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The ‘Boy General’ declined to take Gatlings to the Little Bighorn.

Historical tragedies invariably demand scapegoats. The June 25–26, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn clearly illustrates this predictable human response to catastrophe. Some within the Army tried to affix responsibility for the Montana Territory disaster even before the nation learned of the Lakota and Cheyenne victory over Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer of the 7th U.S. Cavalry and his immediate command. Custer’s reputation for impulsiveness and insubordination made him a logical target and easily explained what Brigadier General Alfred Terry termed “a sad and terrible blunder.”

Leading the critics was Terry himself, Custer’s superior and expedition commander, who accused his subordinate of disobeying orders by prematurely attacking the Indian village on the Little Bighorn River before the anticipated—some would argue scheduled—arrival of Colonel John Gibbon’s Montana column on June 26. “The movements proposed by Gen. Gibbon’s column were carried out to the letter,” Terry advised Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan in a confidential dispatch on July 2, “and had the attack been deferred until it was up, I cannot doubt that we should have been successful.” Other critics, in the press and elsewhere, followed suit—and the debate continues.

In addition to such broad strategic reasons to explain Custer’s defeat, students of the battle have enumerated tactical errors and technical factors such as inadequate manpower and insufficient firepower. A case in point is the absence at the Little Bighorn of the 19th-century rapid-fire forerunner of the modern machine gun, the Gatling gun (see Guns of the West, April 2010). Manned by an artillery detachment of the 20th Infantry under 2nd Lt. William H. Low, three Model 1866 .50-caliber, six-barreled Gatling guns had accompanied Terry’s Dakota column from Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the Missouri River below Bismarck, Dakota Territory. Prior to Custer’s “pursuit of the Indians,” believed gathered at some point on the Little Bighorn, Terry had transferred the Gatlings to Gibbon’s column as it marched west along the Yellowstone River to coordinate with the expected sweep of the 7th Cavalry from the south and east.

“I offered Custer the battery of Gatling guns,” Terry explained to Sheridan, “but he declined it, saying that it might embarrass him, and that he was strong enough without it.”

There is no question Terry had offered the guns and Custer had declined. Custer so informed his officers on the evening of his first day’s march. “He had declined the offer of the Gatling guns,” Captain Edward S. Godfrey recalled, “for the reason that they might hamper our movements or march at a critical moment, because of the inferior horses and of the difficult nature of the country.” Critics point to Custer’s refusal to accept the guns (and four companies of Gibbon’s 2nd Cavalry) to suggest he had intended to disobey orders in order to monopolize victory for himself and his regiment. However, the argument that Gatlings might have secured victory at the Little Bighorn is simply a matter of conjecture, an assumption difficult to substantiate in view of the historical evidence.

Pursuant to orders issued by Terry on February 25, 1876, the Military Department of Dakota had detailed two officers and 24 enlisted men of the 20th Infantry for special duty in a Gatling gun battery to be organized at Fort Lincoln. The battery would be part of the expedition intended to coerce hostile Lakota bands led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to surrender at the reservation established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. When Low and his men arrived at the fort on March 20 after a perilous snowbound train ride from their stations in Dakota Territory and Minnesota, Custer was about to journey east to testify before a Congressional committee investigating allegations of corruption in President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Before his departure the post commander issued orders for Low to organize and drill a “battery consisting of four pieces.” Because eight men manned each gun, Terry subsequently authorized the assignment of eight additional men from Low’s regiment to the special unit.

But when Low’s detachment marched from Fort Lincoln with the Dakota column on May 17, it did not reflect its authorized number of guns and men. A common obstacle confronted both the 7th Cavalry and the battery—a lack of adequate horsepower. For Custer the shortage would reduce the strength of his command, forcing him to leave the regimental band, many recruits and other dismounted troopers at the Powder River supply depot when the regiment pursued the Indians up Rosebud Creek that June. For Low the challenge would be far more serious—the shortage of serviceable horses further restricted the mobility of his guns (viewed by the Army as a defensive tactical weapon) and thus accounted for their absence at the Little Bighorn.

Even before Low’s arrival at Fort Lincoln, Major Marcus Reno (who commanded both the garrison and the 7th Cavalry in Custer’s absence) had advised that the five cavalry companies at the fort required 70 more horses. The supply and demand ratio became critical. On April 11 Reno authorized the post quartermaster to withhold from public auction 11 condemned horses “at present in service with the Gatling Gun Battery.” The Bismarck Tribune noted that “quite a number [of such condemned horses] were gleaned for the use of the artillery service on the expedition.”

The animals in question were judged unserviceable under any circumstances. By the end of April only 383 serviceable horses were available for the 471 enlisted men of the 7th Cavalry present for duty at the post. When the Dakota column departed Fort Lincoln, the battery marched with Terry’s escort in front of the wagon train, its de facto strength being two commissioned officers and 24 enlisted men. Four condemned cavalry horses pulled each of the unit’s three Gatling guns and three ammunition caissons.

On June 10 Terry dispatched Reno and six companies of the 7th Cavalry to determine if there were any Indians on the Powder or Tongue rivers. A Gatling gun and crew under 2nd Lt. Frank Kinzie accompanied Reno’s column, which (contrary to orders) would also scout the lower reaches of Rosebud Creek.

Reno’s column passed over “very rough ground,” in the words of one soldier on the reconnaissance, an obstacle that required Kinzie’s gun crew to unhitch the horses, unlimber the Gatling and manhandle the piece across ravines. On June 15, as the column marched down a draw toward the Tongue, the piece overturned, injuring three men. The “almost impassable” terrain later forced Reno to abandon the gun temporarily on a high hill before rejoining Terry. The intelligence gathered by Reno (he had located a large Indian trail on the Rosebud that appeared to lead to the Little Bighorn) influenced Terry’s decision to send Custer “in pursuit” on June 22. It also influenced his decision to transfer Low’s battery to Gibbon’s command. It would thus be denied a role in battle.

The forced march of the Montana column on June 25 over hills and ravines to the Little Bighorn justified Custer’s misgivings. A precipitous hill near the Bighorn River required lowering the guns by lariats. When Terry decided to push on with Gibbon’s cavalry and Low’s guns that evening, one officer recorded that “the battery especially had great difficulty keeping up.” Lost at least once in the dark, the guns were abandoned until morning.

The experience of the Little Bighorn campaign confirmed doubts about the mobility and, therefore, effectiveness of the Gatling gun in Indian warfare. There is no question Custer sought glory for himself and his regiment. However, his controversial decision to decline the guns was justified. The horses that hauled the weapons were, in Godfrey’s words, unfit “for long rapid marches and would have been unable to keep up if there had been such a demand upon them.” In a report on August 20, 1878, Captain James W. Reilly, chief ordnance officer of the Military Division of the Missouri, stated: “Gatling guns are only an encumbrance. Indian warfare is entirely of skirmishers, to which the Gatling gun is not adapted. It possesses neither [the ability] to move rapidly nor the power and range of artillery.” That regular field artillery pieces (Rodman guns) would replace the expedition’s Gatling guns after the Little Bighorn is a testimony to the conclusion of Godfrey, Reilly and others.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.