Custer at Little Big Horn.

I watched an Unsolved History from the Discovery channel about Custer last night. It seems from the evidence there was no last stand as in Custers last stand. But what I’m wondering is…What ever posessed Cust to attack the encampment with more than 7000 Indians with 550 men? And then split those into 3 parties? Surely he realized it would be suicide, even if the Indians were under armed. As it turned out they were better armed than he was. So, was Custer insane?

Not necessarily. Stupid might cover it. And I’ve heard he DID finish last in his class at West Point. :stuck_out_tongue:

My understanding (based on interviews with indians who fought at Little Big Horn) is that the indians used a classic Genghis Khan cavalry tactic: they sent a small group over the hill to draw Custer’s larger army into a valley where they had their main force waiting to surround Custer’s army.
I could be mis-remembering what I read 15 years ago though.

Custer had 220 men. The Souix upwards of 3000 warriors. Hardly any need for an ambush.

I have heard that he was probably deranged. He was warned several times that the Souix had 15+ times as many people as he did but still marched on.

I’ve also heard that he was extremely vain and disdainful of the Indians. Maybe he felt that Indians were so vastly inferior that it didn’t matter how large the force was.

Well, I think he was insane, but I guess it’s too late for him to be analyzed :slight_smile:

Are you arguing with yourself?:slight_smile:

He split his forces into 3 groups. One headed by Major Reno the other by Cpt. Benteen. Only Custers group was totally destroyed. I was wrong about the number of men in his group. Here is a breakdown of the casualties…

From Stephen E. Ambrose, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors:

There were about 3000 Sioux warriors and 611 men in the 7th Cavalry, although many of them did not make it into the battle.

Ambrose’s book is amazingly good, as are all of his that I’ve read. The best thing about it is that from the beginning it presents Crazy Horse’s life and the Indian point of view (as much as can be ascertained from later interviews) in parallel with Custer’s, as the title indicates. You see the tragedy of the battle from both sides.

Any chance that there has been any updated research since Ambrose did his research 30 years ago?

I don’t have any idea. Just asking.

First, Custer expected to find, at most 800 or so hostile warriors in the village. There had been no recognition that the size of the village had been swelled by “summer rovers” from the reservations in Nebraska and the Dakotas. Custer figured that his regiment of about 700 carbines could take on 800 hostiles with little problem. Custer’s Crow and Ree scouts told him that there were more Sioux in the valley that he expected but Custer refused to credit their reports.

Second, breaking the attacking force into several contingents and coming in from different directions, with trumpets blowing and every body at the gallop had worked for Custer in 1868 at the Washita in Oklahoma.

Third, Custer had every reason to think that his column had been spotted. He was a lot more concerned that the village would break up and scatter if he did not strike quickly than he was about having his detachments fight in detail. It may well be that the village would have scattered but Custer came down on it too fast for that to happen.

Fourth, Benteen’s “battalion” was sent off as a blocking force to keep the Indians from fleeing up the Little Bighorn Valley. That it turned back and joined Reno’s “battalion” was a fortuity. Since Reno’s command had been badly beaten up in its fight in the valley there is a fair chance that Reno would have suffered the same fate as Custer if Benteen, and later the company guarding the pack train, had not joined up with Reno.

Fifth, Custer’s last message suggests that he recognized that he had bitten off more than the five companies he had with him could chew, but it looks as if that he went ahead on the assumption that Benteen would join him.

Sixth, the officers with Benteen and Reno had no idea what had happened to Custer. They thought that he had probably attacked the village, been repulsed and gone on down the river to join Gibon’s column, abandoning them to their fate.

Seventh, animosity and cliques among the regimental officers seriously reduced the 7th Cavalry’s efficiency.

Just an add on to one aspect of these trenchant comments.

Custer, as most regular Army officers, was convinced that one of his soldiers was a match for any ten undisciplined Indians, and had routed large Indian forces before.

Indians also had serious difficulties in getting guns. The number of guns was usually a small percentage of the number of Indians in any battle and they were also usually very short of ammunition.

Ambrose makes the point that the Indians had no culture of banding together across tribes into permanent groups for the purpose of making war. Nor were their wars designed for the purpose of slaughtering as many of the enemy as possible. Custer’s long-term campaign may have been incoherently designed and arrogantly pursued, but it had been working because the push of settlers had effectively destroyed the game in large areas needed by the migrating Indian life-style. Most Indians in the area had effectively given up and became recipients of the white’s welfare.

Little Big Horn was one last gasp of the minority party of younger Indians who remained convinced, with no good reason or evidence, that they could drive off the whites. They managed to band together in large numbers that once. Their success doomed them because of white reaction, but their failure would not have changed the long-term outcome in any substantial way.

I don’t believe this overall understanding has changed much in the last 30 years, but there may be new specifics about the site and the battle that have been discovered.

Maybe some of the knowledgeable here can verify this, that Custer’s troops had been telling each other of atrocities to be expected if captured alive by Indians. When things looked bad for them, apparently a number of Custer’s men turned their rifles on themselves, committing suicide, very unexpected by the Indians involved (per interviews years later).

Umm, this may sound dumb, but how do you interview years later a person who has committed suicide? I think I’m missing something here.

I’d say it’s possible they interviewed survivors of the battle… easier than interviewing the dead through a medium, anyway.

This is possible, but I do not recall reading of it. I wonder if this is a conflation of the story of Fetterman (who made Custer look like a genius). Once Fetterman had well and truly gotten his men into a fix from which they were clearly never going to escape, he and one of his officers (the doctor?) are reported to have each put their pistols to the other’s temple and counted down to fire at the same time–thereby reducing the number of soldiers who could continue the defense, hopeless as it was.

They interviewed the Indians as elderly survivors, years later.

Conflation is a possibility, source is memory, that’s why it wasn’t stated flatly as a fact.

Someone managed to make Custer look like a genius?

Fetterman sure did. He boasted that with 80 men he could defeat the entire Sioux nation. As it happened it was exactly that number ( well, him plus 79, maybe if he had had that one extra man all would have been different :stuck_out_tongue: ) he ended up leading into an ignominous defeat. All 80 died.

A brief account can be found here:

  • Tamerlane

Fetterman was a braggart who claimed that with 80 men he could sweep through the whole Sioux nation. He was posted to Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming. The winter of 1866 was bitterly cold and the fort had been built far from trees (to avoid providing attackers cover). They used to send out small wagon trains to cut wood to keep the fires at the fort going. The local indians used to harrass the wood cutters and their escorts. (This was the build-up to the famous Wagon Box fight, the next summer, as well).

On one occasion, Fetterman demanded to be allowed to lead a relief column to the wood cutters who were, once again, under attack. The fort commander had been holding him back, giving the command to a calmer officer, because of Fetterman’s obnoxious behavior, but finally gave in. Fetterman was assigned a troop of cavalry and a company of infantry (both woefully under strength) with some scouts. A couple of civilian employees of the quartmaster offered to come along as well. With the volunteers, Fetterman had exactly 80 men in his command.

He was given strict orders to stay in sight of the fort and to relieve the wood cutters, but he went haring off after a small group of indians to the west. Once he crossed over the nearby ridge, letting his infantry and cavalry become separated in the process, he was confronted by a couple of thousand indians who had been waiting in ambush. His entire command was wiped out in fewer than 20 minutes.

Custer lost the battle, but his chances weren’t as hopeless as it looks in retrospect. As Exapno Mapcase wrote, in other situations US Army soldiers had defeated Indians with odds similar to the ones at Little Big Horn. Recent analysis of the battle scenes which trace the movements of individual soldiers indicates that for the first part of the battle, the 7th Cavalry was holding its own. Apparently however during the battle an Indian charge overwhelmed one group of soldiers and this opened a hole in their defensive formation. From that point, Custer’s men were doomed.