Images of George Armstrong Custer and His Final Fight Became Iconic

01
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A Massacre in 1867 Introduces Custer to the Brutality of Warfare on the Plains

Custer with Kidder's Body
Custer with Kidder's Body. New York Public Library

Custer and Troopers of the 7th Cavalry Were Wiped Out at the Little Bighorn

By the standards of 19th century warfare, the engagement between George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry and Sioux warriors on a remote hillside near the Little Bighorn River was little more than a skirmish. But the battle on June 25, 1876 cost the lives of Custer and more than 200 men of the 7th Cavalry, and Americans were stunned when the news from the Dakota Territory reached the east coast.

Shocking reports about Custer's demise first appeared in the New York Times on July 6, 1876, two days after the nation's centennial celebration, under the headline, "Massacre of Our Troops."

The idea that a unit of the US Army could be wiped out by Indians was unthinkable, and Custer's final battle was elevated to a national symbol. These images related to the Battle of the Little Bighorn give an indication of how the defeat of the 7th Cavalry was portrayed.

Gratitude is extended to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for permission to use images in this gallery.

George Armstrong Custer had been through years of combat in the Civil War, and became known for leading daring, if not reckless, cavalry charges. On the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer performed heroically in an enormous cavalry fight which was overshadowed by Pickett's Charge, which occurred on the same afternoon.

Later in the war Custer became a favorite of reporters and illustrators, and the reading public became familiar with the dashing cavalryman. 

Not long after arriving in the West, he witnessed the results of combat on the plains.

In June 1867, a young officer, Lieutenant Lyman Kidder, with a detachment of ten men, was assigned to carry dispatches to a cavalry unit commanded by Custer near Fort Hays, Kansas. When Kidder's party did not arrive, Custer and his men set out to search for them.

In his book My Life On the Plains, Custer told the story of the search. Sets of horse tracks indicated that Indian horses had been chasing cavalry horses. And then buzzards were seen in the sky.

Describing the scene he and his men encountered, Custer wrote:

"Each body was pierced by from 20 to 50 arrows, and the arrows were found as the savage demons had left them, bristling in the bodies.

"While the details of that fearful struggle will probably never be known, telling how long and gallantly this ill-fated little band contended for their lives, yet the surrounding circumstances of ground, empty cartridge shells, and distance from where the attack began, satisfied us that Kidder and his men fought as only brave men fight when the watchword is victory or death."

02
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Custer, Officers, and Family Members Pose on the Great Plains

Custer On a Hunting Party
Custer on a Hunting Party. New York Public Library

Custer gained a reputation during the Civil War for having many photographs taken of himself. And while he didn't have many opportunities to be photographed in the West, there are some examples of him posing for the camera.

In this photograph, Custer, along with officers under his command and, apparently, members of their families, pose on a hunting expedition. Custer was fond of the hunting on the plains, and was even called upon at times to escort dignitaries. In 1873, Custer took the Grand Duke Alexie of Russia, who was touring the United States on a goodwill visit, buffalo hunting.

In 1874, Custer was dispatched on more serious business, and led an expedition into the Black Hills. Custer's party, which included geologists, confirmed the presence of gold, which set off a gold rush in the Dakota Territory. The influx of whites created a tense situation with the native Sioux, and ultimately led to Custer attacking the Sioux at the Little Bighorn in 1876.

03
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Custer's Last Fight, a Typical Depiction

Custer's Last Fight
Custer's Last Fight. New York Public Library

In early 1876 the US government decided to drive the Indians out of the Black Hills, although the territory had been granted to them by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

Lieutenant Colonel Custer led 750 men of the 7th Cavalry into the vast wilderness, leaving Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory on May 17, 1876.

The strategy was to trap the Indians who had rallied around the Sioux leader, Sitting Bull. And, of course, the expedition turned into a disaster.

Custer discovered that Sitting Bull was camped near the Little Bighorn River. Instead of waiting for a full force of the US Army to assemble, Custer divided the 7th Cavalry and chose to attack the Indian camp. One explanation is that Custer believed the Indians would be confused by separate attacks.

On June 25, 1876, a brutally hot day on the northern plains, Custer encountered a much larger force of Indians than anticipated. Custer and more than 200 men, approximately one third of the 7th Cavalry, were killed in the battle that afternoon.

The other units of the 7th Cavalry also came under intense attack for two days, before the Indians unexpectedly broke off the conflict, packed up their immense village, and began leaving the area.

When US Army reinforcements arrived, they discovered the bodies of Custer and his men on a hill above the Little Bighorn.

There was a newspaper correspondent, Mark Kellogg, riding along with Custer, and he was killed in the battle. With no definitive account of what happened during Custer's final hours, newspapers and illustrated magazines took license to depict the scene.

The standard depiction of Custer usually shows him standing among his men, surrounded by hostile Sioux, bravely fighting to the end. In this particular print from the late 19th century, Custer stands above a fallen cavalry trooper, firing his revolver.

04
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Portrayals of Custer's Demise Were Generally Dramatic

Heroic Death of Custer
Heroic Death of Custer. New York Public Library

In this depiction of Custer's death, an Indian wields a tomahawk and a pistol, and appears to fatally shoot Custer.

The Indian tipis portrayed in the background make it seem that the battle took place in the center of an Indian village, which is not accurate. The final fighting actually took place on a hillside, which is how it's generally portrayed in the many motion pictures that have depicted "Custer's Last Stand."

In the early 20th century Indian survivors of the battle were asked who actually killed Custer, and some of them said a southern Cheyenne warrior named Brave Bear. Most historians discount that, and point out that in the smoke and dust of the battle it is probable that Custer did not stand out much from his men in the eyes of the Indians until after the fighting was over.

05
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The Noted Battlefield Artist Alfred Waud Portrayed Custer Facing Death Bravely

Custer's Last Fight by Alfred Waud
Custer's Last Fight by Alfred Waud. New York Public Library

This engraving of Custer's final battle is credited to Alfred Waud, who was a noted battlefield artist during the Civil War. Waud was not present at the Little Bighorn, of course, but he had drawn Custer on a number of occasions during the Civil War.

In Waud's depiction of the action at the Little Bighorn, 7th Cavalry troopers fall around him while Custer surveys the scene with steely determination.

06
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Sitting Bull Was a Respected Leader of the Sioux

Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull. Library of Congress

Sitting Bull was known to white Americans before the battle of the Little Bighorn, and was even mentioned periodically in newspapers published in New York City. He became known as the leader of the Indian resistance to the invasions of the Black Hills, and in the weeks following the loss of Custer and his command, Sitting Bull's name was plastered across American newspapers.

The New York Times, on July 10, 1876, published a profile of Sitting Bull based, it was said, on an interview with a man named J.D. Keller who had worked at the Indian reservation at Standing Rock. According to Keller, "His countenance is of an extremely savage type, betraying that bloodthirstiness and brutality for which he has long been notorious. He has the name of being one of the most successful scalpers in Indian country."

Other newspapers repeated a rumor that Sitting Bull had learned French from trappers as a child, and had somehow studied the tactics of Napoleon.

Regardless of what white Americans chose to believe, Sitting Bull had gained the respect of the various Sioux tribes, who gathered to follow him in the spring of 1876. When Custer arrived in the area, he did not expect that so many Indians had come together, inspired by Sitting Bull.

Following the death of Custer, soldiers flooded into the Black Hills, intent on capturing Sitting Bull. He managed to escape to Canada, along with family members and followers, but returned to the US and surrendered in 1881.

The government kept Sitting Bull isolated on a reservation, but in 1885 he was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, a hugely popular attraction. He was only a performer for a few months.

In 1890 he was arrested as the US government feared he was an instigator of the Ghost Dance, a religious movement among Indians. While in custody he was shot and killed.

07
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Col. Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry Was Buried at the Little Bighorn Site

Grave of Myles Keogh
Grave of Myles Keogh. New York Public Library

Two days after the battle, reinforcements arrived, and the carnage of Custer's Last Stand was discovered. The bodies of the men of the 7th Cavalry were strewn across a hillside, stripped of their uniforms, and often scalped or mutilated.

Soldiers buried the bodies, generally where they fell, and marked the graves as best they could. The names of officers were usually put on a marker, and enlisted men were buried anonymously.

This photograph depicts the grave of Myles Keogh. Born in Ireland, Keogh was an expert horseman who had been a colonel in the cavalry in the Civil War. Like many officers, including Custer, he carried a lesser rank in the postwar Army. He was actually a captain in the 7th Cavalry, but his grave marker, as was customary, notes the higher rank he carried in the Civil War.

Keogh had a prized horse named Comanche, which survived the battle at Little Bighorn despite considerable wounds. One of the officers who discovered the bodies recognized Keogh's horse, and saw to it that Comanche was transported to an Army post. Comanche was nursed back to health and was regarded as something of a living monument to the 7th Cavalry.

Legend has it that Keogh introduced the Irish tune "Garryowen" to the 7th Cavalry, and the melody became the unit's marching song. That could be true, however the song had already been a popular marching tune during the Civil War.

A year after the battle, Keogh's remains were disinterred from this grave and returned to the east, and he was buried in New York State.

08
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Custer's Body was Returned East and Buried at West Point

Custer's Funeral at West Point
Custer's Funeral at West Point. New York Public Library

Custer was buried on the battlefield near the Little Bighorn, but in the following year his remains were removed and transferred back to the east. On October 10, 1877, he was given an elaborate funeral at the US Military Academy at West Point.

The funeral of Custer was a scene of national mourning, and illustrated magazines published engravings showing the martial ceremonies. In this engraving, the riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, signifying a fallen leader, follows the gun carriage bearing Custer's flag-draped coffin.

09
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The Poet Walt Whitman Wrote a Death Sonnet About Custer

Whitman's Custer Death Sonnet
Whitman's Custer Death Sonnet. New York Public Library

The poet Walt Whitman, feeling the profound shock many Americans felt at hearing the news about Custer and the 7th Cavalry, wrote a poem which was quickly published in the pages of the New York Tribune, appearing in the edition of July 10, 1876.

The poem was headlined "A Death-Sonnet for Custer." It was included in subsequent editions of Whitman's masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, as "From Far Dakota's Cañon."

This copy of the poem in Whitman's handwriting is in the collection of the New York Public Library.

10
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Custer's Exploits Portayed on a Cigarette Card

Custer's Attack on a Cigarette Card
Custer's Attack on a Cigarette Card. New York Public Library

Custer's image and his exploits became iconic in the decades following his death. For instance, in the 1890s the Anheuser Busch brewery began issuing color prints titled "Custer's Last Fight" to saloons across America. The prints were generally framed and hung behind the bar, and were thus seen by millions of Americans.

This particular illustration comes from another bit of vintage pop culture, the cigarette card, which were small cards issued with packs of cigarettes (much like the bubblegum cards of today). This particular card portrays Custer attacking an Indian village in the snow, and thus appears to depict the Battle of the Washita in November 1868. In that engagement, Custer and his men attacked a Cheyenne camp on a frigid morning, catching the Indians by surprise.

The bloodshed at the Washita has always been controversial, with some critics of Custer terming it little more than a massacre, as women and children were among those killed by the cavalry. But in the decades following Custer's death, even a portrayal of the Washita bloodshed, complete with women and children scattering, must have somehow seemed glorious.

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Custer's Last Stand was Portrayed on a Cigarette Trading Card

Little Bighorn on a Trading Card
Little Bighorn on a Trading Card. New York Public Library

The extent to which Custer's final battle became a cultural icon is illustrated by this cigarette trading card, which offers a fairly crude depiction of "Custer's Last Fight."

It is impossible to count how many times the Battle of the Little Bighorn has been portrayed in illustrations, motion pictures, television programs, and novels. Buffalo Bill Cody presented a reenactment of the battle as part of his traveling Wild West Show in the late 1800s, and the public's fascination with Custer's Last Stand has never waned.

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The Custer Monument Portrayed On a Stereographic Card

Custer Monument Stereograph
Custer Monument on a Stereograph. New York Public Library

In the years following the battle at the Little Bighorn most of the officers were disinterred from battlefield graves and were buried in the east. The graves of enlisted men were moved to the top of a hill, and a monument was erected on the site.

This stereograph, a pair of photographs which would appear three-dimensional when viewed with a popular parlor device of the late 1800s, shows the Custer monument.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield Site is now a national monument, and is a popular destination for tourists in the summer months. And the latest portrayal of the Little Bighorn is never more than a few minutes old: the National Battlefield Site has webcams.