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George Armstrong Custer once boasted that his 7th Cavalry alone could whip all the Indians on the Plains. While this might be dismissed as a pardonable exaggeration, the 7th did enjoy a reputation as the most experienced and capable mounted regiment in the U.S. Army. It guarded emigrants and freighters, mail stages, and telegraph lines. It undertook explorations into little-known regions, and it protected scientific expeditions into new territory. Sometimes it evicted white trespassers from Indian reservations, and sometimes it fought in bloody campaigns against the Indians. Because the exploits of the 7th and its flamboyant leader drew considerable public attention, newspaper correspondents and commercial photographers sometimes accompanied the regiment on tours of duty to record its activities.

When Custer and the 7th marched out of Fort Lincoln in mid-May 1876, however, no photographer rode with them. The campaign was to be a fast, hard—hitting drive against the recalcitrant Sioux and Cheyenne, and there was no place for the slow and cumbersome equipment needed by photographers of the day. As a result, there is no photographic record of the campaign and battle that brought disaster to Custer and the 7th on the banks of the Little Bighorn 1 month later.

The record that does remain, however, is nonetheless impressive. It consists of photographs taken before and after the campaign, which, ranging from the neat and orderly Fort Lincoln to the debris-littered fields of the Little Bighorn, provide a striking contrast that serves to deepen the sense of the tragedy. The following photographs, with their captions, highlight salient portions of the main narrative; but, they also form a capsule history of the campaign that proved to be Custer's last.


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