On June 26, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, General George Armstrong Custer ordered his soldiers to drive back a large army of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. The battle pitted two larger-than-life antagonists against one another: Sitting Bull, the charismatic and politically savvy leader of the Plains Indians, and Custer, one of the Union’s greatest cavalry officers and a man with a reputation for fearless and often reckless courage. By day’s end, Custer and nearly a third of his army were dead.
This biography of one of the most charismatic and contradictory American leaders of the 19th century takes viewers on a journey from Custer’s memorable charge at Gettysburg, which turned the tide of the battle, to his lonely, untimely death on the windswept plains of the West. Along the way, viewers learn how, time and time again, the supremely ambitious son of a blacksmith ricocheted from triumph to disaster, from battlefield heroism to impetuous escapade.
In the end, Custer’s reputation was saved by the wife he adored, who almost single-handedly turned the Battle of the Little Bighorn into one of the most iconic events in American history and mythologized Custer’s role, turning it into a tale of heroic sacrifice against all costs in the service of a country with only the most noble of motives.
American Experience: Custer’s Last Stand, Wednesday at 8 p.m. on PBS 6.