Firstly, there has been some speculation based upon certain facts about Custer that would lead one to believe that his hatred for the Native Americans bordered on what would be termed today racism. Part of this may have stemmed from a particularly vicious attack on a Cheyenne village, where Custer reported 103 killed. According to Kraft (2006), 40 of them were women and children.” If one can generalize regarding Custer based on Kraft (2006), “Most military men viewed the aborigines with scorn and disdain, and felt their superior numbers, strategy and firepower would awe their poorly armed adversaries into capitulation.” That can probably be seen as Custer’s first mistake. The reports of Custer’s flamboyant personality indicates he was more than likely a narcissist who believed the legends concocted by the media of the day of his invincibility. That he too undoubtedly underestimated his “red skinned” enemy seems a likely and deadly military flaw.
There are several analyses of the battle, most giving as a basis Custer’s ignorance both to the customs and battle styles of the Plains Indians. Vandehey and Dearth (2010) attribute the failure of the battle to “an unfortunate combination of technique, terrain and timing [that] led to the deaths of over 260 men.” This can be combined with Custer’s misinterpretation of the movement of the Indians based on previous battles. In a well-illustrated pictorial analysis, the authors explain how the Indians exploited high-low visages along with a deep river basin to eventually surround the 7th Calvary.
Vandehey and Dearth (2010) break down Custer’s strategy as basically a four-pronged approach beginning with a Strategy of Convergence. The strategy assumed all of the Indians would flee together and that they would be trapped at the river basin by the pincher movement of the prongs. He did not await promised reinforcements, which may have provided additional coverage from various perspectives other than the one Custer erroneously held. He moved in the planned direction to cut off the Indian escape, which at that point is not an escape but a massive confrontation that is not going well for Major Marcus Reno’s pincher group. Not knowing the terrain, Custer charged down the bluff to the river bottom to cut off escapees, but he is not in a position to see Reno’s retreat. He retreats to higher ground, to a defensive position, but neither Reno nor any other pincher group can get to him. The Indians from their view sheds observe all of the moves. Tall grasses provide cover for the Indians as they charge the hill. Without reinforcements, Custer’s men are surrounded and massacred.
A second analysis by Kraft (2006) creates another scenario less reliant on strategic mistakes than disobedience of orders among the forces. According to Kraft (2006), Reno, upon being ordered to attack the village, stopped mid-attack and became involved in skirmishes along the way that forestalled his advance. The skirmishes were “chosen” battles, and as might be suggested, they completely disrupted the flow of the planned attack. The side battles then of Reno, not part of the strategy, may be seen as deliberate counter-strategies largely responsible for Custer’s isolation on a ridge where his troops were massacred. Conflicting testimony at subsequent hearings have Custer charging into the village and murdering women and children. The testimony however was hearsay and is seriously questionable.
It is difficult to say whether Custer’s strategy was appropriate or not. According to Kraft (2006), based on investigative trial testimony that Custer at least ended up in the village where he was supposed to be. But that cannot be confirmed. Perhaps he put too much faith in his men, but that is hindsight at best. At any rate, I am not sure if I agree with the Vandehey and Death (2010) assessment entirely. Perhaps he should have had a better idea of Plains Indian battle movement customs, which no doubt should have been available from Indian scouts. Indeed, it seems the entire operation should have been scouted for estimates on enemy numbers and details about the terrain. His tendency to charge ahead instead of waiting for reinforcements was certainly a major mistake, as he apparently had no idea how many Indians he was actually dealing with. In light of this, his four-pronged affect and lack of knowledge of the terrain left significant wiggle room for Indian forces to quickly adjust to the elements of the attack, particularly the small number of soldiers in relationship to the vast numbers of Indians.
Yet as Wagner points out, there is more to the simple analysis of strategy when attempting to critique Custer and the events at Little Big Horn. Indeed, military strategists for decades have dissected the battle, often coming to differing conclusions. It is clear that any analysis of the battle must be conducted within the context of the politics of the day and the personalities and relationships of its players. Citing the opinion of military experts, novelist Julia Robb (n/d) writes, “The strategy employed to accomplish his [Custer’s] mission was sound—as were the ultimate tactics employed—but it was the subversion of that strategy—leading to those tactics—and then the subversion of the tactics that led to his defeat.” The subversion she mentions undoubtedly refers to Reno, and as we will discover in more thorough analysis, the failure of battalion Captain Fred Benteen to execute their orders.
- Kraft, L (2006). American history: Battle of Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse, Manifest Destiny. American Legend. History.net. Available at: http://www.historynet.com/
- Robb, J. (n/d). Custer’s last stand and the strategy of defeat. Julia Robb Website. Available at: http://juliarobb.com
- Vandehey, D. & Dearth, D. (2010). The Little Bighorn Battlefield: The influence of local terrain on battlefield tactics and outcome. Available at: http://web.pdx.edu
- Wagner III, F.C. (2014). The strategy of defeat at the Little Big Horn: A military and timing analysis of the battle. McFarland and Co.” Jefferson, North Carolina, print.