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Wednesday, September 04, 2013


Steve Cole shares his thoughts on Custer's Last Stand .
1. Every American has heard of Custer's Last Stand (the destruction of about a third of the 7th Cavalry by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the old west) but few actually know much about the battle. Even those who do know how the battle went in superficial terms don't get the point.
2. The conventional wisdom is that Custer raced to get to the Indian camp before the rest of the Army in order to get all of the glory for himself. (Fair enough, but he was also concerned that the Indians would try to get away from the trap before it could close. He had no delusion of defeating the Indians, but if he could accomplish his plan -- see #6 below -- he would win the campaign for his boss. The fact that he turned down artillery and Gatling guns were certainly a warning to his boss that Custer intended to move as fast as he could.)
3. The conventional wisdom is that upon arriving at the Indian camp, Custer stupidly divided his force in the face of the enemy. (He did divide his force and only about half of the 7th Cavalry was destroyed with him. The plan was for half of the regiment to lure the Indian warriors into a gunfight east of the village while Custer slipped in the back door. The plan was actually a good one, but there were more Indian warriors than the plan accounted for.)
4. The conventional wisdom is that Custer was an idiot to have picked a fight with that huge number of Indians. (The Army was convinced that there were only 1,000 warriors in the area and either half of the 600-man regiment would have been able to deal with them because of the better battlefield discipline of the soldiers. Turned out there were 3,000 warriors. Oops. Even when a quarter of the warriors -- the oldest and youngest -- stayed to protect the village and a couple of hundred kept Major Reno busy, that left almost two thousand of them facing Custer's 260 men.)
5. The conventional wisdom is that Custer simply rode to "Last Stand Hill" where he fought to the death in a circle of dead horses. (The reality is that Custer and the 260 men with him tried seven times to fight their way through or around the Indians to get across the river and into the camp.)
6. The conventional wisdom is that Custer wanted to attack the camp to slaughter helpless women and children because Custer was just a mean racist. (The reality was that he was trying to attack the horse herd, the animals needed to move the women, children, tents, and baggage. If he could have captured or scattered the horses, he could have prevented the Indians from leaving the area before General Terry and the rest of the Army arrived. Once Terry was there, the Indians would have been forced to surrender and go back to the reservations.)
7. In the end, conventional wisdom says, Custer and his men did fight to the death in a circle of dead horses. (The reality is more complex. The 200 men still alive with Custer at the end of the battle were divided into two groups about half a mile apart. Since C Troop had already moved from South Knoll to North Hill to pick up spare ammunition and take it back to South Knoll, it is fairly clear that the two groups could have joined up. This might have been complicated due to the number of soldiers who no longer had horses, but C Troop did make it all the way back to South Knoll fighting mostly on foot. Why the two groups did not join up is a mystery that will never be answered. The combined groups would have been too powerful for the Indians to overwhelm in the final hour of daylight. Once darkness fell, the survivors might have slipped away. When the South Knoll group tried to move to Custer's location somewhat later, more Indians had arrived, the ridge between the groups was under heavy fire, and the South Knoll group did not coordinate their departure very well, meaning L troop was accidentally left behind and I Troop was caught halfway to Custer. (Both were annihilated.) C Troop did reach Custer and died with him as well as E and F Troops. Another question is why did the last group that broke out of the trap ride south, toward the river and the village, instead of east, toward Reno and safety. We will never know that answer.)
 8. The conventional wisdom is that the Indians had superior repeating rifles. (The reality is otherwise. The Indians had whatever rifles they could get, and at least a third of them had no rifles at all. While some Indians had repeating rifles, those had half of the range of the cavalry's single-shot Sharp's rifles. The well-trained cavalry were able to maintain a fairly steady fire with these single-shot breach-loading rifles. The Indians didn't have a lot of ammunition, and the repeating rifles had to be reloaded, meaning the number of shots fired in a single hour is not that different. The Cavalry, being trained soldiers, were actually better shots at 300 yards than the Indians were at half that range. Many of the Indians were loading their rifles with the wrong ammunition because it was all they had, and this degraded their range and accuracy. By the way, some of the Indians had Civil War muzzle-loading muskets.)

9. The conventional wisdom is that the cavalry were frightened young boys from big cities and no match for the Indians who grew up in fresh air and sunshine. (In reality, the cavalry were better disciplined. There are repeated cases during the six hours of combat in which a troop of 40 men standing in the open held hundreds of Indians at bay. The soldiers could score enough hits at 200 or 250 yards to keep the Indians from trying to get closer, while the Indians could not score killing hits at those ranges to win a gunfight.)

10. The conventional wisdom is that the final destruction of Custer's battalion took only a few minutes. (Reality says the battle took six hours, during which Custer and his units maneuvered repeatedly. Even at the very end, the Indians could not crack the defensive rampart -- those dead horses again. Every charge was met by a disciplined volley of rifle fire, even if a few soldiers fell every time. The end came when a group of 20 fanatical Indian teenagers volunteered to ride straight into the cavalry rampart, dismount, and fight with their knives and tomahawks until the circle collapsed. Over half of the boys were killed just trying to get there, but enough got inside that the soldiers were dealing with an enemy inside the circle and this broke their disciplined volleys, allowing the main Indian attack to overwhelm the position. All of the "suicide boys" were killed.)