Volume XXIII Issue #2 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Neil C. Mangum

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

Last Stand Hill looking toward Weir Point.
George A. Custer in 1876 (inset)

Runners reached the lodge of Sitting Bull located along the snow-clad banks of the Powder River near its juncture with the ice-clogged Yellowstone River in late winter 1876. Officials in Washington demanded that he and the Lakota Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyennes, residing in the Powder River Country, a large expanse of land in southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, must submit to reservation confinement or be considered at war with the United States government.

Sitting Bull’s reaction was mixed, sneering that he would “die on a good American horse, fighting the whites.” Later, close associates claimed that all he desired was to be left alone to live in his home country.1 The ultimatum terminated a precarious ten-year relationship between the Lakota Sioux and the United States government, sporadically punctuated by lethal combat and peaceful overtures between both parties around council fires.

Closure of the Civil War had reinvigorated a surge in western migration, blanketing the Great Plains with whites in search of farm and ranch lands, and hordes of miners spilling over the mountains in search of gold. A new road, the Bozeman Trail, angled through the Powder River basin, home to the powerful Sioux, crossing the Powder, Tongue and Bighorn rivers before touching Bozeman, Montana, and leading to the mining camps around Virginia City. The public insisted on, and the government conceded, the necessity of safe passage for miners and settlers along the Bozeman Trail. (See Map.) (pdf).

Three military posts protected trail travel, Forts Reno and Phil Kearny in Wyoming Territory, and C. F. Smith in Montana Territory. The Sioux reacted swiftly and violently to the interlopers. Warriors under the leadership of Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, who had emerged as a young mystic, contested the soldier forts. On December 21, 1866, Red Cloud’s warriors decoyed more than 80 bluecoats from Fort Phil Kearny. Capt. William Fetterman, leader of the soldier element, perished alongside his entire command. Fetterman’s shocking defeat aroused the nation and the military reacted by funneling more troops into the territories of Wyoming and Montana. (For more on Forts Kearny and C. F. Smith, and the Fetterman Massacre, see Pp. 62-65.)
Notwithstanding defensive victories over the Indians in August 1867 at the Hayfield near Fort C. F. Smith and the Wagon Box near Fort Phil Kearny, the unrelenting pressure exerted by Red Cloud on travel eventually compelled the government to withdraw all troops. Despite the government’s abandonment of the forts and the Bozeman Trail, miners found alternative routes to reach the gold fields, principally via the Union Pacific Railroad under rapid construction across southern Wyoming.2

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