Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Battle of The Little Bighorn
A Note

Battle of the Little Bighorn

The battle of The Little Bighorn as produced an industry of books, and articles and has become a canonical / iconic event. This is sort of surprising given that the event wasn’t much more than a skirmish and in the great scheme of things not really all that important.

In fact the largely inordinate amount of attention given to this event is in itself a fascinating topic. However it seems to be one that attracts little attention. Instead the battle of The Little Bighorn has been dissected, analysed and evaluated and written about over and over again. In fact this small battle has been analysed to death. I suspect that the real reason for the fascination with the battle is not the battle itself but its context. By context I mean two factors, both closely linked; one is historical and the other is mythical.

The first factor is the conquest of America and the displacement of its indigenous inhabitants and the creation of new nation. In this case the creation of the USA. This story of creation and destruction is central to the history of the USA and so the last important Indian victory plays a part in that. The second context is mythological in this case the myth of the “WEST”. Even before the west was fully colonized, there was a flourishing market for tales of heroic settlers, gunfighters and all the other mythological clichés of the “WEST”. Since then popular media, such a books, movies and TV have further elevated the myth in modern consciousness, turning the period 1860-1890 C.E., into a fantasy land known as the “WEST”. In this context of a widespread popular mythology the battle of the Little Big Horn fits as a mythological battle in the “WEST”.

Added to this historical and mythological dimension is the myth of the last stand, the valiant stand of a few brave men, fighting to the last against overwhelming odds. The mythological cliché of heroic failure. We see Custer and his men being overwhelmed by vast numbers in a heroic, fight to the last man last stand.

Of course what this means is that history is sacrificed to mythological history. Most people probably think that Custer’s defeat was the worst American defeat at the hands of Indians, and that it was the biggest Army / Indian battle. Or that it was the most humiliating Army defeat at the hands of Indians. Those claims are totally wrong.

For example the worst defeat inflicted on an American Army by Indians was St. Clair’s defeat in 1791. It was also damn humiliating. In this battle a Indian army of at most 1000 men surprised an American Army of 920 men, (With 200+ camp followers), and completely routed it killing c. 632 men.1

This stunning defeat is generally not widely known. Why? I can hazard a guess that it had a lot to do with the fact that it did not occur in the west and was not in the magic period 1860-1890 C.E. Certain events like the Alamo, although they occurred outside the magic period did occur in the west and so are remembered in myth and popular lore.

The other problem is that St. Clair’s defeat produced no heroic last stand but an embarrassing rout. Not the sort of event that calls to the desire to myth make. The fact that the Americans were not outnumbered by the Indians also plays against the idea of a mythological last stand narrative developing. The fact that Indian casualties were minimal, apparently less than 25 killed, also doesn’t help to create a last stand myth.2

In terms of the most humiliating defeat. It was not. Certain defeats in the Second Seminole war, such as Dade’s defeat, or the Modoc War were easily more humiliating. In terms of over all humiliation perhaps the most embarrassing was Red Cloud’s War in the 1860’s.3

The Little Bighorn was not even the biggest battle of the Sioux War. That honour goes to The Battle of the Rosebud, which was fought on June 17, 1876.

The fact that Custer and 209 other men4 died with him with no survivors enabled a lot of myth making to go on. It also enabled the creation of a last stand myth. The first part of the last stand myth was the creation of overwhelming Indian numbers, the second part was the creation of a determined fight to the last man taking vast numbers of their enemy to the grave with them.

Well it appears that once again the myth is simply incorrect. Indian accounts simply don’t describe a heroic last stand. And the picture of a massive horde of Indians destroying Custer is overdrawn. Figures given after the battle talked about 4, 5, 6+ thousand warriors at the little Bighorn. They inflated the size of the Indian village there to truly monstrous dimensions. They were all wrong. Even cool scholarly opinion gave the figure of 3000 warriors at the Little Bighorn.5 They are simply wrong.

It appears that at most there were 2000 Indian warriors at the Little Bighorn and in actual fact probably 1200-1800, with c. 1500 being the most likely.6 In fact it has been contended that there may have been 1000 or fewer Indian warriors at the Little Big Horn.7

So the idea that Custer was overwhelmed by sheer numbers in an impossible situation seems to be totally wrong.

It also seems that the old notion that Custer was reckless and foolish in attacking is also wrong. Given that that the Indian mode of warfare was not standing and fighting and given that Custer was attempting a surprise attack on an Indian village his attack was not a reckless gamble.8

So what went wrong? Well it appears that everyone was concerned about the Indians escaping and dispersing making it hard to hunt them down and so the hurry to get at them before they escaped. It seems that few army people took seriously the idea that the Indians might stand and fight.9 In this respect they didn’t understand the determination and leadership skills of the Indian leader Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull

If Custer had been aware of the battle of the Rosebud he might have been less concerned with the Indians escaping. This embarrassing battle was fought between at most 1200 Sioux and Cheyenne and they probably actually numbered 1000 or less, and c. 1325 Americans and allies of which more than 1000 were soldiers and 200+ were Indian scouts. The battle was a tactical mess that ended in a tactical draw. It is generally recognized that the Indian scouts saved the force from a serious defeat.10 After the battle Crook retired thus basically conceding victory to the Sioux and their allies. The battle was a prolonged, fluid fight in which the Indians showed great determination. Crook in fact narrowly avoided a serious tactical defeat.11 If the Indians could do this while being probably significantly outnumbered, and let us not forget outgunned (Note this doesn’t mean that some Indians didn’t have better guns than the army). Only about 50% of the Indian warriors would have had firearms of any kind there or at the Little Big Horn, it is easy to guess the possible outcome if the Indians significantly outnumbered an army detachment that attacked them. Although it should be noted that some Indian warriors had repeating rifles.12

In the period after the battle of the Rosebud and before the battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876, the Indians led by Sitting Bull were reinforced by other Indians joining them. The so-called summer roamers.13 The result was to increase Indian warrior numbers to c. 1500. Given what had happened at the Rosebud and given the desire of the warriors to protect the non-combatants in the village the determination of the Indians to fight and not disperse was quite strong. Further they had able leaders like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall etc. In fact it is likely that under the circumstances the best that the army could probably have done was a stalemate.14

Also Custer, like the rest of the army concerned that the Indians might escape divided up his command so that he could get has many of them has possible. Thus he divided his regiment into four sections and sent them on separate missions. The result was a classic defeat in detail, because Custer and his command were unable to coordinate their separate attacks. Custer for example had Reno attack and then delayed or was unable too or simply wasn’t planning to attack the Indians in coordination with Reno. The result was turning a likely failure, (Custer and Reno’s detachments only numbered c. 340 men altogether, even if they had coordinated their attacks they likely would have failed against c. 1500 Indian warriors fighting to protect their village.), into a disaster.15

The Indians concentrated against first against Reno and drove him off then they concentrated against Custer, surrounded him and then wiped him out. It appears that Custer further divided his immediate command and this allowed the Indians to infiltrate all around his position and then overwhelm him in a series of attacks. Too repeat a classic defeat in detail. Indian leadership was superb, Crazy Horse for example, and the Indians used the terrain, the gullies and ravines, to infiltrate around Custer’s position. The Indian mass attacks were well timed and the Indians who had repeating rifles, (Not more than c. 100 of them on the Custer battlefield.), superior to Custer’s commands single shot carbines, (However it should be noted not significantly superior.), used them very effectively. The result was Custer’s command being wiped out to the last man.16

As for the last stand aspects of the tale. Well it appears that Custer’s command quite simply fell apart. The Indian accounts indicate this quite clearly. The heroic last stand aspects seem to be largely nonexistent. In fact it appears that although the Indians had been infiltrating around Custer’s command for over an hour the actual destruction of Custer command, i.e., the battle proper was over in c. 30-40 minutes or less.17

The idea of a heroic last stand is further lessened by the fact that Indian casualties were not large; although I should point out by the standards of the Plains Indians they were substantial. In fact it appears that c. 15-20 Indians were killed destroying Custer’s command. In fact total Indian casualties, (excluding 10 women and children), during the entire battle of the Little Bighorn, numbered it appears 30-35.18 Thus not only do we have a classic defeat in detail we have a very one sided defeat in detail.

Let’s go through the figures in terms of engagements.

Against Reno in the valley fight the Indians suffered c. 11 dead, Reno’s detachment 40 dead. A more than 3 to one ratio in favour of the Indians. Against Custer the Indians suffered c. 16 dead, Custer’s detachment of 210 men was wiped out. A more than 10 to one ratio in favour of the Indians.19

During the evening of the 25th of June while attacking Reno’s and Benteen’s command in a defensive position on a hill, the Indians suffered 1 dead, the army suffered 5 dead. The ratio in favour of the Indians was five to one. On the 26th of June the Indians attacked again and 2 Indians died, the army suffered 7 dead. The ratio in favour of the Indians was more than 3 to one.20 Given that even while on the defensive the army suffered an unfavourable ratio of losses compared to the Indians it would appear that overall the Indian forces were handled and fought very well. The army by comparison apparently much of the time did not. It was probably extremely fortunate that the Indians could not for various reasons, getting food, low on ammunition, stay together otherwise the remnants of Custer’s command might have been wiped out also.

Custer’s command was not destroyed through overwhelming numbers or through some stunningly brilliant Indian strategy. Custer’s command was destroyed because factors that Custer and those around him were not aware of made the usual strategy of making every effort to attack the Indians before they got away a significantly more reckless idea. Frankly no one seemed to realize that this time the Indians were determined to stand and fight a pitched battle rather than just raid. The result was that Custer divided his command because he thought the problem was getting at the Indians before they got away rather than fighting a true pitched battle. Dividing your forces before an enemy determined to fight is an inherently dangerous thing to do and the Indians were half decently alert. Custer fixated, like the rest of the Army, on the Indians escaping did not coordinate his attacks and divided up his command into four packets. The Indians in contrast kept their forces together and concentrated on one detachment at a time; the result was Reno’s bloody repulse and Custer’s destruction. If there was, aside from the Indians taking remorseless advantage of Custer’s dividing up his forces, one piece of brilliant Indian strategy it was the Indians after driving Reno’s command from the field and onto Reno Hill, instead of concentrating against Reno on the Hill they moved back and concentrated against Custer. The Indian leaders, like Crazy Horse, saw that Custer was a threat and managed to get their men to stop pursuing Reno and to move against Custer. In the highly individualistic realm of Plains Indian warfare this was no mean feat of leadership.

As I said above although this event is in the scheme of things not that important it is still fascinating.

George Custer

1. See Wikipedia, St. Clair’s Defeat Here. See also Eckert, Alan W., A Sorrow in Our Heart, Bantam Books, New York, 1991, pp. 427-438, 902-903. Eckert gives Indian numbers as 3,000 almost certainly at least 3 times larger than the actual size of the Indian army.

2. IBID, St Clair's Defeat, gives Indian casualties as 21 dead and 40 wounded. Eckert gives the following figures for Indian casulaties, 66 dead and 9 wounded. See Eckert, p. 437-438, 903.

3. See Wikipedia, Second Seminole War Here. Utley, Robert M., Indian Wars, Mariner Books, New York, 1977, pp. 129-135, 211-217, 249-255, Ambrose, Stephen E., Crazy Horse and Custer, Meridian, New York, 1975, pp. 145-164, 225-243, 275-313, Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Bantam Books, New York, 1971, pp. 101-142, pp. 213-234.

4. Custer had with him 205 Army and 4 “other” – Scouts and one journalist; making a total of 210 men. See Gray, John S., Centennial Campaign, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman NB, 1976, p. 294. For accounts of the Battle of the Rosebud see Sarf, Wayne Michael, The Little Big Horn Campaign, Combined Pub., Conshohocken PENN, 1993, pp. 87-115, Ambrose, pp. 420-424, Brown, pp. 276-277, Utley et al, pp. 237-239, Gray, pp. 110-124, Connell, Evan S., Son of Morning Star, HarperCollins Pub., New York, 1984, pp. 88-92, Philbrick, Nathaniel, The Last Stand, Penguin Books, New York, 2010, pp. 291-295, Donovan, James, A Terrible Glory, Back Bay Books, New York, 2008, pp. 146-155.

5. Ambrose gives this figure p. 431, so does Stewart, Edgar I., Custer’s Luck, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman NB, 1955.

6. The most through analysis of possible Indian numbers is in Grey pp. 346-357, see also Michno, Gregory F., Lakota Noon, Mountain Press Pub. Co., Missoula MTA, pp. 3-20, Sarf, pp. 169-170 tends towards the higher estimate of around 3000.

7. Michno, pp. 19-20.

8. IBID, pp. 3-20, Gray, pp. 162-183, Philbrick, pp. 162-187, Donovan, pp. 227-230.

9. See Stewart and Donovan, pp. 200-221, Philbrick, pp. 151-165, Sarf, pp. 176-191.

10. Footnote 4.

11. Gray, p. 120, gives a figure of 750 for the total number of Indian warriors fighting Crook at the battle of the Rosebud. Sarf, p. 90, suggests 1500 hundred. Given Gray’s analysis, pp. 321-334, of the size of the village before the battle of the Rosebud, (He estimates c. 450 lodges), it is likely that Gray’s figure although too low is closer to the truth than Sarf’s figure.

12. Ambrose, pp. 428-431, See Fox, Richard Allan, Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman NB, 1993, for the discovery of significant Indian possession of repeating rifles and Philbrick, pp. 266-267.

13. Gray, pp. 335-345, Utley et al, p. 239.

14. Gray, pp. 182-183.

15. IBID, and see Stewart, Ambrose, pp. 444-447.

16. Donovan, pp. 261-278, Philbrick, pp. 257-279, Michno, pp. 93-273, Sarf, pp. 228-229.

17. IBID, Michno, pp. 195-286. Michno in his reconstruction stretches out the intense phase of the battle to one hour. Reading it seems like he has greatly expanded the time frame. This is especially the case since several officers had seen from Weir point warriors and Indian women all over Custer Hill and ridge, which implies the battle was over by 5:40pm. Further they report only the occasional shot. See Gray, pp. 179-181, Sarf, pp. 224-225. So it appears likely that Custer’s command was destroyed well before Michno’s termination time of c. 6:20pm for the engagement.

18. Hardorff, Richard G., Hokahey!: A Good Day to Die!, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NB, 1993, pp. 82, 130.

19. IBID, p. 57, Michno, pp. 280-281, Gray, p. 296.

20. Hardorff, p. 97, Gray, p. 296.

Pierre Cloutier

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