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The Battle of Little Bighorn, Part II : Custer, and the 1875 Gold Rush

Updated on January 15, 2011

George Armstrong Custer : a stellar Military Career

At the age of thirty-three, George Armstrong Custer was already a national hero.

He graduated from the Military Academy in West Point (unfortunately as last of his class...), and in 1861 he entered the civil war as a second lieutenant. Within two years he managed to rise to the rank of brigadier-general ! Talk about a rising star...

At the end of the war, at the age of twenty-five, he was a major-general, with several successes on his record as leader of the Third Cavalry Division.

To the great public, this was presented as being the result of his sharp intellect, his lack of fear in battle, and his brilliant leadership ! If however one delves just a little deeper into the (very scarce) documentation, it soon becomes evident that he was a personal protégé of General Philip Sheridan, his superior in Fort Lincoln. By his classmates and fellow officers Custer was depicted as "reckless, rude, arrogant, selfish, immoral and immature"...

After the war, many generals of the Northern Volunteer Armies were decommissioned, and immediately it becomes clear how this rather stellar career-climbing had been made possible. Though Custer retained the brevet of volunteer major-general in a personal capacity, in the regular army he had just risen to the rank of captain ! Outside of the normal cadre, everything is possible, and nobody criticizes "peculiar" promotions...

Post War achievements

The same "friendly hand above his head" made sure however that in 1866, during an army "reorganization", he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry Regiment. That he just "happened" to gallantly leap over the ranks of commander and major was a mere coincidence...

The same "coincidence" also made sure that the regiment's full-colonel happened to be "loaned out" to another regiment, so that in practice, "former captain" Custer was in charge of a regiment !

His greatest "heroic feat" during this period was the 1868 massacre of an unsuspecting former ally, the Oklahoma Cheyennes. On direct orders from (the same) General Sheridan, he attacked a sleeping Indian village in early morning, and killed Chief Black Kettle and more than 100 Cheyenne men, women and children.

A perhaps not so nice consideration is that the Cheyennes actually considered Custer as "family", since besides his legitimate (white) wife, he also had a child with a Cheyenne squaw.

During previous meetings with the Cheyennes, Yellow Hair Custer was taken in as a "brother", and had extensively promised that he would never take up arms against them... These oaths were sworn with the ritual of the Calumet or ceremonial Peace Pipe.

General Sheridan
General Sheridan

Gold Discoveries

In 1874, rumours emerged of gold discoveries in the Black Hills, in Sioux territory. The Army had no interest whatsoever in gold, at least that was the public point of view, but General Sheridan suddenly, and purely by coincidence, wanted to build a fort at this very location.

He received the authorization to send a military expedition to the area, and purely by chance, two mining engineers happened to come along...

Sheridan sent his protégé Custer to lead the expedition, and the latter solemnly agreed that this was indeed the appropriate location to build a fort. In 1878, Fort Meade would effectively be built. But the expedition's most important discovery, although not meant for public consumption, was that effectively there was gold in the Black Hills !

The news was "accidentally" leaked to the media, and miners and gold diggers were quick to move to Sioux territory. By 1875, several mining camps were established, although the army did "everything possible" to stop the miners.

Curiously enough, the army managed to control thousands of Indians that were armed to the teeth, but apparently it seemed totally unable to handle a couple of hundred unruly prospectors..

Treaty Violations

The government tried to buy the Black Hills from the Indians, but after the previous succession of broken treaties, deliveries of rotten food and infected supplies, and totally corrupt Indian Agency Officials, this was the last straw for the Indians. Sitting Bull categorically refused to sell anything anymore.

President Grant then officially decided to ignore the treaty violations, and "not to stop" the prospectors anymore. Which pretty well demonstrates the value of an American treaty... As an unexpected bonus, in December 1875 he ordered that all Indians, that were not in their reservations by 31 January 1876, were to be considered as "hostile", and further ordered the army to remove them by force, if necessary !

Now, the winter in Montana is extremely harsh, with temperatures down to minus 40°, and a one-meter thick snow carpet from late September until April. This fact throws a particular light on his order and the proposed date. Even if they wanted to, the Indians could never make it to the reservations in time !

*** Little Bighorn Part III : the Battle ***


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    • WesternHistory profile image

      WesternHistory 6 years ago from California

      Excellent hub. Enjoyed reading it. I think the broken treaties as well as the continued inflow of settlers and miners made the Sioux War inevitable. I don't think there was any way to avoid it and Custer was just caught up in the conflict. He may have actually survived had he not broken up his command into three separate elements but history is history.