On this day in 1876, the Battle of Little Big Horn took place. It would turn out to be one of the biggest blunders in American military history. After the Civil War, the reunited American government picked up where it had left off in 1860, expanding west. America had won the Southwest from Mexico just prior to the outbreak of the War Between the States and the Missouri Compromise, Annexation of Texas and the Compromises of 1850 and 1860 created the states of Maine and Missouri along with the territories of Kansas, New Mexico, Utah and Nebraska. The United States was staking its claim to the land in North America and it was all thanks to Manifest Destiny.
When the Puritans, Pilgrims and Quakers settled America, they did so with the policy of Divine Providence. This policy held that the immigration from England to America in order to escape religious persecution was divinely inspired and that the New World was the land that God intended our founders to settle. Our founders believed that God was assisting them in throwing off the chains of oppression by the King of England in favor of self-government. This view of Divine Providence carried with it an attitude of compassion and cooperation towards the indigenous people of America whenever possible. Many of America’s frontier founders lived side by side with the American Indians and George Washington made it a point to get to know and understand the Indians. By the mid 1800’s, American policy had shifted from one of Divine Providence to Manifest Destiny.
Like Divine Providence, Manifest Destiny was thought to be inspired by God but unlike Divine Providence which accepted the Native Americans as neighbors (even though sometimes hostile neighbors), Manifest Destiny called for territorial expansion and assimilation of indigenous peoples. There were two schools of thought about what to do with those Native American tribes who would not go along with assimilation. One school said that those tribes should be pushed west into harsher and more open lands and eventually corralled into reservations while the other called for the destruction of those tribes as enemies of the state. While neither method was in keeping with the traditions of the founders, the majority of Americans found the reservation method more palatable.
As the American people moved west, finding gold, silver and other natural resources in the vast wilderness, mountains and valleys of the Midwest and western United States, the Native Americans were rounded up and shoved a little further out of the way. Gold was discovered in South Dakota, in an area where the Sioux tribe called home and the U.S. government began to press the Sioux to move onto reservations and away from the gold mines. The pressing started with buyouts, payoffs and bribes but soon the government realized that their offers were going nowhere. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, leaders of the Sioux, had absolutely no intention of rolling over for the “white man”. After the gold discovery in the Black Hills, the US Army ignored previous treaty agreements and invaded Sioux territory. Tens of thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen left their reservations to join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana at a camp along the Little Big Horn River.
The U.S. War Department issued an order that all Native Americans return to their reservations but 10,000 natives remained stationed along the river in defiance. General George Armstrong Custer, a hero of the Civil War who had a penchant for risk taking and somehow surviving, was sent west from the Dakotas to deal with the rebellious natives. Custer departed west from Fort Lincoln with the 7th Cavalry leaving behind the newly acquired Gatling guns because of their size. Custer thought that they would slow them down too much. On June 17th, 1,200 Native Americans repelled a US military force more than 3 times its size and 7 days later, Custer impatiently attacked with just 600 men. A Native American force of 3,000 fell upon the 600 cavalry riders and slaughtered them in less than hour. “Custer’s Last Stand” as the moment came to be known, was the worst U.S. Army defeat in the Plains Indian War and it resolved the U.S. government to press harder to control the tribes. By 1882, the remaining Sioux and Cheyenne rebels were confined to reservations and the Great Plains Indians were all but gone.