The Great Sioux War of 1876 was short, but it was destined to provide a bitter aftertaste to Native American and U.S. relations for decades to come. Even after the war was ended, skirmishes broke out for years. The conflict itself was less of a war set between two massive forces, and more of a long-lasting series of short engagements between adversaries competing for control over lands that had previously been held by the Native American tribes.
Although the war would eventually be won by the United States military, the Native American tribes would fight to the bitter end and held their own throughout the contest. During one such engagement, called the Battle of Rosebud Creek, the Sioux and Cheyenne would rally their forces to a miraculous win in the face of what were likely superior numbers and a better-armed force of trained U.S. soldiers.
Were it not for the persistence of younger tribe members, this victory–and subsequent ones–may never have come to pass. The Sioux and Cheyenne chiefs had a policy by which they would neither seek out nor engage the U.S. forces preemptively. Instead, they would muster their fighters and prepare for battles that might take place at a moment’s notice. Were a surprise attack to occur, then, they were ready.
Younger members of both tribes disagreed, and actively disobeyed the wishes of their chiefs. They periodically stole horses and other supplies from the U.S. army and shuttled important information about enemy position and movement back to their tribes.
This was why policy shifted toward more aggressive action on the part of the Native Americans. When those young warriors learned of the likelihood of a surprise attack on their village, they were able to use that knowledge to convince their respective tribe chiefs to launch an attack of their own.
On June 17, 1876, the two tribes successfully halted the advance of the U.S. army at the Battle of Rosebud Creek. Even though the battle would hardly be decisive, it would temporarily shift the outcome in crucial battles during the coming weeks.
General George Crook, who was in charge of the U.S. military might that day, would claim he had won. Historians dismiss his odd claim for an obvious reason. He commanded around a thousand troops during the six hour engagement and, while fewer of his men were killed or wounded than those on the opposing side, he was compelled to retreat so his force could seek required medical care and nourishment.
Meanwhile, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were provided a brief period of respite before another attack could be mounted against them. During this time, a fighting force of nearly two thousand warriors gathered to defend the region from further encroachment. The reinforcements paved the way for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s blunder at the Battle of Little Bighorn only a week later on June 25. Although Custer made tactical error after tactical error, effectively giving up every strategic advantage held, his defeat–and the slaughter of he and his men–was made possible by the Native American victory at the Battle of Rosebud Creek.