The Battle of Little Bighorn, 25–26 June 1876

Editor: Michael Spilling and Consultant Editor: Chris McNab

Little Bighorn, more than a third of Lt Col George Custer’s 7th Cavalry perished along with their commander when Custer ignored the warnings of his Indian scouts and precipitately engaged 3000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors along this river in Montana.

Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Bighorn detailing Custer;s attack. Image is taken from the book American Battles and Campaigns

The march to the Little Bighorn River

The numerous and powerful Sioux tribes and the organized and militarily skilled northern Cheyenne left their reservations in the late spring of 1876, with the intention of resisting the US Government’s authority in response to past massacres and white incursions into the Black Hills of South Dakota, land which the Sioux considered theirs.

The US Army’s response took the form of a powerful force of nearly 3000 infantry and cavalry in three converging columns pursuing the departed Indians. Gen Terry (in overall command) and his subordinates were initially unaware that the total agglomeration of Indian warriors was of approximately equal numbers and more concentrated than the army’s columns. Custer’s orders and his desire for another successful engagement on the plains allowed him to rush into attack with less than a third of the army’s total force, the result being the most resounding defeat the US Army ever suffered in the wars against the plains Indians.

Generals Terry and Crook locate the key targets

Generals Terry and Crook sent Custer’s 7th Cavalry ahead of their two columns to locate the village and vital pony herd of the missing tribes. Custer’s Crow scouts returned and told him that they had located the largest single village and pony herd that they had ever seen, claims Custer dismissed as exaggerated, despite reports of Indians shadowing his regiment and looting a fallen pack mule. Drawing closer to the village along the banks of the Little Bighorn, Custer divided his regiment of 647 men into four separate battalions, sending Maj Marcus Reno directly into the village, and Capt Frederick Benteen around the rear with the reserve ammunition, while moving his own two battalions toward the north, planning on containing and flanking the village against the river. Custer’s final communication was an order to Benteen to bring up the ammunition quickly.

Reno’s battalion moved directly into the village, where it encountered ferocious resistance, Reno taking casualties as he regrouped in a clump of trees before making a disorganized retreat toward a nearby hill. There, his men dug in and resisted sporadic attacks for the next two days, joined by Benteen’s column with the vital ammunition. Unaware of Reno’s repulse to the south and with Custer forgetting his own promise to support Reno’s thrust, Custer’s individual companies attacked the village or encountered groups of Indians under their own war chiefs boiling out of the village in a fierce response that began to overwhelm Custer’s 241 men.

Custer’s command began to disintegrate
Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his U.S. Army troops are defeated in battle with Native American Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne, on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, June 25, 1876 at Little Bighorn River, Montana. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com</em

Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his U.S. Army troops are defeated in battle with Native American Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne, on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, June 25, 1876 at Little Bighorn River, Montana. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

Custer’s command began to disintegrate as his movement north became a rout and then a headlong retreat away from Reno Hill. Individual units made their own ‘last stands’ while trying to escape destruction, their bodies found in situ by subsequent burial parties. Either because of Custer’s death or due to his last order, his final remnant of the 7th stopped its flight on ‘Custer Hill’, where the warriors and their wives finished off the survivors, killing and mutilating the wounded in traditional fashion. Terry’s column arrived and found Custer’s body stripped, but otherwise untouched. The reinforcements informed Reno’s and Benteen’s dazed survivors of the fate of their comrades, with 268 perishing in total at Little Bighorn.


Dr. Chris McNab is the editor of AMERICAN BATTLES & CAMPAIGNS: A Chronicle, from 1622-Present and is an experienced specialist in wilderness and urban survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere — an encyclopedia of military and civilian survival techniques for all environments — Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, and The Handbook of Urban Survival. In his home country of Wales, UK, Chris provides instruction on wilderness hunting techniques and he is also an experienced martial arts instructor.

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