Custer’s Last Stand – the Battle of Little Bighorn

Mad, bad or misunderstood? Little Bighorn and the Custer enigma.

On a hot Sunday afternoon in June 1876, the most notorious battle in American history took place among the remote high plains of present-day Montana.

Battle of Little BighornThe word “battle” does little justice to the violent and brutal events of that fateful day. Suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, 221 men of the US 7th Cavalry were swiftly annihilated. Helplessly encircled on an exposed hilltop, many of the young men fought bravely; some threw down their weapons and lay on the ground crying; others made a desperate charge down the hill to escape, only to plunge straight into the mouth of the Indian village. It made no difference. There were no survivors.

News of the disaster reached the East on 4th July, as Americans were proudly celebrating the 100th Anniversary of their independence from Britain. The realisation that the cream of their armed forces had been massacred by what were seen as primitive savages caused a deep sense of outrage as well as grief.

Even after the Indian “problem” had been resolved, the traumatic events of that day would leave a lasting scar on America’s psyche. The chief casualty of that was the man who had led the troops to their doom – 7th Cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer. For somebody who had always courted fame, the Little Big Horn would guarantee immortality – but for all the wrong reasons.

Custer, the man

George Armstrong CusterTwo things ‘made’ Custer – his family background and the American Civil War. An inveterate practical joker and risk-taker from a poor but happy family, Custer was thrust straight into the reality of war, leaving WestPoint as the North-South conflict began. Though initially frightened by action, he quickly learned that being on the front foot, being the aggressor, gave him a huge psychological advantage over his opponents. His battle philosophy rapidly developed into “Attack! Attack! Attack!” and it brought him sensational success, winning victory after victory. In a Union army beset by incompetence and failure, Custer shot to the top, becoming a ‘brevet’ General at the age of 21. He was also a celebrity with articles about the “Boy General” in newspapers as far apart as New York and London.

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Native Americans and the Civil War

The American Civil War was a years-long battle that divided the United States into two: north versus south. The war is most often remembered for its role in the end of slavery in the South, but many other political issues affected how each side was supported. The process of taking sides in the battle split families and friendships and created conflict between once-peaceful communities. But the Civil War was especially complex for Native Americans.

Native American tribes living in warring states were forced to make choices that affected their future. Tribes understood that aligning with the losing side could eventually put their freedom at risk. They also risked losing the ancestral lands they occupied. But there was disagreement over which side was the right one to follow, and that caused Native Americans to split their support. In some cases, individual tribes split to support opposing sides, creating another layer of conflict in the already complex fight between states.

Divided interests and allegiances

Native Americans and the Civil War  In total, more than 28,000 Native Americans participated in the American Civil War. (Pictured, an unidentified Native Indian during the Civil War, photographed by Mathew Brady). In many cases, the motivations for entering the war and choosing a side depended on perspective. For example, in the Union states, Native Americans had greater latitude in deciding whether to fight or stay out of the conflict. There were incentives to get involved, such as building goodwill with the government and continuing the tradition of fierce, brave tribal warriors. Perhaps most importantly, participating in the war carried the potential to earn Native Americans increased respect and ultimately help them preserve their culture within a growing country.

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Native Americans: Major Players in the French and Indian War

If the French and Indian War of the mid-18th century had turned out differently, the official language of today’s United States might be French, not English. Some historians credit Native American nations, including the Chickasaw, for the British victory.

Native Americans figured prominently on both sides of the hostilities. Far from being pawns of European powers, tribe leaders were pursuing their economic and historic interests.

Brief Overview of the French and Indian War (1756-1763)

The war was primarily a contest between imperial France and Britain for control over lucrative colonies in North America. Quebec and the Ohio River Valley were at the heart of the competition — and were the primary battlegrounds.

French and British forces didn’t fight any major battles south of the Ohio River Valley. But the southern arena had strategic importance, because it lay between the valley and the French colony of Louisiana. Raids by native forces allied with the British complicated French resupply efforts from the south. Thus, France not only had difficulty equipping its troops, but often lacked sufficient Continue reading

What’s in a name? Cultural significance of Native American monikers

When naming their children, parents usually consider several factors, from family names passed down through generations, to names that reflect their hope for a child’s future behavior. In Native American cultures, choosing a child’s name is a complex process influenced by social hierarchies and personal characteristics. Adding even more layers to an already rich process, Native American names usually change over an individual’s lifetime to reflect milestones, accomplishments and actions.

Changing to fit the person

Mohegan tribeIn the Mohegan tribe in upper Connecticut, children receive descriptive names when they’re young. As they grow into adolescence, they receive a new name that reflects their experiences. Names may even change several times over a lifetime. Mohegan tribe member Brooke Wompsi’kuk Skeesucks says that the number of names people have reflects their personality; she explains that some people are like lakes, in that they change very little over time, while others are like a river that narrows and widens as it flows, eventually spreading out when it reaches the ocean.

Perhaps the closest parallel in modern U.S. culture lies in the nickname. Most people collect one, two or even several nicknames throughout their lives, starting with pet names in infancy to childhood nicknames and beyond. These nicknames can often serve as reminders of past relationships and selves; in contrast, the Native American tradition of changing names encourages individuals to continually strive to grow and change over time.

Natural connections

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Four Native American cultures that shaped the US

Much of what we think we understand about Native Americans today is outdated – stereotypes and misrepresentations perpetuated by outdated textbooks and portrayals in film and on television. But by digging a little deeper and trying to learn more about native tribes, we can see their influence and appreciate their contributions to the culture we all share today.

1. Apache

Originally coming from regions near Alaska and Canada, Apache Indians were a nomadic people that constantly traveled around the southern half of the United States. Buffalo was a valuable commodity for the tribe; not just for the meat they provided for food, but for the clothing their strong hides offered as well. The Apache were a very resourceful people. In fact, many historical texts have cited the Apache as one of the first Indian tribes to learn how to ride horses and use them for other beneficial purposes.

2. Chickasaw

The Chickasaw tribe migrated from what we now know as Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee to south-central Oklahoma in the mid-19th century. Like many Native Americans, the tribe has a strong connection with nature and the elements, which is still preserved today. Although this tribe had a softer spot for nature, they were also fearless warriors – known as the “unconquered and unconquerable.” Traditionally, Chickasaw men hunted for food and went to war to protect the tribe and their families, while the women would farm, care for the children and cook. One notable skill of the Chickasaw is their admirable skills in storytelling, traditional medicine and art of countless varieties, which can all be experienced in a visit to the Chickasaw Nation.

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The Trail of Tears

Sally M’ remembers the influence of the Trail of Tears on her childhood games…

As a young girl I was obsessed with Native American culture. I lived in Michigan, right in the middle of the state on 5 acres of land mostly covered by a forest that stretched much further than our boundaries. I would spend hours exploring the woods with quiver on back, and bow in hand, imagining I was a young Indian warrior stalking deer in the woods. I loved to learn about Native Americans and how they lived. My dad even helped me build my own tepee just behind our house.

Reading about Native American history, I inevitably came across the Trail of Tears and as I read about the Indian removal I always had the single question, “Why did they agree to leave their land?” Even at such a young age I knew that what our government had done was wrong, but this is not an article aimed at reopening old wounds or bashing the early American government. After a time I realized the answer to my question, and the answer came in the form of the quote below from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, written during the mid-19th century.

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The White Indian Chief – the life of William Holland Thomas

Kat Smutz describes how a white American came to lead a tribe of Cherokee Indians.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 resulted in the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole Indians were forced to relocate to lands further west, making 25 million acres of land available for settlement by whites.

White Son

The Cherokee Nation found a champion in a white son adopted by the tribe, a man named William Holland Thomas.  Born February 5, 1805 in Haywood County, North Carolina, Thomas had lived close to the Cherokee as he grew up.  He served as their agent for 25 years before the American Civil War.

When President Andrew Jackson pushed through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Thomas appealed the cause of the Cherokee and earned the right for an estimated 1,000 Cherokee to remain in western North Carolina.  These became the present day Eastern Band, known also as the Oconaluftee.

Drowning Bear

Just before his death in April 1839, Cherokee chief Yonaguska (“Drowning Bear”) gathered his people and told them that he wished for his adopted son, “Little Will”, to succeed him.  The tribe honored Yonaguska’s wishes, and Thomas became the only white man to stand as chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, some speculated about which side the Cherokee would take.  They lived in the South, but they did not own slaves.  Neither did most of their highland neighbors.  Thomas realized that there was another reason for the inhabitants of the mountains to fight.  The Union army had taken possession of Eastern Tennessee and posed a threat to Western North Carolina.  Bushwhackers posing as Home Guards were already terrorizing the area.  With their in-depth knowledge of survival tactics in the region, the Native Americans and highlanders were the logical choice to defend their own homes.

In September 1862, William Holland Thomas organized his own regiment that became known as “Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders.”  Common practice in the Confederate Army was to choose officers by election.  The 1,125 men of the regiment elected Thomas as their colonel.  The regiment mustered as many as 2,500 men during the war, which included 400 Cherokee of the Cherokee Battalion.

A man of many parts

During his lifetime, Thomas accomplished a great deal.  He is credited as a businessman, planter and author; with building the first wagon road across the Smokies; serving as senator to the North Carolina Legislature; building railroads; and serving as an attorney for the Cherokee, as well as being their agent, chief and leader in time of war.

After the war, William Holland Thomas returned home with the hope of reentering politics.  However, his mental state began to decline and in March 1867, he was declared insane.  Some have speculated that Thomas was actually suffering from Alzheimer’s.  He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions until his death at Morganton, North Carolina on May 10, 1893.

Kat Smutz

Kat is the author of two History In An Hour titles: American Slavery and The American Civil War.

See also articles on Trail of Tears, Four Native American cultures and Native American names.