Wednesday, February 08, 2023

The Bizarre and Crazy Details That Led Custer to A Perfect Disaster at The Little Bighorn

 February 8, 2023

   Here is a question me and my historian friends have wrestled with for a very long time: "Why did Custer really fail at the Little Bighorn fight?"

No Beard & No Buckskin

   Of course, if you've read or listened to some contemporary musings about the fight you no doubt have heard that Custer was a psychopath, and an egomaniac, a certified nutjob—and worse–and he was lusting to be president of the United States. The attack in Montana was merely a stepping stone to the White House.

   Conversely, in the 1960s, The Custer Battlefield, as it was known then, had West Point Ride Alongs and as one of the story goes, the West Pointers rode over the ground Custer rode over and the soldiers were told what decision the Boy General made at each juncture, and the West Pointers agreed with Custer at each turn. The point being the military tactical types agreed with Custer adding that he made solid decisions. So, who's right and why did everything go south?

  It's complicated, and sometimes the answers are contradictory, but I'll try and explain how all the right moves led to the disastrous outcome. Here are the questions we need answers for:

Mysteries of The Little Bighorn

• What is the real reason Custer failed?
• Why were the In-dins better armed? Or, were they?
• Why were the In-dins so hard to spot in the battle?
• Did beavers do in Custer?

Were His Tactics Actually Solid? Paul Andrew Hutton Explains:

1. Splitting his command without knowing how big the village was, is a major, tactical error.

2. Custer had no plan, or, more accurately, he was making a plan on the fly and he was acting on impulse and his audacity and boldness had always carried the day.

3. Custer's subordinates let him down in every way. At the subsequent hearing about the debacle Reno and Benteen both testified they didn't hear any shooting downstream where Custer was being cut to pieces. Everyone else did.

The Question of Arms
   At the time of the battle U.S. troops were armed with Springfield one-shot rifles that had a range of 600 yards. 

The model Springfield 1865
was formidable because of its range

The concept at the time was to deploy infantry on horseback to the fight, then dismount, three troopers would stand and fight and the fourth would lead the horsess to the rear for safe keeping.
   Meanwhile, the Indians were mostly armed with the Winchester '73 which was accurate to about 200 yards. But then as the In-dins began to kill more and more soldiers, they deployed the purloined weapons on the troops they were fighting, so that as the battle went on the Indians were armed with better and better weapons.

A Perfect Disguise
   Custer had a previous fight with "hostiles" on the Yellowstone in 1873 and afterwards he complained bitterly to the War Department his men couldn't tell who the enemy was because most of the Indians were dressed in "complete suits of clothes issued at the agencies." So, unlike in the movies where all the In-dins are dressed in buckskins and war bonnets his troops had a hard time recognizing the enemy because they were dressed too similar to the troopers!

The White Man's Disguise
Cheyenne scouts and their wives, 1890 

Custer Was Done In By Beavers?
   One of the Indian participants, Mary Crawler, testified Custer's men couldn't cross where they wanted to because of a beaver dam. Three officers were shot at the attempted crossing, and Custer with his remaining men retreated to the ridge where he met his doom. So, it is possible Custer was done in by eager beavers. There's a movie title I'd like to see.

The 13th Horse  Custer had a dozen horses shot out from under him in his earlier Civil War career. He always acted brashly and it always worked, until it didn't. As the Old Vaqueros are fond of saying, "Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness."

   As Charles Windolph says in his memoirs ("I fought With Custer"), "we caught glimpses of white objects lying along the ridge that led northward. We pulled up our horses. This was the battlefield. Here Custer's luck had finally run out."

Two Degrees of Custer & Crazy Horse
   And, speaking of Charles Windolph, he was the last surviving trooper from the Custer troopers and he lived until 1950. He was interviewed by Robert Utley in 1947 and I interviewed Mr. Utley in 2019 about his interview with Windolph. That, my friends, is a history that spans 143 years, or as I like to say, that is two degrees of Custer and Crazy Horse!

Me And Robert Utley, 2019

In Conclusion: Everything that could go wrong, did. Everything that worked before, did not. Between the tall grass and the In-dins dressed in white-man-clothing, the tide turned slowly, then quickly, and all the training and all the warfare theories went out the window. Add to that, the eager beavers, the superior firepower and the inevitable incompetence of Custer's subordinants and you have, to coin an old phrase, a perfect disaster.

A Cut Above The Rest

   Isiah Dorman, an African-American scout with Custer, was shot and mortally wounded in the Reno fight, because, unlike the troopers, he stood and fought. Not long after, the In-din women come onto the field and start butchering all the downed troopers they could find.

   Sitting Bull rode into this scene and recognized Dorman, who was married to a Sioux woman. The Sioux chief gave the dying Dorman water and said to the women, "Leave him alone, he's a relative." The women politely waited until Sitting Bull was gone and then lopped off Dorman's head and cut him into tiny pieces.  

   If this sounds familiar, it's because most of this is my outline-script for my latest YouTube video. Here's the link so you can follow along.

Custer's Little Bighorn Failures Revealed

The Final Contradiction

"If we hadn't been led by a coward we'd all be dead."

—Company commander Charles DeRudio, referring to Reno


  1. Anonymous12:12 PM

    Easily summarized in four words: Custer died a-runnin’

  2. Anonymous3:47 PM

    I have read speculation that Custer was killed very early in the fight, at the Ford of the creek before his troopers retreated to their final positions on the ridge. Some Natives testified either that they shot him or that they saw him shot dead on his horse. What do you think? That might help explain why the final resistance was so disorganized. Although, under the circumstances, that is what you might expect, except that I would've run like hell. BTW 600 yards, in the field, is a gross over estimation of the Springfield's effective range.

  3. I was five when I received a postcard of JK Ralston's painting, The Call of the Bugle (I still have it 53 years later) and it began a lifelong Custer obsession. I have been on the battlefield many times and even walked Medicine Tail Coulee with Russell Means (not the biggest Custer fan). I find the story absolutely fascinating still at 58. I think PAH summed it up perfectly and got out when the getting was good. I would add; I think Custer was absolutely fearless and believed it was his destiny to win (much like a George S. Patton). Some men are just born to fight. Love him or hate him this country would have been different without him -lest we forget his brilliantly reckless charge at Gettysburg. In the end, Custer did what he always did-fight, and he died a soldiers death.

  4. Anonymous9:40 AM

    Genealogy research can uncover some surprising things. While working on my brother in law's McCaskey family tree, I discovered that his ancestor Capt. William S. McCaskey is the person who informed Custer's wife that Custer was dead.

  5. Anonymous1:02 PM

    Mr. Bob,
    After I read your blog post about Custer at Little Big Horn, I was motivated to take a re-look into the circumstances surrounding the battle and more importantly the battle its self. I did a search through military sources and did find a significant amount of academic work at military universities, colleges and schools on the subject, but not the "West Point ride a longs". I did find some pretty solid work since those "ride along" efforts and I also reviewed Robert Utley's (p. 11) work from 1969. In there, I found, what explains in my mind the the "root cause" of Custer's failure:

    "Although General Terry accompanied it, he expected the colorful commander of the 7th Cavalry to lead his horsemen in the swift thrust that would bring the enemy to battle. This was Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, a major general in the Civil War and now, at 36, a plainsman of 10 years experience. Custer and his regiment had fought Sitting Bull on the Yellowstone in 1873 and confirmed the existence of gold in the Black Hills in 1874. Now, as Terry's striking arm, they hoped for an opportunity to crush the power of the Sioux for all time."

    This indicted that BG Terry had provided Custer with some pretty flexible guidance and was confident that Custer would succeed. I can just hear BG Terry now, who accompanied the Dakota Column, pumping Custer up in personal pep talks over dinner and cigars:

    Terry: "George, you're our boy, everyone is counting on you, I'm counting on you to get this done and show those savages who's boss! ALL EYES ARE ON YOU!"

    Custer: "I won't let you, the Army or our NATION down."

    For a show boat like him, with higher aspirations of command and even the presidency, he was clear in what he had to do.


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