By: Michael Welsch
George Armstrong Custer is one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century. Infamous for his role in one of the most debated battles in U.S. history – the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The notorious conflict is more commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand. The debate continues to this day about whether Custer was a tragic hero, valiantly leading his men against overwhelming odds. Or was he a cocky, overzealous buffoon who led half his men to their death.
The answer, like most contentious topics, is not an easy or straightforward one. Let’s try to separate fact from fiction and analyze the events within the context to draw a conclusion on a polarizing figure in history.
At the time of Custer’s death in 1876 he was only 36 years old. Still a very young man. But he was already a celebrity. World famous for his exploits during the Civil War and the Indian Wars that followed. How that fame was attained, much like everything else in Custer’s life, is rife with confliction.
Custer’s Early Rise In The Civil War
At the onset of the Civil War the Union Army was desperate for commissioned officers. Custer’s class at the U.S. Military Academy was rushed through, graduating a year early. Custer finished dead last in his class and amassed one of the highest demerit totals in West Point history. Yet once in the war he steadily rose through the ranks; acquiring a reputation for aggressiveness and a fearlessness that bordered on recklessness. He saw the war as an opportunity to gain fame, glory and advance his position. By age of 23 he received a brevet promotion to Brigadier General and with it came the nickname “Boy General”.
As the war progressed Custer continued to distinguish himself in a number of historic battles: Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign, and Shenandoah Valley. He was even present at Appomattox, cutting off the rebels retreat and forcing confederate general Robert E. Lee to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. Thus ending the Civil War.
By now Custer was renowned for his bravery and his men adored him for always leading from the front. However, he also began to be known as someone who took unnecessary risks with not only his own life, but also the lives of his men. He was viewed as an excellent combat commander: brave, inspiring, courageous. But always pushing his luck. Looking for the big score instead of being patient and steady.
Once the fighting had ceased Custer was a famous war hero, yet still just 25 years old with many career opportunities offered to him. He considered an invitation to become a general in the Mexican Army and fight in their war against France. Custer also strongly contemplated entering politics but was dissuaded by his wife. He even dabbled on Wall Street but failed miserably. Ultimately, Custer decided to remain in the military. He was sent west to serve on the frontier in the U.S. Army’s campaigns against the Native American tribes of the Great Plains.
The Plains Indians & Discovery of Gold
To fully understand what occurred at the Battle of the Little Bighorn we must first understand the preceding events. As the population of American grew and expanded westward, conflicts with the Native Americans occupying these lands increased. In an attempt to reduce confrontations and exert control over Native Americans, the U.S. Government began designating large swaths of land as “Indian Territory”. One such recognized area was the Black Hills Territory. The Lakota, who are part of the Sioux tribe, were granted the Black Hills Territory in 1868, exempting all white settlement in the territory forever.
In 1874, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold near present day Deadwood, South Dakota. As a result new settlers poured into the area hoping to strike a gold claim and find their fortune. These settlers were infringing on lands that the US government said the Native Americans could have. Yet, now that there was supposedly gold the government changed their tune. Federal authorities used a few skirmishes between settlers and native tribes as an excuse to brandish the Indians as savages that must be rounded up and forced onto reservations.
In the spring of 1876, U.S. Army officials designed a 3 pronged approach to corral the Indians. Colonel John Gibbons’ column of 10 companies would march east from Montana. General George Crooks’ column of 20 companies would march north from Wyoming. Finally, Brigadier General Alfred Terry’s column of 12 companies, who were under the immediate command of one George Armstrong Custer, would march southwest from North Dakota. It was a sound plan; in theory the 3 columns approaching from different directions would encircle the Native Americans and force their surrender. However, as the 3 columns set out they were operating under incorrect assumptions about the number of Indians they were advancing towards.
U.S. military intel assumed no more than 800 “hostiles” in the region. Little did they know that the Lakota and Cheyene tribes had banded together under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (among others), and now had upwards of 2,500 warriors. This is an important piece of information as it most likely weighed into the fatal decisions Custer would later make.
Prelude To Battle
Custer’s Indian scouts spotted a massive village on the Little Bighorn river, 15 miles from the column’s current position. The scouts cautioned Custer that it was the largest Indian village they’d ever seen and would contain far more warriors than expected. Custer was undeterred by these warnings and wished to attack immediately instead of waiting for reinforcements.
Although he favored a surprise attack the following morning, he opted instead to strike that very afternoon. Custer was worried that the Indians had become aware of his presence and would dissolve the village and escape if he didn’t act now. Another in a long list of impetuous decisions made throughout his career.
The Lieutenant Colonel split his column into four separate units. He started by leaving one company behind to protect the slower moving pack train carrying provisions, supplies, and additional ammunition. Three companies were each placed under the command of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen respectively. While the remaining five companies remained under Custer’s immediate direction.
The strategy was relatively straightforward. Custer’s contingent of men would use the bluffs as cover, flank around the village and attack from the north. While Reno and Benteen would attack from different southern avenue of approaches and prevent the Indians from retreating. The plan required coordination and each of the 3 elements supporting the other 2. But the decisive factor was intended to be speed and surprise.
Custer felt that by attacking from multiple angles with pace it would cause disorientation among the Indians; resulting in them abandoning the fight and attempting to flee. The maneuver could have been successful, but things didn’t go according to plan and the Indians were much more resolute fighters than expected.
Undermined and Overrun
Reno’s men attacked first, however the Major got cold feet once he realized the immense size of the village. He quickly halted their approach and set up skirmish lines outside the settlement. From here, his men fired into the encampment. Reno’s failure to continue the advance afforded the Indians the opportunity to marshal a counter attack on an outnumbered opponent in a fixed position. This forced Reno into a hasty and disorganized retreat; where numerous of his men were left behind.
Captain Benteen’s contingent eventually came to the aid of Reno, who by this point had lost 25% of his men. Benteen’s arrival most likely saved Reno’s men from annihilation. Had Reno carried out his orders and continued his attack, history would most likely remember the Battle of the Little Bighorn much differently.
On the northeastern side of the village Custer decided to yet again split his forces, assigning 3 of his 5 companies to Captain Myles Keogh to form a right wing. They unsuccessfully attempted to ford the Little Bighorn River and attack the village, unbeknownst to them that Reno had halted his attack and was now in a full on retreat. A charge led by Crazy Horse cut through Captain Keogh’s right wing. He and his men were quickly overwhelmed and the survivors scrambled to link back up with Custer’s left wing.
The pack train eventually caught up to Reno and Benteen’s position. At this point many of the pursuing Indian warriors turned away from Reno and Benteen and headed north, toward Custer’s position. Despite hearing heavy gun fire from Custer’s presumed location and receiving a handwritten message from Custer urging Benteen to bring men and ammunition; Benteen instead focused on reinforcing Reno’s wounded and shaken troops. Benteen may have felt that the rattled Reno was in no shape to continue leading and he had to stay to maintain order. There is also evidence to suggest Reno had been drunk at the time of the battle.
Regardless of the reasons, none of the men from Reno, Benteen or the pack train heeded Custer’s call for additional men and supplies, nor did they advance toward the direction of gunshots. They remained on their hill where direct fire subsided for a short while. Most likely because the majority of the Indian warriors were focusing on Custer’s position.
The exact details of Custer’s last stand are circumstantial since neither he nor any of his men survived to tell the tale. It is generally accepted that after being overrun, the survivors of Keogh’s right wing fled to link up with Custer’s left. Together, on a hill now known as “Last Stand Hill”, Custer and his men made a desperate final effort to hold off the Indian attack. However, it was to no avail, as all of these men were slaughtered.
Now that Custer’s contingent was eliminated, the Indian warriors turned their attention back to Reno, Benteen, and the pack train; who literally circled the wagons in a last ditch attempt to repel the Indian onslaught. The companies remained pinned down and intermittent fighting continued until the following afternoon when Terry and Gibbon’s column arrived, forcing the Native Americans to withdraw. Thus ending the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
One Man’s Opinion
So in the end was Custer an arrogant fool or undermined by his subordinates? In my opinion it was probably a bit of both. The man had great strengths but also grave failings. No doubt Custer was an ambitious man, probably to a fault. No doubt he yearned for greater fame and definitely revealed in the spotlight. Yet he also proved to be a fantastic battlefield commander and leader of men. There were numerous contributing factors that led to his failure at the Little Bighorn.
First and foremost, he moved forward with his attack even after his scouts informed him that the Indian village was enormous and would contain more warriors than expected. Perhaps Custer didn’t believe his scouts and was relying too heavily on inaccurate U.S. Army intel reports.
Perhaps he was overconfident in himself and his men that they could prevail even though outnumbered. Perhaps he didn’t want to miss his opportunity to capture the Indians and garner further fame. Nonetheless, Custer should have heeded the scouting reports or at least done further reconnaissance on the village and terrain instead of making impulsive decisions.
Benteen, and especially Reno, need to be held accountable to some degree as well. By halting his charge, Reno failed to execute his orders and tactical commitment. This resulted in the overall strategy collapsing and directly compromising Custer, Benteen and the pack train. If Reno continued his assault, Custer’s hammer and anvil maneuver just might have worked. His negligence cannot be overstated in the U.S. Army’s failure at this battle.
Even after Benteen came to save Reno’s sloppy retreat and the pack train eventually caught up, no one attempted to seek and support Custer and the other half of the column. Despite hearing gun fire and despite a message from Custer requesting additional men and supplies, all units stayed in position. As it turns out, every man was needed to stave off the Indians until Terry and Gibbons arrived the next day. But perhaps if some of the men rerouted to support Custer’s unit, the entire column could have been wiped out instead of only 50%. We’ll never know.
But in my opinion, it all comes back to Custer, he can’t be let off the hook. He was in ultimately charge. Custer was impatient. He was reckless to lead his men into a battle outnumbered almost 4-to-1. His tactics were questionable, at best. Custer split his inferior force not once but twice. Furthermore, his 700 men were stretched across 4 miles of battlefield. He spread himself far too thin for each element to support one another if the plan went awry.
Had everything gone exactly as he intended, maybe Custer would have triumphed and he would have been regarded as a military genius. But that didn’t happen. Instead, 274 men lost their lives. I understand it’s easy to point out all the flaws after the fact, but I still feel that Custer should have acted with more tact and prudence. Custer was trying to complete his mission. I understand he was ambitious. But I do not think he weighed the pros and cons against the fate of the 700 men under his command. These are not enviable decisions to have to make, but such is the burden of command.
Yet perhaps more of the focus should be on the Native American’s successes and less on Custer’s failures. Here was a people being forcibly removed from their homes and ancestral lands. They banded together and cooperated; under stronger leadership and a better tactical strategy. Maybe it’s not so much Custer losing the battle, but more the Native Americans winning it.
The U.S. Government is as much at fault as anyone for not finding a better approach to coexist with the Native Americans. Custer was definitely a willing instrument for them to use, but if it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. Perhaps that person would have made superior decisions but that’s not how history played out. So conjecture, opinions, and debates will continue on the rights and wrongs of George Armstrong Custer and The Battle of the Little Bighorn.
For another perspective on this battle and the U.S. campaigns in the region, check out this blog post from Native Hope.
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