It was a clash of cultures that lives on in legends and in history books – the tragic and bloody Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in Montana on June 25, 1876.
George Armstrong Custer had graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point in 1861. He served with the Union Army as a cavalry brigade commander during the Civil War and, under his leadership, his division won decisive battles including blocking Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s attempted retreat. Custer was also present at Appomattox when the defeated Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.
Following the end of the Civil War, Custer’s military career accelerated quickly with his appointment as a Lt. Colonel with the U.S. Army which was intent on winning battles during what became known as the Indian Wars.
Leading the 7th Cavalry, Custer set his sights on achieving a decisive defeat of Indian tribes in the Montana Territory. A coalition of approximately 10,000 Native American warriors including Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes led by Chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had gathered in defiance of the U.S. Army.
He continually cultivated an image of his daring and bravery in the media who followed his exploits. Journalists wrote glowingly of the young military hero with his shoulder-length golden curls who boasted of his accomplishments on the battlefield. Unfortunately, Custer was, in many ways, media-made and like too many, prone to narcissistic behavior, he began to believe his own public relations stories.
As Custer led his troops toward the fatal confrontation in the Bighorn Valley, his personal desire for glory fame and honor replaced the reality of his having only 600 troops which were riding toward overwhelming forces. Custer’s hubris and ego overruled any sense of better judgement. Rather than waiting for reinforcements, Custer moved forward facing overwhelming odds to attack the native tribes.
This serious mistake in judgement cost Custer his life and at the end of the day, 143 years ago, the battle he hoped to win would go down in history as “Custer’s Last Stand”. 268 men, one third of his troops, would die on the battlefield of the Little Bighorn, as would George Armstrong Custer himself.