The Custer Massacre


Annotation: A magazine article from Harper’s Weekly on Custer’s last stand.

The United States government supported three forces led by Generals John Gibbon, George Cook, and George Custer to defeat the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians. Custer and his men advanced more quickly, putting them far ahead of Gibbon’s men. Meanwhile, Crook’s men had retreated when they encountered Crazy Horse and his men at Rosebud Creek.

On June 25, 1876, Custer’s scouts had observed what they thought was a retreating Indian village along the Little Big Horn River in what is now Montana. Custer knew that the Plains Indians usually scattered when attacked in order to protect non-combatants. He expected them to disperse when his men struck.

But this Indian village was far larger than Custer imagined. It contained an estimated 8,000 Indians and more than 3,000 warriors and was led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The village was three miles long and a half mile wide. (Custer had initially estimated the village’s population did not exceed 1,500).

Custer divided his command of 645 soldiers into three columns. Major Marcus Reno’s detachment approached the Indian camp from the southeast and lost a third of its men. Reno’s men retreated to a nearby ridge, where they were under siege for nearly two days.

Meanwhile, the buckskin-clad Custer and his men tried to open an attack on the Indians’ flank. But the Indians had watched Custer lead his men along the bluffs overlooking the Little Big Horn, and 1,500-2,500 warriors attacked Custer’s forces. His men, many of whom were raw recruits, were ill-prepared for combat. Lacking cover and relying on single-shot rifles, Custer’s troops fired few bullets. In contrast, many of the Indians were carrying repeating rifles and carbines. Within an hour, every soldier in Custer’s command had died. Indian losses in the battles totaled less than a hundred.

Custer’s “Last Stand” also marked the Plains Indians’ last stand. The shocking news of Custer’s defeat arrived in the east two days after the nation’s centennial, and encouraged a thirst for revenge. The Plains Indians suffered a series of defeats following the battle. The Indian alliance was shattered and Sitting Bull and some of his people fled to Canada. Buffalo Bill Cody would advertise himself as the first soldier to scalp an Indian in retaliation for Custer’s defeat. Within a year, nearly all the Plains Indians had been confined on reservations.

Document: The Custer Massacre

Harper’s Weekly

5 August 1876

The fate of the brave and gallant Custer has deeply touched the public heart, which sees only a fearless soldier leading a charge against an ambushed foe, and falling at the head of his men and in the thick of the fray. A monument is proposed, and subscriptions have been made. But a truer monument, more enduring than brass or marble, would be an Indian policy intelligent, moral, and efficient. Custer would not have fallen in vain if such a policy should be the result of his death. It is a permanent accusation against our humanity and ability that over the Canadian line the relations between the Indians and whites are so tranquil, while upon our side they are summed up in perpetual treachery, waste, and war. When he was a young lieutenant on the frontier, General Grant saw this, and watching attentively, he came to the conclusion that the reason of the difference was that the English respected the rights of the Indians and kept faith with them, while we make solemn treaties with them as if they were civilized and powerful nations, and then practically regard them as vermin to be exterminated. The folly of making treaties with the Indian tribes may be as great as treating with a herd of buffalo. But the infamy of violating treaties when we have made them is undeniable, and we are guilty both of the folly and the infamy.

We make treaties-that is, we pledge our faith-and then leave swindlers and knaves of all kinds to execute them. We maintain and breed pauper colonies. The savages who know us and who will neither be pauperized nor trust our word we pursue and slay if we can at an incredible expense. The flower of our young officers is lost in inglorious forays, and one of the intelligent students of the whole subject rises in Congress and says, “The fact is that these Indians, with whom we have made a solemn treaty that their territory should not be invaded, and that they should receive supplies upon their reservations, have seen from one thousand to fifteen hundred miners during the present season entering and occupying their territory, while the Indians, owing to the failure of this and the last Congress to make adequate appropriations for their subsistence, instead of being fattened, as the gentleman says, by the support of the government, have simply been starved.” The Red Cloud investigation of last year, however inadequate, sufficed to show the practice under our Indian policy, and we regretted then that ex-Governor Bullock of Massachusetts declined the appointment upon the commission, because there was evidently the opportunity of an exhaustive report upon the whole subject, which should have commanded the attention of the country, and would sooner or later have led to some decisive action.

It is plain that so long as we undertake to support the Indians as paupers, and then fail to supply the food; to respect their rights to reservations, and then permit the reservations to be overrun; to give them the best weapons and ammunition, and then furnish the pretext of their using them against us; to treat with them as men, and then hunt them like skunks-so long we shall have the most costly and bloody Indian wars, and the most tragical ambuscades, slaughters, and assassinations. The Indian is undoubtedly a savage, and a savage greatly spoiled by the kind of contact with civilization which he gets at the West. There is generally no interest whatever in him or his fate. But there should be some interest in our own good faith and humanity, in the lives of our soldiers and frontier settlers, and in the taxation to support our Indian policy. All this should certainly be enough to arouse a public demand for a thorough consideration of the subject, and the adoption of a system which should neither be puerile nor disgraceful, and which would tend to spare us the constant repetition of such sorrowful events as the slaughter of Custer and his brave men.