On June 25-26, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer and 261 members of his Seventh Cavalry were killed by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors, along the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. Eleven days later, the news flashed across telegraph wires. Americans, still celebrating the nation's 100th birthday, greeted the news with stunned disbelief. How could Custer, the Boy General of the Civil War, America's most celebrated Indian fighter, the avatar of western expansion, have been struck down by a group of warriors armed with little more than bows and arrows? Like everything else about Custer, his martyrdom was shrouded in controversy and contradictions, and the final act of his larger-than-life career played out on a grand stage with a spellbound public engrossed in the drama. In the end, his death would launch one of the greatest myths in American history.
Custer's Last Stand, a two-hour biography of one of the most celebrated and controversial icons of 19th century America, paints a penetrating psychological portrait of Custer's charismatic, narcissistic personality. From Custer's heroic exploits on the battlefields of the Civil War, to his often brutal subjugation of the Indians of the southern plains, to his highly publicized expedition into the Black Hills, Custer was a man in a hurry, desperately struggling to maintain the fame that had come to define him.
The son of an Ohio blacksmith, George Armstrong Custer was determined to transcend his lowly origins by earning a coveted spot at West Point. Always rebellious and a risk-taker, Custer graduated with a record of infractions never before equaled in the history of the academy. Fresh out of West Point when the Civil War began, Custer quickly proved more than ready for command, distinguishing himself in a series of dashing cavalry charges (including at the decisive battle of Gettysburg) that put him on the front page of Harper's Weekly. He became known as the Boy General.
At his side, often in a tent near the front lines, was the love of his life, Elizabeth Bacon Custer. They had met in the small town of Monroe, Michigan, and from the outset, shared a passion and ambition for greatness. Always more politically adept and diplomatic than her husband, Libbie provided the perfect complement to her often brash and overbearing husband. Unlike many army wives at the time, Elizabeth was determined to accompany her husband to even the most remote and dangerous posts, and she was at his side when Custer joined the Seventh Cavalry, a new regiment being mustered out to the Southern Plains of Kansas and Oklahoma.
It was 1866 and the western frontier was awash in conflict. As railroads continued to push further west and new waves of settlers followed, clashes with Indians intensified. Unaccustomed to the tactics of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Custer spent months fruitlessly chasing after elusive bands of warriors. At one point, he became so frustrated that he abandoned his command and dashed 150 miles in 55 hours just to spend one day with his wife. He was court-martialed, suspended from the army and denied pay for a year. Custer's salvation came from General Philip Sheridan, who would recall him and ask him to lead a daring new winter campaign against the Cheyenne. In a bloody dawn attack along the Washita River in 1868, Custer and his men killed 103 Indians - a few were warriors, but most were women, children and old men. Now dressed in buckskins, Custer was hailed as the nation's finest Indian fighter. He had managed to resurrect his career from the depths of disgrace and reinvent himself as a new hero of the American frontier.
Custer's heroics on the Southern Plains masked a complicated relationship with native people. As Nathaniel Philbrick, author of The Last Stand, says, "Custer... identified with them very strongly, prided himself on knowledge of their rituals and lifestyle. But, on the other hand, he's part of white civilization and saw them as a primitive race that was going to eventually melt into the shadows."
In 1874, Custer was again given a chance to be in the spotlight, this time, leading a survey expedition into the Black Hills. By the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty, these verdant hunting grounds in the middle of the Northern Plains had been guaranteed to the Sioux forever and were considered by the tribe to be their most sacred land. Sheridan hoped Custer's provocative foray into the Black Hills would spark a new Indian war and force "hostile" bands, led by the defiant chief Sitting Bull, back onto the reservations. Custer turned the expedition into a stage for himself, scouting the trail, writing reports for the army and articles for newspapers back east, collecting specimens, and writing his Civil War memoirs.
The confrontation finally came two years later. With the U.S. government doing nothing to prevent white miners from streaming into the Black Hills, thousands of Indians left the reservations and joined Sitting Bull along the tributaries of the Upper Yellowstone River. Sheridan sent Custer, under General Alfred Terry, to subdue Sitting Bull and his people once and for all.
Riding with Custer on the expedition were his two senior officers, Major Marcus Reno, a brooding melancholic with a taste for whiskey, and Captain Frederick Benteen, a dyspeptic veteran of the Plains Wars who harbored a grudge against Custer for his actions at the Washita. The tortured relationship between these two men would prove decisive in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The actual battle, on June 25 - 26, 1876, unfolded as three confrontations -- Reno's ill-fated charge into Sitting Bull's village, his ragged retreat to the bluffs where he and Benteen would hold off thousands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors for almost 36 hours, and Custer's last stand, which would be forever cloaked in mystery -- a chaotic and confused scene that to this day remains a subject of controversy and debate.
No sooner had the news of Custer's massacre reached the nation than the mythmaking began and it would be Libbie Custer who would do more than anyone to shape her husband's legacy. In a series of bestselling books, the faithful widow extolled Custer's heroic virtues and dauntless courage. She kept it up until she died in 1933. Future decades would ceaselessly re-interpret the meaning of the Custer myth, each generation seemingly adapting his story to suit the needs of their own time. For Americans during World War II, Custer served to rally a nation engaged in a fight for its survival against totalitarianism. In the Vietnam era, Custer would be seen as a symbol of American arrogance and violent imperialism.
"Custer is controversial for the same reasons he was so successful in his own time," says historian Michael Elliott. "He was an outsized personality who used the tools around him to shape himself into a public figure that embodies many of the things that make us uncomfortable about American history -- the way that Americans sometimes rush into a military action, the way that America has treated American Indians and other peoples now around the world. These are questions that are really raw and nagging and we haven't resolved them. And until we do we're going to keep returning to Custer and the controversies that surround him."
Custer's Last Stand is part of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE's Wild West collection.
My American Experience
From Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp, and George Custer to Geronimo, the real-life people who helped tame the west would shape the western heroes celebrated in film and television for decades.