In the summer of 1876 the United States was celebrating the centennial of its independence. The emerging sinews of the industrial age reflected its economic might. A huge celebration took place in Philadelphia, the Centennial Exposition, with more than 200 buildings constructed to showcase American ingenuity, agriculture, industry, and power. The Main Building for the Exposition was the largest erected in the world to that time. Reconstruction from the Civil War was coming to an end. Americans reveling in the celebration in Philadelphia and other cities were dealt a severe shock when it was learned in late June that George Armstrong Custer and his entire command had been wiped out by savage Indians, at some place called the Little Big Horn.
The earliest reports in the newspapers were luridly descriptive and often wrong. Custer’s entire command had not been wiped out, but the general, as he was called (he was a lieutenant colonel at the time of his death) had been killed, as well as more than 270 of his men. The blow to American prestige was profound, and it could not have come at a worse time. Avenging Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry who had died became a national obsession. The defeat of Custer became a pyrrhic victory for the western tribes as American troops, determined to eliminate their threat forever, pursued them across the plains. At the same time, the Custer myth, which would prevail for nearly a century, arose in the United States.
Here are some of the actions taken by the American army and people to avenge George Armstrong Custer and the troops of the Seventh Cavalry following the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
1. The prelude to battle is important to understand
This narrative is focused on the aftermath of the Custer defeat, but an understanding of some aspects of the battle are necessary. In June 1876, three columns of American cavalry and infantry were on the march against the Northern Plains tribes of the Lakota and Cheyenne, determined to force the Indians to return to their reservations. Custer’s Seventh cavalry was part of the column commanded by General Alfred Terry, moving southwest into the Montana Territory. The other two columns, under General George Crook and Colonel John Gibbon, were moving to converge with Terry’s command at the Little Big Horn.
In mid-June Crook’s column fought a battle with natives on Rosebud Creek, after which, surprised by the large number if warriors encountered, he withdrew to regroup. Terry and Gibbon continued to advance, and on June 22, Custer was ordered by Terry to conduct a reconnaissance in force, along the Rosebud, with orders not to engage hostiles unless the battlefield situation made it to his advantage. In the morning of June 25, Custer learned from his scouts of the presence of a large Indian pony herd, and indications of a large village. Initially planning an attack the next day, Custer changed his plans when he learned that hostiles had followed his scouts back to their encampment.