Friday, August 07, 2020

Custer and the Inadequate Seventh Cavalry

Sioux representation of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

In his book, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Battle of the American West, James Donovan details some of the glaring inadequacies of the Seventh Cavalry as a fighting force at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Donovan states that the relative merits of Custer’s, Reno’s and Benteen’s military judgments cannot be properly understood without an understanding of these inadequacies. 

The frontier army was small, ill-trained and badly equipped by a miserly Congress. The quality of the troops was appalling, “only the malingerers, the bounty-jumpers, the draft-sneaks and the worthless remained” in the army after the Civil War.  “These, with the scum of the cities and frontier settlements, constituted more than half the rank and file on the plains.” (Donovan, 37)  Donovan continues, “Training in marksmanship, horsemanship, skirmishing, any practical lessons that Indian fighting might actually involve, was virtually nonexistent.  Formal military training of recruits consisted mostly of elementary drill aimed at making a grand appearance at dress parade.” (Donovan, 121)

On June 25, 1876, the actual day of battle, the five companies that Custer took with him to personally administer the coup de grace to the Sioux were inadequately led.  “Company C was led by Second Lieutenant Henry Harrington, who had no combat experience…. F Company was led by Second Lieutenant William Van Wyck Reily, who had been in the army less than eight months and had only recently mastered the fundamentals of horsemanship.” Donovan continues, “Of the thirty sergeants authorized to the five companies, fully half were absent, either with the pack train or on detached duty.” (Donovan, 218-219)

Custer over-estimated the offensive capabilities of the Seventh Cavalry.  When Custer finally viewed the village in its vastness, the view revealed the daunting size of the task required for victory, “…on the other side of the river were thousands of Indians, probably women, children, and older men, streaming into the hills and ravines….Custer had corralled only fifty-three of them on the Washita….” (Donovan, 267)

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

No comments: