On July 4, 1876, as Americans celebrated the nation’s centennial, rumors of a bloody clash on the frontier began trickling out. Sketchy stories, long on hearsay but short on accurate details, appeared that day in a western paper: George Armstrong Custer, a hero during the Civil War and a minor celebrity in the years since, had, along with hundreds of his subordinates in the Seventh Cavalry, been slaughtered by “Indians” on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. The first report understated the carnage: “The situation now looks serious.”
Not yet knit together by a reliable communications network, the United States, at moments of crisis, felt like a much larger country in 1876 than it does today. The engagement had actually taken place more than a week earlier, on June 25. Two days after that, Alfred Terry, Custer’s commanding officer, sent a report back east.
But the telegraph line between Montana and Chicago was down, and so the Army high command, visiting the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, only learned of the debacle from a newspaper account just before Terry’s dispatch finally arrived on July 6.
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