There are many myths and speculations that surround George Armstrong Custer. For one, the general opinion wavers between what his actual rank in the United States military actually was. Some sources believe he was ranked as high as a general while others place him at a rank of lieutenant colonel. Speculations of this nature make it difficult to gauge the truth on many matters regarding his life, not to mention a significant lack of public documentation compared to the days that we currently live in now. Which leaves great holes in his personal history, such as the circumstances of his death. The universally-agreed opinion is that Custer died in action against Sioux tribes. But, what were the circumstances of his death? Was there really a “Custer’s Last Stand” in the most literal meaning of the phrase?
Already known as a reckless and aggressive style of soldier, Custer had made a name for himself by acting in his own best interests for the majority of his time served in the United States military. Despite this, his success in the Civil War was well-documented and noted by his superiors, donning him a war hero, and he was sent to combat Native Americans in the northern Midwest territories of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana.
Following a court martial in 1867, Custer had been serving a year-long suspension from rank without pay for misconduct due to abandoning his regiment at Fort Wallace (allegedly to visit his wife at Fort Riley). However, due to the military’s minimal success in combating the Native Americans, they reinstated Custer early due to his known reputation as an aggressive leader and wished to take advantage of that. He was assigned back to the 7th Cavalry at southwestern Kansas in September 1868, and would help the United States win their first military victory two months later against the Southern Cheyenne. This victory cemented Custer’s reputation as a proficient fighter against the Native Americans for years to come.
Amidst the spark of a gold rush in 1874 (spurred on by reports from Custer himself), the United States government had issued that Native American tribes in the Black Hills region relocate to appropriate reservations by early 1876 or be deemed hostile. While many tribes did adhere to this decree, there were those who had begun to rise up in opposition of U.S. expansion policy, particularly Sitting Bull of the Sioux. Combining forces with Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne tribes, the Sioux began campaigning against the United States military, which ultimately led to the conflict near the Little Bighorn River, famously known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
As aggressive as he was as a soldier, Custer’s recklessness could very well be documented as the reason that he lost his life in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Whether it be due to inaccurate intelligence (sources differ on the opposing forces’ numbers, ranging anywhere from 2000 to 3000 warriors) or due to his decision to split up his own regiment into three sections that could not support each other (only about 200 soldiers had accompanied Custer in his assault on the northern reaches of the village), Custer had been overwhelmed and driven back from the Sioux village he had been targeting.
Due to the fact that there were no survivors of the conflict itself on the side of the United States military among the 200 plus in attendance with Custer, accounts are scarce on the exact circumstances of his death. It is said his body was found nude among cavalry horses with several dozen of his men who had survived long enough to take a defensive position. These accounts suggest Custer had also suffered two bullet wounds, either one fatal in and of itself. Though other accounts suggest that there may not have been any legendary “Last Stand” at all, but that the forces were overwhelmed in one swift motion by Crazy Horse’s forces. Any surviving soldiers from such an assault are speculated to have died in a ravine near the battlefield. Whatever the case may be, the death of George A. Custer and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it led the United States to mourn their war hero and increase their efforts against the Sioux, driving the majority of them to forfeit their lands and place them on reservations.