On this date in 1876, one day after the nation celebrated its Centennial, the news of Custer’s Last Stand reached the media.
Eight years earlier, in 1868, the Great Sioux Reservation was “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians and no unauthorized person shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in.” It included Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, sacred homeland of the Sioux, at its center.
Upon rumors that illegal prospectors had found gold, in 1874 President Grant authorized General George Armstrong Custer to lead an expedition of ten companies of cavalry and infantry to investigate. They announced gold “in quantities as rich as were ever dreamed of.” The tribe, which was never consulted regarding the expedition, called it the Thieves’ Road.
In 1875, President Grant contrived a war, demonizing Sitting Bull as “hostile, lofty, independent, contemptuous, defiant, boastful, scornful, savage, untamable, uncivilized, and disrespectful of white authority”. They deliberately leaked a false report to the media and demanded the Indians to leave their unceded lands and report to their assigned agencies in the middle of winter, when travel was impossible.
In the spring, the US military commenced ground operations in a concocted war to take the Black Hills. Custer was involved again.
On this date in 1876, the New York Times read:
LATEST ACCOUNTS OF THE CHARGE. FORCE OF FOUR THOUSAND INDIANS IN POSITION ATTACKED BY LESS THAN FOUR HUNDRED TROOPS – OPINIONS OF LEADING ARMY OFFICERS OF THE DEED AND ITS CONSEQUENCES – FEELING IN THE COMMUNITY OVER THE DISASTER.
Chicago, July 6. – On June 25 Gen. Custer’s command came upon the main camp of Sitting Bull, and at once attacked it, charging the thickest part of it with five companies, Major Reno, with seven companies attacking on the other side. The soldiers were repulsed and a wholesale slaughter ensued. Gen. Custer, his brother, his nephew, and his brother-in-law were killed, and not one of his detachment escaped. The Indians surrounded Major Reno’s command and held them in the hills during a whole day, but Gibbon’s command came up and the Indians left. The number of killed is stated at 300 and the wounded at 31. Two hundred and seven men are said to have been buried in one place. The list of killed includes seventeen commissioned officers.
It is the opinion of Army officers in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, including Gens. Sherman and Sheridan, that Gen. Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians, Sitting Bull’s force being 4,000 strong. Gen. Sherman thinks that the accounts of the disaster are exaggerated. The wounded soldiers are being conveyed to Fort Lincoln. Additional details are anxiously awaited throughout the country.
So far as an expression in regard to the wisdom of Gen. Custer’s attack could be obtained at headquarters, it was to the effect that Custer had been imprudent, to say the least. It is the opinion at headquarters among those who are most familiar with the situation, that Custer struck Sitting Bull’s main camp. Gen. Drum, of Sheridan’s staff, is of opinion that Sitting Bull began concentrating his forces after the fight with Crook, and that no doubt, Custer dropped squarely into the midst of no less than ten thousand red devils and was literally torn to pieces.
The news continued the following day:
FRUITS OF THE ILL-ADVISED BLACK HILLS EXPEDITION OF TWO YEARS AGO- ABILITY OF THE ARMY TO RENEW OPERATIONS EFFECTIVELY DISCUSSED – THE PERSONNEL OF THE CHARGING PARTY STILL UNDEFINED.
Washington, July 6. – The news of the fatal charge of Gen. Custer and his command against the Sioux Indians has caused great excitement in Washington, particularly among Army people and about the Capitol. The first impulse was to doubt the report, or set it down as some heartless hoax or at least a greatly exaggerated story by some frightened fugitive. At the second thought the report was generally accepted as true in its chief and appalling incidents. The campaign against the wild Sioux was undertaken under disadvantageous circumstances owing to the refusal of Congress to appropriate money for the establishment of military posts on the upper Yellowstone River. Gen. Sherman and Gen. Sheridan both asked for these posts, which, in case of anticipated troubles would give the troops a base of supplies about four hundred miles nearer the hostile country than they could otherwise have. The posts desired would have been accessible by steamboats on the Yellowstone, which would have conveyed men and supplies. The House Committee on Military Affairs unanimously recommended their establishment, but the Committee on Appropriations refused to provide in their bills the necessary means. This is regarded as the immediate cause of the disaster. The remote cause was undoubtedly the expedition into the Black Hills two years ago in violation of laws and treaties, authorized by Secretary Belknap and led by Gen Custer. If there had been a post at the head of navigation on the Yellowstone the expedition would doubtless have proceeded thence against the Indians in one invincible column. The policy of sending three converging columns so many hundred miles against such brave and skillful soldiers as the Sioux has been the cause of some uneasiness here among the few who have taken the trouble to think about the facts and prospects. The Sioux seem to have understood clearly the plan of attack, and threw themselves with their whole force first against Gen. Crook’s column and now against Custer’s, and both times inflicted serious disaster. The feeling was common today that the campaign is a failure, and that there must follow a general Indian war, promising to be costly in men and money. The Sioux are a distinct race of men from the so-called Indians of the Southwest, among whom the army found such easy work two and three years ago. The Sioux live by the chase and feed chiefly upon flesh.
The Southern Indians are farmers and eat fruits and vegetables, the latter are at their worst cruel, cowardly robbers. The former are as much like the brave and warlike red men represented by The Last of the Mohicans as ever existed outside the covers of fiction and romance.