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The Battle of Little Bighorn and General Custer’s Violation of the Characteristics of the Offense the Battle of Little Bighorn, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The Battle of Little Bighorn – also known as Custer’s Last Stand – was an armed conflict that took place on June 25th and June 26th, 1876 between Sitting Bull’s Lakota and Cheyenne tribes and General Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army. The Battle was set on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, located in the states of Wyoming and Montana.[1]

According to Mintz (2009), several events precipitated the battle – the most notable of which was an 1874 expedition to the Black Hills of South Dakota, led by Custer.[2] At that time, the region was reserved for the native Sioux people. However, geologists accompanying Custer on the expedition notified him that there was gold in the region and a stampede through the Black Hills ensued. The president at the time, Ulysses S. Grant, demanded that the Natives become registered at their respective reservations. However, the Sioux and Cheyenne of Montana rebelled and this hastened United States preparations for an attack on the Indian tribes.

At the culmination of the Battle of Little Bighorn, General Custer and all men under his command lost their lives while Indian losses totaled less than one hundred. This represented a huge victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes.[3]

The Battle of Little Bighorn has become one of the most famous and well-studied battles in American history. Custer’s purpose at Little Bighorn was the same as that of any offensive military operation – to destroy the enemy by first disintegrating their defense.[4] There are several theories as to why Custer failed to achieve this purpose. However, the current paper will focus on one theory in particular. Custer’s regiment was defeated due to the fact that Custer violated the basic offensive characteristics of warfare. The characteristics include (1) surprise, (2) concentration, (3), audacity, and (4) tempo, and the manner in which Custer violated these characteristics will be discussed in detail.

Setting

According to Trueman (2009), Custer decided from the outset that an early-morning attack on the 25th would be the best way to catch the Sioux off-guard and ensure victory.[5] In 1874, Custer had successfully launched a similar attack on the camp of a Southern Cheyenne Chief. From his experiences, he knew that Indians under attack typically disperse in order to save the women, children, and elderly. It was this type of situation that he expected to meet on the morning of the 25th.[6]

Mintz (2009) states that Custer’s command was made up of a high percentage of inexperienced soldiers with little combat training. They were malnourished, unfamiliar with the Montana territory, and reliant on single-shot rifles. The Indians, on the other hand, were familiar with the terrain and had previously obtained repeating rifles and carbines far superior to those carried by General Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment.

Action

As Mintz (2009) describes, by June 24th, 1876, Custer and his troops had marched 140 kilometers towards the Little Bighorn River. On this day, Custer was notified by his scouts that the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes were camped in the valley near the Little Bighorn River.  Although Custer’s initial plan was to cross the river at night in order to surprise the Sioux on the morning of the 25th, they were unable to do so due to the fact that they first had to cross the Rosebud Creek, east of the Sioux’s camp. Consequently, Custer and his troops began marching across the Creek at 5am on the 25th.  They continued to advance and crossed the Rosebud Creek at approximately 8am.

The Sioux warriors caught sight of the advancing 7th cavalry and Custer’s opportunity for a surprise attack was officially lost. After Custer became aware that they had been spotted, he decided that the only possible course of action was to attack immediately. He divided his troops into four divisions – one led by himself, and the other three led by commanding officers Reno, Benteen, and McDougall. Chief Red Horse would later be quoted as saying “Had the soldiers not divided I think they would have killed many Sioux”.[7] After the soldiers were divided, Reno’s group began to attack the camp directly.

Mintz (2009) describes Reno’s initial attack on the village, and the fact that he became aware that the enemy forces were far larger than anyone had anticipated.  Custer had previously been given estimates that the population of the village was less than 1500.  However, to his surprise, they were met with 8,000 Indians – 3,000 of which were warriors ready for battle.

In response to this revelation, Reno and his troops retreated. Benteen, who was miles from the 7th cavalry at this time, then received a critical message. He was ordered to return to the main battle area where he and his men could attempt to assist the besieged Reno. Benteen and his troops joined with McDougall and his men and travelled back to the central battle zone to take the pressure off of Reno. This may have been what saved Reno and his troops; however, it left Custer and his command alone and susceptible to attack. Custer and his men tried to join the other three commanding officers, to no avail. The Sioux had already crossed the Little Bighorn River and had them surrounded. As a result, every member of Custer’s command, including Custer himself, was killed on June 25th, 1876. Reno, along with the other men who had retreated, was able to survive and waited until reinforcements arrived on June 27th. At the sight of the additional infantry, the Sioux became frightened and retreated.[8]

Many Native Americans were reluctant to discuss such battles with whites due to the fact that they feared that the whites may have sought some sort of vengeance for the death of General Custer.  Therefore, there were no Indian accounts of the events that took place during the Battle of Little Bighorn until the 1920’s.[9] However, one interview with Chief Red Horse supports such an account of the battle and quotes him as saying:

All the Sioux watched around the hill on which were the soldiers until a Sioux man came and said many walking soldiers were coming near. The coming of the walking soldiers was the saving of the soldiers on the hill. Sioux can not fight the walking soldiers [infantry], being afraid of them, so the Sioux hurriedly left.[10]

After the battle had ended, Colonel John Gibbon, who had been sent as reinforcement, observed the area in which Custer and his men had lost their lives. He was horrified to see the bodies of the dead soldiers unclothed and disfigured. Custer’s body had not received such treatment – perhaps as a sign of respect for his courage and gallantry.[11]

Custer’s Violation of the Characteristics of the Offense

Surprise

According to Pike (2009), the element of surprise in battle is crucial to reducing the enemy’s opportunity to retaliate in an efficient manner.[12] Custer’s most serious violation of the characteristics of the offense was his inability to surprise his enemy. Personal accounts provided by Chief Red Horse himself state that the 7th cavalry did charge swiftly:

Suddenly one of the women attracted my attention to a cloud of dust rising a short distance from camp. I soon saw that the soldiers were charging the camp. To the camp I and the women ran. When I arrived a person told me to hurry to the council lodge. The soldiers charged so quickly we could not talk (council).[13]

Although their attack was expeditious, they clearly did not succeed in catching the Sioux off guard. Rather, it was Custer who was caught unawares and, according to Gompert and Kugler (2009), when he met with surprises, he failed to use new information and reconsider his plan.

Despite the fact that Custer was known as an incredibly proficient Indian fighter, and had vast experience fighting them during the Civil War, when the Sioux discovered his presence, this caused Custer’s initial plan to launch a surprise attack to fail. Thus, Custer assumed that his only hope was to attack immediately and this ultimately led to his downfall.[14]

Concentration

Pike’s (2009) contention is that concentration requires two factors: mobility that allows for rapid concentration, and power that will be effectual during actual combat. Unfortunately for Custer, while the 7th Cavalry may have possessed adequate mobility, the Sioux far surpassed them in terms of power.

Custer was known to believe that offensive action was crucial to victory. In addition, although he was famous for exercising the art of rapid mobility and had been well-known for being able to read terrain quickly and create successful plans under pressure, the fact that he was far outnumbered in terms of troops made the failure to concentrate his soldiers effectively inevitable.[15]

Audacity

According to Pike (2009), commanders must take calculated risks on the battlefield and have troops who can assist them in the undertaking of such risks. According to Gompert and Kugler, whether Custer was an uncontrollable risk-taker or a brilliant tactician continues to be a subject of considerable debate. Some contend that his success in the Civil War is clear evidence of his tactical abilities (Between 1863 and 1865, he led his unit in 23 battles and was exceptionally successful in the majority of them). However, others maintain that when Reno was forced to retreat, Custer should have become aware that he had seriously underestimated the Indian force but foolishly continued with his initial plan of attack, convinced of his own abilities.

Trueman (2009) describes a report indicating that Custer disobeyed orders instructing him to wait for reinforcements before initiating the attack and that if Custer had held out until support had arrived, the outcome of the battle would have been very different, indeed. In addition, it was reported that Custer was offered Gatling guns but refused them. He is said to have stated that the Gatling guns would “embarrass him” – apparently so confident in his military proficiency that he deemed the extra weaponry unnecessary. According to Mintz (2009), “Historians tend to view him as an officer whose vanity, youth, and desire for victory clouded his tactical judgment”.

Although Custer initially approached the conflict with a sound strategy in mind; the debate over whether he foolishly clung to this plan continues to this day. According to Trueman (2009), while Custer has been regarded as a hero and a military genius by some:

I have never met a more enterprising, gallant or dangerous enemy during those four years of terrible war. (American Civil War) – T L Rosser, Major-General in the Confederate Army

He has been regarded as irrational and overly confident by others:

He was too hard on his men and horses. He changed his mind too often. He was always right. He never conferred enough (asked others their opinions) with his officers. When he got a notion, we had to go. – J Horner, Corporal, 7th Cavalry

Even his fellow commander, Captain Frederick Benteen, has been said to believe that Custer did not have solid plan for the attack and was merely making it up as he went along.[16]

In addition, Custer has been criticized for ignoring warnings from his scouts that it would be most prudent to terminate the plan of attack: “…there were more Sioux than the soldiers had bullets”. Custer had formulated his plan and was not ready to back down and this is what, some believe, led to his demise.[17]

Tempo

Pike (2009) defines the last characteristic of the offense as the tempo or rate of a military operation. Commanders must be able to apply unyielding pressure to enemy forces. Due to the fact that Custer and his brigade were seriously outnumbered, this made maintenance of a high rate of attack virtually impossible. When Reno and his men were forced to retreat, they had no other option but to cease the attack and wait for reinforcements.

Conclusion

Clearly, there was no single cause that lead to the massacre at the Little Bighorn River on June 25th 1876. Custer’s most serious violation of the characteristic of the offense – his failure to successfully launch a surprise attack on his enemy – was, perhaps, the root of the overall failure of his mission. As a result of misinformation and other limitations imposed upon him, he was also unable to successfully apply the remaining three characteristics of the offense – namely, concentration, audacity, and tempo.

Although some historians have viewed Custer as a reckless and arrogant commander and attribute his failure to these character flaws, others disagree. According to Graham (1988), it is unreasonable to judge Custer on the outcome of Little Bighorn. As Graham eloquently states, “The wisdom or unwisdom of his tactics must be determined, not in the light of what we know now, but of what he knew then, of the situation which confronted him”.[18]

Bibliography

Black, Jeremy. Rethinking Military History. New York: Routledge, 2004.

The Columbia Encyclopedia. “Little Bighorn.” Encyclopedia.com. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-LittleBi.html (accessed May 12, 2009).

Gompert, David C., and Richard L. Kugler, “Custer & Cognition.” Custerwest.org. http://custer.over-blog.com/article-14214383.html (accessed May 12, 2009).

Graham, William Alexander. The story of the Little Big Horn: Custer’s last fight. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Hewlett, Kevin. “Gen. Custer and Little Bighorn.” Indian Wars during the Civil War and Reconstruction. http://spider.georgetowncollege.edu/HTALLANT/COURSES/ his312/khewlet/page5.html (accessed May 12, 2009).

Mallery, Garrick. “The Battle of Little Bighorn: An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881.” Public Broadcasting Service. http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/ resources/archives/six/bighorn.htm (accessed May 12, 2009).

Mintz, S. “The Battle of the Little Big Horn.” Digital History. http://www. digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=560 (accessed May 12, 2009).

Pike, John. “Offensive Operations.” Global Security.org. http://www.globalsecurity. org/military/library/policy/army/fm/5-100-15/CH5.htm (accessed May 12, 2009).

Trueman, Chris. “Battle of the Little Big Horn.” History Learning Site. http://www. historylearningsite.co.uk/battle_of_the_little_big_ho.htm (accessed May 12, 2009).

 

[1] The Columbia Encyclopedia, “Little Bighorn,” Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-LittleBi.html (accessed May 12, 2009).

[2] S. Mintz, “The Battle of the Little Big Horn,” Digital History, http://www. digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=560 (accessed May 12, 2009).

[3] Mintz, 2009.

[4] John Pike, “Offensive Operations,” Global Security.org, http://www.globalsecurity. org/military/library/policy/army/fm/5-100-15/CH5.htm (accessed May 12, 2009).

[5] Chris Trueman, “Battle of the Little Big Horn,” History Learning Site, http://www. historylearningsite.co.uk/battle_of_the_little_big_ho.htm (accessed May 12, 2009).

[6] Mintz, 2009.

[7] Garrick Mallery, “The Battle of Little Bighorn: An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881,” Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/ resources/archives/six/bighorn.htm (accessed May 12, 2009).

[8] Mintz, 2009.

[9] Jeremy Black, Rethinking Military History (New York: Routledge, 2004), 86.

[10] Mallery, 2009.

[11] Trueman, 2009.

[12] John Pike, “Offensive Operations,” Global Security.org, http://www.globalsecurity. org/military/library/policy/army/fm/5-100-15/CH5.htm (accessed May 12, 2009).

[13] Mallery, 2009.

[14] William Alexander Graham, The story of the Little Big Horn: Custer’s last fight (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 17.

[15] David C. Gompert and Richard L. Kugler, “Custer & Cognition,” Custerwest.org, http://custer.over-blog.com/article-14214383.html (accessed May 12, 2009).

[16] Trueman, 2009.

[17] Kevin Hewlett, “Gen. Custer and Little Bighorn,” Indian Wars during the Civil War and Reconstruction, http://spider.georgetowncollege.edu/HTALLANT/COURSES/ his312/khewlet/page5.html (accessed May 12, 2009).

[18] William Alexander Graham, The story of the Little Big Horn: Custer’s last fight (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 23-32.

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