On this day in 1876, US Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was defeated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That’s all that most of us know about the event, but the back story is far more complex than the conflict.
According to a History article, the US government had been working for years to confine Native Americans to reservations. Then, in 1875, after gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills, the US Army ignored previous treaty agreements and invaded the region.
This betrayal led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations. By the late spring of 1876, more than ten thousand Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River, defying a US War Department order to return to their reservations or risk being attacked.
In mid-June, US soldiers advanced on the camp but were turned back. Gen. Alfred Terry then ordered Custer’s 7th Calvary to scout ahead for enemy troops. On the morning of June 25th, Custer drew near the Native American camp and chose to press on rather than wait for reinforcements.
At midday, his six hundred men entered the Little Bighorn Valley. As many as three thousand Native Americans responded. Within an hour, Custer and all of his soldiers were dead.
The death of Custer and his troops is not the only noteworthy military event that occurred today.
On this day in 1950, North Korea unleashed an attack southward across the 38th parallel. By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. The war would last for three years and cost nearly five million lives, more than half of whom were civilians. Almost forty thousand Americans died in Korea, while more than one hundred thousand were wounded.
The eternal significance of present decisions
With both the Battle of Little Bighorn and the Korean War, soldiers died in a cause they did not choose. Both Gen. Custer and his men were prosecuting a conflict against Native Americans that had been caused by decisions and events outside their control. None of the 5.7 million Americans who served in the Korean War made the decision to begin the war.
Our decisions, for good or for evil, affect people who did not make them. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they could not know that their families would one day join Joseph in Egypt or that their descendants would become enslaved there for four centuries.
Conversely, when Joshua led the Jewish people into the Promised Land, he could not know that his namesake (“Jesus” is a later form of “Joshua,” both of which mean “Yahweh is salvation” or “savior”) would be born in this land and would die for all of humanity.
Peter was right: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When we do, our obedience not only glorifies our Lord—it also serves humanity. Conversely, when we break God’s word and violate his will, our sin usually affects more than ourselves.
If you were even more obedient to God’s call than you are now, what would need to change in your life?
Let’s say with the psalmist, “I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me” (Psalm 119:30). We cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.