United States and American History: 1876 and Custer's Last Stand

About the history of the United States in 1876 when the Second Sioux War broke out and Custer had his famous last stand against Sitting Bull.


June 25 The 2nd Sioux War was sparked by a gold rush into Dakota territories, as well as the extension of the route of the Northern Railroad. The Secretary of War had warned of serious trouble if nothing were done "legally" to obtain possession of the Dakotas "for the white miners who have been strongly attracted there by reports of the precious metal."

The President sent in troops led by 36-year-old Gen. George A. Custer--he had been a Brigadier General at the age of 23, despite the fact that he had been last in his class at West Point--to search out and destroy the local Sioux, who were led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. On the afternoon of this day, in a ravine of the Little Big Horn River in Montana, General Custer and his 5 companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry were ambushed by Sitting Bull's 3,500 Sioux and Cheyenne braves. In a fierce 3-hour battle, Custer and his 266 officers, enlisted men, and guides were wiped out.

Sitting Bull later recalled Custer's death: "Where the last stand was made, the Long Hair stood like a sheaf of corn with all the ears fallen around him." Custer's corpse was later found stripped naked, a bullet through his brain, another through his chest. The only living thing to survive the massacre was Capt. Myles Keogh's horse, Comanche, who, despite 7 bullet wounds, reached the age of 28. (The oldest horse in today's U.S. Army is Black Jack, who was 28 in 1975 and who was the riderless horse in the funerals of President Hoover, General MacArthur, President Kennedy.) Comanche's mounted body may be seen in the Kansas State University Museum, in Lawrence, Kans.

One of the legends of American history is that not one human being survived Custer's Last Stand. Yet for Custer's 266 presumed dead--there were only 260 bodies. What happened to the other 6? The bodies of these 6--3 lieutenants, 2 enlisted men, one doctor--were never found nor were the men heard of again. They were listed as missing in action. In his study of Little Big Horn, the historian Charles Kuhlman reported the end of the massacre:

At last the [soldiers'] shots ceased to come from behind the dead horses. The Indians near them ran forward, shouting to those farther back that all the soldiers were dead. To their surprise, 6 men jumped up and ran away toward the river, getting over the cutbank before any of them could be killed. Both Wooden Leg and Kate Bighead saw these men run away, but the ridge shut them from sight of the former at once and he saw nothing further of them . . . Kate Bighead could see them until they disappeared in the smoke and dust with hundreds of Cheyennes and Sioux after them, but she did not see what became of them.

Years later, the Indians reported the rumor that these 6 had killed themselves to avoid capture. Army historians speculated that they were probably captured by the Indians and tortured to death. The Army wrote them off as being among Custer's 266 killed in the Last Stand.

But the mystery remains. Besides Custer, 266 men--but only 260 bodies. And the remaining 6 bodies never discovered. Suicides? Tortured to death? Maybe-yet, the surrounding area was combed clean for months and years after, and not a trace of an additional corpse, skeleton, or grave was ever found.

Oct. 31 The victorious Sioux, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, were finally defeated and forced to surrender.

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