Questioning Custer’s Motives

Paul Hutton’s excellent article [“Could Custer Have Won?” Winter 2013] on the Battle of Little Bighorn omits a critical element of Custer’s tactical planning: horses.

My analysis of Custer’s bad day is that Yellow Hair intended to run off the Indians’ pony herd. Unhorsing the hostiles was a proven way to send the tribes back to their reservations. Custer had been successful with this tactic at the Washita raid on the Cheyennes in 1868, and other cavalry regiments had applied the “get the ponies” approach to good effect. The only warriors who overcame this handicap were the Apaches.

Custer’s problem was that Major Marcus Reno’s attack on the Indian camp didn’t divert enough warriors from the Little Bighorn fords. The steep banks of the river (“creek” is more accurate) made the fords essential for the rapid, organized movement of a large mounted force. Another problem was that Custer did not know exactly where the pony herd was or whether the herders had begun to move it to the west, where Captain Frederick Benteen’s battalion might have trapped it.

I disagree with Hutton that Custer wanted to capture women and children as hostages. He may have wanted to capture them to create a diversion, but the Sioux and Cheyenne “noncombatants” were not the objective. Since the Indian women and boys could kill troopers too, such a goal does not make much sense, especially as the warriors now had the advantage of numbers and firepower.

As for the rest of the story, the Sioux War of 1876–1877 ended in a tribal defeat because the U.S. Army conducted a winter campaign that captured horse herds and burned lodges with cavalry and infantry working in harmony to avoid battles and to make surrender or exile the only options.

Allan R. Millett
Ambrose Professor of History
Director, Eisenhower Center for American Studies
University of New Orleans


Historical Precedents for My Lai

Regarding your Autumn 2012 article “Something Dark and Bloody” on the 1968 massacre at My Lai, historical examples provide guidelines that strongly suggest the moral acceptability of targeting civilians.

In 1945, Major General Curtis LeMay’s B-29s conducted low-level saturation bombing of thousands of Japanese civilians, many of them women, children, and infants. What happened at My Lai is trivial when compared to that. Yet LeMay and his bomber crews weren’t judged guilty of atrocities. Similarly, fighters accompanying U.S. bombers into Germany were told to seek “targets of opportunity” on the ground. These targets were in large part German civilians and civilian property.

Germany’s decision in 1917 to institute unrestricted submarine warfare against civilian ships was regarded as outrageously immoral and provoked the United States to enter World War I. But when the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Navy immediately implemented a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against enemy civilian ships without evoking moral outrage from the American public.

During the American Civil War, the Union army ravaged the South, deliberately destroying civilians, crops, animals, homes, and other property, much of it nonmilitary, in a calculated policy to weaken civilian morale. Tens of thousands of whites and liberated slaves—men, women, and children—died from exposure, hunger, disease, and criminal violence because of demolished shelters, destroyed food, and societal disruption. Union army officers openly admitted they were, according to the then-accepted standards of military conduct, guilty of war crimes.

President Abraham Lincoln encouraged this war on Southern civilians, yet his reputation as a highly moral person remains intact.

A reasonable person scanning American history could conclude that the country’s de facto policy has been, in fact, to wage war against civilians, and that the prosecution of Lieutenant William Calley for My Lai was no more than a public-relations hypocrisy.

Of course, such treatment of civilians could be justified as having achieved some greater good. But that is a very dangerous justification, for it can readily be applied to defend any course of action.

Joseph Forbes
Pittsburgh, Pa.


Generals as Presidents

“Petraeus for President? Forget About It,” the sidebar to your Winter 2013 Subscriber Bonus article, was quite timely, given the general’s resignation. It’s interesting to think how George C. Marshall’s template for good military leadership might not produce generals who are ideal presidential candidates in the modern era.

There are still other factors working against the general-cum-presidential candidate. Today’s generals work in a theater of war that is not on everyone’s minds. We have troops in Afghanistan fighting right now, but where do the stories about that appear in your local paper? Somewhere on page 12? Tommy Franks in Iraq and David Petraeus in Afghan­i­stan did a great job, but that was “so 5 minutes ago,” to use a popular expression to describe the attention span of the electorate.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected simply because of his role in World War II, a conflict no one of the era could escape; it was on the radio evening news, it was on front pages of the local papers, and it dominated daily discussions. Gas, food, and other rationing—all these were felt at home. Eisenhower was courted by both parties and elected in 1952, a mere seven years from World War II’s end. Be­fore Eisenhower, the main political parties did the politicking for their candidates; rarely did candidates engage in debates as we now know them. The Civil War presidents were chosen by the Republican Party to be presented to the voters as the best examples of men who fought for the Republic, who were not of the Democratic Party (waving the “blood-stained” shirt of Rebellion).

Generals, even those molded in the Marshall template, can still become president, but only in the aftermath of a successful war that touches the home front. Or, they must demonstrate credentials for the job apart from their military career. In other words, they must don a suit and talk on topics of the day.

Cliff Culpeper
San Francisco, Calif.



In the Autumn 2012 story “Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy,” a caption for a print of the prison at Point Lookout, Md., incorrectly identified the headquarters of the commanding officer as a hospital.


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