, the Lakota would forever “covet white people’s belongings” and ultimately “starve at the white man’s door.” As the smoke and dust over the battlefield thinned in the northerly breeze, Sitting Bull could see that the warriors were ignoring his pronouncement. This victory, great as it was, had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible ultimate defeat.
Act 3: The End
When it comes to the Little Bighorn, most Americans think of the Last Stand as belonging solely to George Armstrong Custer. But the myth also applies to Sitting Bull. For while the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne were the victors that day, the battle marked the beginning of their own last stand. The shock and outrage surrounding Custer’s stunning defeat allowed the Grant administration to push through measures that the U.S. Congress would not have funded just a few weeks before. The Army redoubled its efforts against the Indians and built several forts on what had previously been considered native land.
Within a few years of the Little Bighorn, all the major tribal leaders had taken up residence on Indian reservations, with one exception. Not until the summer of 1881 did Sitting Bull submit to U.S. authorities, and only after first handing his rifle to his son Crowfoot, who then gave the weapon to an Army officer. “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,”
Sitting Bull said. “This boy has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.”
Sitting Bull did not go quietly into the dark night of reservation life at the Standing Rock Agency, in what would become North and South Dakota. Even as the number of his supporters dwindled, he did his best to frustrate the attempts of the reservation’s agent, James McLaughlin, to reduce the chief’s influence within the tribe. Tensions between the two men inevitably mounted, and when a new native religious movement called the Ghost Dance caused authorities to fear a possible insurrection, McLaughlin ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest. A group of native police was sent to his cabin on the Grand River, and at dawn on December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull, Crowfoot, and Jumping Bull were shot to death. A handful of Sitting Bull’s supporters fled to the Pine Ridge Agency to the south, where Custer’s old regiment, the 7th Cavalry, had been called in to put a stop to the Ghost Dance craze. The massacre that unfolded on December 29 at a creek called Wounded Knee was seen by at least some of the officers of the 7th Cavalry as overdue revenge for their defeat at the Little Bighorn.
In truth, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was the last stand not for Custer, but for the nation he represented. With this battle and its sordid aftermath, climaxing so tragically with Wounded Knee, the United States, a nation that had spent the last hundred years subduing its own interior, had nowhere left to go. With the frontier closed and the Indians on the reservations, America, the land of Westward Ho!, began to look overseas to Cuba, the Philippines, and beyond.
The Wild West of memory continued to live on, and Custer remains an icon to this day. Sitting Bull is known for his stalwart resistance, for being the last of his tribe to surrender to the U.S. government. But at the Little Bighorn, he did not want to fight. He wanted to talk. This may be his most important legacy. As he recognized, our children are best served not by a self-destructive blaze of glory, but by the hardest path of all: survival and coexistence.
Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s book (except the sidebar) The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn © 2010 by Nathaniel Philbrick.
In Search of Pvt. Peter Thompson: The author reflects on writing history
IT WAS WHILE RIDING a 27-year old former rodeo horse named Tomcat, along the edge of a 300foot-high bluff overlooking the stunningly beautiful Little Bighorn River, that I realized I was in new territory as an author. Research for my previous books had meant visits to historic sailing vessels such as the Charles W Morgan at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and the Mayflower II at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Standing on the decks of those meticulously maintained craft, it was fairly easy to imagine what it had been like sailing across the Atlantic in 1620 or hunting whales in the 19th century. But every time I had ventured to a land-based historic site, I was inevitably disappointed.