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September 07, 2007

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Little Big Horn, With a Difference

This past May, I made my fifth trip to the battleground at Little Bighorn, and was once more impressed by what a raving incompetent LTC George Armstrong Custer was. Apologists for Custer often cite the fact that an appreciable number of the warriors who opposed him had repeating rifles, while the 7th Cavalry troopers were armed with single-shot Model 1873 Springfield carbines. To those folks, I have two words: Rorke's Drift.

I'm referring to a battle in the Zulu Wars, in which 119 British infantrymen took on an estimated 5,000 Zulu warriors over the course of one night in January, 1879. (The odds against Custer were roughly 2,000 to 568.) The soldiers of No. 1 company of the 24th Regiment of Foot were armed with the .450 Martini/Henry single-shot rifle, comparable in most ways to the Springfield.

The two British commanders were not exactly the cream of the crop. John Rouse Merriot Chard, the senior lieutenant, was an engineer officer, not an infantryman. Gonville Bromhead, the junior lieutenant, was an infantry officer, but so deaf he should not have been in the service, and was considered reasonably dim-witted to boot.

But unlike Custer, both men used common sense: They built barricades, hunkered down behind them, and let their highly disciplined soldiers let the good times roll. When it was all over, the Brits had suffered 17 killed and 10 wounded, while the Zulus had lost over 500 warriors, and it was probably much more than that. Custer's command, on the other hand, killed 60 warriors (maybe 100) and suffered 268 killed themselves.

Weaponry is important, sometimes even decisive. But in the end it's leadership that matters most. Too bad the 7th Cavalry didn't have any.


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suburban bushwacker

Great movie too.
Did you know (did you need to know) that Michael Caine spent his entire fee for the film on a painting by the mad midget Toulouse-Lautrec.


I saw a special on it on, where else, the History Channel. Those troopers were doomed from the start. Malnutrition, poor leadership, no discipline. What a shame Custer didn't live,, for his court martial!


Didn't some of the troopers a few miles away from the main site under a Maj. Reno survive? Who knows about Maj. Reno?

JA Demko

I don't particularly care about Custer meeting his ignominious end. He was, after all, an officer.
It's too bad, though, that he managed to get all those other men killed as well.
I read in a biography of Custer, Son of the Morningstar I think it was called, that he and his brothers had the amusing habit of shooting at each other. They were trying to scare, not kill, one another; but it's too bad one of them didn't pick off George by accident.

Imagine if those Indians had Mathews Bows and Bow Techs back then?

Chad Love

Oh, boy, the Little Bighorn. That'll bring out the contentious armchair historians. Perhaps the most analyzed, hashed-over, second-guessed, debated ad nauseum military campaign in history.
I live about 10 miles south of the former military camp from which Gorgeous George decamped en route to the Battle of the Washita, in which he ably demonstrated both the stunning incompetence and extreme arrogance that would eventually get him his just rewards. The only difference is, of course, that in Oklahoma in the winter of 1868 there (unfortunately) weren't a couple thousand pissed off warriors to take advantage of his hubris, just a small, mostly defenseless band of southern Cheyenne.
It's a shame he's remembered for that "heroic" last stand at the Little Big Horn rather than the slaughter he instigated in Oklahoma.


The people of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia remember Custer pretty well, too. Just as Sherman Marched to the sea, destroying much of Georgia, Custer destroyed so many homes and farms in the Shenandoah, that some of the folks there still celebrate his disasterous loss at the Little Bighorn. Custer seemed to only know one type of fight, hell bent for leather, It had worked against farmers and defenseless Indians.

Charles  Benoit

According to the History Channel, George's brother,who also died at Little Big Horn, received the Congressional Medal of Honor TWICE during the Civil War. I checked the website, and there is a Custer listed two times for the medal. Regardless of how one views the brothers, both men were very brave.

Steve C

I’ve read quite a bit about war and battles, particularly WWII. Battles seldom go the way of logic even if the outcome goes as predicted. As Eisenhower said about D-Day; The plan was useless. The planning was invaluable.

Relative to the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift, they had just come off a victory earlier that morning and their blood was up. Then they followed the same basic plan and it failed. And you could say without too much reservation that they quit as much as they lost (although the eventual outcome is far from assured).

Relative to Custer, his strengths and weaknesses were comparable to Hitler’s. Commanding presence without command ability. Charismatic and inspirational among admirers and galactic arrogance among detractors. Surrounded by admirers more than men of needed qualification. Believers in destiny and their own infallibility while more than just a bit out of touch with the reality.

Custer and his men entered the battle awash with all of these weaknesses intact and the Indians proceeded to out-fight and out-general him. Crazy Horse watched hidden behind a hill while another chief set up a classic pincher movement that would have made Patton proud. Waiting at for the right time, Crazy Horse and his men split Custer before he knew what hit him and the 7th fell apart to be slaughtered at the Indians leisure. They could have had M-16s and it wouldn’t have mattered once you drop them on the ground and run.

walt Smith

I also have been to Little Big Horn and from what I seen and understand is that Custer did not expect a well organized war party. He expected a relativly small group of indians and what he found was highly unexpected. For one, he was comanding a group of green troops,many whom were not battle tested. His troops had traveled a very long way and most were suffering from it. The indians had many scouts and knew of his pressence long before he arrived in the little bighorn area,and thus the indians who were very experienced in battle and well rested and fed were able to lay out a trap for the oncoming troopers. As Custer seen what he thought was a small encampment he split up his forces which was his doom. When the seperate forces were far enough apart the indians sprang the trap, the troops were overwelmed and history was made.

Dr. Ralph

Kind of reminds me of the slaughter I witnessed last night. The Indianapolis Colts were the Native Americans and the New Orleans Caints were Custer. To quote a wise man (DEP) leadership is everything. Tony Dungy and Manning are the very definition of leadership.

Mike Diehl

The Reno/Benteen detachment survived LBH because they went to ground in a defendable position and because for the major phase of the battle they were not the primary objective of the NAI warriors. Custer divided his force into three groups, each in mutually unsupportable positions, and attacked with roughly half of his column, in a position to the least advantage to him, without adequate recon.

It was, in short, the mother of all poorly executed battlefield plans. And it was typical Custer.

That said, Custer was very effective against rebel cavalry in the Shenandoah and in the various fights of 1863-1865. He had very high casualty rates, but it must be said he led from the front. He was a bull-headed idiot, but he gave the "confederates" the treatment that they deserved.


As usual by the time I read one of these topics almost all I know has already been stated. For those of you who are interested and have not visited the Little Bighorn site, study the landscape and locations of warriors of each side. That in addition to Custer's well known and long standing inept "leadership" created disaster for the U. S. Army from the time he entered Montana. Additionally as a matter of interest I remember that somewhere around a dozen Victoria Crosses were awarded as a result of the services rendered at Rorke's Drift.


Mr.Petzal do you reckon you could help with my history homework in civics?


The best text book I found was "Custer’s Luck" by Prof Edgar I.Stewart, Oklahoma Press. While researching a history paper I found archive in SUNY-Genesseo’s library’s gov’t section the entire Court Inquiry testimony. Incredible reading Major Reno’s and Capt Benteen’s testimony, amongst the other officers and enlisted, especially Capt Weir’s and Lt Edgerly’s.

I also had opportunity to physically be at the Custer Battlefield. I was taken back by how quickly it just comes into view.

Custer’s plan of attack was a sound two-prong, but it just unraveled. US Command attitude the Indians would scatter and retreat, and not make a last big fight was fatal from top to bottom. Even if Custer pulled his battle plan off, it would have been costly.

“Quick! Bring Packs. Big Village. Brings Packs!” Those last two repeated words say it all. Custer’s Adjutant knew it’d be a big fight. Packs had the additional ammo.

I’m amazed at how the public’s opinion of Custer changes in time. He’s gone from hero who did his duty, to buffoon, to glory hungry killer, to evil war-monger, to flawed sex freak, and then buffoon-killer. This blog is just one more chapter in the legend.

I can't figure out how to use the fonts on this blog for proper writing guide criteria!!!!


to Mike Diehl:
This rebel boys says;
What happened to "Malace towrd none, charity for all"? Custer couldn't hold Lee's water bucket. Imagine what history could have been if that sonofab**** Boothe hadn't shot Lincoln!

Galen Burgett

I've had the great privilege of helping do field research at the Battlefield and always enjoy standing on Reno's position and imagining the desparation those men felt fighting for their lives. While I do believe Custer got what was coming to him, the tragedy was that he took all those enlisted men with him.

Ralph the Rifleman

I saw a documentary on the battle at little big horn after a fire had cleared the sage grass. Investigators had unearthed shell cases, and other artifacts, that helped define the battle(massacre if you will)as told by historical facts...Custer was an arrogant SOB for sure, but his feelings against native americans at the time probably didn't differ much from anyone else's opinion.
Remember that the Gatling guns were left beyond because he thought they would pose too much of a hassle to transport.This does not sound like the makings of a sound military commander, but a truely arrogant one!


Dave, I've gotta disagree for once: Mounted Indians armed with Winchester lever-actions are hardly comparable to spear-chuckers, whose tactics were to send intermittent waves of warriors, allowing the Brits to re-load between each massacre.

Lets not forget that the 1873 carbine was well known for having fired shell casings stick in its chamber once the weapon got hot. Numerous carbines were found jammed in just this way after the battle..
The Martini Henry may have also have this flaw as well but if I remember right it wasn't as critical to the Brits in their fight. Something to do with pissing on the hot rifles I think..

I don't think the two battle compare well at all. Disciplined infantry in a hasty defensive position defending VS human wave tactics. As opposed to light calvary poorly lead who were basically overrun by superior forces.

RE MOH: In the early days of the award it had not yet become the symbol of outstanding bravery and sacrifice that it is today. A number of the early awardees in fact were little more than self promoting grandstanders...

JA Demko

The jammed rifles as a contributing factor of Custer's defeat have been shown to be a myth. Well over a thousand .45-70 cases were recovered from the battle site and less than 1% sow evidence of being pried from a jammed weapon. Since he got his command destroyed, people have been looking for excuses for Custer. It was his fault, plain and simple.

clay packer

Custer underestimated the Lakota and Cheyenne brilliance and tenacity in battle, and overestimated his own battle skills. He was an arrogant ass of the first order, and he got a lot of good men killed.

Larry Rayburn

I agree whole heartedly, Custer was most difinitly a DUMB-ASS!

Milton T. Burton

All one has to do is read of Custer's conduct during the Civil War to be convinced that he was a jackass of the highest order.

Skip Rood

I suggest everyone take the time to read "CENTENNIAL CAMPAIGN" by (I believe) Dr. Grey. George Custer made several mistakes in this campaign, no question of that. His biggest was not listening to his Crow Scouts who correctly advised him that the "Sun Dance" ceremony held by the combined indian force, was clear evidence that the hostiles were not going to run, but would fight. Custer rejected this out of hand. His next biggest mistake was splitting his force in the mistaken assumption that the indians were going to ":cut-and-run" as soon as the US Cavalry appeared. Benteen was sent on a southern swing while Reno charged up the Little Big Horn Valley into a hornet's nest of indians and was soon deflected and routed.
He was able to organize a hasty defense on what I think is now known as Reno Hill and save his command. He did abandon some of his men in the madcap filight to gain refuge on the hill and was forever-after criticized for that fact. The indians never stormed his position in great numbers, choosing to snipe and harrass, probably thinking that once the main body dealt with George Armstron Custer, they could all pounce on Benteens smaller force. The arrival of Benteen probably discouraged that thinking.
Meanwhile, Custer rode north along the Little Big Horn River far enough that the sounds of what surely was a horrific battle, never reached the ears of those on Reno Hill.
Custer ignored the Crow Scouts opinion that the far-off village noted by his Crow scouts, that was able to be viewed from a lofty overlook albeit obscured by smoke - duh, little wonder there was so much smoke - probably a thousand cookfires a'burning, contained about 1000 to 1500 tepees. At roughly one-and-a-half braves per tepee, that was a lot of hostiles.
The actual forensic evidence at Last Stand battlefield clearly reveals that Custer and his meager force were overwhelmed and fought a desperate and disorderly running battle with the hostiles with the outcome clearly inevitable to all the participants.
As to bringing along several Gatling guns, they were heavy and unwieldy. Custer's supply train lagged the main body of troops by half a day or more during the long and difficult march in blistering heat and the added burden of the Gatlings would have added to their misery and would almost surely have been
Dr Grey is not as condemning of Custer as you and most of your respondents. He was clearly a man with faults but bravery certainly wasn't on the list. Curiously, he had a disdain for indians that didn't square with the facts. The US military almost never prevailed in a confrontation with armed indian braves. They
(the indians) were often described as the best mounted cavalry in the world and employed tactics that were ingenious and clever. Our troopers were, in the main, poorly trained and ill-prepared to deal with indians who lived and survived in a warrior society in which fighting and mortal struggle was a way of life.

Custer's widow spent her final years defending her husband with an admirable, if misguided, tenacity. The Army, as has always been the case, made the expected attempt to shield and, indeed, to shade the facts to protect their own. Both Benteen and Reno disliked Custer and were probably villified unfairly for their role in the proceedings - based mainly on their failure to support the Custer contingent and for their subsequent testimony which clearly reflected their dislike of LTC GAC.

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