1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn

Why was Custer defeated?

Determined to prevent their escape, he decided to attack immediately, in an effort to retain the initiative. It was a desperate attempt to dictate events rather than, as actually happened, have the events unfold upon him. Custer’s approach to battle was consistent in this respect. He thought that decisive charges from different directions would always result in the opponents’ demise. His view of military strategy was simple: gain the upper hand by a surprise offensive, and increase this by catching the enemy in a pincer movement. It was a win at all costs strategy which, unfortunately for Custer and his men, did not consider anything but winning.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn

1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn

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1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn

1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn


.Custer’s Limitations exposed

If Custer had been Reno Custer’s tactics might have worked, but Reno was not brave to the point of recklessness, his approach to leadership was not to dive in regardless of his personal safety. Custer was a poor leader in that he expected others to have the same attitude to fighting as himself, something which was most unlikely to be the case. Custer’s approach, even against overwhelming odds might just have worked if Reno had charged into the Hunkpapa warriors without hesitation, and thus, in a sense, Reno was culpable, as indeed the public and the military concluded. But Reno was not Custer, he did not have the panache, the single minded drive to pile in without considering any other consequence than victory. Custer put Reno into a stressful situation with which Reno, and probably most other officers, could not deal, which resulted in hesitation and rout instead of a charge. Reno had his men dismount to form a skirmish line instead of riding them pell mell through the encampment, he thus lost any initiative he might have had, any momentum which might have compensated for the overwhelming odds against the troops. Outside of normal rationality Custer’s approach might have worked, but as soon as Reno stopped the charge rationality was established and the odds were too great for any other conclusion than a native American victory. Unlike Crook a week earlier, Custer either did not realize or would not contemplate what was actually happening. Crook managed to withdraw under covering fire from his Crow auxiliaries, but Custer was caught in the act of a daring multipronged attack, which, if successful, would have been hailed as the mark of a genius. However, when the momentum was lost the split force was vulnerable to being picked off one by one. It is interesting that Benteen and Reno managed to salvage something from their hopeless position while Custer did not. They reacted to an adverse situation and managed to create a hastily built emplacement on a hill which demanded a disciplined attack to overwhelm it if was to be taken. The history of the west is littered with such defences holding out against native American attack until the assailants ran out of steam, as indeed happened on June 25 and 26 so that Benteen and Reno survived. Custer has often been represented as an egotistical maniac, which is very unfair to a man whose faults certainly included supreme self confidence, but more importantly he was supremely weak in relating to other soldiers officers and men. While his charisma might carry him through in an engagement, his poor motivational quality in day to day army life and poor judgment in dealing with others alienated all but his superiors in the army.

To explain this one need look no further than why his superiors were happy for him to lead the expedition in the northern plains in 1876. Custer was a man of action and they wanted action. Despite the ostensible reason for the expedition of wanting to surround the Lakota and northern Cheyenne and force them into the reservation what they really wanted was to defeat them in battle. For that Sherman, Sheridan and Terry needed a Man of Action, someone who would not hesitate and let the ‘hostiles’ escape. The whole campaign was founded upon the premise that by attacking the villages and destroying their homes and possessions the native Americans could be worn down into submission. Hence the choice of Custer. The generals chose Custer expecting him to win, but when things went wrong they made him a scapegoat. The campaign strategy also assumed that the warriors would withdraw with, and only fight to protect the withdrawal of, their families. This assumption was wrong. Having forced Crook to withdraw the Lakota and northern Cheyenne were confident that they could prevail against a smaller force.

We can but speculate what motivated Custer, but he certainly craved publicity, for whatever reason. Why else would he take along a reporter, directly against orders. Further evidence of self aggrandizement comes from his conversation with the Crow scout White Man Runs Him “These people are troublesome and bother the Crows and the white people. I am going to teach them a lesson today. I am going to whip them and I will build a fort at the junction where the Little Horn flows into the Big Horn and you Crows may live in peace.” For Custer this would have put him literally as well as metaphorically on the map. It has been claimed that Custer had political, even presidential ambitions, but this seems to be unlikely. As I have argued elsewhere, I think it more tenable that he was planning to emulate Cody and re-enact his acts of valour. Whatever the reason Custer was egotistical in that he was building the legend, when his luck ran out his widow Libby did all she could to continue the process. In this she was aided by historical trickery such as the myth that Custer’s body was not mutilated (Thanks to Thom Hatch, The Custer Companion, I am glad I am not the only one to find this incredulous, given that the native Americans did not appear to know he was there) and also by the explanation for this propounded by Mari Sandoz that Custer took a Cheyenne “bride” while on campaign (a misguided theory in the interesting book “Crazy Horse”). History does play tricks because it is based on the interpretation of evidence which is always less than perfect. In this case the best and closest shot at the truth has to be that Custer ran out of luck. His limitations caught up with him. He was not a maniac, nor was he stupid. He was egotistical which sometimes led to him being unreasonable and this alienated those around him. His simplistic view of how to achieve military success did not allow for anything else than victory, so when victory became an impossibility there was no way he could extricate himself or his men. Custer’s superiors knew Custer very well, they knew he was egotistical but they also knew that he was fearless and charismatic in combat. It was claimed afterwards that Custer disobeyed orders, but this just exploited the ambiguity in Terry’s instructions to try to blame Custer instead of the real culprits, those who appointed him. Having successfully attacked native American villages in the southern Plains – Mackenzie’s assault on the Kiowa, Comanche and southern Cheyenne at Palo Duro Canyon was crucial in hounding the native Americans into submission –Generals Sherman and Sheridan wanted to use the same strategy in the north. They chose a leader who would be daring enough to attack the “hostiles” without hesitation and who had the self confidence to mount an attack swiftly enough that the native Americans would not be able to escape. Custer was their man.

Other factors


While Custer’s inherent flaws led to his demise, and given the survival of Benteen and Reno I think they did, there were other factors which contributed to the debacle. It was claimed afterwards that the native Americans had superior weaponry, which was untrue. Some had repeating rifles but they had a motley collection of whatever they could get their hands on. The troopers had the most up to date Springfield carbines. While these were single shot, they were easily reloaded, simply by ejecting the shell at the breech and inserting another cartridge. This should have presented no difficulty. The problem was the lack of practice at using the rifles, and specifically in adjusting or rather readjusting the sights to suit the range within which shots were being fired. At first the rifles were discharged at distance. Evidence clearly suggests that once the engagement was closer the troopers overshot their targets. Fire was ineffectual as it went over the heads of the warriors: there were reports from those in the village of bullets ripping into lodge poles of the tepees, for example. Hunkpapas Moving Robe and Pretty White Buffalo reported that "the bullets shattered the tepee poles," and "through the tepee poles their bullets rattled." Although these Hunkpapas were reporting what happened in the Reno Fight near the village, it is reasonable to project that this mistake was made throughout the engagements fought at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Richard A Fox reconstructed a similar scenario from archaeological evidence to corroborate what Moving Robe and White Buffalo reported that they had observed. Military training at the time was rudimentary in the extreme. The number of rounds for target practice each year was so low that it seems likely that many of the troopers had not even fired a rifle before, never mind in the heat of battle. In the heat of battle it was unlikely that individuals would remember to adjust their sights, and given the frailty of the leadership it was unlikely that a clear command to do so would have been given. Nevertheless one cannot argue that lack of military training was something specific to the Seventh Cavalry, in the nineteenth century US army it was a fact of life. Colonel Edward S Godfrey, who was with Benteen, claimed that when corroded or dirty, cartridges they would not readily eject and had to be removed with a knife. However, it seems that Godfrey’s remarks gave this undue credibility, for of the recovered Springfields, very few showed evidence of this kind of problem. In the Custer area of the battle only three out of eighty cartridge cases showed evidence of scratching and on the Reno Benteen Defense Site it was seven out of the 257, hardly enough to explain Custer’s defeat or even give the explanation any credibility at all. (Richard A Fox Archaeology, History and Custer’s Last Battle)

Gatling guns

Custer’s refusal to take Gatling guns has been offered as a reason for his defeat, but it is more usefully a recognition that Custer was on the offensive and therefore could see no use for them. They would be no use whatsoever in firing upon a native American village, for it was not a military emplacement or stronghold, but civilian residences which would be likely to be vacated upon the opening of hostilities. Thus Custer saw them as an unnecessary encumbrance which would have slowed him down when speed of movement was paramount in catching the enemy unawares. Gatling guns had saved Carson’s troops from annihilation in the Battle of Adobe Walls 1864, but Custer did not expect to be in a defensive position and would not know what to do if he was. General Nelson A. Miles commented on their usefulness: "I am not surprised that poor Custer declined" taking them, he said. "They are worthless for Indian fighting."

Condition of the Troops

The troops were tired from their forced overnight march, but this was true of all the men, not just the ones commanded by Custer, and it seems that even within the two detachments under Custer one rallied and behaved heroically while the other was picked off in total disarray, thereby explaining the discrepancies in the native American accounts which seem to exist, and which some have exploited to dismiss their integrity. The poor state of the troops was a factor in their demise but a very subsidiary one, one which might easily have been overcome.

The Division of Forces.

“The fact that after Custer’s five troops had been annihilated, the Indians who came back and engaged the seven troops were repulsed, and that they failed to dislodge these troops, is proof that the force was amply strong, if it had only acted in full concert. No commanding officers can win victories with seven-twelfths of his command remaining out of the engagement when within sounds of his rifle shots.” General Nelson Miles

Had all forces attacked as one, Custer could possibly have prevailed, despite the overwhelming odds, not just because of the strength of numbers but because Custer would have led the whole force which would have scattered the warriors and left them struggling to protect their families. Custer’s idea of military strategy was charging at the enemy, preferably from a few directions, so he was always likely to adopt this method, however suicidal it looks with hindsight. Reno’s charge petered out, Custer’s was delayed by failing to find a point to cross the river quickly enough to attack simultaneously with Reno, and Benteen’s force was wasted. Benteen did not actively engage the enemy as he did not have a clear order of when and where to attack, but was just told to move south and south west and attack any ‘Indians’ he came across. Colonel Edward S Godfrey, who was with Benteen, and thus not present, based on an 1886 conversation with Chief Gall, blamed Reno's retreat from the trees. Benteen also felt that had Reno not retreated, the Indians would have retired in the face of having to fight both Reno and Custer at the same time. In this second assumption Godfrey is guilty, I feel, of presuming that the US army would have beaten a bunch of savages if only mistakes had not been made. I think the best that could have been hoped for was that sheer momentum would have carried the day, while the most positive worst case scenario was that more troopers might have survived if the troops had been led to defend coherently together. Unfortunately momentum was lost by Reno’s hesitation and defence was not one of Custer’s strongpoints.

Expectations of the Military

“It is evident that at the time the only fear Custer had was that the Indians might make their escape” Usher Burdick The Last Battle of the Sioux Nation, p.51

This was equally true of the US army at the time, in fact their multipronged approach anticipated withdrawal and was designed to prevent it. After all it must be remembered that the army was purposely attacking civilian encampments, and previous experience was that warriors were more concerned with the safety of their families than with being drawn into a full on battle. It was on this premise that the Red River War in the southern Plains had been fought and won only about eighteen months before.

Lack of Cohesion and Communication

While Terry commanded Gibbon’s and his own forces the latter which he effectively delegated to Custer, General Crook’s force acted independently of the other two forces, perhaps a crucial weakness in the campaign.

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1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn

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© Chris Smallbone July 2007