Today in History

Today in History: June 25

Custer's Last Stand

Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull (detail),
David Frances Barry, photographer, copyright 1885.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Gen. George A. Custer
George Armstrong Custer, Officer of the Federal Army,
Brady National Photographic Art Gallery, between 1860 and 1865.
Selected Civil War Photographs

On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer and the 265 men under his command lost their lives in the Battle of Little Big Horn, often referred to as Custer's Last Stand.

Educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Custer proved his brilliance and daring as a cavalry officer of the Union Army in the Civil War. Major General George McClellan appointed the twenty-three-year-old Custer as brigadier general in charge of a Michigan cavalry brigade. By 1864, Custer was leading the Third Cavalry Division in General Philip Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign. Throughout the fall, the Union Army moved across the valley—burning homes, mills, and fields of crops.

American Indian Camp
[View of a Cheyenne village at Big Timbers, in present-day Colorado, with four large tipis standing at the edge of a wooded area. Frame with pemmican or hides hanging at the right; two figures, facing camera, standing to the left of center].
A daguerreotype by Solomon Carvalho, probably copied by Mathew Brady's studio, between 1853 and 1860.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

This daguerreotype of an Indian village in Kansas Territory, taken during the Frémont Expedition in 1853, is one of the Library's oldest images of the Plains Indians of the American West. Click on the image for a much sharper view of four large tipis (variant of teepees) standing at the edge of a wooded area.

Custer's Division Retiring
Custer's Division Retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley,
October 7, 1864
Alfred Waud, artist.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

This sketch of Custer's division retiring from Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley on October 7, 1864, is by Alfred Waud, a Civil War sketch artist who documented the war for the press. Sketch artists provided the public's only glimpse of battle at a time when the shutter speed of cameras was not fast enough to capture action. Waud routinely ventured dangerously close to the fighting, portraying more intimately than any other artist, the drama and horror of the Civil War.

Tapped to pursue General Robert E. Lee's army as it fled from Richmond, Custer himself received the Confederate flag of truce when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. At the end of the Civil War, he was commissioned to the western frontier as part of an army campaign to impress and intimidate hostile Plains Indians with a show of U.S. military might.

After gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, white miners flocked into territory ceded to the Sioux less than ten years earlier. Although the second Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) clearly granted the tribe exclusive use of the Black Hills, in the winter of 1875, the U.S. ordered the Sioux to return to their reservation by the end of January. With many Indians out of the range of communication and many others hostile to the order, the U.S. Army prepared for battle.

On May 17, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel Custer led the 750 men of the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Commanded by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, Custer's division was part of an expedition intended to locate and rout tribes organized for resistance under Chief Sitting Bull. Hoping to entrap Sitting Bull in the Little Big Horn area, Terry ordered Custer to follow the Rosebud River while he brought the majority of the men down the Yellowstone River. After meeting at the mouth of the Little Big Horn, they planned to force the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne back to their reservations.

Custer found Sitting Bull encamped on the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Instead of waiting for Terry, the lieutenant colonel chose to wage an immediate attack. He divided his forces into several groups and headed out. Quickly encircled by their enemy, the five companies under Custer's immediate command were slaughtered in less than an hour. Over the next two days, the remnants of the 7th Cavalry fought for their lives as they waited in vain for Custer to relieve them.

On June 27, the Indians retreated as reinforcements arrived. Expecting to meet Custer and prepare for battle, General Terry discovered the bodies of Custer and his men. Nearly a third of the men of the 7th Cavalry, including Custer and his brother, died at Little Big Horn. A stunning but short-lived victory for Native Americans, the Battle of Little Big Horn galvanized the public against the Indians. In response, federal troops poured into the Black Hills.

A group of Indians on horseback encircle a bison.
A Little Fresh Meat for the Indians
Taken Before the Opening of the Rosebud Reservation,
near Winner, South Dakota, 1880.
The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections

While many Native Americans surrendered to federal authorities, Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada in 1877. Four years later, with his supporters on the brink of starvation, Sitting Bull returned to the U.S. at Standing Rock Agency in North Dakota. There, he fought the sale of tribal lands under the Dawes Severalty Act and participated in the Ghost Dance Movement—a cultural and religious revitalization among Native Americans. Threatened by a religious awakening that promised the end of white dominance, federal authorities attempted to take custody of Sitting Bull in 1890. He was killed in the affray sparked by the attempted arrest.

"Custer's Last Charge"
Warde Ford, unaccompanied vocals, recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell,
Central Valley, California, December 26, 1938.
Textual Transcript
California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell

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Learn more about relationships between Native Americans and European Americans in American history: