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
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Archaeologists who don’t have a clue about military actions come and count the the bullets a century late4r.
“...I was at the site and remember it was not entirely level. We started buy the center and went out and down a decline where some markers indicated where items were found. Maybe they would have put the guns up on the bluff and waited there?” [morphing libertarian, post 166]
The only flat terrain is the primary floodplain of the Little Bighorn River, which is about one mile wide at the battle site and extends southeast to northwest for several miles. The river winds through it and is quite close to the eastern edge for most of the length of the site. Timber patches and dense underbrush grow along the river.
Surrounding terrain away from the river varies: the low hills and gently rolling prairie you posted about, interspersed with dendritic drainage patterns cut into the soil, of moderate to deep depths. The steepness of the washes, gullies, gulches, draws, and valleys increases and the features go deeper as the river is approached. There are no clear pathways from southeast to northwest, the direction the 7th Cav had to travel to approach the site from their encampment of the night before.
Apart from the muddled and fragmented memories of the surviving cavalry troopers, and the oral traditions of the American Indians present, no one really knows how the engagement played out. Archaeological clues (expended cartridges, dropped equipment, broken weapons) cannot tell us everything.
Since it was impossible for the Gatling guns to have been brought into action, and employment doctrine was embryonic, their emplacement and use in action remains imponderable.
Best guesses as to how the clash played out seem to run along lines of Custer’s detachment being surprised, overrun, and annihilated in detail before he & troops in his immediate vicinity could react - conceiving a defense plan, digging in, and countering the Indian onslaught was out of the question.
The other two detachments were too far away, possessed of inadequate intelligence, and insufficiently familiar with the ground to provide support in the short time available. Serious personal tensions existed between the commanders, which could only have slowed their response in any event. Marcus Reno seems to have suffered a personal crisis at the key moment. Frederick Benteen was known to harbor antipathy toward George Custer and was jealous of his entire family.
thanx a refresher for me
There is an old joke my history professor told us.
What was Custer doing at Little Big horn?
Running for president.
.”I am not aware of the War College doing a Custer Battlefield Staff Ride...” [centurion316, post 173]
It wasn’t a staff ride.
It was a classroom exercise using subscale models of the landscape, vegetation, and forces engaged: they were called sand table or tabletop exercises as I recall. Something wargamers used to do quite a bit of, before better computer simulation made higher video fidelity possible. Which led to more-interesting gaming of all sorts.
When I was a cadet, there were several clubs devoted to the pastime (which figured in classroom lessons as well). One roommate would set up entire platoons & companies of what were essentially toy soldiers, testing assumptions and recreating specific battles.
Regret to report I cannot recall the publication in which the article on the exercise appeared. The key point was that the instructors deliberately sanitized the specifics in advance, to hamper the students when it came to figuring out what actual battle was being reenacted, thus negating any tendency toward prejudgment. And the only noteworthy outcome was that the students ended up making the same decisions that the real officers did on the day of the actual battle in 1876.
A staff ride on real live horses must have been of special interest. I’ve heard about lots of staff rides, but in actuality most could be termed “walks.” Or the groups proceed in modern vehicles.
I never went on any - was never enough of a fast burner, nor sufficiently politically connected, to attend any senior service schools.
Everyone at the War College was there on an athletic scholarship. At least, that’s what it seemed to me.
“...The replacement rounds were brass, not sure how they were manufactured, probably bored.
It appears that the cavalry was issued carbines which shot 45-55s rather than the normal 45-70 cartridges...” [buffaloguy, post 167]
Hadn’t heard before, of US military small arms cartridge cases fashioned by drilling & machining. It’s all been deep draw die forming, except for extractor grooves in some special instances. Or so I’d been given to understand.
The British made early centerfire rounds by a build-up process, from many different materials: applied to the 557 Snider, 577/450 Martini-Henry, 476 M-H and possibly others. The charge was wrapped in waterproof paper, then a carboard sleeve, then coiled brass wire of square cross-section, and finally thin copper (later brass) sheeting after the bullet was placed in the neck. The rim was of iron, pierced and swaged to hold the primer cup. It was hollow riveted to a short cup of thicker copper or brass (still very thin), which was then crimped onto the cartridge head. The final product looked a lot like a modern shotshell, except for the metal-sheet body and the bullet.
These built-up rounds remained issue items until deep-draw manufacture of cases from 70-30 brass was perfected. The other big innovation was differential heat-treatment of the brass after forming: head and lower case body remained hard (brass hardens during drawing), while neck was annealed.
Early in the 2000s, one of the more scholarly-oriented firearms publications (Man at Arms, Rifle, Handloader, Small Arms Review or some such) published a lengthy article on firearms of the Little Bighorn battle. Trapdoor carbines and Colt Single Action Army revolvers - adopted in 1873 and only recently issued to field units - were looked on as the latest hi-tech super weapons and confidence was high that they’d give the troops a substantial advantage against the Indians.
Whether the War Dept or Army Ordnance performed any meaningful tests before adopting the new guns and new rounds isn’t clear. Quite apart from the hubris exhibited by BGen Benet, operational testing was in its infancy, and environmental conditions were not fully understood, especially when it came to their impact on small arms functional reliability. The author put some effort into arguing that the heat of that late June day in southeastern Montana put stresses on the copper-cased internal-primed ammunition that no one had believed possible, during acceptance trials; they bulged and stuck at a greater rate than ever seen previously. And when attempts were made later, to duplicate conditions in hope of divining “what went wrong,” the experiments fell short. Head scratches all around.
45-55 rounds were either identical externally, or slightly shorter in case length, than standard 45-70 rounds: Downloaded on purpose, to reduce recoil. I read someplace that 45-55 was also issued to the Corps of Cadets at West Point.
I’d not have cared to march nor ride with the troops of the 1870s. Not at all: I’d have wimped out early on. I have fired Trapdoors just once, with low-pressure smokeless loads specially prepared for those rifles. I was shooting the full-length infantry rifle- perceptibly heavy than any carbine. After eight shots, I was more than done for the day.
“Thank you very much, schurmann...” [laplata, post 161]
Glad to help.
The history of military art & science is stuffed full of a lot of detail, and obscure happenings, that rarely get mentioned in the opinion pieces and odes to “common sense” or hallowed tradition that become the subject of threads here. Tends to dull the edge of what many traditionally-minded citizens hold very dear.
After spending almost 29 years in uniform, and a further 19 years researching and reflecting on the topics, it occurred to me that the years of peace have been as important to military advancements as the years of war have been.
Or perhaps more important.
Advances in technology through science, research, and development happen in greater number during peacetime; so also do advances in theory, organization and tactical innovation - only then do the big brains and true intellects among the officer corps get the chance to reflect on what has already happened, debate and mull over the implications and formulate better approximations to apply the next time.
In wartime, no one has a chance to do much of anything but react, do what they are already trained to do, and rely on proven systems and past developments. Brilliant innovations in the midst of conflict are rare.
I’m a VN combat vet (101st Airborne Division) and the technology of today’s Army is pretty awesome compared to what we had.
“Brilliant innovations in the midst of conflict are rare”.
One great example comes to mind and it was very simple and saved the day, so to speak, and that was the Rhino tank at Normandy.
Above is in the field video from D-day. I’m guessing that the Rhino is actually the hedge-chopper attachment added to the Sherman tank?
What’s the saying? “Improvise, adapt, overcome!”
Thanks. I wonder if Rommel ever learned that the GI’s used the iron from the beach obstacles he so meticulously placed to prevent landings.
Above is in the field video from D-day. Im guessing that the Rhino is actually the hedge-chopper attachment added to the Sherman tank?
That’s correct. Thus, Rhino tanks.
I was watching some History Channel “Greatest Tank Battles” from the first Gulf War. A few of our tanks wiped out a huge bunch of Republican Guard tanks - I think we lost one tank and just one person dead in the battle.
The captured General was put into a vehicle, and there was a picture of Rommel on the inside. The Iraqi General asked who that was (Nazi uniform, etc.) Some Private shouted from the back of the vehicle something like “If you knew, maybe you wouldn't have gotten your butts handed to you.”
Oh - that battle was won because our guy in charge went charging in through the black smoke from the initial skirmish not knowing what lay beyond - and that was against typical protocol. But he took the initiative based on the circumstances and kept the element of surprise.
Hmm - just the little bit that I know about Little Bighorn - I guess that is one reason the Indians won - they changed their tactics.
The battlefield is one of my favorite spots to visit.
I am still looking for a reference to the manufacture of brass rounds for the US Army at this time but haven’t found it yet.
The first time I shot a 45-70 I couldn’t tell whether the shoulder bruise was a bruise or internal bleeding needing a hospital visit. 14 rounds the first time 30 lbs of recoil.
I immediately bought the thickest PAST shoulder pad I could find. It works rather well.
The 45-55 was issued to cavalry because the 45-70 kept knocking them off the horse. Riders are not always in balance on top of the horse. LOL
Don’t feel bad about 8 shots. That is the normal number of shots that most shooters without shoulder pads can stand. Most shoot 7 to 8 rounds and then put them away.
Well put and right on.
BTW, Field Marshall Montgomery kept a photo of Rommel on his field trailer wall.
I was able to find a reference to early cartridge manufacturing from about 1861. The drawing of the equipment leads me to the conclusion that the very soft brass was swaged. The drawings show swaging equipment and an example of a cartridge billet.
Very slow compared to cold drawn brass but certainly doable.
“I was able to find a reference to early cartridge manufacturing from about 1861...very soft brass was swaged...Very slow compared to cold drawn brass..” [buffaloguy, post 195]
Never seen any cartridge case made of brass, dating so far back.
Was this a patent drawing?
Did the text mention brass specifically? Were there any further details on material or metallurgy?
My sense of the industrial history here is that copper was used exclusively, for a very long time, especially in rimfire applications where pressures had to remain low, of necessity.
Just what alloying & heat treating came to be used, I’ve no idea. But for a number of years I did work for a small dealership which sold a line of collector cartridges: not sure how far back their inventory dated, but they had some 46 Rimfire, 56-50 Spencer Rimfire (I think - one of the Spencer rounds at any rate), 44 Rimfire (not Henry Flat though), 41 Short Rimfire, many 38 Rimfire (in a profusion of lengths), some 25 Rimfire, a few 22 Extra Long Rifle Rimfire, plus a couple others whose designations I’ve forgotten. All had copper cases - or so the metal looked to the unaided eye.
“Brass” was a generic term for copper/zinc alloys, until rather late. “Cartridge brass” is often defined as 30 percent zinc, 70 percent copper.
Please bear in mind that it isn’t always possible to identify the alloy simply by looking; “gilding metal” - 5 percent zinc, 95 percent copper - looks just like copper but has been the brass alloy of choice for many bullet jackets since about 1929. Its perfection put an end to most metal-fouling problems, but even so it isn’t much use in its raw state - needs special heat-treating.
Deep-draw (”cold”) forming is very closely related to swaging.
We may need to consult the International Ammunition Association (cartridgecollectors.org).
“...the technology of todays Army is pretty awesome compared to what we had.
Brilliant innovations in the midst of conflict are rare.
One great example comes to mind and it was very simple and saved the day, so to speak, and that was the Rhino tank at Normandy.”
I should have said “brilliant scientific/technical innovations that radically alter the strategic situation and impact the battlefield don’t occur very often during wartime.”
That is a big generalization. And one specific invention often has to wait until additional inventions make it feasible to combine all of them into a system that can give one side or the other the edge.
- Gunpowder (in the West) did not appear while Euro powers were slugging it out.
- The steam engine appeared before 1700. But steam powered ships and railroads didn’t emerge during the French Revolution nor the Napoleonic Wars that followed. Only after.
- Breechloading guns (little and big) were around for centuries, before technical advances of the 1810s-1840s made them more feasible.
- Industrial innovations of the 1860s-1870s made production of better steel possible, in greatly increased quantities, enabling production of better artillery. Euro wars of the time were short & limited compared to before & after.
- Innovations in chemistry that led to nitro propellants (smokeless powder) and high explosives happened before 1850; improvements in metallurgy and industrial technique that made self-contained cartridges possible proceeded from the 1830s into the 1880s.
- However, major changes in the equipage of the world’s armed forces came only after the American Civil War, during which repeating arms first saw use. Rimfire cartridges dated to the 1850s, and centerfire cartridges appeared in the 1860s. Gatling’s mechanically actuated rapid-fire gun did emerge during ACW, but its impact remained small until better ammunition was developed. It (and a number of other mechanically actuated guns like Nordenfelt, Gardner, Hotchkiss etc) contributed to the development of the self-powered machine gun; the invention of hydro-pneumatic recoil braking enabled much higher rates of artillery fire. All of these contributed to the firepower revolution that made World War One so terrible. None came about during wartime.
- Flight (lighter-than-air) dated to the 1780s, but remained only marginally useful until aeronautics saw lengthier research, and a sufficiently light power source could be developed. Once the principles were figured out, and internal combustion engines were developed, heavier-than-air flight became a reality soon after.
- The tank (cross-country armored fighting vehicle) was a major development during World War One, but consisted of innovations (tracks, engines, QF guns) that had appeared in peacetime.
- Almost no innovation at all occurred in aviation during WW1, save the production of more powerful engines and heavier airplanes. The invention of gun-synchronizer systems was about the limit, which did alter the direction of development in air combat. Real advances in powered flight did not happen until the 1920s, when truly reliable air-cooled engines first appeared, aerodynamics enjoyed increased theoretical understanding, and catalytic petroleum refining permitted the production of much higher octane fuels (1930s).
- The submarine appeared in the 1770s, and development advanced from 1860 to 1900. Well before it had major impact during WW1.
- Gas turbine developments belonged to the 1920s, permitting the creation of jet-powered aircraft, which only began to affect the military situation as World War Two was ending.
- Advancements in electronics dated back before 1900, and were only spottily pursued to develop long-range radio communications (1910 or so), tactical radio (about 1920), radar (1930s), electronic computing (late 1930s - early 1940s), unmanned aircraft (1940s), cruise missiles (mid 1940s), and ballistic missiles (mid 1940s).
The production of hedgerow-cutting devices mounted on armored vehicles (Rhino tanks you spoke of) was indeed a brilliant adaptation, but it wasn’t a new invention. Says great things about the savvy & moxie of US GIs - and the openness of the American military hierarchy to needed changes - but it was a field modification, not a new system.
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