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Custer’s Last Stand

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During an erratic career, George Armstrong Custer was one of the central American military icons of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Though he graduated last in his class at West Point in 1861, he became the army’s youngest-ever brigadier general, seeing action at Gettysburg and national fame through his presence at the ultimate Union victory at Appomattox, with his own troops blocking the Confederate retreat. However, he was also suspended for ordering the execution of deserters from a forced march he led through Kansas, and found notoriety for allowing the murder in 1868 of almost one hundred Cheyenne women and children. His most (in)famous moment, though, came on June 25, 1876, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, known to native tribes as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

Custer’s was the first unit to arrive in the Little Bighorn Valley. Disdaining to await reinforcements, he set out to raze a village along the Little Bighorn River – which turned out to be the largest-ever gathering of Plains Indians. As a party of his men pursued fleeing women and children, they were encircled by two thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors emerging from either side of a ravine. The soldiers dismounted to attempt to shoot their way out, but were soon overwhelmed; simultaneously, Custer’s command post on a nearby hill was wiped out. Although American myth up to the 1960s established Custer as an unquestioned hero, archeologists and historians have since discounted the idea of Custer’s Last Stand as a heroic act of defiance in which Custer was the last cavalryman left standing; the battle lasted less than an hour, with the white soldiers being systematically and effortlessly picked off. This most decisive Native American victory in the West – led by Sitting Bull – was also their final great show of resistance. An incensed President Grant piled maximum resources into a military campaign that brought about the effective defeat of all Plains Indians by the end of the decade.

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