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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Custer’s Last Stand

Airs Tuesday, January 17, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: General George Armstrong Custer

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.

General Custer's Death Struggle at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by H. Steinegger; S.H. Redmond del.; Lith. Britton, Rey & Co. S.F.
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Above: General Custer's Death Struggle at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by H. Steinegger; S.H. Redmond del.; Lith. Britton, Rey & Co. S.F.

General George A. Custer with his wife, Libbie.
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Above: General George A. Custer with his wife, Libbie.

Black Hills Expedition

In 1874, the U.S. government sent General George Custer on the Black Hills Expedition to choose a location for a new Army fort and to investigate the area's natural resources. Explore the timeline of events.

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.

"Custer is controversial for the same reasons he was so successful in his own time," says historian Michael Elliott. "He was an outsized personality who used the tools around him to shape himself into a public figure that embodies many of the things that make us uncomfortable about American history -- the way that Americans sometimes rush into a military action, the way that America has treated American Indians and other peoples now around the world. These are questions that are really raw and nagging and we haven't resolved them. And until we do we're going to keep returning to Custer and the controversies that surround him."

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Video

Preview: American Experience: Custer's Last Stand

Your browser does not support this object. Content can be viewed at actual source page: http://video.kpbs.org/video/2185377825

Watch Custer's Last Stand Chapter 1 on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Above: 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.

Video

Custer Behind the Scenes

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Watch Custer Behind the Scenes on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Above: A behind-the-scenes look at American Experience film "Custer's Last Stand."