Custer’s Last Stand – June 25, 1876

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | June 23, 2016

June 23, 2016
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You hear it all the time now. “The United States has been at war” – pause – “for longer than at any time in our history.” On TV, talk radio, from the mouths of candidates, even. The statement, nonetheless, is wrong. The Afghan-Iraq War is only in its 15th year. The longest running war in which the United States has fought – in a remote and dangerous place, against tribal peoples constantly at war, not only with the U.S., but each other – began in 1854 and ended in 1890. For 36 blood-soaked years, in what now, mostly, is Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona, the Plains Indian War went on, and on, for decades.  Its aim, westward expansion – by invading, incrementally, an independent nation – was ultimately realized, yet its emblematic battle, oddly, is one in which the tables turned.  This month marks the 140th anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand, in which the Sioux and Cheyenne vanquished a hitherto indomitable general and killed, to a man, not only General George Armstrong Custer, but his entire command (including, astonishingly, two of his brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew.) It was a shocking reversal of destiny – which, as much an anything, traced back to an awful, ancient motive: gold, and what people would do to get it.

Days Before Leaving to Drive Out the “Indians” from the Bighorn Country, Custer Predicts Mining Fortunes To Be Made There

The American people need the country the Indians now occupy; many of our people are out of employment; the masses need some new excitement….The depression prevails on every side. An Indian war would do no harm, for it must come sooner or later. – Bismarck Tribune, June 14, 1874

The rumors about mineral deposits, about silver and gold, had been persistent for years. The Black Hills and the Yellowstone country were supposed to be rich with treasure: Custer, in fact, had even found gold during the Black Hills Expedition, two years before. Now he was setting out for the Yellowstone, to clear out the Indians – and who knew what fortunes might be made then? Just four days before leaving Fort Lincoln, on the mission that would culminate in the disaster on the Little Bighorn, Custer writes to college friends, laying out a sparkling vision:

If the expeditions now about moving into the Big Horn or Yellowstone country succeed in pacifying or driving out the Indians, I believe that opportunities will be found for accumulating fortunes rapidly. But of course all this is problematical as much of this is new rumor. It is represented to be richer in minerals than the Black Hills.

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer in field uniform, May 1865
Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer in field uniform, May 1865. Library of Congress.

He does not suggest, however, that his old friends pack up and move – just yet: “I would hesitate to advise any person to cast their fortunes in an undeveloped or unknown country until something more positive or reliable was known regarding its resources.” He hopes, in the near future, an “opportunity would present itself… to renew the pleasant friendship” begun in youth.  But Custer, writing here, had no future: all that lay ahead was an enormous Indian encampment at the Little Bighorn. He would be dead, slaughtered with his command, in forty-two days… This most famous defeat in U.S. military history took place on Sunday, June 25, 1876, amid the hilly terrain along the Little Bighorn River in south central Montana, at about 4:30 in the afternoon.  Start to finish, it lasted, maybe, a half hour. Custer and five 7th Cavalry companies were positioned, hurriedly, on two adjoining hilltops, above an Indian village in a valley below. At least a 1,000 warriors, firing at least 5,000 bullets and 10,000 arrows, rushed up and flanked them – probably.  No soldier survived to tell.

When, almost immediately afterward (for the entire Battle of the Little Bighorn, of which Custer’s Last Stand was the epicenter, lasted two days), the legendary Custer was discovered dead, along with every man in his seemingly invincible command, a shocked nation wanted to know why such a reversal of fortune occurred.

That question has been answered, repeatedly, by every generation’s Custer battle historiographers – and millions of Little Bighorn buffs. Custer is a doomed hero one decade, a genocidal murderer the next; he led his men brilliantly, he led his men recklessly, he was outgeneraled by Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, he was betrayed by Captains Benteen and Reno. But in all the melee, amid the mystery and the legend, there is one note of consensus: everyone agrees that Custer’s path to the Little Bighorn began in the Black Hills two years before when, not quite unexpectedly, he found gold….

In the summer of 1874, Custer led an expedition of 1,000 men for two months 300 miles across the Plains and Badlands, to the uncharted Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. He was there to find two things. Officially, he was looking for a location to build a fort. Unofficially, he was looking for gold. Custer’s luck, he found both. And, just as exciting, a fertile, well-watered and wooded land as well. A gold strike in an agriculturally-viable timbered territory: this was sensational news. The country was, after all, in a Depression – and the Black Hills offered something for everyone. The U.S. Treasury, still in debt from the Civil War, needed gold, to repay a debt owed in gold. Farmers, their crops devastated by the grasshopper plague of ’74, needed new farmland.  Settlers needed timber, to build towns on the treeless Plains. And everyone, including Custer, wanted – if not needed – to mine gold and get rich quick. There was only one drawback: the land belonged, by treaty, to the Sioux nation. Which explained, initially, why the government wanted to build a fort. The Sioux and Cheyenne, it worried, already could move through the Black Hills to attack settlements to the South; imagine what they would do, then, when American settlers flooded their land. By 1876, there were 4,000 miners in the Black Hills – and young Sioux men, already furious with “white” incursions into their land, were radicalized by their illegal presence…

As for the gold strike? Commenting from the ranks, only a couple months before Custer wrote here, a trooper from Buffalo, John Wild, delivered this prediction in a letter home:

I also send you a Bismarck paper a few days ago, to show you what excitement there is here about the Black Hills and Gold but I bet good money will be disappointed by going there.

Wild, who had campaigned with Custer in ’74 and died with him in ’76, was right. The gold strike Custer so believed in, that he gave cordial support to the settlement of the Black Hills and urged the extinguishing of Indian title to those lands where “opportunities will be found for accumulating fortunes rapidly”, never panned out.

GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER.  1839 – 1876. Legendary American soldier. The youngest general in American history, he has been lionized, and vilified, for losing his entire command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Autograph Letter Signed (“G.A. Custer”), 2 pages, recto and verso, octavo, Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, May 13, 1876. To “My Dear Friends.”

JOHN WILD.  c. 1850 – 1876.  Corporal, U.S. 7th Cavalry, Company I; killed June 25, 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Previously a printer, he left a widow, Annie.

“Corporal Wild of the 7th Cavalry Bets That the Black Hills Gold Rush – Set Off By Custer’s Discovery of Gold There in 1874, Two Years Earlier – is a Bust” Autograph Letter Signed, 2 pages, recto and verso, octavo, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, February 6, 1876. To his brother William Wild in Buffalo, New York.