Battle of the Little Bighorn, known to Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, and commonly referred to as Custer’s Last Stand, was an armed engagement between combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army.
The battle, which occurred June 25–26, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana Territory, was the most prominent action of the Great Sioux War of 1876. The coordination and planning began to go awry on June 17, 1876, when Crook’s column retreated after the Battle of the Rosebud.
Surprised and, according to some accounts, astonished by the unusually large numbers of Native Americans in the battle, Crook held the field at the end of the battle but felt compelled by his losses to pull back, regroup and wait for reinforcements.
Unaware of Crook’s battle, Gibbon and Terry proceeded, joining forces in early June near the mouth of the Rosebud Creek. They reviewed Terry’s plan calling for Custer’s regiment to proceed south along the Rosebud, while Terry and Gibbon’s united forces would move in a westerly direction toward the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers.
As this was the likely location of Native encampments, all army elements were to converge around June 26 or 27, attempting to engulf the Native Americans.
On June 22, Terry ordered the 7th Cavalry, composed of 31 officers and 566 enlisted men under Custer, to begin a reconnaissance and pursuit along the Rosebud, with the prerogative to “depart” from orders upon seeing “sufficient reason.” Custer had been offered the use of Gatling guns, but declined, believing they would slow his command.
Half of the 7th Cavalry’s companies had just returned from 18 months of constabulary duty in the Deep South, having been recalled to Fort Abraham Lincoln to reassemble the regiment for the campaign.
About 20 percent of the troopers had been enlisted in the prior seven months (139 of an enlisted roll of 718), were only marginally trained, and had no combat or frontier experience.
A sizable number of these recruits were immigrants from Ireland, England and Germany, just as many of the veteran troopers had been before their enlistments. Archaeological evidence suggests that many of these troopers were malnourished and in poor physical condition, despite being the best-equipped and supplied regiment in the army.
After the battle, the Indians came through and stripped the bodies and mutilated all the uniformed soldiers, believing that the soul of a mutilated body would be forced to walk the earth for all eternity and could not ascend to heaven.
Inexplicably, they stripped Custer’s body and cleaned it, but did not scalp or mutilate it. He had been wearing buckskins instead of a blue uniform, and some believe that the Indians thought he was not a soldier and so, thinking he was an innocent, left him alone.
Because his hair was cut short for battle, others think that he did not have enough hair to allow for a very good scalping. Immediately after the battle, the myth emerged that they left him alone out of respect for his fighting ability, but few participating Indians knew who he was to have been so respectful. To this day, no one knows the real reason.