Skip to comments.History What-If: Could Custer Have Survived the Battle of Little Big Horn? [June 25, 1876]
Posted on 06/25/2019 7:36:18 AM PDT by Red Badger
A different fate?
e can never know what frantic thoughts raced through George Armstrong Custers mind in the last hour of his life. But surely, as ever-growing numbers of angry, well-armed Plains Indians closed in on his 210 troopers of the 7th Cavalry, he must have realized that he had fatally misjudged the size of the hostile force now surrounding him.
His plan to subdue a large Indian village had completely broken down. He had been warned repeatedly by his scouts that his target, an Indian encampment on Montanas Little Bighorn River, was far larger than he had imagined. Now, on this very hot June day in 1876, he must have known that he was going to die.
Even to the very end of what is now known as Custers Last Stand, we can picture the desperate, dust-covered Custer looking hopefully to the southeast for expected help from the rest of his command. He died not knowing why Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen never came up in support.
But we know. It is not a story of great valor, although certain moments of extraordinary bravery shine through. Benteen and Reno spent the rest of their lives defending their leadership and actionor lack of actionthat day. An examination of the known facts reveals that they had a lot to defend.
Opposing the Native Nomadic Lifestyle
The growing presence and power of the white man, backed by overwhelming military strength, had gradually forced many of the Plains tribes onto reservations. However, some militant Indians still defied the United States government and chose to continue their nomadic lifestyle in the Unceded Territory. That huge expanse stretched from the Bighorn and Rocky Mountains on the west to the Great Sioux Reservation along the Missouri River to the east. It was there that the final battles of the Indian wars were fought.
On November 3, 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant and a few carefully selected cabinet members and Army generals met in secret session. The decision was made to launch a decisive war against the Indians and cripple their ability to further disrupt western expansion. Although no one knew it at the time, Custers fate had been sealed.
On December 6, the government issued an ultimatum. All roaming Indians would have to return to the reservations by January 31, 1876, or risk being considered hostile. In early February, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commanding the Division of Missouri, ordered his forces to prepare for operations against the hostiles. The military plan was a three-pronged affair. One force under Brig. Gen. George Crook moved out from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming. Colonel John Gibbon marched from Fort Ellis in Montana. The third unit, led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, advanced from the Dakota Territory. Terry released Custer and his 7th Cavalry as a mobile strike force to track and locate the Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen thought to be in Montana Territory in the Little Bighorn Valley.
By late June, however, the plan to link up and trap the hostiles was falling apart. Crook was defeated by an Indian force on the Rosebud River. Terry and Gibbon got temporarily lost. Custer was essentially on his own. In fact, Terry had given Custer unusual freedom. One part of his orders read, We place too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to impose precise orders upon you which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy. That was all the ambitious, headstrong Custer needed to hear. It triggered the inevitable chain of events that led to his death.
Counting 35 Indian scouts and civilians, Custer led 12 companies, 680 men, seemingly a substantial strike force. But by the time he headed out from Fort Abraham Lincoln on June 22, the number of Indians camped along the Little Bighorn had swelled to 7,000. Between 1,000 and 1,500 of these were warriors. Custers scouts found numerous trails leading to the Little Bighorn, and soon discovered the massive encampment that now held seven different Indian bands in a straight line stretching almost three miles. Even then, Custer did not seem to understand how many armed warriors he was facing.
On June 25, as the main cavalry body drew closer, Custer feared that his force had been detected, and instead of waiting for a surprise assault at dawn, he decided to attack that afternoon. Although his scouts continued to offer strong warnings, Custer discounted their advice. Lieutenant Edward Godfrey recalled Ree scout Bloody Knife saying, Well find enough Sioux to keep us fighting for two or three days. But, Godfrey said, Custer remarked laughingly that he thought we could get through in one day. Lieutenant Charles Varnum overheard Custers chief scout, the mixed-blood Mitch Boyer, tell Custer, General, if you dont find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw before, you can hang me. Custer testily replied, Well, a lot of good that would do me.
Not only did Custer reject the warnings, he divided his force into four groups. He ordered Benteen to take three companies of 120 men, scout a series of ridges to the southeast to spot any Indians trying to flee, and then rejoin him. Private Charles Windolph later reported that he heard Benteen protest, Hadnt we better keep the regiment together General? If this is as big a camp as they say, well need every man we have. Custer curtly replied, You have your orders. Custer then ordered Reno to take three companies of 140 troopers and 35 scouts and launch an attack from the south end of the village. The slow pack train, under Captain Thomas McDougall, was given another 175 men. Custer retained five companies with 210 mounted soldiers and civilians. He promised to support Reno in the attack. To say the least, the plan was impulsive and uncoordinated.
A Complete Rout
A few minutes after 3 pm, Reno forded the Little Bighorn River, which the Indians called Greasy Grass, and raced his mounted troopers into the southern end of the village. Custer mistakenly believed that the Indians were trying to escape. But the Indians were not fleeing. Instead, Reno quickly rode into a growing number of counterattacking warriors. The troopers halted, dismounted, and formed a skirmish line, then watched in dismay as hundreds of Indians, some mounted and others on foot, began to outflank them. In less than an hour of heavy fighting, the soldiers were in danger of being surrounded. Bloody Knife, standing next to Reno, was struck in the head, spraying the major with blood and brains. In shock, Reno panicked, issued wildly confusing orders, and ran for it. No retreat order was passed to the troopers, but as he desperately mounted his horse to flee, Reno shouted, Any of you men who wish to live, make your escapefollow me!
The uncoordinated rush back to the river was total chaos. The soldiers drove their horses into the water, crossed the river, and clawed their way up the steep 100-foot bluffs on the other side. The Indians, riding on their flanks, poured a withering fire into the wildly retreating soldiers. Some 80 troopers, including 13 wounded, managed to get to the top. Seventeen others were left in the woods. Thirty of Renos men were killed initially, and another 27 died in the fighting. Reno insisted later that his retreat was actually a charge.
Ive Lost Half My Men!
Custer never crossed the river. Instead, he led his men north on the near or east side along high bluffs above the valley, apparently hoping to block any Indians from getting away in that direction. Although a clear view of the valley bottom was difficult, he briefly spotted Reno fighting and saw for the first time, with his own eyes, the immense size of the enemy encampment. He quickly sent Sergeant Daniel Kanipe to find Benteen. Fifteen minutes later he dispatched trumpeter John Martin to carry another urgent message to the captain. Custers famous written order read: BenteenCome onBig villageBe quickbring packs. PSBring [ammunition] packs.
Historian Walter Camp, who interviewed many of the participants soon after the battle, cited Benteens reply upon receiving the message: After he read the message handed to him by Martin, he was heard to remark, Well, if he wants me to hurry how does he expect that I can bring the packs? If Im going to be of service to him I think I had better not wait for the packs. As Benteen rode closer, he suddenly saw Renos men scrambling to the top of the hill as Indian warriors swarmed in front. It was now 4:10 pm. A few minutes later, Benteens force joined Renos position. Martin, who stayed with Benteen, told historian Colonel W.A. Graham that he heard Reno exclaim, For Gods sake, Benteen, halt your command and help me. Ive lost half my men! Benteen immediately distributed his extra ammunition to Renos men.
Could Benteen Have Aided Custer?
At almost the same time, heavy firing was heard coming from a few miles downstream. This was the critical moment. The Indians had spotted Custers cavalrymen approaching from the other end. Almost all the Indians now rushed off to meet the new threat. Although many troopers urged them to ride to the sound of the guns, neither Reno nor Benteen made any effort to move in that direction. They later denied even hearing any firing. Benteen told an army court of inquiry in Chicago in 1879, I have heard officers disputing about hearing volleys. I heard no volleys. At the same hearing, Reno blandly testified, I heard no firing from down river.
It has long been maintained that the Reno-Benteen forces were trapped on the hilltop by hundreds of Indians. In fact, Benteen told the court of inquiry, The 900 Indians I saw in the valley remained there perhaps a half an hour then most of them went down the river. In truth, the Indians were gone within minutes of Benteens arrival. Letters, memoirs, and subsequent interviews with both Indians and army troopers refute his sworn testimony.
Godfrey, in an 1892 interview, said, At this time [4:20] there were a large number of mounted Indians in the valley. Heavy firing was heard down river. Suddenly, they all started down the valley and in a few minutes scarcely a horseman was to be seen. During this time questions were being asked. What are we staying here for? William Taylor, a private with Benteen at the time, in a first-person narrative published after his death, wrote, We heard firing off in the direction Custer was supposed to have gone. Why dont we move? was a question asked by more than one. The troops that were engaged in the valley were somewhat demoralized but that was no excuse for the whole command to remain inactive.
None but Squaws and Children in Front of Them
In an interview with Camp, Martin said, We heard a lot of firing down the river. It kept up for half an hour. It sounded like a big fight was going on. We wanted to hurry and join them but they wouldnt let us go. The great Sioux medicine man Sitting Bull was asked in an 1887 interview, Did your war chiefs not think it necessary to keep some of the young men there to fight the troops in the entrenchments? He answered, No, only a few soldiers were left on those bluffs. There were none but squaws and children in front of them. Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg, in an interview when he was 70, said, In the hills to the north there was another force of soldiers. The Indians shooting at the first soldiers began to leave and ride toward those on the northward hills.
Lieutenant Charles DeRudio, one of those who remained hiding below in the valley, said, Soon after Major Reno left the timber, firing commenced at the other end of the village. I heard immense volleys and more than half the Indians left. In a 1916 interview, Crow scout Hairy Moccasin said he saw Renos fight in the valley, which he described as a big scramble with lots of Sioux. Later, Custer asked him, How is it going? He replied, Renos men are fighting hard. Boyer then sent him back south, where he met Benteen on the hilltop. Hairy Moccasin said to him, Do you hear that shooting back where we came from? Theyre fighting Custer there now. This was specific information on Custers location that Benteen later denied knowing.
Similar information was given to Reno. At the Chicago court of inquiry, McDougall testified, The firing I heard was to the north on my right as I went toward the Little Big Horn. It was just two volleys. I told Major Reno about it.
At 5:05 pm, Captain Thomas Weir, who had been seen arguing strongly with Reno and pointing excitedly downstream, took his company, on his own, in that direction. From what is now known as Weirs Point, he saw the end of the Custer battle, then returned to the top of the hill. He reported that he had seen Indians firing at troopers bodies already inert on the ground.
A Calculated Decision to Not Engage
The critical 10 to 15 minutes after Benteen joined Reno was the time in which a more determined leader might have taken charge. Admittedly, trying to mount an immediate relief force would have been difficult; the slow pack train with more ammunition had not yet come up. Perhaps it wouldnt have made a difference and would have only resulted in more dead soldiers, but to refuse to try violated Custers order to Come onCome quick.
Perhaps the most revealing testimony came from Benteen himself. He told the Chicago court, A movement could have been made down the river in the direction Custer had gone upon my arrival on the hill, but we would have all been there yet. Apparently, Benteen didnt like the odds and figured that any soldiers who went that way also would have been killed. His sworn testimony that he and Reno heard no shooting, that they were tied down by 900 Indians, and that they didnt really know where Custer was is not convincing.
Through the years, both Reno and Benteen tried to improve their version of what happened. They wrote letters and gave interviews in which they maintained that shortly after linking up on the hilltop, the ammunition pack train arrived and a movement was made in Custers direction. However, John Gray, in his 1991 book, Custers Last Campaign, convincingly shows that it was at least an hour before any such movement was launched, and that was only after continued prodding by Weir and others. Even then, it was a half-hearted advance. Benteen and Reno took only three companies down toward Custers position. By then, the window of opportunity had closed. Custers 220 men had been annihilated in a little less than an hour, and the victorious Sioux and Cheyenne were now coming back upstream. Quickly, the companies were forced to retreat to their position on the hilltop with the rest of the survivors.
Over the next several hours the Indians made repeated charges against the soldiers line. By all accounts, Benteen rallied the men, took control of the defense, and was responsible for preventing a rout. In later years, even his criticsand there were manyadmitted that Benteen had held the force together. By evening, the shooting diminished and the companies remained through the night, listening to the shouts and loud victory whoops coming from the Indian encampment below.
In fairness, some participants believed that an attempted linkup would have been doomed. Varnum, Custers chief of scouts, told Camp that he never thought Benteen and Reno had any real chance of rescuing Custer. The same opinion was expressed later in a 1923 letter from General W.S. Edgerly, who had been a lieutenant with Benteen on the hilltop. Edgerly wrote, In my opinion there was no chance to have saved Custers command or any considerable part of it from destruction [even] if Reno had advanced at once upon Benteens junction with him and without waiting for the ammunition. He told Camp the same thing, adding significantly, With the information they had at the time there was no reason not to have tried it.
Sitting Bull Decides to Spare Reno and Benteens Force
After a nervous night on the bluff, the troopers strengthened their position for an expected attack in the morning. Although the Indians resumed sniping and harassing, they made no serious attempt to drive the soldiers off the hill. Writer David Humphreys Miller, who in the 1930s interviewed aged Indian participants, said that Sitting Bull told him that he believed the issue was settled, that the white soldiers had taken a drubbing, and he was willing to let it go at that. Numerous Native American accounts contend that it was only after a direct order from Sitting Bull that they were not allowed to attack and overwhelm the Reno-Benteen force as they had done earlier with Custer.
To the relief of the surviving troopers, in the late afternoon of the 26th the huge Indian camp began to pack up and move out. They had been warned by their scouts of the approach of Terrys force. Fewer than 100 of their warriors had been killed in the fighting on the bluff and in action against Custers force to the north.
Retribution for Custers Last Stand
The next day Terrys column arrived. Fighting at the Little Bighorn was over. Terry found the bodies of Custer and his men scattered above the river in various separate places where different companies had tried to make a stand. The dead bodies had been stripped and mutilated. Custers body was one of the few that had not been scalped. Grisly newspaper accounts of the battle and its aftermath outraged Americans across the country. They demanded retribution. From that time on, the Indians freedom to migrate, hunt buffalo, and celebrate their spirited lifestyle was running out. The military stepped up efforts to bring any still-roaming Indians under control. Western migration increased, new train tracks were laid, fortune seekers poured in for gold, and the traditional world of the Plains Indians soon disappeared. Custers Last Stand was also theirs.
The question remains: Could at least part of Custers five companies have been saved? Whether Reno and Benteen might have pulled it off can never be known. That they didnt even try, and then grossly misrepresented the reasons why they didnt, is no longer open to dispute.
Originally Published November 18, 2018.
This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.
They were surrendering and at the end of their rope. The press wanted to hear good tales of heroism and for some ‘fire water’ Indians were more than happy to oblige.
Rain-in-the-face has an account of a few even playing dead and as the squaws were about to go for the family jewels in the typical mutilation method, those guys ran.
I stand by what I said about the Indians being sincere in their praise of the troopers. They didn’t BS when it came to praising bravery.
I haven’t read enough about Isandlwana as I’d have liked. I did not know than any of the Zulus had long range rifles.
The Brits were about as outnumbered in that battle as Custer at LBH.
Bravery/Cowardice at the battle isn’t a blanket statement.
You want bravery? Read up on James Butler, Capt. Weir and his rescue attempt, or Keogh’s men surrounding their decorated Captain after he fell off his horse from a shot through the leg. His line collapsing basically caused the rest of Custer’s unit to stampede or panic.
If you want cowardice, well read up about Curly, one of Custer’s scouts. Or all of the men who died in the deep ravine (at least 20 of them).
There’s plenty of both to go around.
Enlisted man. Originally scheduled for Custer’s 7th, but suddenly sent to the 5th Cavalry.
He must have enlisted that very year. Good grief! You’ve got me. That’s a hell of a factoid to know. So who is it so I can read up about him?
I think the “Rawhide Kid” was the last western I read of that medium.
I stand with what I said about the Indians praising the troopers for their bravery.
I used to read “Jonah Hex” when I was a kid. The movie really disappointed. Too silly, as the “twin mounted” gatlings can attest..
The best read on Isandlwana is “How can man die better”.
written by Lt Col. Mike Snook. He commanded the Royal Welsh Regt. for a couple of year. He dispels many myths about the British Army’s defeat in this battle.
Except the forensics don’t lie.
Will definitely buy it.
It was for sure. He compiled it back in 1903 I think, so you must have read it I’m sure.
Here’s the Wikipedia on him. Interesting fellow, though when you campaign for your own Medal of Honor it takes the bluster off the award.
“One big disadvantage for Custer was that the Indians had better rifles than the troopers.” [laplata, post 4]
“Very good point that is often lost among non-gun people.
The Indians were in large part armed with Winchester repeating rifles, while Custer’s troops were armed with single shot Trapdoor Springfields.” [Yo-Yo, post 8]
“...Ive never heard an explanation as to why Custer wasnt issued repeating rifles....” [laplata, post 14]
“...Custer wasn’t issued repeating rifles because the U.S. Government never bought any repeating rifles. It was the Army’s opinion that the lever action rifles of the time, that used the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge, were inferior to the Trapdoor Springfield firing the .45-70 rifle cartridge.” [Yo-Yo, post 21]
“Ive heard that some people in the Army command were resisting switching to more modern rifles, because they thought that soldiers would just waste ammunition firing willy nilly, instead of carefully aiming their shots. I believe it wasnt until the Spanish-American War that that line of thinking was completely uprooted.” [Boogieman, post 36]
“Repeaters were expensive and somewhat unreliable. A number of units were issued repeaters and they were given bad reviews by soldiers as well as officers. The subject was dropped and they continued to use the Springfield Trapdoor...One of the problems was the repeaters used much lighter rounds than the 45-70 and were less effective at longer ranges.
The investigation after the battle led the Ordinance Dept to replace all copper jacketed 45-70 with brass jacket. The copper jacket had expanded in the rifle as heat increased to the point that the fired round could not be ejected. Brass expands less.” [buffaloguy, post 51]
“...the .45-70 easily beat out the .44...one of the deciding factors when they chose the new rifle - 1873...they should have at least had Spencers....” [Roman_War_Criminal, post 71]
“...The cartridges were made of copper and it was a known problem...Many broken knife points of Army knives were found on the battlefield hence the decision to change the cartridge to brass.
I have read the supposed debunking of that reasoning and it was unconvincing. My own 45-70 is competitive when the barrel runs at about 140 degrees.” [buffaloguy, post 78]
“Most of the Indian’s repeaters were 32-40s a very light round suitable for hunting...” [buffaloguy, post 101]
The US Army’s use of 45-70 wasn’t a whim, it was official government policy. Land forces doctrine was that individual aimed fire at long ranges was preferred: remained true until after 1945. The supposition was that long-range aimed fire from trained, disciplined troops would take out any adversary firing weapons of shorter range.
BGen Stephen Vincent Benet assumed the post of Chief of Ordnance of the US Army in 1874; he stated that Ordnance would stop accepting critiques and suggestions from the rest of the Army, because field forces were unable to understand the technical aspects of the new weaponry then being developed.
Cartridge case material was copper until years after June 1876. Brass wasn’t used until the British invented deep-draw forming techniques, and improved heat-treating of brass, in the late 1870s. Smith & Wesson’s first revolver - the No 1 in 22 Short rimfire - had to fire copper-cased rounds. They ballooned and stuck so badly that the design was modified to include a flat disk between the standing breech and the chambers, which rotated with the cylinder.
Though the 45-70 was centerfire, it is important to recall that outside priming had not yet been perfected. Cases were still thin, to permit the firing pin to indent the back of the head far enough to ignite the primer (which was crimped inside the head). Bulging and ruptures were an unavoidable problem.
As several forum members have pointed out, the repeaters of 1876 fired cartridges of lower power. And there weren’t very many; Christopher Spencer’s rifle was obsolescent, as was the Henry. Winchester’s M1866 was being made, but their M1873 had been introduced only a couple years before June 1876. The first repeaters that could handle the 45-70 did not appear until 1879; Marlin introduced the first lever action in that chambering in 1881.
The War Dept remained convinced that repeaters were too complex, costly, and unreliable to issue to troops. And most modern gun enthusiasts don’t realize how heavy such rifles were: single shots were weighty, but a full-size repeating rifle stuffed full of 45-70 rounds was that much heavier. Officers argued that troops would balk at carrying all the weight.
“They’ll shoot up all their ammunition” was unprovable, but it was taken very seriously in the War Dept. The warning was invoked against breechloaders, manual repeaters, semi-auto rifles, and full-auto personal issue arms: long after 1898. Fears that the supply system would collapse under battle demands were frequently voiced.
Also, recall that after ACW ended in 1865, the organized military existed only at the sufferance of a parsimonious Congress and an indifferent public. Army officials worried more about selling off huge quantities of obsolete muzzle-loaders, or converting guns to fire cartridges - at the lowest cost.
32-40 Ballard & Winchester was a highly accurate target round and is still in demand. But it wasn’t introduced until 1884, eight years after Little Big Horn. Not sure when repeaters for it first came out; when Winchester’s M1894 was first sold, it chambered 32-40.
“Custer had three Gatling Guns at his disposal. But Custer thought they would slow him down, so he left them behind at the fort.
This guy at the link below says Custer was right in declining those guns. They were completely unsuited for the terrain. As for me, Id have taken those guns,...” [Leaning Right, post 5]
“...The wheeled guns were not nearly as heavy to haul as the ammunition boxes.” [odawg, post 49]
A more careful look at the topography, along the Little Big Horn River in southeast Montana can help.
The ground that the 7th had to traverse that June day was not all gently rolling prairie. Patches of exposed clay, highly eroded and crisscrossed by deep gullies and steep hillocks, are easily seen from the battlefield. Wheeled vehicles could not have crossed it; lightly burdened men on foot would have had trouble. Laden horses and mules would have had a tough time. They’re called badlands.
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