Understanding the Battle of Little Bighorn

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13152

Known as Custer's Last Stand, it was the last major battle of the Indian Wars and the Native Americans' greatest victory. It's also one of the most argued-about events in U.S. history. Find out why!


United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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The Little Bighorn River runs 138 miles in Wyoming and Montana. It's a branch of the Bighorn River, from which it gets its name.

At one point along its banks in Montana, the beautiful rolling hills and long, swaying grass make a beautiful site for a national park.

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park

It's an extraordinary national park with one feature that no other historical park has.

Look at the image below. Notice all the markers in the grass.

gravestone markers

They're not graves, but they do tell a story of life and death.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was a crushing defeat for the U.S. Calvary and their fearless leader, George Armstrong Custer, and it was a great military victory for the tribes of the Plains; yet it was a short-lived victory, and most of the Native Americans would soon move to reservations.

Treaty of Ft. Laramie

In 1868, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Lakota Sioux, saying that they could keep their territory in the Black Hills as part of their reservation.

However, a few years later, the government ordered that all Native Americans in the area go to reservations by January 31, 1876, or they would be removed by force.

  • Do you know why the government changed the policy and decided to force the Natives to leave the Black Hills? Can you guess?

If you guessed that there was gold in those hills, you are correct!

From that time on, the troops on the western frontier were ordered to drive out or kill all Native Americans who refused to go. The Army thought a fellow named George Armstrong Custer was the man for the job.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

Brevet Major General Custer, 1865

George Armstrong Custer was a hero of the Civil War. He won fame by taking his position in front of the troops and leading them forward.

With his great ability to lead and inspire men to fight with him, he was named a Brigadier General at the incredibly young age of 23.

Learn more about the boy general as you watch the following video.

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After the Civil War, Custer found he was no longer a General but only a Lt. Colonel. He was sent out west to the 7th Cavalry, whose job was to protect settlers and miners.

On the frontier, the soldiers didn't admire Custer as the Civil War troops had. He was extremely strict with them but broke the rules himself. He shot deserters without a trial and left comrades behind without searching for them.

At Little Bighorn, he made a few costly mistakes. He underestimated the number of Native warriors, split his troops up, and left the main attacking force without a backup because he just had to chase a group of Natives that he couldn't let get away.

Custer's Troops

Historians wondered how Native warriors with bows and arrows, tomahawks, and clubs could defeat an experienced and well-trained regiment of soldiers with up-to-date weapons.

But modern historical detectives have found that's not exactly how it was.

First of all, there were only about 500 troops, and they were in bad shape. They were mostly poor, young immigrants. Scientists have studied their skeletons and discovered that they were not well-fed. Many had arthritis (painful swelling around the joints) and badly needed dental care.

On the morning of the battle, they had ridden all night and had little to eat. They must have been exhausted and hungry, and many were in pain.

Native Warriors

Close to 8,000 natives of the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes had refused to go to the reservation (or had left it) and found their way to Sitting Bull's camp near the river. It was probably the largest gathering of Plains Indians ever in one place. There were about 2,000 Native warriors who fought Custer's force that day.

The Cavalry had no idea the group was so large.

Archaeologists studying the battle site discovered that the Plains warriors were much better armed than the Army realized. It's now estimated that the native warriors had at least 800 guns, many of which were easier to handle and quicker-firing than the Cavalry's.

Cavalry Leaders

Major Reno

Marcus Reno, 1876

Major Marcus Reno was the senior officer serving under Custer at the battle.

After splitting his troops three ways, Custer ordered Reno to attack the village and said the rest would back him up. That didn't happen, and Reno's group was slaughtered. He lost almost half his men and had to retreat.

Some reports say that he was badly shaken after that. Witnesses said he started drinking a bottle of whiskey and told Captain Fredrick Benteen to take charge.

Captain Benteen

Benteen, 1865

Captain Fredrick Benteen was known for his skill and bravery in the Civil War and was in command of a battalion under Custer at Little Bighorn.

Benteen was one of the men who strongly disliked Custer. He considered him a braggart (someone who brags a lot, a vain person).

Benteen questioned Custer's order when he was told to split off and take his men to scout a certain area. He scouted for several hours and did not find any Native Americans. He turned around to rejoin Custer.

Then Benteen met Reno on his retreat, and Reno begged him to stay with him and help him.

Benteen has been criticized for not rushing back to help Custer immediately.

You'll have a chance to do some research and learn more about Benteen's decision in the Got It? section.

Native Leaders

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, 1883

Sitting Bull was the leader of the Lakota Sioux who had refused to accept the Treaty of Ft. Laramie and refused to go to a reservation.

At Little Bighorn, he was too old to lead in battle, but he was a deeply respected spiritual leader. He had a vision that the Indians would win the battle, and they believed him.

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse was a brave warrior, much admired by his people, and a leader in the battle. Some stories say that he was the one who killed Custer, but no one knows for sure.

depiction of Crazy Horse in war paint

The Battle

A force of around 500 U.S. Calvary troops faced about 2,000 Native warriors.

  • Not very good odds, are they?

Watch what happened in this clip.

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The final fight — Custer's famous Last Stand — was over quickly. One Native witness said it took as long as it takes for a hungry man to eat his dinner!

In the end, 225 Calvary soldiers died, including Custer and two of his brothers.

It's not known for certain how many Native warriors died. It's estimated that it was between 36 and 100.

The Outcome

Although the Native warriors won the Battle of Little Bighorn, they did not necessarily win the right back to live peacefully in the Black Hills.

Shortly after the battle, 8,000 Plains Indians broke up, searching for better hunting and resources. Many returned to their reservations after celebrations in the valley.

Eventually, the Sioux were made to give up their land to the U.S. Government to continue receiving supply rations to their reservations. The Sioux and other Plains Indians continue to fight for their right to the land.

The Monument

  • What do the markers mean on the Little Bighorn Battlefield?

This is the only battlefield in the world where markers show where the U.S. soldiers fell, not where they're buried. They were buried there at first, but their bodies have since been moved to a nearby cemetery.

The markers remain as a memorial to the battle. And they've been accommodating for historians to piece together what happened during the fight.

There's a monument in a fenced-off area called Last Stand Hill, where General Custer and his men made their last stand.

Little Bighorn National Monument

There's also a monument to the Indian warriors who died.

Battlefield Monument

Watch the video below for a quick tour of the battlefield.

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Next, move on to the Got It? section, where you'll look at the story from some artists' points of view and write a journal entry as one of the combatants!

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