In 1896, exactly 20 years after General George Armstrong Custer was killed alongside 261 of his cavalrymen at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the beer company Anheuser Busch brewed up a wildly popular advertising campaign. The company reproduced 150,000 copies of a lithograph called "Custer's Last Fight!" and plastered it in saloons and taverns across America.
The lithograph, based on an 1888 painting by Cassilly Adams, depicts a chaotic battle scene on the Montana plains with a dozen blue-uniformed cavalrymen laying dead or wounded on the ground as war-painted Indians finish them off with clubs and spears before ceremonially scalping the white men's corpses. In the center of the violent scrum is a long-haired Custer dressed in fringed buckskin, raising his saber skyward to dispatch one last "savage" before succumbing to the overwhelming force of his attackers.
"More people 'learned' about what they think happened at Custer's last stand from this Anheuser Busch lithograph, and probably after a few Budweisers," says Tim Lehman, a professor of history and political science at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, and author of "Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations."
In American mythology, the popular notion of Custer's "last stand" echoes the story told in that 19th-century painting. Custer's down-to-the-last defeat ranks with the Alamo as a tale of white heroism in the face of "barbaric" aggression, of patriotic martyrs dying "with their boots on" to protect Western settlers.
But the real story of Custer's last stand isn't nearly so innocent, or cut and dry. On June 25, 1876, the Civil War cavalry hero known as the "Boy General" led a U.S. Army attack on an Indian village in the Black Hills in violation of a treaty promising those lands to the Lakota Sioux. Custer and his 7th Cavalry were clearly the aggressors, and if the Battle of Little Bighorn was anyone's "last stand," it was the Plain Indians'.
"It was crystal clear to Sitting Bull and the Lakota that they would be attacked that summer, and they saw the confrontation as one last great fight for their free way of living, before they had to submit to agencies and reservations and federal domination," says Lehman.
Custer Cultivated an 'Indian Hunter' Image
Custer was a complex and controversial figure even in his day. A brash troublemaker at West Point who graduated last in his class, Custer earned fame during a series of heroic cavalry charges at the Battle of Gettysburg, which landed him on the cover of Harper's Weekly and propelled him to becoming the youngest general in U.S. military history. After the Civil War, Custer chased further glory on the Western frontier and rebranded himself as an "Indian hunter," complete with a Daniel Boone buckskin suit.
In dispatches that Custer wrote for Eastern newspapers and magazines, Custer sold himself as a veteran frontiersman with intimate knowledge of the Indians' ways, but in reality, says Lehman, Custer didn't speak a lick of Sioux or Cheyenne and had very little understanding of the tribes he fought. After the 1868 Battle of Washita River, Custer bravely (or foolishly) went to a Cheyenne encampment nearly alone to negotiate the release of hostages. The Cheyenne invited him to a pipe ceremony, which Custer took as a sign of respect, but that wasn't the intended message, says Lehman.
"They understood that Custer promised never to attack the Cheyenne again, and if he did, he would be rubbed out," says Lehman. "They took the pipe, dumped out the ashes and rubbed them into the dirt as a sign of what would happen to him."
Custer's Folly in the Black Hills
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 created a reservation for the Lakota Sioux in the Black Hills region of modern-day Montana. But when gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, Congress decided it was time to rewrite that treaty. Custer and the 7th Cavalry were sent to Montana under the pretense of convincing holdouts like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to come to the negotiating table, but the real intention, says Lehman, was a white takeover of the lucrative Black Hills gold deposits.
In June 1876, Custer was given orders to engage with the Sioux at the head of the Rosebud River, but Custer decided to follow tracks to the nearby Little Bighorn River. The preferred U.S. Army tactic was a dawn raid on Indian villages, but Custer worried that waiting for morning would sacrifice the element of surprise. So he split his forces in three and ordered the attack on Sitting Bull's encampment in mid-afternoon.
Under Custer's battle plan, Major Marcus Reno led a direct charge into the village while Custer and 120 men occupied a ridge where they could round up any escaping Sioux women and children to hold as hostages.
"This was a tactic Custer used in the Battle of Washita River with great success," says Lehman. "Custer wrote that once the women and children of an Indian village were under control, the warriors were much more docile."
Unfortunately for Custer, the plan fell apart almost instantly. Reno's men were easily repulsed by Sioux and Cheyenne fighters, and a contingent of Oglala Sioux led by Crazy Horse circled back on Custer's forces and trapped them on what's now known as Last Stand Hill. Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and stack the carcasses for a makeshift bunker, but it was hopeless. The ending captured in paintings like "Custer's Last Fight" show Custer and his men bravely fighting off the Indians until their last breath, but Lehman says that the archeological record and contemporary Indian accounts say otherwise.
"The evidence suggests 'tactical disintegration,' which is a nicer way of saying that they got really scared and started to run," says Lehman. "Once the panic set in, Indian combatants said it was like hunting buffalo — 'We just rode down and killed them.'"
The Myth is Born
The shocking news of Custer's death spread like wildfire and the newspapers immediately cast him as a martyr for Manifest Destiny. The New York Herald published this wholly fictional account of the battle's final moments:
It's unclear where the particular phrase "Custer's last stand" was first coined, but Lehman says that the mythology of a "last stand" was well entrenched at this point in the Indian Wars. Custer himself used the same poetic language in a letter to the father of a soldier named Lyman Kidder whose company was killed by an Indian ambush in 1867.
In the decades after Custer's death, the "last stand" myth was popularized not only in beer advertisements, but in Buffalo Bill Cody's immensely popular Wild West Show, in which the real Sitting Bull actually participated for a time. This fictional version of Custer's last stand was used to justify unbridled Westward expansion.
"It created the image that Custer in a 'last stand' was simply defending himself," says Lehman, "and that Americans more broadly were defending themselves from these 'aggressive hordes' of Indians who represented this savagery that was well beyond the pale of civilization. People created the death that they wanted to imagine had happened to their hero."
The "last stand" story spread by the pro-Custer press had its intended effect. Lehman says the Army experienced a rush of recruitment of so-called "Custer Avengers" who waged a series of brutal campaigns over the following year that defeated the holdout Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne once and for all.