General Armstrong Custer Into the Valley of Death…I shall fear no evil…
Examine the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Locate any ‘mistakes’ in judgement’ made by Custer (and others) at the time.
Reality versus Perception.
Custer is most famously remembered for taking the 7 th Cavalry into battle and leading his men into a military disaster.
Both he and 210 troops died at the Little Big Horn.
It was a humiliation to the American military who dressed it up as a valiant battle by brave soldiers.
Courage under Fire
No-one can doubt the bravery of troops in combat – they faced a situation that no-one else wanted to face, but did they have to die in such a tragedy?
What is difficult to know is what really happened – find that out and the ‘why’ becomes easier to understand.
Why is it difficult to know what happened?
Simple, you have two sides to the story, except in this story, one side is dead and the other is a mixture of those who had no idea they were fighting Custer and the 7 th Cavalry, the remainder decided that it was not best to talk about.
Why? Silly question considering boasting they killed Custer wouldn’t put them on the US Army Christmas card list (would it?)
The Bighorn Campaign of 1876
What led to the army in an Indian war?
Simple – Gold! “There’s gold in them there hills” was probably an apt call.
Unfortunately the Black Hills of Dakota were sacred to the Sioux Nation.
When Miners entered the land it was obviously a serious issue.
There had already been an issue with the Bozeman Trail that ran alongside the edge of the area.
Solution 1: Buy the land
The US Government tried to resolve the issue by buying the land. It seemed a good enough solution, it had been done before.
Unfortunately the Sioux decided that religion was above money. They asked for $600,000,000 – a figure no-one would pay!
Why ‘ unfortunately’ ? – see Solution 2
Solution 2 – Take ‘em down
The US Army got the chance to rid the US government of the Indian Problem – at least as far as the Sioux were concerned.
Why so aggressive? Remember Red Clouds War (1866) had led to the massacre of a company of US Soldiers and the destruction of some forts – not the kind of thing you forget in a hurry. Especially when you lost to a bunch of ‘ savages ’ as far as the US Army were concerned.
In steps Custer
The phrase that best sums up Custer is ‘aggressive’.
He was a highly decorated cavalry officer in the Civil War.
He was also a self obsessed man. When he was promoted to General he created his own uniform! (Which hardly follows the concept of a uniform!)
A New Indian War – The Road to the Bighorn
General Sheridan was tasked with dealing with the ‘Indian problem’. He created a three pronged attack that would lead to the destruction of his rivals Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
The Three Pronged Attack Gibbon and the 7 th Infantry would march towards the Little Bighorn General Crook’s column was the first to meet up with the Indians. He was attacked by Crazy Horse’s warriors Terry’s command the 7 th Cav was led by Custer. They had to meet up with Gibbon for the combined attack to work.
Major Factor One of the Battle
As we saw from the map, Crook faced an attack from Crazy Horse, although not a serious attack, he turned back to Fort Fetterman.
Sheridan’s plan was already coming to pieces. Instead of a three pronged attack it was down to two!
So what happened?
On the 25 th June 1876, Custer took his 7 th Cavalry onto the valley of the Little Bighorn.
The heat and haze made observation difficult, he could not see what the scouts in his unit had told him – the largest camp ever seen!
Sitting Bulls’ Vision
The warriors in the camp may not have known about Custer, but they had reason to feel ready to do battle.
Their chief, Sitting Bull had a vision in which US soldiers were falling into the Indian camp – it was a sign for VICTORY!
Q) Was this a major factor in the result of the battle?
Major Factor Two of the Battle
Custer was under strict instructions once he had located the camp to wait for both Terry and Gibbon in order to make a coordinated attack.
He may have decided that the chances of Indians escaping was too great, or that he sought greater glory for himself – whatever the reason was – he didn’t obey orders.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
Custer ignored the warnings from his scouts.
He was warned that the soldiers had little ammunition to take on such a camp.
How critical was this mistake?
Custer being a cavalry officer liked the idea of fast combat – hitting hard and fast. He has used this tactic time and time again.
He therefore did not bring the Gatling guns that were used to attack large numbers of the enemy.
He also like to split his forces into smaller sections to surround the enemy.
Major Factor Number Three of the Battle
Custer made mistakes.
Number One – Using the same tactic will work until the enemy know how to stop it. Splitting your forces may work if the enemy breaks up and moves away – if they don’t your troops end up attacking a much larger force!
That Means… Ever see a fly hit a windscreen!
Explain why Custer’s tactics which ad worked at the Battle of Waschita failed here?
Not bringing the Gatling Guns meant that he had less firepower. He did not know there would be that many Indians when he left them behind, but it could be said that when he knew of the number he faced he should have waited for Gibbon – now more than ever!
Custer split his forces, Reno and Benteen were tasked with going up the Big Horn valley, meanwhile Custer would go up the north bank.
Reno cam under Indian attack and joined up with Benteen to consolidate their forces.
Meanwhile Custer failed to be able to attack the village due to quicksands
Custer was forced to go up onto the bluffs of the river bank, making observation by the Indians easier.
Custer was attacked by Indian warriors on two sides. If he headed into the village he would be cut off. His only hope lay in producing a static defence. It failed.
The Last Stand
The 7 th Cavalry were armed with poor quality, out of date carbines that were set to a range of 25 metres!
The Indians had repeating Winchester rifles – far superior
Perhaps to the amazement of a modern day examiner, the Indians were armed with superior weapons.
One Historian referred to Indians after the attack explaining they saw US soldiers using knives to get out bullet casings from their rifles.
Indians had the latest range of weaponry kindly supplied by the US – for hunting!
Custer’s group were massacred – no-one survived! Roughly 210 men died there.
Reno and Benteen’s soldiers retired from battle loosing a number of soldiers.
The real questions were ‘Was Custer at fault?’ and, ‘Was it really a victory for the Indians?’