Another what-if: Custer

Utterly fascinated by the Alamo thread, I wonder about another scenario.

Two questions. Per wiki: “Each of the first three detachments [of the 7th] was to seek out the Indian encampments, attack them, and hold them in place until the other two detachments arrived to support. Custer had employed similar tactics in 1868 during the Battle of the Washita.” The site gives Custer 600 men, the Indians between 940-1200 warriors.

Could this have worked, or were Custer’s forces simply too far outnumbered to make a go of it? 2-to-1 does not seem like insurmountable odds, especially with a mobile cavalry force. Granted, the 3 detachments were rather spread out, but at Washita, Custer lost 23 vs 117 warriors.

Second question. What if Custer had gone with the original plan and waited. Would Terry-Gibbon have had enough soldiers to win the battle (assuming Crook still got stopped at Rosebud)?

No matter how Custer’s plans went, the Sioux would have lost in the end.

Custer’s biggest mistakes were underestimating the size of his opponents and splitting his forces. He never should have attacked given the tactical situation at the time of battle. His ego doomed the whole group.

(side note) I was surprised at how small the battlefield is. Maps don’t give you the proper view of the area. It wasn’t until I visited the battlefield that everything became clear…where Reno holed up, the lay of the village, Crazy Horse and Gall’s encirclement…everything becomes clearer when you walk the ground.

Custer was reckless but he wasn’t foolhardy. His plan, while obviously a failure, wasn’t crazy. But he assumed that the Indians he faced would have the usual proportion of non-combatants mixed in with the fighters leading him to underestimate how many real opponents he would face. And he also assumed that the Indians would follow their common practice of withdrawing in the face of a large body of Army regulars. So he figured his best plan was to hit the camp from several directions as quickly as possible.

But the group he was attacking was not a typical camp. The Indians in the camp had gathered for battle. They were mostly warriors and they were looking for a fight.

None of this is intended to absolve Custer of his responsibility for the defeat. He shouldn’t have just assumed that he was facing the same type of battle that he had fought before.

A routine failure of militaries and officers throughout history is that all too often they plan to fight the previous war (battle, skirmish, etc.). See WW I, the early stages of WW II.

The Indians also had better, more rapid-fire rifles than the 7th Cav, IIRC.

Cavalry tactics of the time involved dismounting from one’s horse to fire, too. By doing so, Custer’s men had lost the advantage of movement and speed- not that I think they had a chance really anyway.

As Elendil’s Heir already mentioned, the Indians had better guns. The Cavalry were armed with single-shot Springfield “Trapdoor” carbines, which (like most large-calibre blackpowder cartridge guns) had a tendency to jam when fired repeatedly, and various single-action revolvers, which were very slow to reload once all six cartridges had been fired.

The Indians had Henry repeating rifles (“The rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week”, as the contemporary adverts went), and were also fighting (and firing) from horseback- Custer’s men were simply overwhelmed and outgunned.

Even the presence of Gatling Guns wouldn’t have done much to help- Gatling Guns are somewhat unwieldly, and also prone to jamming.

Who gave - or sold - the Indians their Henry repeating rifles? Did they face any recriminations/prosecution after the Little Bighorn massacre?

Analysis of cartridge cases recovered from the battlefield shows that jammed rifles weren’t a large factor in Custer’s defeat.

Traders selling Civil War surplus with vast markups and no, I’ve never seen anything about prosecutions since that was Capitalism in action. But only a quarter of the Indians had repeaters. Another quarter carried muzzleloaders and half carried bows, which some used in indirect fire, lofting arrows toward the troopers.

Good article:

And, as Little Nemo said, Custer expected the Indians to scatter, which had been their standard response to encountering large groups of soldiers. Custer couldn’t wait for Terry and Gibbon because he had already been seen by the Indians. The mission was to round them up and get them back to the reservation so he had to attack while they were still grouped. Splitting his force, with Reno taking the front and Custer the flank like a hammer on an anvil, was straight out of the book. Here Custer was not “fighting the last war,” he was fighting the last battle and tactics successful a few days, weeks, or months before can generally be relied on.

However, as that article says, Custer continued using those tactics long after they stopped working. He remained in attack mode when he should have been building up his defenses. Though Reno lost 40% of his command when their withdrawal from the village turned into a rout, an orderly withdrawal under fire being one of the most difficult military actions, those that remained were able to dig it and hold out until Terry arrived.

All told, Reno probably panicked when faced with the unexpected and Custer appears to have reacted to the new tactics by not reacting at all. Had both shown some adaptability and kept their commands disciplined there might have been a very different end to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The US Cavalry at this time was not like, say, Napoleon’s cavalry. It was more like mounted infantry on $100 nags, not cavaliers on blooded mounts, since both were mostly wiped out in the Civil War. We got better than we were paying for–a private got $13/month–but tactics were built around poorly trained, foreign born recruits who were likely to desert the first chance they got. Anyway, they couldn’t shoot dismounted, either. :frowning:

I’ll admit the quality of Custer’s troops wasn’t too high. But the most elite soldiers in the world would have followed the same tactics. Napoleon’s cavalry tactics no longer worked because weapons had advanced in sixty years. In Napoleon’s day, a body of men could ride against the enemy in reasonable confidence that most of them would arrive at the point of attack. But by 1876, the accuracy, range, and firepower of infantry weapons were vastly improved. A body of men on horseback riding towards a group of men armed with rifles would have been suicidal.

Exactly true. Unlike what Martini Enfield suggested, by the American Civil War traditional cavalry tactics, including massed cavalry charges and fighting from horseback, were obsolete for both troopers and Indians and were rarely used. Their horses provided point-to-point transport but the fighting was done on the ground. By the 1870s both sides were mostly cavalry in name only.

How are Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull judged as military leaders? And why did the Cheyenne and Sioux never align forces again on such a scale? (For the latter I’m assuming that food supply was a part of the reason.)

Off the subject of the OP, but I’ll ask anyway: Custer’s mother lost three sons, a son-in-law, and a grandson at Little Big Horn. Before the Sullivan brothers, does anybody know if that’s the most casualties in one family in one battle in U.S. military service?

The primary reason that the Indian nations rarely banded together or attempted to carry out actual long-term warfare was pretty much a matter that such efforts were simply outside their understanding of the world. When it did occur, (King Philip’s War, Pontiac Conspiracy, Tecumseh, the Creek War, Black Hawk), Indians who were settled farmers banded together to oppose white settlers. On the Great Plains, where the nations were more nomadic to begin with, it was simply not possible to organize that sort of defense. For one thing, the nations were far too small in the face of the encroaching whites. Disease was always the whites’ best ally, slaughtering peoples ahead of the whites’ advance, but among migratory peoples, there was simply no population to sustain a campaign. In addition, it was very difficult to organize long-term confederacies among traditional enemies. (This was not even necessarily an Indian or nomadic issue: look at the Balkans in the face of the German invasion of WWII or the British conquest of India where the invaders often found allies among the invaded or where the invaded spent as much time in internecine warfare as opposing the invaders.)

The warrior culture of the plains was very much a matter of personal honor rather than of advancement for the nation. Conquest only occurred by accident, if at all. “Huge” battles that were handed down in memory for generations often involved fewer than 100 combatants among all the participating groups. Clearly, there were several leaders among the nations who could see the advantage of banding together, but they were stymied by an inability to persuade their peoples to think in such radically new ways. In addition, among those who could see the advantages of banding together were those who had witnessed or learned of the wars in Mexico or the Civil War and who came to the realization that opposition to the huge flood of whites operating in massive armies was futile, and so chose to decline to support calls for war.

My understanding is that Crazy Horse was a damn fine strategical general, as far as Indian ways allowed for such. Sitting Bull was never really a military leader, but rather spiritual. (Though present, he did not participate in the battle at Little Bighorn.)

Also, I have the (possibly incorrect) notion that Gall was the main leader in that battle.

I may be coming to this party a little late. If the question is whether George Custer would (could) have avoided a catastrophe if he had not divided his command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the answer must be a resounding: Maybe. That might take some explaining.

For factual stuff the Wickipedia article is pretty good. Better yet is W.A. Graham’s compilation of primary sources, The Custer Myth (Stackpole, 1953) and the archeological studies of the Custer and Reno-Benteen battlefields by Douglas D. Scott, Patrick S. Willey and Melissa A. Conner, They Died with Custer: Soldiers’ Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn(U of Oklahoma Press, 1998), if you have the time and inclination. Be warned that Colonel Graham’s book is a lot like reading depositions – it is real primary material, but without any air of worship of the late George A. Custer.

Beyond splitting his regiment of about 700 officers and men plus some 50 Indian scouts and a like number of civilian employees into three or four parts it seems to me that Custer made fatal errors that could have been corrected.

First he assumed that he was confronting only Sitting Bull’s followers – some 300 families with up to 800 fighting men who had never submitted to the reservation system and who wanted nothing more that to be allowed to continue a life as buffalo hunters in the Tongue River country of what is now southeastern Montana. What Custer did not expect was that Sitting Bull’s camp had been substantially reenforced by summer wanderers from the Dakota reservations. Those reservation Indians were mostly well armed young men who were out for the summer to hunt and to have an adventure. Their numbers doubled or tripled or maybe quadrupled the fighting strength of Sitting Bull’s camp. Because of the difficulty in feeding that number of people and the accompanying horse herd the big camp could only stay together for a few weeks and could stay in one place for only a few days. The size of the trail Custer followed up the Rosebud Creek valley and the warnings he received from his crow scouts and Charlie Reynolds on the morning of the battle should have put Custer on notice that he was dealing with something far bigger than the 800 warriors he was expecting.

Second, after sending Major Reno’s three companies into the fight and on climbing the bluffs on the east side of the river and seeing for himself the true size of the Sioux-Cheyenne camp Custer should have realized that he had bitten off a piece that was too large for any of his seperated battalions to chew. He should not have proceeded North along the bluffs hoping to find a place to descend the bluffs and cross the river to attack the camp for a different point. Rather he should have turned back and supported Reno while calling for Benteen and the pack train to come up. That is, he should have dumped his apparent plan to make piecemeal attacks and tried to consolidate the regiment on the battlefield at the south edge of the camp.

Separated Reno’s 130 didn’t have a chance. Separated Custer’s 200 didn’t have a chance. Consolidated, with Benteen’s three companies and the one company with the pack train and the civilians and five troopers and one NCO from each of the 12 companies, there was a fair chance not only that a disaster could have been avoided but that the Indians could have been sufficiently injured by loss of fighting strength, horses and household good that a substantial number would have given up and gone to the reservations. In all probability the die-hards with Sitting Bull would have fled into Canada (as they did when the Army got serious about revenging Custer) but a substantial number of both the summer wanderers and the non-reservation Indians would probably have submitted.

I remember seeing something on the History Channel about Little Bighorn (Yes, I know, I shouldn’t believe everything I see on The History Channel) which said that the Indians remained mounted, whilst the US Cavalry troops were dismounted. I’ll defer to other experts here, though, as my area of expertise is British Military equipment and history, rather than American.

My understanding, however, is that British Cavalry troops did remain mounted and fight from Horseback (the various Martini and Lee-Enfield Cavalry Carbines were developed for this very reason), which was part of the reason for some spectacular losses in the opening stages of WWI, when they discovered that in a Cavalry Charge vs Maxim Guns, the Cavalry will almost always come off second best. Still, the British were fighting WWI with the same tactics they’d used on the Boer and the Zulu in the previous century, largely ignoring the American Civil War because it was, well, regarded as tactically unimportant by the British at the time.

Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were known as charismatic leaders who inspired their followers to greater levels of bravery but the Indian style of fighting, based on individual initiative rather than group action and squad-level (or smaller) tactics rather than anything like a coordinated strategy, does not readily lend itself to a judgement based on conventional concepts of military leadership. And, to listen to Sitting Bull’s nephew, White Bull, Crazy Horse didn’t lead the attack he was credited with. White Bull claimed he told Crazy Horse to attack but he demurred and followed White Bull. (Based on some of his other claims, there may be some brown bull in what White Bull says.)

Yes, especially because the bison was being purposely driven to extinction. And remember that the Natives were being actively hunted and that the West was quickly being occupied by Easterners. The gathering along the Little Bighorn was their last chance before being pushed either to reservations, Canada, or the grave.

The Indians and troopers remained mounted during some parts of the fight but, because a man on the ground shoots much more accurately, it was the practice of both to dismount when the tactics shifted from whooping it up and scaring people, which massed riders are especially good at, to raw killing, when additional accuracy, and protecting oneself from your enemy’s improved accuracy, paid off. Some Indians did remain mounted for much of the battle, and they rode up to the firing line to count coup and demonstrate their bravery (they were effing nuts!), but most hid in the grass and gullies to fire at the troopers.

Those rifles were developed at the same time as the Boers were teaching the British the folly of traditional cavalry tactics. Their mounted infantry got around quickly but dismounted, found cover, and decimated the British. Mounted infantry can be extremely handy under the right circumstances–look at the guys reverting to horses for transport in the mountains of Afghanistan. Shortly after the Boer War the Lee-Enfield carbine, designed to be easy to handle at the cost of reduced range and, I assume because they were faults of other carbines using rifle rounds, greater kick, bang, and muzzle flash, fathered the somewhat longer, but still shorter than the original rifle, SMLE, in its several varieties one of the most produced weapons ever.

Very sad that both sides thought that way because, both tactically and strategically, the American Civil War showed the future of warfare. Besides redefining the role of cavalry, there was increased mobility via railroads and rapid, long-range, and accurate of fire from both infantry and artillery wiped out Napoleonic massed formations and forced entrenched stalemate. Photographs around Petersburg, Virginia, could’ve been taken at the Somme. Total warfare, as practiced by Grant and Sherman, had never been used in Europe before 1914 and, if Moltke and others had not dismissed what was going on over here as warfare between untrained rabbles, observers could’ve prepared themselves and their nations for the wars to come.