Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Why Custer Lost the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Custer's Last Stand)

 Custer's Last Stand

In 1926, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, William A. Graham published the first authoritative book on the battle entitled The Story of the Little Big Horn: Custer's Last Fight.

Graham’s book was based largely on the voluminous information provided during the 1879 Court of Inquiry into the conduct of Major Reno.

Of the number, intention and armaments of the Indians, Graham writes: “The Seventh Cavalry was sent by (General) Terry to round up a band of recalcitrant variously estimated at between eight and fifteen hundred fighting men.  They found almost three times the number at the highest estimate. 

They rode to locate and to drive or capture a band which, judged by all past experiences, would scatter and run at their approach; they found instead a force of stern warriors who fought with determination and tenacity equal to their own….

They thought to find a band equipped with ancient muskets and discarded rifles, with primitive spear and bow and arrow.  Instead, they found a foe far better armed than they themselves, possessing Winchester rifles of the latest pattern and stores of ammunition that seemed inexhaustible.”

Graham writes, “When Reno rode into the attack with his pitiful force of 112 men, his was the only part of the regiment on the western or village side of the river….Benteen’s battalion was at this time miles away to the left and rear, its whereabouts unknown, and had no orders to cooperate with Reno or with Custer.  Reno, when he crossed the river, believed and had reason to believe that he was expected to bring only an advance-guard action, and that Custer, with his larger and stronger force would deliver the main attack, supporting his charge from the rear.  But instead of supporting, Custer changed direction and rode five miles down the river without notifying Reno of his change of purpose.”

     Of Custer’s flawed logistics, Graham writes, “The pack train, which with its escort accounted for 130 men, more than twenty per cent of the regiment, and which had in charge all the reserve ammunition, had been left far back on the trail, to struggle along the best it might.  The men of the (other) three battalions carried only one hundred rounds apiece of carbine ammunition, and four loadings, or twenty-four rounds, for their pistols.  When the fight in the valley began, therefore, not one of the three fighting battalions had ammunition sufficient for prolonged combat, nor was within communicating distance of the reserve supply; nor was any one of the four detachments of the regiment within supporting distance of either of (the) others.”

      One of the interesting aspects of Graham’s book is that he effectively provides a timeline of the events of June 25, 1876.  (1) 12:07 PM, Custer divides his command, Benteen marches south; (2) 2:30 PM Reno crosses the river and commences offensive operations; (3) 3:00 PM Reno retreats to the timbers; (4) 4:00 PM Reno retreats to the bluffs; (5) 4:00 PM Benteen receives the “Come quick” order from Custer; (5) 4:30 PM Benteen joins Reno. Firing is heard downriver. Captain Weir marches to the sound of the guns; (5) 5:00 PM the last of the pack train joins Reno and Benteen; (6) 6:00 PM Reno and Benteen join Weir and are engaged by the Sioux; (7) 7:00 PM Reno and Benteen complete a fighting withdrawal and take up the command’s original defensive positions.

Custer’s Last Stand: Portraits in Time

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.




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