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Could Custer Have Won?

By Paul Andrew Hutton 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: May 28, 2013 
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The Sioux drive Custer's troops back across the Little Bighorn River in this circa 1900 drawing by Amos Bad Heart Bull, an Oglala Lakota artist. While this likely depicts Reno's retreat, Custer and his men later tried to ford the river in an attempt to take hostages and negotiate their way out of their predicament. (IAM/AKG-Images)
The Sioux drive Custer's troops back across the Little Bighorn River in this circa 1900 drawing by Amos Bad Heart Bull, an Oglala Lakota artist. While this likely depicts Reno's retreat, Custer and his men later tried to ford the river in an attempt to take hostages and negotiate their way out of their predicament. (IAM/AKG-Images)

LIEUTENANT COLONEL GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER IS DEAD, along with every man in five companies of his celebrated 7th Cavalry. Newspapers trumpet the story from coast to coast, stunning a proud people reveling in the grand celebration of a century of freedom and progress. On July 4, 1876, America's two top army officers, William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, respond as one to the story of Custer's defeat and death, sent from the Salt Lake City Associated Press wire: It is a typical frontier rumor, they declare. Preposterous.

The following day Sheridan receives confirmation of the disaster from the field commander, Brigadier General Alfred Terry. Sheridan, stricken by the death of his young protégé and the loss of so many men, is furious over Terry's self-serving report, which defends his campaign strategy and blames Custer for disobeying orders. Leaked to the press, the account sparks widespread condemnation of Custer. It is quickly bolstered by the account of Custer's second in command, Major Marcus Reno, which finds its way into newspapers before reaching Sheridan's desk.

The conventional interpretation of Custer's movements is deeply flawed. He did not run away or hunker down but sought always to attack, attack attack

President Ulysses S. Grant's response cannot be any blunter: "I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary."

Then it begins. Poets, artists, and writers embrace the tale of Custer's Last Stand as an American Thermopylae, where a dauntless hero and his loyal band were sacrificed on the altar of Manifest Destiny. The weak and cowardly Major Reno, though cleared by a court of inquiry, is ruined. Custer emerges as one of America's preeminent heroes, a towering figure in our national creation story.

Since 1876 historians have debated every nuance of Custer's battle against the Sioux at the Little Bighorn River. The quantity of literature produced is stunning, and it consistently contends that Custer was thrown on the defensive, that he quickly hunkered down on a ridgeline, awaiting help that never came. An even more troubling scenario is offered up by others, most notably Captain Frederick Benteen in 1876 and archeologist Richard Fox today, who contend it was a rout without any true defensive lines or even the celebrated "last stand."

But the well-accepted details have baffled many of us who have studied the battle and the man in depth. The idea of Custer dismounting his troopers to hold a ridgeline, passively waiting for help, goes against the grain of every aspect of his career and character. How could this brilliant, consistently aggressive officer have been thrown totally on the defensive?

The answer? He wasn't. The last quarter century has seen amazing advances in battlefield scholarship: a critical reading of native testimony by Jerome Greene, Richard Hardorff, and other scholars; the time-motion analysis of John Gray; the incredible archaeological evidence unearthed by Douglas D. Scott, Melissa Connor, Richard Fox, and others after a fire swept the battlefield in 1983; and the provocative theories presented in new books by Michael Donahue and James Donovan. Based on a careful study of this new scholarship and my recent work with James Ersfeld, John Doerner, and Melana Stichman on a National Park Service mapping project at the battlefield, I believe the conventional interpretation of Custer's movements is deeply flawed and that, in fact, Custer retained the offensive throughout the battle. He did not run away or hunker down but sought always to attack, attack, attack, until, at the bitter end, with no options left, he made his last stand, creating the indelible heroic image that resonates in our national consciousness.

 

THE GREAT SIOUX WAR OF 1876 was typical of U.S.-Indian clashes, arising from failed treaties, bad faith on both sides, and a frustrated military establishment. After the Sioux humiliated the U.S. Army in Red Cloud's War of 1866–1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty established a vast reservation that included almost all of present South Dakota west of the Missouri River. The tribe also retained hunting rights in parts of Montana and Wyoming, as long as the buffalo ranged in sufficient numbers to, in the treaty's words, "justify the chase."

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Many Sioux bands, under nonreservation leaders such as the Hunkpapa spiritual chief Sitting Bull and the bold Oglala warrior Crazy Horse, remained with their families in those unceded hunting grounds. Their young men continued traditional raiding against the Crow, Arikara, Mandan, Shoshone, and Pawnee. They also struck military posts, the Nebraska Indian agencies, Wyoming ranches, and railway survey parties along the Yellowstone River. The situation on the northern plains was already nearing a crisis when matters were brought to a head by Custer's 1874 discovery of gold on the Sioux reservation in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.

Unable to honor the Fort Laramie Treaty and keep the stampede of white miners out of the Black Hills, the United States tried to buy the land. When the Sioux refused to sell and Sitting Bull and other nonreservation leaders threatened violence against chiefs who sought to cut a deal, the government branded them as hostiles and in January 1876 ordered them to immediately leave the hunting grounds and report to their assigned reservation. It was clearly a pretext; a full two years earlier General Sherman, commander of the army, wrote Lieutenant General Sheridan, the Great Plains commander, that "sooner or later these Sioux will have to be wiped out or made to stay just where they are put." Predictably, the Sioux refused to return, and war was joined.

After a winter campaign fizzled, Sheridan sent three columns into the Indian country of southeastern Montana late in the spring of 1876—one from the west, another from the east, and the third from the south. They were to converge on the hostiles and drive them back to the reservation. Sheridan hoped that one of the three columns might force the Sioux onto another column, but there was no strategic plan for cooperation. Although disturbing reports filtered in of agency Indians flocking to Sitting Bull's camp, Sheridan discounted them. He was not concerned with Indian numbers, only that they might somehow escape.

Colonel John Gibbon led the column coming from the west, scouting east along the Yellowstone River from Fort Ellis in Montana. Brigadier General George Crook, meanwhile, marched north from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming. And finally, General Terry was ordered to move west from Fort Abraham Lincoln (near Bismarck, North Dakota). With him would be George Armstrong Custer, leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment.

"The best cavalry in Uncle Sam's service," Custer, then 34, had boasted of his regiment in 1874. Created in the postwar army reorganization to meet the needs of western expansion, the 7th was viewed as elite, and Custer's appointment as lieutenant colonel reflected that. Although regarded in military circles as Sheridan's pet, Custer earned his position by virtue of his spectacular Civil War record. A general at 23, he had been the darling of the Northern press during the Civil War—"the Boy General," reporters anointed him as they wrote of his flowing curls and furious charges, from Brandy Station to Appomattox, where he accepted the Rebel flag of surrender.

Hard campaigning on the southern plains in 1867–1869 had won the regiment and its commander enviable reputations as Indian fighters. Unlike many other officers, Custer relished that role, adopting the fringed buckskin of the frontiersman. In national magazine articles and an 1874 memoir, he celebrated his adventures. Custer wanted to be seen as a rugged hero, heir to the mantle of Boone and Crockett.

Yet Custer was lucky to be part of Sheridan's campaign at all. President Grant, furious over Custer's damning testimony in a federal corruption case against the secretary of war, had stripped him of command of the Dakota column. Only at the last minute was he handed the reins of the 7th. General Terry, totally inexperienced in Indian warfare, was given overall command of the 12 companies of the 7th under Custer, 40 Arikara scouts, and 3 infantry companies to guard his 150-wagon supply train.

 

GIBBON'S COLUMN IS THE FIRST TO MOVE OUT, leaving Fort Ellis in early April. Terry and Custer depart from Fort Lincoln on May 17. Crook follows from Fort Fetterman 12 days later.

A seasoned frontier soldier, Crook moves north from Wyoming with 20 companies, more than a thousand men, and crosses into Montana. But on Rosebud Creek, his troops, augmented by 176 Crow and 86 Shoshone auxiliaries, are surprised by a large force of Sioux and Cheyennes under Crazy Horse. Crook, defeated, falls back to his supply base to await reinforcements. Though he fails to send messengers north to inform Terry of his retreat, he does report to Sheridan, who is in Chicago. Sheridan forwards Crook's report to Terry, appending a prophetic note: "I presume that long before this reaches you, you will have encountered the Indians who fought Crook."

On June 21, Terry, knowing nothing of Crook's fate, meets with Custer and Gibbon in a cabin on the steamer Far West, moored at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Rosebud, north of the Little Bighorn, where Gibbon's scouts believe the Sioux are camped. He orders Custer to follow the Rosebud south and then move west, approaching the Little Bighorn from the east. With Colonel Gibbon's command, Terry will head south along the Bighorn, approach the Little Bighorn from the north, and block the Indians from escaping in that direction after Custer's strike.

When the Sioux refused to return from their hunting grounds in Wyoming and Montana to their Dakota reservation, General Phil Sheridan dispatched three columns to haul them back. (Sophie Kittredge)
When the Sioux refused to return from their hunting grounds in Wyoming and Montana to their Dakota reservation, General Phil Sheridan dispatched three columns to haul them back. (Sophie Kittredge)

Terry hopes to reach the Little Bighorn by June 26, but again, there is no plan for the two columns to attack in concert. Terry later claims a grand strategy undone by Custer's disobedience, but Custer couldn't have slipped the leash, for it was never on him. As Custer departs on June 22 Gibbon calls to him: "Now Custer, don't be greedy; wait for us." Laughing, Custer waves goodbye, calling back "No, I will not!"

Custer commands 31 officers and 566 enlisted men in 12 companies, 35 Arikara and Crow scouts, a dozen packers and civilian guides, and a pack train with extra forage and ammunition. Each trooper carries the standard-issue single-shot Springfield carbine with 100 cartridges and a Colt revolver with 24 cartridges. Sabers are left behind.

The regiment marches 12 miles on the first day, 15 on each of the next two. On June 24 Custer's scouts discover a fresh trail that widens as they follow it. The trail was left by the huge numbers of agency Sioux and Cheyennes coming west to join Sitting Bull's people. But Custer knows only that directly west, in his front, are the very Indians all the columns are searching for. He decides to push across the Wolf Mountains, which lie between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn, then rest his regiment on June 25 and attack on June 26, when Gibbon will be near.

 

BEFORE DAWN ON JUNE 25, 1876, Custer's Crow scouts, on a rocky ridge later named the Crow's Nest, discover the prey: Some 6,000 to 7,000 natives are encamped about 15 miles away, along the meandering river in the expansive Little Bighorn Valley. The grass is high and lush, especially on the broad plain west of the Little Bighorn River, where thousands of ponies graze. High bluffs rise to the east, just across the river, with—critically for Custer later—only a handful of fords across the deep waters.

The Indians know that the soldiers are searching for them, so they have gathered in great tribal circles—several of Sioux and one of Northern Cheyenne. The Cheyennes camp to the north, with the Hunkpapa Sioux at the southern end. Between them are Sans Arcs, Brulés, Blackfoots, Minneconjous, Oglalas, Two Kettles, and Santees. The Oglala and Hunkpapa circles are the largest—some 700 lodges. Almost every lodge is west of the river. In all, at least 2,000 warriors, and maybe more, are in the great camp, which covers nearly two miles.

Custer soon learns that Sioux scouts have spotted his column. Fearing the natives might escape, he decides to attack at once. Essentially he will engage in a reconnaissance in force, for he has no sense of the terrain or the size of the enemy force. His scouts are nervous. One, Charley Reynolds, warns Custer that he has never seen so many Indians. Mitch Boyer, the half-French, half-Sioux leader of the Crow scouts agrees, telling Custer: "I have been with these Indians for 30 years and this is the largest village I have ever known of." Custer retorts: Since Boyer is not a soldier he does not have to fight. Boyer, incensed, tells Custer that he will go into the valley but that they will wake up in hell together the next morning.

A little after noon Custer divides his regiment into battalions: Major Marcus Reno commands Companies A, G, and M—140 men; Captain Frederick Benteen leads Companies D, H, and K—125 men; while Custer keeps Companies E, F, C, I, and L—225 men. Custer retains Boyer and some Crow scouts with his battalion, but sends the Arikara, the rest of the Crow, and white scouts with Reno. Captain Thomas McDougall guards the pack train to the rear with Company B—48 men.

Pushing toward the Little Bighorn, Custer dispatches Benteen's men to the south, where they are to scout for Indians camped there, then rejoin him. A 10-mile march brings Custer and Reno some four miles from the Little Bighorn, where they discover a tepee with the body of a slain warrior from Crook's fight on the Rosebud. Just beyond, Custer's scouts report warriors galloping toward the village. Custer knows he has to hurry before the village is warned. He orders Reno to follow what is later named Reno Creek and attack the village, which is still screened from view by high bluffs. Custer promises to support Reno. Eventually, the two columns will track north on roughly parallel routes, Reno moving across the valley floor and approaching the Indian village from the south, while Custer rides through the bluffs east of the village.

Moving along the ridgeline above the Indian camp, Custer stays on the offensive, constantly looking for  a way down and across the river so he can capture  the Sioux noncombatants and force a negotiation. (Sophie Kittredge)
Moving along the ridgeline above the Indian camp, Custer stays on the offensive, constantly looking for a way down and across the river so he can capture the Sioux noncombatants and force a negotiation. (Sophie Kittredge)

The details of Reno's movements are well known. After following Reno Creek into the valley, his men ford the Little Bighorn at a timbered crossing and water their exhausted horses. It's a few minutes before 3 p.m. Arikara scouts report groups of Indians forming in the valley to the north. As Reno leaves the crossing and the shelter of the trees, he and his troopers catch sight of Custer's column on the high bluffs to their right. Custer is moving north at a fast trot.

Reno advances quickly across the broad valley floor and although clouds of dust obscure the village, almost two miles away, he orders the charge. The assault, however, falters about a mile from the Hunkpapa camp circle at the southern end of the village. A five-foot-deep ravine cuts across Reno's front, and a few Indians have taken up positions there. Reno orders his men to halt and dismount at about 3:30, perhaps a half mile from the first Hunkpapa tepees. Every fourth trooper is pulled out of action to hold the horses. Reno's remaining 100 men stretch across 250 yards of open prairie, firing at an increasing mass of warriors. Reno has surrendered the offensive power of his cavalry before he has lost a man—a crucial mistake.

Some of Reno's Arikaras strike the Hunkpapa camp, killing several women and their children before being forced into some woods at the base of the bluffs to their east along the Little Bighorn. What occurs next becomes critical to Custer's plans in the next two hours: Sioux men hurry to gather the remaining innocents and move them north and away from the fighting. Eventually they seek sanctuary in a ravine that is later dubbed Squaw Creek.

Hundreds of Indians now advance on Reno's left. Seeing the Sioux are also sweeping around his left flank to attack from his rear, he orders his men to swing back into the trees by the river. This retreat is orderly as the troopers keep up a steady fire, but more warriors press in, perhaps a thousand fighting men, including Oglalas under Crazy Horse and Cheyennes from the northern end of the camp.

Then Reno makes another mistake. Although his command has suffered few casualties, he suddenly orders a retreat, out of the timber and across the river to the more defensible high bluffs to the east.

"Any of you men who wish to make your escape, draw your revolvers and follow me," yells Reno, his face covered in the blood and brains of an Arikara scout shot beside him.

It is a disastrous rout out of the woods, later described by Indians as a buffalo chase. Many of Reno's men never hear his command. Others refuse to run. In the retreat, 38 are killed (including 2 officers), 10 are wounded, and several go missing. The remains of the command rally on the steep bluffs at what is now known as Reno Hill. Seventeen of the missing later make their way there. It is now after 4 p.m. Reno establishes a defensive position atop the hill, and settles in to wait for McDougall and the pack train.

Custer learns of this debacle as it unfolds. After splitting his force near the tepee of the slain warrior, he and his men had set off in pursuit of some 50 warriors spotted to his front. Reaching the ridgeline above the valley, he catches sight of the village for the first time. Some of his men cheer, causing several horses to bolt forward, and Custer calls out: "Boys, hold your horses! There are plenty down there for all of us!"

He then descends the ridge into Cedar Coulee, a ravine east of the ridgeline, and follows until it merges into the larger Medicine Tail Coulee. Medicine Tail offers a route to the river for his flanking attack on the village.

Below him, however, the Indian forces are gathering to meet Reno's challenge, and their numbers are staggering. It is obvious to Custer that his scouts were right: He is in for quite a fight. He sends Sergeant Daniel Kanipe with a message to McDougall to hurry the pack train. As Kanipe gallops away, he notices a new threat: a line of warriors forming on the ridgeline to the east of Custer's command.

 

RENO'S ATTACK, MEANWHILE, IS CLEARLY FALTERING. Custer sends a second message—much more urgent in tone—this time addressed to Benteen, instructing him to hurry forward with his men and the ammunition packs. John Martin, a bugler and an Italian immigrant, is to relay the order. Custer's adjutant, Lieutenant William W. Cooke, a Canadian immigrant, worries about Martin's language skills and so scribbles out a note: "Benteen. Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. W. W. Cooke. P.S. Bring Packs."

Custer certainly understands that he must support the reeling Reno. But he needs the help of Benteen's men and the extra ammunition with McDougall if he is to overwhelm such a large encampment. And after his last message, that help appears imminent: Around 4 o'clock, the colonel's brother Boston Custer, who had been with the pack train, arrives with word that Benteen and the train are only a few minutes to the southeast.

In the meantime, to relieve the pressure on Reno, Custer deploys Captain George Yates, an old friend who had fought alongside him in the Civil War, down Medicine Tail to cross the river and enter the village. Yates is given Companies E and F; according to native testimony, E attempts the crossing near the Northern Cheyenne circle of tents. But warriors hold them off, soon reinforced by hundreds more who arrive from the southern end of the village after Reno's rout.

At the Medicine Tail ford, an officer wearing a buckskin jacket is shot off his horse. (Contrary to the suggestions of some writers, this was not Custer but almost certainly Lieutenant Jack Sturgis, recent West Point graduate and son of the regiment's colonel, Samuel D. Sturgis.) Yates, while failing to cross into the village, succeeds in pulling warriors off Reno.

Conventional histories argue that at this point Custer retreats, moving to the northeast, away from the village, and throwing out skirmishers to hold the ridgeline above the river. But my own recent fieldwork at the battlefield, confirmed by the evidence presented in Donahue's Drawing Battle Lines: The Map Testimony of Custer's Last Fight and Donovan's A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn, suggests just the opposite. I now believe that Custer, the ultimate cavalryman, did not retreat to a defensive position. Rather, he constantly remained on the offensive, brushing off the threat on the ridgeline to the east and pressing northwest along the ridge in search of another ford from which to sweep down on the village.

In this theory of the battle, Custer retains three companies and moves north from where Cedar and Medicine Tail Coulees meet on a ridgeline. Shell casings and spent bullets found at both cavalry and Indian positions on the ridge after the 1983 fire clearly indicate that he is holding off a group of warriors to his east, perhaps the 50 warriors he had initially pursued. Then he moves along this ridge, following the high ground, to what is now known as Battle Ridge.

 

CUSTER IS CERTAIN OF THREE THINGS: He is greatly outnumbered; Major Reno's three companies are already engaged in the valley; and four companies and the pack train with ammunition, now under Captain Benteen, are hurrying to reinforce his position. My close study of the battlefield and especially the Battle Ridge sightlines confirms that Custer could see the village noncombatants fleeing Reno's assault and seeking refuge in Squaw Creek across the river just to the northwest of his position. If he could capture and hold them as hostages, he might force the warriors to back off and negotiate. This is exactly what he did at the Battle of the Washita River in 1868, where he used more than 50 noncombatant prisoners essentially as human shields to escape the large number of gathering warriors.

All he needed now were Benteen's troopers.

Numbers are not a problem for the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who rush to defend these innocents. They cross the river at the Medicine Tail Ford, then move north toward Battle Ridge, pushing up Deep Coulee (Chiefs Two Moons and Gall), and across Greasy Grass Ridge (Lame White Man). Others pressed up Deep Ravine (Crazy Horse).

Custer sees these warriors massing in the village and then crossing the river to contest Yates's advance, but he also sees the women and children fleeing to the north. He can wait no longer for Benteen if he is to seize these potential hostages before warriors can reinforce the northernmost river ford near the shallow Squaw Creek ravine.

Custer's men fire signal volleys and then continue to ride north along the ridgeline. Yates, pulling his men back from the ford, moves to link up with his commander, joining him at about 4:45 atop Battle Ridge at what is now called Calhoun Hill. Custer orders Captain Myles Keogh, a hard-drinking Irish soldier of fortune, to deploy skirmishers along Battle Ridge to hold off the advancing Sioux and Cheyennes to the south and west. L Company—led by Lieutenant James Calhoun, Custer's brother-in-law—forms a semicircle skirmish line on the southwestern slope of the hill that now bears his name, deploying his horse holders on the reverse slope. Pressure, however, quickly drives Calhoun's men back to the hilltop.

With two companies, Custer still maintains the offensive even as his men are being rolled up along Calhoun's line and in a ravine just north of Calhoun Hill. Advancing to the northwest he comes down out of the bluffs and attempts to seize the next northernmost crossing of the Little Bighorn so he might yet capture the Sioux and Cheyenne families hiding in the ravine in and around Squaw Creek.

It is impossible to know the details of this foray. How many troops did he send to the ford? Did Custer himself lead them? How many warriors did he face? Scholars of the battle have previously paid little attention to this action. Yet it may be the fight's most critical moment. If Custer pushes across the Little Bighorn River and captures the noncombatants, he might still achieve a victory—a costly one, to be sure, but one that could have burnished his fame as an Indian fighter and made him a hero.

It is not to be, however. A large band of warriors has swept north around the noncombatants to meet Custer's force at the northern ford (a movement usually incorrectly attributed to Crazy Horse). Without Benteen's men, Custer doesn't have the firepower he needs. Eventually, this band retreats, officially marking the end of Custer's offensive and the beginning of his famous last stand.

 

ALL THE WHILE, at the other end of Battle Ridge, Calhoun's L Company is putting up a stout fight. To the east is Keogh's I Company as well as C Company, while the horse holders calm their animals in a swale behind Battle Ridge just north of Calhoun's position. Calhoun, hard pressed by ever more warriors, sends out a skirmish line to the south. A charge by the Cheyenne leader Lame White Man blunts this counterattack and rolls over the soldiers, sweeping across Calhoun Hill. At almost the same time, Crazy Horse leads an attack from the east against Keogh's I Company and the horse holders. Resistance collapses as Keogh and 20 of his men perish in a tight group in the swale. The survivors flee northwest toward Custer.

Custer's men are in a tough fight themselves. As they retreat from the river and climb back up to Battle Ridge, they are pursued by more and more warriors. The natives, surprisingly well armed to begin with, now wield Springfields taken off the dead troopers of Reno and Calhoun.

When Custer reaches the high ground today called Custer Hill (or Last Stand Hill), Benteen is nowhere to be found. Worse, the Calhoun and Keogh lines have collapsed. Custer deploys his men in skirmish lines that quickly compress. The desperate troopers shoot their horses for breastworks and make their final stand, providing covering fire for the pitiful remnants of Keogh's and Calhoun's companies. Fifty men gather around the banner of their commander. They are all that remain of five companies of the 7th.

It is over quickly. Custer dies atop the hill (not on the slope where his marker is today). Near him fall his brother Captain Tom Custer (two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor) as well as Captain Yates, Adjutant Cooke and two lieutenants, battalion surgeon Dr. George Lord, and some 40 troopers. Thirty-nine dead horses lie around them.

All this prolonged heavy firing—as well as Custer's signal volleys—is heard to the south back at Reno Hill, where the major set up his defensive position after the rout from the timber. Benteen's men have joined Reno's command. Despite Custer's written orders, Benteen had returned none too swiftly from his scouting mission to the south, finally arriving at the field as Reno's men were scrambling up the bluff in retreat. Major Reno ordered Benteen to dig in with him, leaving Custer to wait in vain for the reinforcements he had ordered.

At 5 o'clock, Captain Thomas Weir of Benteen's battalion, exasperated by the hesitation of Reno and his own commander, leads his company toward the sound of the guns. When McDougall's pack train finally arrives 20 minutes later, Benteen follows Weir with three companies. From a high hill now called Weir Point, they see swirling dust and gun smoke, but little else. Warriors swarm toward Weir's position, and Benteen orders a withdrawal at 6 p.m. Within a half hour they are back in defensive positions on Reno Hill.

(Weir saw much of Custer's final action from his distant hilltop. Shattered by what happened, he blamed Reno and Benteen for the slaughter and never forgave them. He died of alcohol-related illnesses six months after the battle, at age 38.)

Reno's men now face a fresh attack. The soldiers establish a perimeter around a depression on the hill that provides some protection for their wounded and the pack animals. They dig shallow rifle pits. Reno is rattled and useless, so Benteen takes charge. The Indians withdraw at nightfall, but at dawn on June 26 the siege resumes. Although the warriors do not assault the soldiers' position in any strength, many troopers are wounded and seven are killed. That afternoon the warriors set fire to the prairie grass as a screen while they move the village south.

Terry and Gibbon arrive on June 27 to rescue Reno's shattered command. They hastily survey Custer's field, try to at least modestly cover the dead, and retreat with the wounded back to the Bighorn River. A total of 212 men (195 troopers, 13 officers, and 4 civilians) died with Custer (including his two brothers, Boston and Tom; his brother-in-law Calhoun; and a teenage nephew on summer vacation). Reno saw 51 killed (42 troopers, 2 officers, 4 civilians, and 3 Indian scouts) and 60 wounded. Indian casualties are generally assumed to be around 100.

Custer, true to his character, had stayed on the offensive until almost the very end, when he realized that even as he advanced on the river, his rear was being rolled up and no help was coming. Though let down, if not betrayed, by his subordinates Reno and Benteen, it is Custer who must bear full responsibility for the defeat at Little Bighorn. Of course the Sioux and Cheyennes also deserve great credit for their victory.

The Indians had no time to celebrate, for their greatest victory was also the beginning of their end. Little Bighorn—and the shocking loss of the Boy General and his men—had silenced dissenters to a military solution. Sheridan's troopers swarmed over Sioux country. Forts now sprang up in Sioux hunting grounds (including Fort Custer near the battle site). Within a year Sitting Bull and his people fled north into Canada while Crazy Horse surrendered over 800 of his followers to Crook. After Little Bighorn, the Indians would walk a new road—one that led directly to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, where the 7th would extract a terrible vengeance.

 

Paul Andrew Hutton is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico. The author of Phil Sheridan and His Army and editor of The Custer Reader, he has won numerous awards for excellence in nonfiction writing both in print and for television documentaries related to the American West. On May 22, 2013, he received an Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award for this story.

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About the Army HIstorical Foundation

The Army Historical Foundation, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, is dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of the American soldier. Its goal is to promote greater public appreciation for the contributions that America's Army—Active, Reserve, and National Guard—has made to the nation in 238 years of service. The Foundation is the principal fundraiser to build the National Museum of the United States Army, which will be located at Fort Belvoir, Va.

In addition to fundraising for the National Museum of the United States Army, the Foundation's projects and activities include refurbishment of historical Army buildings; acquisition and conservation of historical art, artifacts, and documents; support of Army history education programs; historical research; publication of historical materials on the American soldier; and providing counsel and support to private and governmental organizations committed to the same goals as the Foundation.

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13 Responses to “Could Custer Have Won?”


  1. 1
    C. Lee Noyes says:

    Professor Hutton concludes that George Armstrong Custer’s “surprising strategy nearly won the day at Little Bighorn” and conjectures that “Custer retained the offensive throughout the battle” until the final desperate moments of his immediate command on Last Stand Hill. In this context he notes that by abandoning his assault on the southern end of the Lakota-Cheyenne village, Major Marcus A. Reno “surrendered the offensive power of his cavalry—a crucial mistake.”

    No would question George Armstrong Custer’s aggressive, perceptive leadership on the field of battle, as clearly demonstrated by his decisive tactical victory against Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart on East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Yet, he also demonstrated judicious caution by refusing to attack under unfavorable circumstances and odds (notably, for example, at the Battle of Trevilian Station in 1864 or during his skirmish with the Lakota on the Yellowstone River in 1873). His strategic withdrawal from the Washita battlefield in 1868 testifies to such judgment and restraint.

    The general reader of military history might assume that this essay presents a “new analysis” of the Little Big Horn (as MHQ purports). However, the student familiar with this battle as well as the subject matter expert will conclude that its portrayal of the movements of Custer’s two battalions largely reflects the well-known research of such recognized scholars as Michael Donahue, Richard Fox and Joseph Sills, notably the apparent movement of at least part of his command north of Last Stand Hill to Ford “D” in an attempt to cross the river at that point and capture village non-combatants (or perhaps capture / stampede the Indian horse herd).

    One point subject to a different interpretation is the statement that Custer ordered Reno to “attack the village.” (A more plausible scenario is that the major was ordered to pursue the Indians that interpreter Frederic Gerard had observed “running like devils,” not the Lakota-Cheyenne encampment, the exact size and location(s) of which had not been established.)

    The combat strength of the respective battalions and other data in the article is dated in view of recent research. For example, the total strength of the Reno battalion was probably 154 (including 113 enlisted men present for duty in the three cavalry companies).

    C. Lee Noyes

    (518) 561-2528 (home ET)
    CLeeNoyes@aol.com

  2. 2
    Bad Hand says:

    Good article, however a common mistake is assuming that the village extended South of Medicine Tail Coulee, however, the village ENDED at Medicine Tail Coulee and extended up river from there.

  3. 3
    Bad Hand says:

    Good article, however a common mistake is assuming that the village extended down river of Medicine Tail Coulee, however, the village ENDED at Medicine Tail Coulee and extended up river from there. Thanks

  4. 4
    Robbie Doyle says:

    Great article but please lose the sterotypical labels usually placed on Myles Keogh of being a 'hard drinking soldier of fortune.' They are dated and inaccurate. Nothing on his military record about excessive drinking and he was a US citizen by 1869.

  5. 5
    Randy Needham says:

    I thought Chamberlain accepted the surrender at Appomattox.

  6. 6
    Ostrogoth says:

    Well, I read of Custer's agressiveness pursued to the end, …but am still waiting an answer to the proposition of the article title: "Could Custer Have Won?" I would prefer a stronger approach along those lines, instead of a recounting of the battle and Custer getting equally whacked whether he historically attacked or defended. Should he have waited another day or two? Should he have brought his Gatling guns? Etc… In other words, how could Custer have won?

  7. 7
    Bert says:

    So, the right course of action for Reno and Benteen was to have themselves and their forces massacred as well?
    Custers' paln was flwaed from the start and could only end in his defeat.

  8. 8
    Wong Hoong Hooi says:

    As an outsider looking for another opinion of the battle, I agree with the comment. How COULD Custer have won ? As importantly, what did \win\ mean ? Kill ratio ? Delaying the withdrawal of (most of) the encampment until the main force of infantry showed up ? Hold hostages ? (Would holding a few hundred women and children have forced the surrender of the rest of a gathering of thousands ?) What ?

  9. 9
    myron agee says:

    Very doubtful if Custer could have won given circumstances he was unaware of . Actually his plan was good but execution was almost impossible considering the distance the columns were separated .
    He was not a fool or over zealous like many say he was . Evidently most don't understand strategy .
    The mindset of the day was that the \inferior Indian \ would run at the sight of white soldiers approaching an Indian camp .
    The soldier soon found out in the midst of battle that he was fighting a battle that would be fought until the collapse of one or the other . That they never expected . Cheering upon finding the camp no doubt expresses the thought that the American army was fighting a coward beast and would soon destroy & celebrate a victory over an inferior foe .
    Imagine yourself there in the midst of the battle & suddenly you realize that the only way out of that terror was death . Your mind races , Your legs & body already weak & exhausted doesn't respond like as usual . Complete panic & extreme fear overcome any common sense . Then comes the total failure .
    Resistance is futile . Human acts like animal & escape is the only answer to the weakened mind .
    However there is no where to escape to . Destruction comes in a flurry of blood sweat & tears . No mercy is given & none deserved .

  10. 10
    Mike Griffith says:

    I'm new to the LBH debate. I've only watched a few documentaries and read some online articles, but I've ordered three books on the subject and am anxious to read them. So I'm definitely a novice.

    One big question I have is, Did Benteen really try to follow Custer's orders to come quickly?

    I'm intrigued by the fact that Benteen felt that Custer abandoned a good friend of his, Major Elliot, at the Battle of the Washita River, and thereby caused his death and that of the 17 men who were with him. This could have given Benteen a motive to abandon Custer.

  11. 11
    William Hale says:

    As usual with Custer apologists, Hutton ignores his OWN words to place blame elsewhere. He CLAIMS that Reno halting the charge into the village was a MAJOR error, immediately after telling you that a ravine ran across the valley in front of the camp and indians had taken up positions in the ravine firing at Reno while several hundred more indians were headed his way.

    Let me remind you of the Light Brigade as to what happens when an inadequate force of cavalry attempts to charge into thousands of defenders.

    The ENTIRE purpose of cavalry is to chase down FLEEING enemies and have the ability to withdraw from situations when they can't win. Custer, if he had a brain, SHOULD have withdrawn to a defensive position with his ENTIRE regiment and let the indians escape. Military officers have a difficult job, they are required to both succeed in the mission, if they can, and preserve the unit as a military force, if they can, often competing goals, but military officers are often tasked to do the impossible.

    Benteen had NO CHOICE but to halt with Reno, who had by Professor Hutton's own statements lost 51 killed and 60 wounded of his 140 men, unless Benteen was going to allow the remaining 30 uninjured and the injured to be overrun and slaughtered while he ran after a wandering fool like Custer. Had he done so, there would most likely be another 250 dead men with Custer.

    whale

  12. 12
    Michel White says:

    The primary assertion of the article, that Custer sought to attack even as his battle plan collapsed around him, is questionable. Based strictly on the material presented here, Custer's goal in moving toward the village wasn't to engage the enemy but to capture woman and children who could be used as hostages or as a shield during retreat. I'm not sure that really qualifies as a bold offensive maneuver. Certainly, it wasn't heroic.

    The article actually supports the popular notion that an overconfident Custer acted rashly at Little Big Horn. He brushed off his scouts' warning of an exceptionally large Indian force, divided his command into three sections — none large enough to accomplish its mission — and pushed these units into an attack on an enemy position he hadn't seen. The result was a catastrophe that could have been avoided by further small-unit reconnaissance to verify enemy strength or, absent that, at least a unified advance along Reno's route. This would have provided fall-back positions and greater firepower to repel a counterattack.

  13. 13
    Gene Moore says:

    Interesting article. However, Custer's strategy was hardly 'surprising'. It was the same tactics that he had used on Black Kettles peaceful village on the Washita River, with nearly identical results.
    Unfortunately for Custer and most of his immediate family that were with him, he decided to lead the patrol against the other villages on the river, with the same results. The patrol against the other villages was wiped out.
    These Lakota, Tssistas, and Arapaho warriors were not in the least interested in peace. They were highly skilled, dedicated warriors propelled by the knowledge that they had beaten the whites several times in the past and many had just come from turning back another incursion by the U. S. on their hunting grounds, religious fervor, and the knowledge that they were defending their women, children, and elders from the indignity of being take hostage by Custer, who they considered to be insane.
    Custer pitted exhausted troopers against rested and highly motivated defenders. It speaks to the innate tactical skill of both Reno and Benteen that any members of the 7th survived that battle at all.



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