Custer and the Little Big Horn

Discussion in '1800-1914' started by imalko, Mar 25, 2009.

  1. imalko

    imalko Well-Known Member

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    George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) is one of the most controversial figures of 19th century American history. Graduated last in his class at West Point but emerged from Civil war as a national hero and celebrated Boy-General. Made Brigadier General at the age of 23 in June 1863 just before battle of Gettysburg and then later during the war promoted to Brevet Major General, Custer was the youngest General in US Military history. He was also a protegee and favorite cavalryman of Phill Sheridan, commander of Union Cavalry.

    But his exploits during the Civil war are greatly overshadowed by his death and annihilation of entire cavalry battalion under his immediate command at the hand of hostile Indians at the battle of Little Big Horn.

    After locating the Indian camp, Custer divided his regiment to three battalions. (Arguably not a wise decision in face of the enemy of unknown strength and disposition, but one should note that at the time of Indian wars cavalry commanders were ever fearful that the hostile Indians would scatter and flee and simultanious attack from three directions was intended to prevent this from happening.) Battalion under major Reno attacked the village but was driwen back, suffering casualties, retreated across the river and then entrenched on so called Reno Hill. Battalion under captain Benteen was sent to the southwest with orders to scout the ridges and prevent escape of Indians in that direction, then report back to the main command. Custer's immediate command (five companies - over 200 men) went to the right of the Little Big Horn river. They engaged the hostiles, but were overwhelmed and annihilated to the last man.

    At one point at the beginning of the battle, Custer send written orders to Benteen to rejoin the main command. That's the famous order written by the regiments adjutant Lt. W.W.Cooke:

    " Benteen
    Come on. Big Village.
    Be quick. Bring packs.
    W. W. Cooke
    P.S. Bring Packs."


    This order was not obeyed. Benteen, after reaching the Reno Hill, advanced no further, even when from his position the sound of firing from the site of Custer's Last Stand further downstream could be heard.

    So, there you have it. My question is - was Custer betrayed at the Little Big Horn on that fatefull Sunday June 25th 1876 or was he already doomed by his own actions? If Benteen had resumed his advance towards the sound of the firing, would that have saved Custer and his men, or only add more names to the casualty list? Note that after destruction of Custer's battalion members of Reno-Benteen command survived Indian siege for few days until reinforcements of general Terry arrived.

    Benteen's personal hatred for Custer was well known. Could that influence his decisions? When asked by general Terry few days after the battle why he disobeyed Custer's order to "Come on..." and "Be quick..." Benteen simply replied: "I thought Custer can take care of himself."

    Here is oppinion of one of the Little Big Horn veterans:

    "Reno proved incompetent and Benteen showed his indifference – I will not use the uglier words that have often been in my mind. Both failed Custer and he had to fight it out alone."
    Little Big Horn veteran William Taylor, letter to Lieutenant Godfrey, February 20, 1910


    I would like to hear other people opinions on this matter.

    Sorry if my introduction is too extensive, that was for those people who are not familliar with this subject.
     
  2. Vassili Zaitzev

    Vassili Zaitzev Well-Known Member

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    Hmm, to my knowledge Custer had screwed himself with his deployment. He had divided his command against a numerically superior enemy, assuming they would run, instead of turning and fighting.
     
  3. comiso90

    comiso90 Active Member

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    Custer was over-confident, flamboyant and cocky... that's what killed him and his troops.

    Wasn't he last in his WP class?

    They say he was offered a Gatlin gun but turned it down.

    .
     
  4. Bill G.

    Bill G. Banned

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    I am not going to go into the debate. I am just going to add some triva.

    My Guard Company trains part of the time at Fort Custer here in Michigan.
    My Dad was inducted into the Army in WWII at then Camp Custer.
    My Mom's Dad was a soldier at Camp Custer in WWI. It was a Cavalry Post. He was trained to be a blacksmith. The Sergeant in charge of training told his students there was a Blacksmith in town who was really good and they should go and watch him. He did. He feel in love with the Blacksmith's daughter, my Grandma.

    What is the All Ranks Club at Fort Custer called??? Custer's First Stand!

    My mobilization training was at Fort Riley, Kansas. That is where Lt. Col Custer left from on his way to the Little Big Horn.

    General Custer, like me is a Michigander. That is from Michigan.

    Thank you, and I return you to the debate.

    Bill G.
     
  5. Colin1

    Colin1 Active Member

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    At the time
    the Gatling would have been a support weapon of massive significance, surely he didn't turn one down? If he chose to divide his battalions up like that, I'd have had six, one on each corner of the battalion positions - the approach to the battalion frontal area would have been a slaughterhouse.

    That's as deep as I'm prepared to let myself get into 'armchair general' mode...

    If Benteen got to Reno's position and between them held it for several days, then they must have consolidated in strength, or been in a very defendable position. Maybe both.

    If they were in strength, they had an obligation to relieve Custer's predicament which places Benteen's judgement in cold-blooded contempt of the 200 men that died as well as Custer.
    If their position was all that was keeping them from annihilation as well, then their options were limited.
    It's really down to what shape Benteen and Reno were in.

    200 men = 5 companies? They were pretty damn small companies in those days!
     
  6. comiso90

    comiso90 Active Member

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    A battery of Gatlin guns!

    Critics point out that Custer made strategic errors from the start of the campaign, refusing the use of a battery of Gatling guns and General Terry's offer of an additional battalion of the 2nd Cavalry led by Capt. James S. Brisbin. Custer's reasoning was that the Gatling guns would impede his march up the Rosebud and hamper his mobility. Considering his rapid march en route to the Little Big Horn, averaging almost 30 miles (48 km) a day, this was an accurate assessment. Each gun was hauled by four horses and it often became necessary for soldiers to drag the guns by hand over obstacles. These problems do not change the fact that the Gatling guns would have been a decided equalizer in the face of Indian superiority, and that elsewhere in the Indian wars, the Indians often reacted to new army weapons by breaking off the fight.

    Battle of the Little Bighorn - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    .
     
  7. Colin1

    Colin1 Active Member

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    He was getting assets thrown at him!
    Problems getting assets to the battlefield are something a General should overcome second-nature; solving the problem by leaving the problem at base camp is no solution at all.
    Came last in his class, the youngest General in history, the Little Big Horn - there's a message in there somewhere...
     
  8. pbfoot

    pbfoot Active Member

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    I was driving down I90 in a heavy fog one evening got tired a said I'll catch a nap at the rest stop I woke up to my surprise looking at a Cairn that had been placed indicating the site of the Little Big Horn
     
  9. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    All Benteen would have added to the fight is additional casualties.

    Custer picked a fight with numerically superior force, and paid the price.
     
  10. wheelsup_cavu

    wheelsup_cavu Well-Known Member

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    Very interesting topic.
    Fits most of what I have read about Custer and how his decisions doomed his men.

    Wheelsup
     
  11. renrich

    renrich Active Member

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    I think Sys nailed it. Benteen would have just added to the casualties. Custer was vainglorious and a braggart. Just finished reading a biography of JEB Stuart and they resembled one another in always looking for the limelight and tooting their own horn, except that Stuart really knew how to manage a battle as at Sharpsburg and even more at Chancellorsville. There were a lot of Indians and in some cases were armed better than the US troopers. Custer cared not about Gatling guns because they were a defensive weapon and he did not plan on being on defense.
     
  12. imalko

    imalko Well-Known Member

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    I believe renrich is right regarding the Gattling guns and why Custer refused them. We are talking here about cavalry warfare against a highly mobile enemy and battle of the Little Big Horn was battle of a swift manouvers on both sides and over a rough terrain, up until the Last Stand phase at least. In that kind of action, when Custer wasn't expecting to be on defense at all, these guns would have only hampered his movements.... But they would have made a difference in defence of the Last Stand Hill though.

    So, in light of Custer's intentions, terrain difficulties he had to face and high mobility required, the decision not to accept Gattling guns would be a correct one, but in light of what had really happened it was completely wrong. On the other hand, his decision not to accept additional troops from 2nd Cavalry can not be explained with rational reasons.
     
  13. Amsel

    Amsel Active Member

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    Gatling guns would have made all the difference in the fight. They would have caused enough casualties to shock the Lakota and Cheyenne out of their anger. But if Custer split his force then who knows if they would have even been available to him on the hill. If Benteen would have rode to the rescue I think his command would have been massacred also. The 7th Cav kicked up a hornets nest and threatened a huge amount of people causing a fierce response. They say that the Cheyenne relatives of Custer poked his ears with awls after the massacre so he would listen better in the next life. The Cheyenne said that they warned Custer that they were going to kill him years before.
     
  14. Ferdinand Foch

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    He, Guess Custer wasn't a big fan of prophecies (might have done wonders for him), unless it was him becoming the top general in the army.
     
  15. imalko

    imalko Well-Known Member

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    Since we started talking about weapons in some previous posts....

    At the battle of the Little Big Horn US troopers were armed with Springfield Model 1873 carabines and pistols, each soldier carrying 100 rounds of carabine and 25 rounds of pistol ammunition. Additional ammunition and 15 days rations were carried by the pack train on mules. But there is one interesting detail - sabers were stored and left behind. So at the battle soldiers weren't armed with sabers.

    Any oppinions about this? Why sabers weren't to be used in this campaign?

    Here is another interesting detail about the battle - they died (among others) at the Little Big Horn:

    - Commanding Officer: Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer
    - C Company commander Capt. Thomas Custer (brother of G.A.Custer and recipient of two Medals of Honnor)
    - L Company commander - 1st Lt. James Calhoun: Custers brother in law
    - Boston Custer: brother of George Thomas, Forager for the 7th
    - Henry Armstrong Reed: Nephew of Custer's, Herder for the 7th
     
  16. comiso90

    comiso90 Active Member

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    Also, many of the Indians had Henry Repeating Rifles.

    With a 16 bullet tube magazine... im sure it did damage.

    .
     
  17. imalko

    imalko Well-Known Member

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    Hi comiso90!

    I wasn't expecting comment so quickly. What would be your opinion about the sabers? Why were they left behind?
     
  18. comiso90

    comiso90 Active Member

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    Hello..
    Custer was consumed with speed and intimidation... he probably figured that the Indians would run scared at the sight of the 7th CAV standard..

    His arrogance killed his men.

    .
     
  19. imalko

    imalko Well-Known Member

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    I'm not denying that. I'm just wondering is there any real "military" reason not to take sabers on the campaign. 7th was a Cavalry regiment after all.
     
  20. renrich

    renrich Active Member

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    I believe that by then Custer realised that sabres were an anachronism. The troopers were not going to get close enough to the Indians to use them and at close range the pistols were more effective. In a fight on horseback, many of the Indians would have lances which would put sabres at a disadvantage and Indians would not fight in disciplined formations like regular cavalry would. I don't believe that Buford's cavalry in the States War carried sabres either. Some of the Indians carried repeaters, Henrys, Winchesters, Spencers. The troopers with the Springfield were badly overmatched in that type of fight. To add to the difficulties the fired cases became difficult to extract after the rifles got hot with a pocket knife needed to get them out. Ironically, many Union troops were armed with repeaters at the end of the States War and the Confederates suffered accordingly. Why the Springfield was adopted over the Spencer can only be chalked up to stupidity and false economy.
     
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