Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn… has been debated, memorialized, ridiculed, and defended for 136 years. The battle has been used as a political rallying cry for the American Indian movement, and endless source of tactical study for military enthusiasts from all over the country. Historians argue that the battle represents a cross roads in American-Indian relations, while others argue that the scars created in Southeastern Montana have never fully healed. Ironically, it is an event for which so little is understood, yet so many speak as if all matters have been decisively settled. What really happened June 25, 1876? Was Custer at fault for the massacre? What does it all mean?
- Custer did not disobey orders. General Alfred Terry did want a united push against the hostile encampment, but he gave Custer tremendous tactical discretion, “It is, impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and were it not impossible to do so the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.” In other words, Phil Sheridan trusts you, so I cannot really tie your hands with specific orders.
- The decision to leave behind the sabres, gatling guns, and 2nd Cavalry troopers was not militarily decisive. Much importance has been placed upon Custer’s three logistical decisions made June 22. All three can be easily factored- 1. The usefulness of sabres on the Great Plains was minimal, Custer considered them cumbersome. 2. Gatling guns were operated and maintained like artillery pieces and would have hampered the rate of Custer’s march. 3. There was already dissention in his officer corps, Custer did not see the prudence in adding another set of officers. Custer wanted a rapid march with few hindrances.
- The decision to move against the village was made from the belief the Indians would scatter. Custer’s experience from the Hancock expedition of 1867 taught him that the strategic advantage would be lost unless the Indians could be captured en mass. Three key events on June 25 alerted Custer that the encampment may have spotted the approaching 7th Cavalry- 1. Hostiles were discovered looting lost crates of supplies. 2. Chief Scout Varnum informed Custer that the regiment’s cooking fires could be seen from a great distance. 3. A band of hostiles was seen fleeing the approaching troopers. Custer believed the Indian encampment was going to scatter.
- The tactical divisions of his regiment were designed to confine Indians Custer believed to be in flight. Frederick Benteen’s battalion was to cut off the most likely path of retreat. Marcus Reno’s battalion was to push the Indians from the East while Custer’s troops would begin rounding up captives to the North and West. Custer was utilizing tactics similar to those he used at Washita in 1868. The size of the village was the deciding factor.
- Reno and Benteen performed poorly. Reno’s decision to skirmish rather than attacking the village led to continued mistakes. Benteen should have rushed to the front after receiving Custer’s request for troops. Both Reno and Benteen had opportunities to assist Custer and minimize the losses to the 7th Cavalry.
- Custer divided his forces another time attempting to cross the river. Archaeology shows two distinct defensive stands, one with Custer on Last Stand hill, the other with Captain Myles Keogh further to the East. Custer’s battalion pushed west to the present day cemetery before being beaten back to their last stand. The troopers with Custer were overwhelmed with superior numbers from nearly all sides. Warriors were able to concentrate against Custer and Keogh because of the lack of initiative displayed by Reno and Benteen.
- There is plenty of blame to go around for the massacre at Little Bighorn. Custer deserves some of that blame, however he was ill-served by his subordinates and struggled to make sense of a poorly coordinated campaign. As the battle is placed into larger context the ramifications leave the dusty plains of Southeastern Montana. Custer was not a murderous racist bent on wiping out Indian culture, nor was he a noble cavalier leading the march of western culture into the wilderness. The Indian victory at Little Bighorn was the symbolic end of the Plains wars. The actions of both sides had long-lasting effects on history and culture.