The Little Big Horn Campaign of 1876 Part Four – Outnumbered, Outmanoeuvred and Outgunned

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

After the annihilation of Custer’s force, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne regrouped to attack Reno and Benteen. The fight continued until dark, approximately 21:00 and for much of the next day, with the outcome in doubt. Reno credited Benteen’s luck with repulsing a severe attack on the portion of the perimeter held by Companies H and M. On June 27, the column under General Terry approached from the north, and the natives drew off in the opposite direction. The Crow scout White Man Runs Him was the first to tell General Terry’s officers that Custer’s force had “been wiped out.” Reno and Benteen’s wounded troops were given what treatment was available at that time; five later died of their wounds. One of the regiment’s three surgeons had been with Custer’s column, while another, Dr. DeWolf, had been killed during Reno’s retreat. The only remaining doctor was Assistant Surgeon Henry R. Porter.

News of the defeat at Little Big Horn arrived in the East as the U.S. was observing its centennial. The Army began to investigate, although its effectiveness of the investigation was hampered by a concern for survivors, and the reputation of the officers. Custer’s wife, Elisabeth Bacon Custer, in particular, guarded and promoted the ideal of him as the gallant hero, attacking any who cast an ill light on his reputation.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn had far-reaching consequences for the Plains Indians. It was the beginning of the end of the ‘Indian’ Wars and has even been referred to as “the Indians” last stand” in the area. Within 48 hours of the battle, the large encampment on the Little Bighorn broke up into smaller groups because there was not enough game and grass to sustain such a large congregation of people and horses. Oglala Sioux Black Elk recounted the exodus this way: “We fled all night, following the Greasy Grass. My two younger brothers and I rode in a pony-drag, and my mother put some young pups in with us. They were always trying to crawl out and I was always putting them back in, so I didn’t sleep much.”

The scattered Sioux and Cheyenne feasted and celebrated during July with no threat from the US Army. After their celebrations, many of the Natives returned to the reservation. Soon the number of warriors amounted to only about 600. Both Crook and Terry remained immobile for seven weeks after the battle, awaiting reinforcements and unwilling to venture out against the Sioux and Cheyenne until they had at least 2,000 men. Crook and Terry finally took the field against the Natives forces in August. General Nelson A. Miles took command of the effort in October 1876. In May 1877, Sitting Bull escaped to Canada. Within days, Crazy Horse surrendered at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The Great Sioux War ended on May 7th with Miles’ defeat of a remaining band of Miniconjou Sioux.

Ownership of the Black Hills, which had been a focal point of the 1876 conflict, was determined by an ultimatum issued by the Manypenny Commission, according to which the Sioux were required to cede the land to the United States if they wanted the government to continue supplying rations to the reservations. Threatened with forced starvation, the Natives ceded Paha Sapa to the United States, but the Sioux never accepted the legitimacy of the transaction. They lobbied Congress to create a forum to decide their claim and subsequently litigated for 40 years; the United States Supreme Court in the 1980 decision United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians acknowledged that the United States had taken the Black Hills without just compensation. The Sioux refused the money subsequently offered and continue to insist on their right to occupy the land.

Reno’s Conduct during the Battle

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was the subject of an 1879 U.S. Army Court of Inquiry in Chicago, held at Reno’s request, during which his conduct was scrutinized. Some testimony by non-Army officers suggested that he was drunk and a coward, without seeming to offer any corroboration or proof. The court found Reno’s conduct to be without fault, but after the battle, Thomas Rosser, James O’Kelly, and others continued to question the conduct of Reno due to his hastily ordered retreat. Defenders of Reno at the trial noted that, while the retreat was disorganized, Reno did not withdraw from his position until it became apparent that he was outnumbered and outflanked by the Indians. Contemporary accounts also point to the fact that Reno’s scout, Bloody Knife, was shot in the head, spraying him with blood, possibly increasing his own panic and distress.

Custer’s Errors

General Terry and others claimed that Custer made strategic errors from the start of the campaign. For instance, he refused to use a battery of Gatling guns, and turned down General Terry’s offer of an additional battalion of the 2nd Cavalry. Custer believed that the Gatling guns would impede his march up the Rosebud and hamper his mobility. His rapid march en route to the Little Bighorn averaged nearly 30 miles a day, so his assessment appears to have been accurate. Custer planned “to live and travel like Indians; in this manner the command will be able to go wherever the Indians can”, he wrote in his Herald dispatch. Custer is criticised for splitting his command, but the decision to use Reno’s troops as a “pinning force,” was tactically sound given the intelligence analysis of the Indian forces at that time. However, like Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud, Custer was disinclined to believe the updated intelligence reports of his Indian scouts, probably because of pre-campaign “groupthink.”

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The Gatling gun, invented in 1861 by Richard Gatling. Custer declined an offer of a battery of these weapons, explaining to Terry that they would “hamper our movements.”

Custer’s decision to reject Terry’s offer of the rapid-fire Gatlings has raised questions among historians as to why he refused them and what advantage their availability might have conferred on his forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. One factor concerned Major Marcus Reno’s recent 8-day reconnaissance-in-force of the Powder-Tongue-Rosebud Rivers, June 10th to 18th This deployment had demonstrated that artillery pieces mounted on gun carriages and hauled by horses no longer fit for cavalry mounts (so-called condemned horses) were cumbersome over mixed terrain and vulnerable to breakdowns. Custer, valuing the mobility of the 7th Cavalry and recognizing Terry’s acknowledgement of the regiment as “the primary strike force” preferred to remain unencumbered by the Gatling guns. Custer insisted that the artillery was superfluous to his success, in that the 7th Cavalry alone was sufficient to cope with any force they should encounter, informing Terry: “The 7th can handle anything it meets.” In addition to these practical concerns, a strained relationship with Major James Brisbin induced Custer’s polite refusal to integrate Brisbin’s Second Cavalry unit – and the Gatling guns – into his strike force, as it would disrupt any hierarchical arrangements that Custer presided over.

Historians have acknowledged the firepower inherent in the Gatling gun: they were capable of firing 350 .45-70 calibre rounds per minute, but jamming caused by black powder residue could lower that rate raising questions as to their reliability under combat conditions. Researchers have further questioned the effectiveness of the guns under the tactics that Custer was likely to face with the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. The Gatlings, mounted high on carriages, required the battery crew to stand upright during its operation, making them easy targets for Lakota and Cheyenne sharpshooters.

Weapons of the 7th Cavalry and the Indians

During the battle, the 7th Cavalry troopers were armed with the Springfield carbine Model 1873 and the Colt Single Action Army revolver Model 1873. Selection of the weapons was the result of much trial and error, plus official testing during 1871-1873. The Ordnance Department staged field trials of 89 rifles and carbines, which included entries from Peabody, Spencer, Freeman, Elliot and Mauser. There were four primary contenders: the Ward-Burton bolt-action rifle; the Remington rolling-block; the ‘trapdoor’ Springfield; and the Sharps, with its vertically sliding breech-block.

Although repeating rifles such as the Spencer, Winchester and Henry had been available, particularly in the post-Civil War years, the Ordnance Department decided to use a single-shot system. It was selected instead of a repeating system because of manufacturing economy, ruggedness, reliability, efficient use of ammunition and similarity to European weapons systems. Firing tests were held at the Springfield Armoury and Governor’s Island where the average rate of fire for the Springfield was 8 rounds per minute for new recruits and 15 rounds per minute for experienced soldiers. The board recommended “No. 99 Springfield” which became the model 1873. Ironically, the board of officers was headed by Brigadier-General Alfred H. Terry and the field officers in the final selection included Major Marcus A. Reno.

The Springfields issued to the 7th Cavalry had a reduced-power load of 55 grains of powder (Carbine Load), which was manufactured for use in the carbine to lighten recoil for mounted cavalry soldiers. This cartridge had a correspondingly reduced muzzle velocity of 1,100 feet per second and a somewhat reduced effective range.  The rifle was originally issued with a copper cartridge case, but the soldiers soon discovered that the copper expanded excessively in the breech upon firing. Another issue was the copper held in leather carriers created a green film that would effectively weld the case into the breech of the carbine when fired. This sometimes jammed the rifle by preventing extraction of the fired cartridge case. A jam required manual extraction with a knife blade or similar tool.

Investigations into the battle first suggested that jamming of their carbines may have played a factor, although archaeological excavations in 1983 discovered evidence that only 3.4 percent of the cases recovered showed any indication of being pried from jammed weapons.  This did not account for cases removed by a ramrod or other “stick” nor for jammed rifles cleared away from the immediate battle area and outside the very limited archaeological survey area. Unfortunately for the investigations, every Custer battalion weapon became Indian property. Captain Thomas French, M Company Commander was kept busy on the Reno defensive position line using the cleaning rod from his infantry rifle to clear the jammed carbines passed to him from the cavalryman on the line. It’s possible that the weapons jamming may have had an impact on the effectiveness of Custer’s troops.

It is well-known that Custer’s men each brought a trapdoor Springfield and a Colt .45 to the Little Bighorn that June day in 1876. Identification of the Indian weapons is more uncertain. Participants claimed to have gone into battle with a plethora of arms–bows and arrows, ancient muzzle-loaders, breech-loaders and the latest repeating arms. Bows and arrows played a part in the fight. Some warriors said they lofted high-trajectory arrows to fall among the troopers while remaining hidden in cover. The dead soldiers found pin-cushioned with arrows, however, were undoubtedly riddled at close range after they were already dead or badly wounded.

There were 2,361 cartridges, cases and bullets recovered from the entire battlefield, which reportedly came from 45 different firearms types (including the Army Springfields and Colts, of course) and represented at least 371 individual guns. The evidence indicated that the Indians used Sharps, Smith & Wessons, Evans, Henrys, Winchesters, Remingtons, Ballards, Maynards, Starrs, Spencers, Enfields and Forehand & Wadworths, as well as Colts and Springfields of other calibres. There was evidence of 69 individual Army Springfields on Custer’s Field (the square-mile section where Custer’s five companies died), but there was also evidence of 62 Indian .44-caliber Henry repeaters and 27 Sharps .50-caliber weapons. In all, on Custer’s Field there was evidence of at least 134 Indian firearms versus 81 for the soldiers. It appears that the Army was outgunned as well as outnumbered.

What, then, was the reason that the soldiers made such a poor showing during the Battle of Little Big Horn? While Custer’s immediate command of 210 men was wiped out and more than 250 troopers and scouts were killed in the fighting on June 25-26, the Indians lost only about 40 or 50 men. The explanation appears to lie in the fact that weapons are no better than the men who use them. Marksmanship training in the frontier Army prior to the 1880s was almost nil. An Army officer recalled the 1870s with nostalgia. ‘Those were the good old days,’ he said. ‘Target practice was practically unknown.’ A penurious government allowed only about 20 rounds per year for training–a situation altered only because of the Custer disaster. And the 20 rounds of ammunition often were expended in firing at passing game rather than in sharpshooting. What handicapped the entire regiment, however, was inadequate training in marksmanship and fire discipline.

In Vietnam, it was estimated that some firefights had 50,000 rounds fired for each soldier killed. In the Battle of the Rosebud, eight days before the Little Bighorn fight, General George Crook’s forces fired about 25,000 rounds and may have caused about 100 Indian casualties–about one hit for every 250 shots. One of the best showings ever made by soldiers was at Rorke’s Drift in an 1879 battle between the Zulus and the British infantry. There, surrounded, barricaded soldiers delivered volley after volley into dense masses of charging natives at point-blank range where it seemed that no shot could miss. The result: one hit for every 13 shots.

Final Analysis

Dividing up a command in the near presence of an enemy may be an act to be avoided during large-scale manoeuvres with army-sized units, but such is not the case during small-scale tactical cavalry manoeuvres. Custer adhered to the principles for a successful engagement with a small, guerrilla-type, mobile enemy. Proven tactics called for individual initiative, mobility, maintaining the offensive, acting without delay, playing not for safety but to win, and fighting whenever the opportunity arose. It was accepted that Regular soldiers would never shirk an encounter even with a superior irregular force of enemies, and that division of force for an enveloping attack combined with a frontal assault was a preferable tactic. On a small scale, and up to a certain point, Custer did almost everything he needed to do to succeed.

Problems arose, however, when tactics broke down from mid-level and small-scale, to micro-scale. According to then Brevet Major Edward S. Godfrey, fire discipline–the ability to control and direct deliberate, accurate, aimed fire–will decide every battle. No attack force, however strong, could reach a defensive line of steady soldiers putting out disciplined fire. The British army knew such was the case, as did Napoleon. Two irregular warriors could probably defeat three soldiers. However, 1,000 soldiers could probably beat 2,000 irregulars. The deciding factor was strength in unity–fire discipline. It was as Major Godfrey said: ‘Fire is everything, the rest is nothing.’

Theoretically, on the Little Bighorn, with a small-scale defence in suitable terrain with an open field of fire of a few hundred yards, several companies of cavalrymen in close proximity and under strict fire control could have easily held off two or three times their number of Indian warriors. In reality, on the Little Bighorn, several companies of cavalrymen who were not in close proximity and had little fire control, with a micro-scale defence in unsuitable, broken terrain, could not hold off two or three times their number of Indian warriors.

The breakdown stems from an attitude factor. Custer exhibited an arrogance, not necessarily of a personal nature, but rather as a part of his racial makeup. Racial experience may have influenced his reactions to the immediate situation of war. It was endemic in red vs. white modes of warfare and implies nothing derogatory to either side. Historically, Indians fled from large bodies of soldiers. It was Custer’s experience that it was much harder to find and catch an Indian than to actually fight him. Naturally influenced by his successful past experiences with small-unit tactics, Custer attacked. He was on the offensive. He knew he must remain on the offensive to be successful. Even after Reno had been repulsed, Custer was manoeuvring, looking for another opportunity to attack.

The positions that Custer’s dead were found in did not indicate a strong defensive setup. Even after the Indians had taken away the initiative, Custer’s mind-set was still on ‘attack.’ Although a rough, boxlike perimeter was formed, it appeared more a matter of circumstance than intent. Custer probably never realized that his men’s very survival was on the line, at least not until it was too late to remedy the situation. The men were not in good defensible terrain. They were not within mutual supporting distance. They were not under the tight fire control of their officers. Custer’s troopers were in detachments too small for a successful tactical stance. When the critical point was reached, the soldiers found themselves stretched beyond the physical and psychological limits of fight or posture–they had to flee or submit.

Seemingly out of supporting distance of his comrades, the individual trooper found himself desperately alone. The ‘bunkie’ was not close enough. The first sergeant was far away. The lieutenant was nowhere to be seen. The trooper responded as well as he could have been expected to. He held his ground and fought, he fired into the air like an automaton, he ran, he gave up. Some stands were made, particularly on and within a radius of a few hundred yards of the knoll that became known as Custer Hill, where almost all of the Indian casualties occurred. When it came down to one-on-one, warrior versus soldier, however, the warrior was the better fighter.

George Armstrong Custer may have done almost everything as prescribed. But it was not enough to overcome the combination of particular circumstances, some of his own making, arrayed against him that day. Inadequate training in marksmanship and poor fire discipline resulting from a breakdown in command control were major factors in the battle’s results. Neither Custer’s weapons nor those the Indians used against him were the single cause of his defeat. Custer’s force was outnumbered, outmanoeuvred and in the final stand, outgunned.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The silence of the dead


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