Bob Buckle Print

Why did Custer lose the Battle of the Little Bighorn?

General Custer

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That’s a question that has been asked time and again and argued over till the truth has been almost lost. There are two camps, one for Custer and one against and I feel that this polarisation has lead to the truth becoming a casualty of war, the war about Custer and who he was.

George Armstong Custer’s character is hard to define without becoming very partisan. Some take the view that he was one of the best cavalry leaders of his time and quote his Civil War record and his operations against the Indians. Most of them will allow that he made some mistakes and also was not blameless as a human being. The other side seems to demonise Custer in every way. History tells us that he was last in his class at West Point, altogether reckless in warfare, cruel and uncaring about the men under his command, politically ambitious but politically naïve. It is also claimed that Custer was so wrapped up in himself that he would use anybody in any way to further his own ambitions. I don’t think either view of him tells the full story, so let’s take a look at some of the facts, as we know them after 140 years of reflection.

Custer 1859 when he was at west point

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Custer was born the son of a blacksmith and was very wanted and loved as a child. As a young man he soon became aware that if he wanted to rise in the world being the son of a working class father was not in his favour. One of the few ways of rising in the American social world of the 1850/60’s was to become an officer and a gentleman, and to win the hand of the girl he (1)loved this was imperative. Custer, with the help of some political friends managed to get a place at West Point in 1857 passing out in 1861. Custer’s time at West Point has been very well documented, and yes, he did accrue the most demerits ever at West Point, and he did pass out bottom of his class. However, he had the sense and determination to pass out and become an officer in the American Military and so made the move into the ranks of gentlemen. No one can take that away from his record.

So what about his Civil War career? Being in the right place at the right time, always willing to put himself in danger without a second thought was a way of getting noticed, and he did! Whilst working as a staff officer for Major General George B. McClellan, then commander of the Army of the Potomac, Custer was promoted to the rank of temporary captain. When McClellan was relieved of command in November 1862 Custer reverted to his rank of first lieutenant. He then fell under the gaze of Major General Alfred Pleasonton then in command of a Cavalry Division. After the battle of Chancellorsville Pleasonton was given command of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac in 1863. Pleasanton recognised Custer’s leadership qualities and three days before the battle of Gettysburg Pleasonton promoted Custer from Captain to Major General giving him command of the Michigan Brigade of Cavalry. Custer was one of the youngest Major Generals in the Union Army and was depicted in the press as (2)“The Boy General”. By the end of the war Custer had gone on to win many honours and ended up as a household name. He was present at General Robert E. Lee’s signing of the surrender document in the Appomattox Court House in 1865. Custer, being Custer, rode away from the Court House after the surrender with the table on which the surrender document had been signed balanced on his head. General Sheridan had presented Custer with the table as a souvenir of the signing, and as a gift for his wife. The table is now in the Smithsonian Institution but sadly there is no record of what Elizabeth Custer said on receiving the gift!

Custer and Gen Pleasonton on horseback

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So what about Custer after the war? In 1866 Custer was mustered out of the volunteer army and reverted to the regular army with the rank of Captain in the 5th Cavalry. On September 21st 1866 Custer took command of the newly formed 7th Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. However, due to the intervention of General Sheridan he obtained a brevet appointment as a Major General. A brevet authorised a commissioned officer to hold a higher rank with pay but only for the duration of the assignment.

It is from this point that I think we start to see why things went so wrong for Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1867 the American Government decided to bring the Southern Cheyenne under control by a show of force. They gave command to a Civil War hero, Winfield Scott Hancock with a mixed force of 1400 men including infantry, artillery and Custer’s 7th Cavalry. Hancock’s brief was first to try to talk the Cheyenne onto a reservation but if that failed to force them to comply. The whole campaign turned into a total disaster because of Hancock’s misunderstanding of the Indians’ determination not to accept the white man’s rule.

It was about this time that it began to dawn on Custer how difficult it was to track and fight Indians. Conventional forces moved far too slowly and needed a very cumbersome logistic train to back them up. Indians could, and did travel a lot faster than white troops even with their families in tow. Indians had a great advantage over American troops because their ponies could survive on grass and did not need oats like the cavalry horses. Thus they were able to travel much faster than the troopers. The other problem was finding Indians in the first place. Indians could see the troops coming long before the troops had any idea they were getting close to a village so the Indians could move away very quickly. An entire (3)Indian village could move lock stock and barrel in about half an hour and then move faster than the troops trying to catch them. The Indians also had the advantage of knowing the country intimately.

At the end of the summer long campaign Custer was desperate to see his wife. He deserted his command and for this action was court-martialled at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for being AWOL. He was suspended for one year without pay missing the 1868 summer campaign. The 1868 campaign, commanded this time by Gen. Phil Sheridan, was as dismal as Hancock’s 1867 effort had been. However it decided Sheridan that it was virtually impossible to catch Indians in the summer. Sheridan now advocated total war against the Cheyenne who like most other tribes went into more permanent camps in the winter. Sheridan wanted a winter campaign: he also wanted Custer whom he admired. So at his request, Custer was allowed to return to duty with the 7th before his term of suspension had expired.

Brevet Major General G A C in service dress 1865

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The Battle of the Washita.

Under Sheridan’s command Custer established Camp Supply in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in November 1868 as a base for the coming winter campaign. On November 26th Custer stumbled across the Indian village of (4)Black Kettle near the Washita River. He attacked the camp at first light on the 27th, dividing his command into four units, sending one unit around the back of the village so that when he attacked the village head-on, the Indians would be driven into the troops on the other (5)side. The other two detachments’ jobs were to stampede the Indian ponies: an Indian afoot was easer to kill than one on horseback. As it was mid-winter the women, children and old folks had to try to get away in thick snow thereby impeding the warrior’s job of trying to defend them. This was the standard way of attacking an Indian encampment and on this occasion the attack was entirely successful as the village was quite small. However this approach would turn into a disaster at the Little Big Horn eight years later.

This was the first real success against the Cheyenne in two years. As most of the Southern Cheyenne reluctantly moved onto reservations after the battle, Custer’s action was seen as an even bigger success. It was this one fight that built the image of Custer as being the best Indian fighter in the army at that time.

HISTORIC CONTEXT FOR THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIG HORN

In 1874 Custer led a large expedition into the Black Hills where gold was discovered at French Creek near what is now the town of Custer in South Dakota. Prospectors by the hundreds rushed into the Black Hills after the press deliberately leaked the story about the discovery. At the bidding of the civil authorities the army tried to keep the prospectors out but with very little enthusiasm and even less success. As the American Government, at the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, had promised the Sioux that the Black Hills was to be their country in perpetuity the Indians were not best pleased. This action was to lead to war between the Sioux Nation and their allies and the government of the United States.

Two years after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills the situation regarding the Indians was becoming impossible. Most of the Indians were not willing to go onto reservations and concede the Black Hills to the white man. They saw the Black Hills as their last refuge. Also, to the Sioux, this was a sacred place. Government patience ran out in 1875 and the Indians were finally given an ultimatum to be on the reservations by January 31st 1876 or be considered ‘hostiles’. When the Sioux declined this kind offer the military were ordered to enforce government policy. War was inevitable.

THE BUILD UP TO THE BATTLE

It was assumed by the army that the Lakota and their Cheyenne (6)allies would gather somewhere in the Powder and Rosebud rivers area. The Indian agent told the military that they could expect to find something in the region of 800 hostiles. However, 800 hostiles would constitute only 200 to 260 warriors, the remainder being women, children and old people. This proved to be a massive underestimation of the actual warrior numbers.

The first mistake the military made in planning the campaign was to accept the number of hostiles given to them by the Indian agents. This number was maybe correct at the time the military expeditions were being planned. However, it did not take into account the reservation Indians that left for the summer buffalo hunt and would join "the uncooperative non-reservation cousins led by Sitting Bull". In fact the number of warriors participating in the battle was more like 1,500 to 2,500. Some estimates are as high as 3,500 to 4,000. However, you can take your pick, as any estimate could be right. Even after all this time no one really knows just how many Indians were there on that fateful day in June 1876. All we do know is - there were a lot!

The area to be covered by the military was massive and the main problem with fighting Indians always was “How do you find them?”. The decision was to mount a three-pronged campaign from the East, West and South. The Southern column under the command of Brigadier General George Crook left Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory, on May 29th and moved north to the Powder River area. Colonel John Gibbon’s column left Fort Ellis in Western Montana on the 20th March to move east and patrol the Yellow River area. Moving out from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, the third column started west on May 17th under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Terry. This was the column that included the 7th Cavalry commanded by Custer who at the time held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

The three columns between them had 2,400 soldiers and when you add in the teamsters, Indian allies and white scouts the grand total would not have been very short of 3000 men. To take on the supposed 200 to 260 warriors, this was quite a force.

General George Crook

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THE BATTLE OF ROSEBUD CREEK

The plan, like most complex military plans, soon started to unravel. On the 17th June a very heavy force of Sioux and Cheyenne attacked Crook’s command which was coming up the South Fork of (7)Rosebud Creek. The battle was tactically inconclusive but what surprised Crook was how many Indians were involved and with how much tenacity they (8)fought. Being low on ammunition and rather shaken by the day’s events Crook withdrew his force to Big Goose Creek near present day Sheridan, Wyoming (9)to await reinforcements. This took Crook out of the equation with drastic results for Custer and the 7th Cavalry.

THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIG HORN

Terry and Gibbon’s columns joined together at the mouth of the Rosebud River in early June. On the 22nd the 7th Cavalry with Custer in command was detached to make a reconnaissance down the Rosebud. The rest of the Terry/Gibbon troops were to follow the Bighorn and Little Big Horn Rivers to where it was expected the Sioux and Cheyenne would be camped.

Let us put to bed right here one misconception about the 7th. It was not a ‘crack’ regiment at all. Firstly, it was a far from happy regiment with a lot of ill feeling amongst the officers about the nepotism shown by Custer. Within the 31 officers in the regiment Custer had under his command two brothers, Boston and Thomas, a brother-in-law, James Calhoun, plus a nephew, Henry Reed. Custer was at odds with Major Reno and Captain Benteen, and there was not much love lost between Custer and the rest of the officers and (10)troopers. Custer was a hard taskmaster.

Also, the training of the troopers was poor, as was the case for most troopers on the frontier at this stage in American history. Custer’s men were issued with Springfield 1873 model single shot carbines of old design. The men had very little target practice, only 20 rounds per year, because of the cost of ammunition. All troopers were issued with a colt single action army revolver firing 6 shots, but sabres had been left behind on Custer’s (11)orders.

Custer felt that he was getting close to the Indian encampment on the 24th June when his scouts, both white and Indian, brought reports of a large village camped along the banks of the Little Big Horn River. At this time Custer’s main concern was not to ‘spook’ the Indians before he could get into a position to attack.

Custer was informed by both sets of scouts that this was a very big ‘village’ and in fact Mitch Bouyer, one of the most reliable white scouts, went so far as to tell him. “General, I have been with these Indians for 30 years, and this is the largest village I have ever seen.” Custer was also told the same thing by his Indian scout. However, the fact was that none of the scouts had actually seen the village. What they had seen was the pony herd and smoke from cooking fires. Scouts, both red and white, had a pretty good idea of the size of a village by the amount of smoke and the size of the pony herd.

So why did Custer choose to ignore the warnings?

Size, as with many things, is in the eye of the beholder. I think that Custer was probably aware that it was a quite a big village but he could not have imagined how big. There had never been such a large gathering of wild Indians before, and there was never to be a gathering of this size again.

Custer had a full regiment of Cavalry numbering 597 officers and men plus teamsters and scouts which would have brought the total to around 650 men under his direct command. I'm sure he thought he had more than enough troops to handle any number of hostiles he might find in the area. The other matter that would have coloured his judgment was the prevailing attitude in military and civilian circles at that time, that one white man was worth ten Indians in what could be described as a ‘large engagement’. Most people understood that in a one-to-one situation the warrior would have the advantage. However, when it came to a general engagement troops would always prevail because of their superior weapons and command structure.

The 7th made camp on the evening of the 24th about 15 miles from the Little Big Horn. Custer was a little on edge as he was afraid that the Indians might discover his column and up sticks and leave in a hurry. However, as the Indians were there in such large numbers they thought the army would not dare attack them so had no intentions of running. This thought was also bolstered by the result of the Rosebud fight in which they assumed they had seen off the ‘white eyes’.

Lieutenant Colonel GAC 1876 engraving

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That night the officers gathered in Custer’s tent and serenaded him, which now seems a strange thing to do. However in those days you made your own entertainment and singing together was something quite common when out on campaign. They sang many songs, one of which was ‘Home Sweet Home’ which was ‘Top of the Pops’ around that time. Upon reflection it was quite poignant as home, sweet or otherwise, for many of them would never be seen again.

Custer and the 7th arrived in the vicinity of the Indian camp on the Little Big Horn River around midday on the 25th June 1876. Custer divided his command into (12)four units: Captain Benteen moved southwest to cover any attempted escape of the hostiles in that direction; Major Reno was ordered to move north, crossing the Little Big Horn to attack the southern end of the village; the pack train, which moved slower, was to continue north until further orders were received; Custer took his own part of the command north, hidden by bluffs from the eyes of the Indians, to attack the north end of the village and drive them back into Reno’s troopers. This was the classic ‘hammer and anvil’ approach to attacking an Indian village. I feel sure that at this time Custer’s biggest concern was that the Indians would scatter and I don’t think the thought ever entered his head that they would stand and fight.

Marcus Reno

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Reno started his attack around 3pm splashing across a small creek flowing into the (13)Little Big Horn River. Reno dismounted his men to form a skirmish line to hold the Indians in place while Custer attacked them from the north end of the village. However, he very soon realised that overwhelming numbers of warriors were attacking his command. Custer’s favourite Indian scout, Bloody Knife who was riding with Reno, was shot through the head whilst talking with him about tactics. Reno was splattered in the face with blood and brains causing him to become totally unhinged. He ordered a precipitous retreat across the (14)creek and up the hill on the other side. Soon after Reno reached the top of the hill Benteen’s command and the pack train came up to reinforce the rattled troopers.

Fredrick Benteen

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The Indian pressure on Reno’s force began to slacken as many of the warriors made for the north end of the village to oppose the attack being mounted by Custer. It was around this time that Benteen took command from a still rattled Reno to try to bring some order to the panicked troopers. Benteen, by his example, was able to get the men to form a defensive perimeter, which was to save many a trooper’s life.

Gall

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Riding north, screened by the bluffs, Custer was not certain where the top of the village was, so he detached one troop to ride over the bluffs to see if they could see anything. However, as the village was over a mile in length they hit it just above the middle and most of them were killed attempting to rejoin Custer. The Indians, led by (15)Crazy Horse and Gall, two of the most prominent and enterprising war leaders, managed to get a very large body of warriors to ride north of the village and then turn south thereby giving them the high ground from which to attack Custer’s command.

Last Stand Hill

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The end of the battle came very quickly with the Indians charging down through the floundering troopers on what is now called ‘Last Stand Hill’. The fight at this stage lasted no more than 20 to 25 minutes and was, as were most Indian and soldier encounters, bloody, savage and brief. All (16)207 officers and men under Custer’s command were killed in what has gone down in history as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’.

History is not sure when exactly during the battle Custer was killed, but that fact is of little importance. Whether he was killed early in the battle or late would not have affected the outcome of the fight.

After the end of the ‘Last Stand’ most of the Indians went back to the south end of the village to resume the fight against the troopers on Reno Hill. By this time the perimeter of the hill had been strengthened so the Reno/Benteen command managed to hold off the attacks by the Indians for the rest of that day. They remained pinned down for most of the following day until late on the 26th June when the rest of the Terry/Gibbon force arrived on the scene and rescued them. So ended the Battle of The Little Big Horn.

Author’s commentary

I started this account by asking the question “Why did Custer lose the Battle of the Little Big Horn?” Before we go on to the direct question let us first correct one misconception: Custer’s entire command was not wiped out as some accounts claim. Custer’s command was the 7th Cavalry consisting of 597 officers and men. He also had under his command several scouts and civilians, but let us just look at the regiment’s losses. After the battle the casualty list read 258 killed and 52 wounded. This meant fewer than half of the 7th were killed at the Battle of The Little Big Horn. Custer’s entire command was not wiped out, only the 207 troopers who were with Custer on his ride north, plus a further 51 under Reno’s command. Now maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but the fact is that Custer’s entire command was not massacred. Fewer than half were killed, or massacred, whichever way you want to look at it.

So why did George Armstrong Custer lose the battle in Montana on the 25th June 1876? He made two major mistakes for which history has castigated him so let’s look at them both.

Lack of proper reconnaissance of the village and ignoring the advice of both his red and white scouts.

A commander has to make a decision. That is a commander’s job. His Indian scouts told him the village was too big and held too many warriors for him to fight. His white scouts gave him much the same advice. However, what none of the scouts could tell him was just how many warriors he would be facing. There had never been such a large gathering of plains Indians before, and there would never be one of this size again, but Custer was not to know that. The information given to both Terry and Gibbon at the outset of the campaign was that they would meet, at most, 200 to 300 warriors and this information would have been passed on to Custer. As he had over 600 men under his command Custer must surely have felt confident in his ability to defeat the hostiles. Also, he was ignorant of the outcome of the Rosebud Battle, which might have played a part in his decision-making, but that information was not available to him.

Custer’s main dilemma, as he saw it, was not the problem of fighting the Indians but rather not to let them discover his presence in the area causing them to disperse. This would have lead to a long protracted campaign tracking them down and was not what his superiors or his government wanted; also, being Custer, his ego must have come into play.

Splitting his forces in the face of a superior enemy.

All tactical manuals advise that splitting your force in the face of a superior enemy is not a good thing to do. However, many commanders down through the ages have done just that. When it works you are hailed as a tactical genius, when it goes wrong you are looked on as a commander who failed. One example of this maxim was Robert E. Lee’s resounding success at (17)Chancellorsville. The key thing to understand about why Custer split his command was, I think that he did not believe he was facing a superior force. Even if it was, as his scouts told him, a big village, he could never for one moment have thought it possible to be as big as it was. All his previous knowledge of Indian encounters, which was considerable, all the current army thinking and all the advice given by the Indian agents could only lead him to one conclusion: he had a big enough force to win the battle by using standard ‘hammer and anvil’ tactics. I feel sure the only thing that was exercising his mind as he rode north that afternoon was that he must not let the Indians escape.

Upon reflection and with hindsight it is now obvious that Custer made the wrong command decision on that warm afternoon in Montana so many years ago. I also feel sure that Custer would have realised he had made the wrong decision very soon into the attack. The problem was that by time he realised his mistake it was too late to do anything about it. His men were tired, the horses were tired and panic would very soon have set in. So the end was a forgone conclusion.

Conclusion.

Although George Armstrong Custer made several command decisions that can be called into question I think the main factor was (18)‘Custer’s Luck’, as he liked to call it, ran out on that day. However, I do think there were enough mitigating circumstances on the day to see why the disaster happened and why he made the decisions he did. When governments send young men to war there is always the chance, even with the best-laid plans, that things will go wrong. On the 25th June 1786 things went very wrong for Custer and the 7th Cavalry.

On that day things started to go very wrong for the Lakota people as well. It all culminated four years later on the 29th December 1890. This was when the 7th Cavalry took revenge for their defeat at The Little Big Horn with the massacre of men, women and children of the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

FOOT NOTES

(1) The girl he loved was Elizabeth Clift Bacon. He was first introduced to her in November 1862 but her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, was not impressed as Custer came from the ‘working class’. Judge Bacon grudgingly changed his mind in 1863 when Custer was given the rank of Brevet Brigadier General and became a national hero during the Civil War. He married his ‘Libbie’ on the 9th November 1864 fourteen months after his first introduction to her. Libbie was very beautiful and cultured and helped give Custer the standing in society that he so craved. They stayed together for the rest of his life and they were both exceedingly happy. Libbie seems to have loved the plains and outdoors military life as much as her husband. It was Libbie who after Custer’s death was so instrumental in helping to develop the Custer myth. She never re-married preferring to stay the widow of a hero rather than becoming the wife of a nobody. Elizabeth Bacon Custer died April 4th 1933.

(2) The youngest General in the Civil War was Galusha Pennypacker, promoted when he was only 20 to the rank of Brigadier General. He is still the youngest General ever in American military history and he remains the only general too young to vote for the president who appointed him. General Pennypacker died in 1916.

(3) Indian Villages were extremely mobile units. The North America plains Indians could only be described as hunter/gathers so had to be mobile. Indians live in a conical tent known as a teepee (tipi) which means ‘dwelling’ or ‘dwelling place’. They made their teepees from buffalo hides with lodge poles made from saplings to support the structure. A teepee had a hole at the top to let out smoke from the cooking fire and also act as ventilation. Teepees were cool in the summer and warm in the winter in fact ideally suited to the life of the wandering plains Indians, being very easy to erect and take down. An Indian village could be as small as 5 or 6 teepees or up to 250 lodges, as they were also called. Indians never stayed in one place for very long: they moved when all the grass had been eaten by their ponies; when all the wood in the area had been burnt; when game was getting scarce; when all the wild fruit had been gathered, and of course, when they just wanted a change of scenery!

(4) Black Kettle was one very unlucky Indian. He was a leader who soon learned that it was almost impossible to fight against the whiteman. He tried to make peace and keep his people out of contact with the whites. Black Kettle was given an American flag by Colonel William B. Hazen and told that if he flew it over his teepee it would indicate that his village was friendly and would save it from attack by US troopers. Sad to say, on November 29th 1864, his camp on Sand Creek in Eastern Colorado was attacked by two regiments of Colorado Cavalry under the command of Colonel John Chivington. The attack could only be described as a massacre, as Chivington, who was a Methodist preacher, had said earlier: “I have come to kill Indians and believe it is right and honourable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.” Chivington claimed he had killed 500 to 600 warriors but it later became clear that only 28 warriors were killed plus 105 women and children. Black Kettle and his wife managed to escape this massacre. Custer attacked this unfortunate village again in November 1868. On this occasion the village was camped on the banks of the Washita River in western Oklahoma, and not only flew the American flag, but also a white flag. This time poor Black Kettle and his unfortunate wife Medicine Woman were killed along with many of his followers.

(5) This was the classic way of attacking an Indian village. It was called the ‘Hammer and Anvil’ and was used on many occasions during the Indian wars in America. The problem for the troopers was to get the Indians to stand and fight. Army commanders were always afraid that the Indians would get away and “live to fight another day.” The basic idea was for one part of the command to drive the Indians into the arms of the waiting troops posted on the far side of the camp. The slight difference at the Washita fight was that the third and fourth column were sent to kill the Indian ponies. An Indian on foot was not the same problem as one on horseback. Also without ponies the village could not move with any kind of speed encumbered with their women, children and old people. Indian villagers had everything any village would have; the difference was that most villages were extremely mobile.

(6) It is always stated that the Indian alliance was made up of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. The Lakota people were a confederation of Siouan tribes while their cousins were the Northern Cheyenne. It is now accepted the Arapaho contingent only numbered five warriors who were on a hunting trip when they ran into the Sioux. At first the Sioux thought they were scouting for the cavalry so were inclined to kill them. However, the Arapaho managed to convince the Sioux that they were just out hunting and so happened to be in the camp when the battle took place.

(7) The Battle of the Rosebud, or Rosebud Creek as it is sometimes called, lasted over six hours and at the end of the day Crook, by his account, still held the field. Overall losses on both sides were quite light for a fight of this length. Crook claimed in his after action report that his casualties numbered 32 killed and 21 wounded. He also reported 13 dead Indians. However, as Indians always tried to recover the bodies of fallen comrades from the battlefield the true casualty list was probably higher.

(8) The Indian way of fighting was different from the way the white man fought. Before the Rosebud and Big Horn Battles most Indian encounters were on the small side. In most cases Indians only fought when they thought they could win. If not, they very quickly broke off the action. Not that they were cowards. The Indian population was small so to lose a lot of men in a battle they couldn’t win simply did not make sense. By the time of the Rosebud and the Big Horn Battles many of the Indian leaders were beginning to realise that when you fought the white man it was not so much a ‘game’ but more a matter of survival. Hence Crook was taken aback by the ferocity and persistence the Indians showed on the day at the Rosebud battle.

(9) As contact in the West at this time could only be made in person Crook’s move down to Big Goose Creek would have put him approximately 100 miles south of the fight at the Little Big Horn. He might as well have been on the other side of the moon as far as communication with Terry, Gibbon and Custer were concerned. The plan had been to bring the Terry/Gibbon columns and Crook’s together to fight the Indians. As Terry and Gibbon did not know about Crook’s fight and subsequent retreat they proceeded with the original plan.

(10) The term ‘troopers’ was specifically used for cavalrymen. Soldiers were usually the term used for infantry and gunners would be artillery.

(11) Custer had ordered his command not to carry sabres in order to reduce weight and also to reduce any noise that might alert the Indians. As it turned out, the sabres would have proved very useful when it came to ‘The Last Stand’. The Springfield carbines turned out to be a dead loss because of their slow rate of fire combined with a tendency to jam when overheated, and further more the troopers had only been issued with the Springfields a few weeks prior to the battle so most were not familiar with the weapon. The colt revolver, firing six shots, was good at close range but took too long to reload once empty. Paradoxically, it was ‘the long knives’ of the cavalry that the Indians most feared. The one thing the troopers most needed but did not have for close quarter fighting was their sabres.

(12) Custer’s command was divided as follows: Major Reno had 142 men; Captain Benteen had 100 men; Captain McDougal had 60 men and was ordered to join the pack train to augment the command of Lieutenant Gustave Mathey who had 84 troopers. Custer commanded the biggest detachment of 208 officers and men.

(13)The Indian name for the Little Big Horn River was ‘Greasy Grass’. So it was, and still is, called by the Lakota The Battle of the Greasy Grass River.

(14)The creek that Reno rode through has forever after been called ‘Reno Creek’. It is not in quite the same place as it was on the day of the battle, the river having changed course over many years.

(15)Crazy Horse and Gall were two of the best war leaders of the Lakota at that time, but there would also have been many other war leaders in a camp that size. War chiefs, as they were sometimes called, could not command anyone to fight but led by pure personality and fighting ability. The US government and people became fixated with Sitting Bull and many accounts claim he was the leader of the Sioux in the battle. In fact Sitting Bull took no part in the battle, he was considered by the Sioux to be a very important medicine man, so spent his time in prayers during the fighting.

(16) Custer’s command started out with 208 men but one man, trumpeter John Martin, whose real name was Giovanni Martini and was an Italian immigrant, was sent back with a message to the pack train to bring up more ammunition. That saved his life and also gave him a little reflected glory as the “last man to see Custer alive.”

(17) The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought on May 2nd 1863 in the State of Virginia during the American Civil War. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee divided his army sending General “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corp on a 12-mile march to attack the Union right flank. This was the prime example of splitting forces in the face of a superior enemy. The flank march achieved its objective and the attack was totally successful. Chancellorsville went on to be called Lee’s perfect battle. Who knows what it would have been called if he had lost!

(18) All the way through his life most things had gone right for Custer, especially in the Civil War. He had three horses shot from under him but never received a scratch. That was when he came up with the expression ‘Custer’s Luck’ which most decidedly ran out at the Little Big Horn.

Gari commented on 25-May-2015 11:08 PM
I like to read other people's interpretation of the battle, thanks for putting your thoughts out there! I know that there is so much disputed and discussed with this fascinating battle, and I believe that no one is 100% right or 100% wrong...even the survivors of Custer fight -the Native folks- have differing views, as the battle took place over a wide area, and so few Natives would have witnessed the start and end. The Martini message is still fascinating, I am of the belief that once Custer saw how big the village was, he knew he did not have enough men to capture the women and children -like at Washita- and use them as a human shield, and so end resistance. So he sent the message -via Lieutenant WW Cooke- that Martini passed on asking for Benteen's troops, and, I believe McDougal and Mathey's troops -this would have given Custer over double his battalion of 208[7] men. I don't know the parlance of the day, but I always thought that 'packs' seemed too general for a man requesting more ammunition -why not cartridges or bullets or something? My thinking is dictated by the fact that Custer would have known he needed more men, and Benteen's 100 with extra ammo would have only given him a 50% increase...in my world, manpower was the key, not the amount of ammo. Plus, Native accounts say that Custer 'waited', some even saying if he had rode on, they'd have survived. The waiting allowed the Natives to get up close in all the little coolies and depressions all over the battlefield. I think Custer was waiting for Benteen and the additional troops, he hadn't started the main fight, it is thought that only one company was engaged with an 'at a distant' engagement early in the battle, so he didn't need extra ammunition then, and if his plan was to seize non-combatants, the quicker he engaged the Natives with the largest force, the less ammo he'd need...he certainly didn't want a long protracted fight. I agree with Custer luck, too. I think that was one of his major problems, I have known people like this in my life, everything goes right for them and they think they are indestructible, observers think it is courage, but it is not, it is a kind of psychotic belief that you are charmed in some way. Also, you touched upon it, but I think that the condition of his troops, and more important, the horses, had a major bearing on the outcome. Custer regularly changed his horse, true he often covered more miles than his troops whilst scouting ahead, but his horse was fresher than most of his command, so he had no 'feedback' as to how tired the command's horses were. The whole 7th travelled hard and fast, like many field armies did at the time, but the horses, which relied on grain, were only getting perhaps a quarter of what they needed, likewise his troops were tired, and the night march just prior to the engagement was a bad move, although, I don't suppose that Custer at the time thought he'd be engaging the Native folks, as quick as did happen...and he certainly didn't expect them to be as 'up for a fight' as they were, after the Natives fought Crook. Another thing I think important was the fact that Custer sent Reno to attack, and told him he'd be supporting him. Then Reno's troops and a few officers saw Custer galloping AWAY from them, I think Reno's nerve went, knowing his command was on its own, and that event and disintegration of his command, meant the Natives could give their undivided attention to Custer -although, an argument could be made that once Custer had tried to capture teh women and children, the whole village would probably have headed north anyway. For sure Custer knew Reno was in a state, or else wouldn't have asked Reno to follow him or Benteen to the northern site? Anyway, I ramble, again, thanks for the read.
Bob Buckle commented on 14-Jun-2015 08:57 PM
Hello Gari, I can see that you have done quite a bit of research about the subject and I would like to comment on two of your points. I have always understood ‘packs’ to be the way the military at that time referred to ‘packs of ammunition’. When Custer rode north he must have soon become aware that there were a lot more Indians than he had first thought. What he did know was that his men were only carrying 45 rounds each for their rifles. I believe that he sent the message for ‘the packs’ because he thought it was going to become a much bigger battle than he had first anticipated. The message would also have brought him some reinforcements but as he had 208 under his immediate command I think the ammunition was more of a priority then the men. However, along with many other bits of information about the battle, it is not quite clear just why this message was sent, so your guess is as good as mine! Your other main point is about Custer telling Reno that he would support him in the attack. The ‘Hammer and Anvil’ was standard cavalry practice when attacking an Indian village. You point out quite correctly that at the battle of the Washita the two main bodies of troops did support each other. Without knowing the size of the Indian camp at the Little Big Horn Custer made a very telling miscalculation. I’m not sure that Reno or his men were particularly worried about Custer riding away at the start of the battle as this was the plan of action: Reno’s command was to be ‘The Anvil’ and Custer’s command ‘The Hammer’. However neither Reno nor Custer had any idea just how big the Indian camp was. The number of Indians that attacked Reno very quickly overwhelmed his command and retreat was the only option. Custer did not know how far or how long he would have to ride to get to the other end of the camp before he could turn to attack the village, thereby supporting Reno. I think maybe Custer and Reno were in agreement about the tactics but the plan fell apart very quickly because of the size of the Indian encampment. Thanks for the feedback Gari. Its great to hear from someone with a keen interest in this wonderful piece of history.
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Deeds commented on 16-Jun-2016 05:14 PM
I don't think Custer "ignored" the advice of his scouts. Custer valued his scouts and relied heavily upon their counsel. Once he knew where the Indians were, Custer's original plan was to keep his regiment hidden, rest his men, send out scouts to reconnoitre the terrain around the Indian village, then attack it at dawn, on the 26th. Everything changed when Custer, his regiment, and his scouts believed that the enemy had seen them. Hoping to get to the Indians before they decamped and fled, Custer decided to attack as soon as possible - a decision, which was partially based upon the advice of his scouts. Custer's scouts told him to attack. If he waited until the morning, the village would be gone. Given Custer's fighting mentality, he could not let the enemy escape while he sat idle. If he did that, he would have suffered a more ignominious defeat; so he attacked.



Since there was no time for reconnaissance, Custer had to do a reconnaissance-in-force. In other words, he had to reconnoiter as he maneuvererd in for the attack. And that is why he sent Benteen's wing off to the left. Custer had to make sure that the hills to the left did not contain any hostiles. For the ensuing battle, Custer did not really divide his regiment in three. Benteen's scout to the left was just that - a scout. Custer expected and anticipated Benteen's battalion to be in the fight. As Napoleon once wrote: "When you want to fight a battle, assemble all your forces, do not neglect any; one battalion can sometimes decide the day". Well, Custer tried to assemble his forces - the written order to Benteen is the famous testimony to that. Reno's battalion had its own mission. As you mentioned, Custer was employing the "hammer-and-anvil" tactic, a tactic which might have worked had Reno carried through with it. 
In the end, both Reno and Benteen 'neglected' Custer, and Benteen's one battalion could have saved the day. To quote General Nelson Miles, "It's hard to win a battle when 5/7th's of your fighting force is out of the fight."



If I had to choose errors which Custer committed at the Little Big Horn, I could only come up with maybe two. Firstly, Custer should have gave Major Reno more specific orders and instructions before he sent him off to charge the village. Custer should have told Reno something like, "Attack the village. I'm taking my battalions up the bluffs and down to the other end where I will attack. I will attempt to capture the women and children. if you are repulsed, hold your ground and keep them occupied until I get to the other end." Instructions akin to that, would have given Reno a better sense of the overall plan, as well as more confidence in his action. As it were, during the hottest, deadliest part of the Reno fight, the Major didn't even know where Custer was; he thought he was all alone.



Custer's second error, and it's not really a fault of his own, was having Major Reno as a second-in-command. Reno did not like Custer; he even said that he had "no confidence in him (Custer) as a leader." Unfounded or not, that kind of view of your commander will definitely affect how you fight for him on the battlefield. People will say what they will, but the facts are all out there - Reno's performance at the Little Big Horn was shockingly shameful. If Custer would have had someone like Myles Keogh, Captain Yates, or his brother Tom lead the initial attack on the Indian village, the outcome of the battle would have been different indeed.
Bob Buckle commented on 16-Jun-2016 05:15 PM
Hello Mike. Thanks for taking time to write a comment for my website. Custer certainly was, and still is after all these years a highly divisive person. I can tell from your writing you have studied the subject in detail and have come to slightly different conclusions from mine. I agree that Custer thought that the Indians had discovered that the 7th Cavalry were in the area and that led Custer to formulate his plan of attack without making much reconnaissance. Not that I think that reconnaissance was one of George Armstrong’s strong points looking at his Civil War record. It was more like, ‘There’s the enemy, charge!’ However, I am of the opinion that his scouts, both red and white, made it clear to Custer that this was a much bigger camp than usual.

The scouts made this assumption on the size of the Indians’ horse herd and the amount of smoke from the cooking fires of the Indians. It was these two observations that indicated to the scouts that this was a very large camp indeed. As a camp of this size had never been seen before Custer chose to ignore their advice with disastrous results. You suggest that Custer should have given Reno more specific orders, but as ‘Hammer-and-Anvil’ was the accepted way at that time of attacking Indian villages I am sure that Reno would have been well versed with this manoeuvre.

I think the real problem Reno faced was the sheer number of Indians that he encountered and I assume that no matter what Reno might have ordered his men to do they would have ‘skedaddled’ on mass, as they did! The 7th Cavalry were neither well trained nor highly motivated and like most Cavalry of that time were usually enlisted back in the East then shipped off to the Western frontiers.

Most of the troopers would have been like ‘fish out of water’ in that sort of country to say nothing of facing some of the most ferocious Indians in the West. When Benteen arrived on the hilltop overlooking the bottom end of the Indian camp, where most of Reno’s command ended up, I think he showed remarkable coolness and composure under very trying conditions.

If Benteen had not assumed command upon finding that Reno had gone totally to pieces I think the Little Big Horn disaster would have been much much worse. You are quite correct in saying that Reno and Custer were not close, in fact they hated each other. Also, there was a lot of discontent with the command structure of the 7th Cavalry because of Custer’s nepotism.

There are many, many different interpretations about what really happened at the ‘Battle of the Little Big Horn’ but the most fascinating part is that after 140 years we are still discussing it! Thanks for commenting on my website.
Mike Snider commented on 23-Oct-2016 05:28 PM
I have read that Custer decided to not be slowed by the Gatlin Gun which was carriage mounted. Another link in the chain of events.
Bob Buckle commented on 26-Oct-2016 02:22 PM
Mike thanks for taking time to contact me about Custer and his refusal to take along a Gatling Gun.

I think this was one of his better decisions, as Gatling Guns were not at that time very reliable. It certainly would have slowed them down over the kind of terrain the 7th had to cover to reach the battlefield. I also believe it would have been totally useless in Indian Warfare.
Vince commented on 01-Feb-2017 07:43 PM
Wow cuz this is excellent job! Congrats and keep it up.

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