|Battle of the Little Bighorn - History In An Hour|
What most interests me about the battle is why it has become so famous. It was not large by any means, but continues to be remembered. Earlier this month, I published posts about D-Day and the Battle of Waterloo. It's easy to see why those two battles are remembered. The former decided the fate of the western front in Europe and over 1 million men took part. The latter, several decades before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, determined who would rule a continent and involved around 200,000 men. The Battle of the Little Bighorn didn't even have over 4,000 troops fighting. Yet we remember it like we remember D-Day and Waterloo.
I think part of the reason it's remembered is because of the man who led the U.S. cavalry on that fateful day. George Custer was larger-than-life. Many people believe he is a hero, but he's actually very controversial and, in my opinion, wasn't that good a military commander at all. He did fight with great vigor and heroism in the American Civil War, but after that there was a slippery slope. The Battle of Washita showed how sloppy Custer could be. On November 27, 1868, Custer led the Seventh Cavalry in a surprise attack against a Cheyenne village near the Washita river. Chief Black Kettle was killed and the 250 Native American Indians were taken by surprise. Sadly, many women and children were killed during the attack, which never should happen in a battle.
What happened next is one of the greatest stains on Custer's career. One of his subordinates, Major Joel Elliott, decided to lead 19 other men eastward after observing several Native Americans flee. While the major decided to give chase, Custer ordered his men to start destroying the village and organize the prisoners, but then trouble arose as described by historian Jerry D. Morelock in a 2011 article from Armchair General:
Sometime after Elliott departed, Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey raced up to Custer's command post to report a startling development. After the initial attack, Godfrey had led his platoon north of the river and then east to search for more ponies, but upon clearing some small intervening hills, he related to Custer, "I was amazed to find that as far as I could see down the ... valley there were tipis - tipis [and] mounted warriors scurrying in our direction."Custer knew he had to retreat, but what about Major Elliott and his men? Rather than alert and save them, Custer ordered his men to mount up and move out with the prisoners. Elliott and his men were left to fend for themselves. In a letter to his superiors following the battle, Custer claimed victory and exaggerated the number of Indian casualties, but Elliott and his troopers weren't accounted for. It wouldn't be until December before their mutilated bodies were found. Worse, Chief Black Kettle was actually one of the peaceful chiefs in the Native American tribes, who was willing to negotiate with the United States. Captain Frederick W. Benteen, an officer in the Seventh Cavalry, was very angry at Custer for the loss of his friend Elliott.
The Battle of Washita set up major resentment against Custer. Benteen sent letters to the press that were published in newspapers to bash Custer for his decisions. The officer and the commander became bitter rivals. This rivalry followed all the way to June 25, 1876, when Custer decided to split his command like he did for the attack on the Washita village. This was Custer's first great mistake because the Little Bighorn village was one of the largest ever assembled. He deliberately kept Benteen out of the fighting by having the regiment's senior captain swing left away from the village along with 113 men from three companies. Twenty perfect of the force was sent away from the village to block Indians from escaping, despite the fact that scouts reported the village as the largest they ever saw.
Custer's next mistake was to give another sizable portion of the Seventh Cavalry to Major Marcus A. Reno, some three companies with 131 men, to attack the southern end of the village. Custer would take the remaining 215 men comprising a total of five companies north to strike the Indians from the other end. Any troops left were kept as a reserve to defend a supply line and ammunition packs. Reno gave the first attack, but as his men crossed the Little Bighorn river and charged from the south, they immediately realized that they were running into trouble. A small battalion of cavalry was charging an enormous village of Native Americans. The cavalrymen were not even a tenth of the village's population. The difficulty of this attack is explained in Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn:
Between 1868 and 1878, there were eighteen cavalry attacks on Indian villages of two hundred tepees or fewer, and every one of these attacks proved successful. No U.S. cavalry officer before or since had what Reno now faced: the chance to see if a mounted battalion could push the collective psyche of a thousand-tepee village past the breaking point and transform this giant seething organism of men, women, children, horses, and dogs into a stampeding mob.Reno, who was under the influence of alcohol after drinking before the battle, ordered his men into a defensive skirmish line. The men dismounted, most forming into a line and firing their Springfield carbines while the remaining few gathered the horses. He was soon attacked by an overwhelming number of warriors. At this point, Custer reportedly saw the battle unfold and went back to his five companies to attack the village. What he didn't see was how quickly the battle turned to the favor of the Native Americans. Custer had declined to bring Gatling guns, the machine guns of the time, with him into battle because of how slow they were. These powerful weapons could have completely altered the first fighting. Reno realized he was about to be massacred and decided to retreat. It was heavily disorganized, but eventually the men mounted their horses in a nearby timber and raced across the river to move atop nearby bluffs.
What Custer was trying to do is rightly considered an envelopment attack, where the attacking force attacks two sides of the defending force. It can work, but was executed poorly in this battle. Custer proved too late while Reno's force was too small. Now acknowledging that he needed Benteen, Custer sent a messenger to the captain asking him to be quick and bring ammunition packs. When receiving the message, Captain Benteen decided to head toward the nearest gunfire, which was where Reno and his battalion was fighting. With Reno's men exhausted and wounded, Benteen made the decision to stay and support him. With new support, Reno and his men would survive, but the captain firmly believed Custer had abandoned them and was riding off into glory.
A day later, the fate of Custer and his men was discovered. The lieutenant colonel and his 215 men were all dead east of the Little Bighorn river on several hills. It appeared that Custer had tried to cross the river according to accounts from Native Americans, but was repulsed and ordered a retreat up the hills. His men dismounted into skirmish lines and remained there as the Cheyenne and Lakota warriors surrounded and annihilated them. As Indian warriors charged up the hills on horseback or running on foot, the cavalry skirmish lines became disorganized and the men started to group together. Custer was probably awaiting the assistance of Benteen, but with the confusion of the message and the slow speed of the mule train, Custer was left on his own and his many mistakes running up to the battle were what destroyed him. On June 25 we always remember this battle, which shocked the United States just before the centennial celebrations.