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The Black Hill Battle, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

In the spring of 1876, the United States was entrenched in what came to be known as The Black Hills War.  Fighting between the government and federated warriors of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho erupted following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills region of South Dakota; land that had long been considered sacred to the natives.  In an effort to secure the land for settlement, the U.S. ordered all Indians to report to reservations, regarding any refusal as a sign of hostility.  After a breakdown in treaty negotiations, bands of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne that refused to negotiate begin to mass, and fighting began in March 1876.

On June 21st, two columns of troops met in southern Montana to locate and subdue the hostile Indians. One of them was a force of 600 troops and 35 scouts led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, a highly successful Civil War veteran who was widely respected for his ability to think and move quickly during battle(1).  Custer’s troops was the first to discover a village of Indians, and on June 25th he began the first attack in what was became the Battle of Little Bighorn, or more commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand.  The fight pitted Custer’s 600 against approximately 1,800 Indian warriors, and over the course of the next 24 hours the federal troops were handed a decisive defeat.  The most notable aspect of this battle was the annihilation of the over 200 troops who were under Custer’s direct command, and the loss of Custer himself.  With reinforcements not arriving until the outcome was decided, the analysis of Custer’s defeat has long been shrouded in controversy and debate.  While little is known about what the commander was truly thinking, all that is left is an examination of his application of the military doctrine of the time.  Given the renowned brilliance of Custer, the Battle of LittleBighorn is an event that can help to examine how the uncertain conditions can weigh against the use of tried and true tactical maneuvers.

Custer’s Understanding Ensures Poor Visualization

The 7th Calvary’s fate may have been sealed as early as their arrival to the Bighorn valley, which is where Custer began to make quick decisions based on weak assumptions. Detached from Brig. Gen Alfred Terry’s force after marchingout of Fort Abraham Lincoln, Custer’s regiment was sent to create a trap, after Maj. Marcus Reno discovered an Indian trail leading westward towards Big Horn Country, which signaled that a native village was nestled in the valley(2).  The federal forces – which included two other Army divisions besides Terry’s, marching from western Montana and southern Wyoming – were expecting to encounter no more than 800 or so Indians, which could be handled easily by any one of these armies. However, the valley was actually home to a village where several thousand Indians were massing, among them 1,500 battle-ready warriors.  On June 17th, 1876, the Indians attacked one of the divisions, led by General George Crook, and was forced into retreat, a battle that Terry – and by extension, Custer – were unaware of. By June 21st, Custer’s regiment was marching to locate the village and attack from the south, while the remainder of Terry’s forces from the north created a pincer attack that would trap the Indians(3).  However, when Custer’s scouts located the village on June 25thand determined its true size, he was only 15 miles away from the massive force, while the Terry and the rest of his forces were at least a day away.  Additionally, when he did arrive at this vantage point, a morning fog had settledover the Little Big Horn River, which did nothing to help confirm the size of the village (4). Custer also relied on a level of the enemy’s intelligence that was non-existent.  Given the situation, the best offensive tactic would have been to plan for an attack at dawn on the next morning, However, Custer encountered a group of 40 Indians, who he believed would certainly alert the village and give their location away, with that understanding, he decided that the only option was to begin the raid, and began his approach in the midday; already exposed in the day, the time it took to get to the enemy only allowed them the chance to disperse and evade capture (5). Unfortunately, Custer did not realize that the party was traveling away from the village, not towards it. Moreover, a lack of true knowledge of the terrain plagued the 7th Calvary as well; they didn’t account for the rugged terrain of ravines and bluffs between them and the village (6). These misunderstandings were undoubtedly the foundation for Custer’s visualization of his battle conditions. The information he was given provided a picture of the battle that placed him and his troops at the advantage in regards to might, positioning, and the element of surprise. Unfortunately, Custer was on pace to feel the effects of his mistakes very soon.

Shaky Ground Leads to Poor Direction and Leadership

With his assessment of the fight and a seemingly clear vision of how his mission would be accomplished, Custer began to execute his assault.  Upon his discovery of the Indian trail, he further divided the Calvary into three columns.  Captain Frederick Benteen was order to take three companies totaling 125 to the upper valley of the river to cut off any escape routes, and Major Marcus Reno took three companies of 175 men south for an attack that would be supported by the remaining force of 210 coming in from the north under Custer’s command (7).   Given the supposed circumstances, Custer was certain that this three-pronged attack would ensure a decisive victory.  Soon after this split, his direction meets his poor understanding of his environment. Reno’s attack started with forming a skirmish line thatwas too far away from the village, and his fire did little more than alert the enemy, who then led an overwhelming charge that sent his force retreating to higher ground, resulting in casualties and the disappearance of the offensive that Custer was on his way to support (8).   Reno’s fate was already sealed by Custer; he sent Reno to initiate the battle before scout reports returned with the news that the valley was full of Indians (9). With this new information available, Benteen was ordered by Custer – via messenger – to regroup quickly to aid in the fighting rather than hold the escape route.  It appears here that his hope was to have Benteen join Reno’s retreated troops in the hills, regroup, and continue the attack.  On the move himself, Custer’s revisualization of the battle caused him to redirect the soldiers into a combined fighting force that would hopefully keep the Sioux busy while he continued his attack. It is at this point in the battle where controversy begins over Custer’s next moves.  The mystery lies in the halting of the general’s movement for nearly forty-five minutes, instead of assisting Reno as quickly as possible.  In one account from a Crow scout that accompanied the army Custer spots Reno’s retreat from the other side of the village, about two miles from the action.  The scout claims that Custer decided to hold until Reno’s retreat was complete, so that he could take the village by himself (this account, however, was not told until thirty years after the battle, and is believed to be improbable) (10). Aside from this and other stories from Indian and American veterans of the battle, the fact remains that Custer’s decision to stay put placed him in peril.  He was soon discovered perched on the Crow’s Nest – his vantage point – and for the next hour the final stages of The Last Stand unfolded. Relying on Benteen’s arrival, Custer’s new plan was to stage a “hammer-and-anvil” attack, where his two commander’s battalions would pin the Indians in their village while he approached from the high ground to strike. But with Benteen’s forces still unaccounted for, his last decision was to dismount his troupes and place them in firing positions – an offensive position that left them with no effective means of flight, flight that they could have taken through an opening on their western side (11).Moreover, as Reno’s assault dwindled, the Indians were then able to mass an even stronger counterattack on Custer’s army, and they converged on Custer on what is now known as Last Stand Hill.  Little factual information is known after this point, but what is certain is that the Sioux showed very little mercy, and while the evidence shows that the American forces fought bravely, all of them on that hill fought to their death.  In all, the battle left less than 150 Indians and more than 260 federal soldiers dead.

Lessons Taken from Big Horn

While regarded as one of the foremost tacticians and leaders of his time, George Armstrong Custer made a series of decisions over those two days that can only serve as a lesson in what not to do on the battlefield.  Starting with a flow of bad intelligence, the battle was decided almost before it began, as Custer led his troops to a situation that they simply couldn’t have fought their way out of.  As a commander, a person is responsible for assessing as much information as possible, then deciding what is useful and what is not.  It appears that Custer’s intelligence were only pieces of information that painted a hugely broad picture of the nature of his situation.  In the heat of battle, events change plans and strategies constantly, but better decisions are made when more than one point of view is examined.  Ideally, good command comes from a leader’s ability to step outside of himself and his own perceptions and assimilate the information from as many pairs of eyes possible.  If he had, Custer may have been able to set aside the confidence of his experience as a formidable Indian fighter and realize that the Sioux, although surprised by the assault, were more than ready in terms of strength, firepower, and the will to push the invasion back. Although The Black Hills War was eventually one by the U.S. and the Indians subdued, the Battle of Little Bighorn was a moment in military history where the readiness of one army was exponentially aided by the shortsightedness of another.

Bibliography

Burns, Matthew. “Revisiting the Battle of Little Big Horn.” Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2000

Gompert, David C., and Richard L. Kugler. “Custer and Cognition.” Joint Force Quarterly, April 1, 2006

Michelsen, Michael W. Jr. “Verdict at the Little Big Horn.” The American Surveyor, October 2009

Philbrick, Nathaniel. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of The Little Bighorn (New York: Penguin, 2010)

Wert, Jeffry D. Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)

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