Memory  /  Debunk

The True History of 'Custer's Last Stand'

We're talking about the Battle of Little Bighorn all wrong.

Sometimes to get remembered in history, you need a great publicist.

This weekend marks the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn—also known as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’—a chapter in U.S. history that some historians are arguing needs a rewrite. The story American students are generally taught is that “in one of the most decisive battles in American history,” Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 men from five companies of the Seventh infantry cavalry heroically died on June 25, 1876, in a sneak attack by Native Americans in what’s now Montana. It was part of the broader crackdown by the U.S. government on Native Americans, who were seen as threatening innocent white settlers.

So how did a defeat become viewed as one of the greatest noble tragedies in American history? A persistent lobbying campaign by Custer’s widow, for one, and because the story of Custer as a martyr fit neatly in the larger story that Americans wanted to tell about the nation’s push westward after the Civil War, historians say. Only in recent years have we begun to learn more about the perspective of Little Bighorn from its Native American victors, whose roots at that site go back decades before the settlers arrived—and started to rethink the legacy of the man who led the charge.

“When we think of Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of Little Bighorn… we should think of it as a successful defense by Native people against an attempted act of genocide,” says Lindsay Stallones Marshall, assistant professor of history at Illinois State University, who got her start teaching about Custer as an AP U.S. History teacher.

Marshall is writing a book on how distorted narratives about the “Indian wars” after the Civil War made their way into schools. The answer reveals a potent mix of the powerful who engage in history making: soldiers burnishing their own reputations, loved ones honoring family members, lawmakers lobbying for federal dollars, and textbook writers mythologizing American Manifest Destiny.

“Textbooks are a specific kind of document designed for a specific purpose, and it’s not simply to tell students what happened in the past, but to give them a particular view, particularly of the American past,” says Marshall.

Some of the early narratives about Custer came from the man himself; because of his celebrity as a Civil War hero, Custer ghost-wrote newspaper dispatches in which he pretended to be a correspondent and inflated his own role in battles and military exploits. (A couple of newspapers published these posthumously, acknowledging Custer as the author.)