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Why did the disaster at Little Big Horn happen?


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George Custer was the youngest general in the Civil War, reaching that rank at 23. His ego drove him. To success, and eventually to his death, along with a large portion of his command. What were the six Cascade Events leading to the disaster?

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Why did the disaster at Little Big Horn happen?

  1. 1. The Rule of Seven: Every catastrophe has 7 events. Six Cascade Events leading to the final event, the Catastrophe. At least one of the Cascade Events involves human error. Thus most catastrophes can be avoided.
  2. 2. “There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.” George Armstrong Custer
  3. 3. On 25 June 1876, 5 of the 12 companies of the US 7th Cavalry under George Armstrong Custer’s command were annihilated by a combined force of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe Native Americans under the leadership of Crazy Horse and Gall.
  4. 4. 1861: Custer graduates West Point. 27 November 1868: The Battle of Washita River. 2 August 1874: Custer reports finding gold ‘right from the grass roots’ in the Black Hills. 25 June 1876; 10:50 am: Custer decides to attack the Native American encampment on the Little Big Horn River. 12:12 pm: First divide of Custer’s command as Benteen’s column splits off. 2:15 pm: Second divide of Custer’s command as Reno’s column splits off. Reno quickly becomes engaged in battle. 3:33 pm: Reno’s command retreats into the trees along the Little Big Horn River, hard pressed by the Native Americans. 3:56 pm: Custer’s companies advance down Medicine Tail Coulee. 5:00 pm: Last of heavy firing heard from Custer’s position.
  5. 5. West Point, Civil War, and Indian War records of George Armstrong Custer foretold a leader big on ego, bravery, and foolishness. -Last in his class at West Point. -Court-martialed at West Point right after graduation. -Became a general at 23; 7th Cavalry was the smallest unit he ever commanded. -His unit in the Civil War had one of the highest % of casualties. -He went AWOL in 1867 yet he summarily executed soldiers who went AWOL. -Split his command in 1868 attacking Black Kettle’s village & abandoned a lost element of his command to be massacred.
  6. 6. Custer’s ego and ambition. -Custer not only believed himself greater than any situation he was in, he was always seeking greater glory and position. -Custer took actions filtered through the narcissistic lens of: “How will this benefit me?” -1876 was the Centennial with the 4th of July just weeks away and with the Democratic Convention looming; Custer desired to achieve a significant victory in time for it.
  7. 7. Custer’s troops were poorly trained and reacted badly under stress. The US Army in the 1870s was a refuge for immigrants (many of whom did not speak English), criminals, and the outcasts of society. While many of the officers were veterans of the Civil War, few of the troops were.
  8. 8. Custer turned down Gatling guns; disdain for new technology can have disastrous effect. General Terry offered Custer several Gatling guns (early machineguns) to take along, but Custer turned him down. Custer wasn’t so much against the guns as he felt they would slow him down. The military has always been leery of new technology. While Custer can be faulted for not taking the Gatlings, the reality is that fifty years later, Generals were still clueless about the power of the machinegun, leading to archaic tactics slaughtering millions of soldiers in World War I.
  9. 9. Lack of an Area Study and understanding of the environment along with a lack of remembering recent history. The only glimpse Custer had of the Native Americans encamped next to the Greasy Grass River was from the Crows Nest. While his scouts told him the enemy was numerous all Custer could make out was a milling mass: the Native American herd. One of his scouts, Mitch Bouyer warned Custer that this was the largest village he’d ever encountered. But Custer was more concerned that the village would disperse before he had a chance to attack. The fact his scouts immediately began their death chant should have been a warning. 10 years before Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse was part of the group that massacred Fetterman and 69 soldiers at Fort Kearney.
  10. 10. Custer divided his command: making tactical decisions for the wrong reasons. Custer divided his command into three parts, which greatly aided his defeat. Most people think the 7th Cavalry was wiped out at the Little Big Horn, but in reality, only 5 of the 12 companies were. The rest, under Reno and Benteen, ended up fighting off assaults until the Native Americans retired the following day. His priority was to entrap the Indians. He wanted the glory of victory for himself. He misjudged the tactical field of battle.
  11. 11. LESSON: One should make decisions based on the real problem, not in hopes of affecting future, unrelated events. Personal conflicts can affect organizational outcomes and produce catastrophe.
  12. 12. All five companies and every man that was under Custer’s direct command died . Despite the warnings of his scouts, and the objections of some of his officers, Custer rode into the valley of the Little Big Horn convinced he was heading toward glory, part of a cascade of events that led to his doom and that of 267 other men.
  13. 13. LESSON: An organization needs Cascade Stoppers. People who can step up and put the brakes on when a leader’s ego is driving everyone into an abyss. One of the greatest safety devices in an airplane is a co-pilot who is willing to speak up to the pilot. Custer needed such a co-pilot. He had Benteen who often disagreed with him, so that was the first command he split off. He took with him on his last ride several family members and those commanders who were his “supporters.”
  14. 14. 1. Have a Special Ops preparation mindset 2. Focus by utilizing both big picture & detail thinkers 3. Conduct Special Forces Area Studies 4. Use the Special Forces CARVER formula 5. Have a “10th man” 6. Conduct After Action Reviews 7. Write and USE Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  15. 15. Shit Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure Free Excerpts
  16. 16. Are you interested in a presentation about various catastrophes and how the cascade events could have been prevented? Events covered range from human-machine interface, to leadership, to communication, cost-cutting, engineering, group think, perseverance, systematic failure, and more? Catastrophes are cascade events culminating in disastrous chaos. War is chaos. Special Forces is the most elite unit trained for a variety of combat situations. What makes Special Forces elite is our mindset and preparation. Are you interested in a presentation on how to use Special Forces tactics, techniques and mental attitude to help your organization anticipate and prevent potential catastrophes? Please email
  17. 17. Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He’s had over 70 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs. Bob has presented for over a thousand organizations both in the United States and internationally, including keynote presentations, all day workshops, and multi-day seminars. He has taught organizations ranging from Maui Writers to San Diego State University, to the University of Georgia, to the Romance Writers of America National Convention, to Boston SWAT, the CIA, the Royal Danish Navy Frogman Corps, Fortune 500 companies, IT Teams in Silicon Valley, National Guard units, Ohio State University Nursing Program, Army Reserves, and many others. He has done interviews/consulted for the Wall Street Journal, NY Times front page, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, PBS, NPR, the Discovery Channel, the SyFy channel and local cable shows.