General Custer and the Little Big Horn:

Setting the Record Straight

Michael T. Griffith

2015

@All Rights Reserved

 

Most modern scholars who have studied General George Armstrong Custer’s battle at the Little Big Horn recognize that much if not most of the blame for Custer’s defeat lies with his two subordinate commanders: Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. However, a few writers, along with some Hollywood movies, still place all the blame on Custer. 

 

This article will address the main arguments that Custer’s critics have put forward. As will be seen, the critics’ arguments are not only invalid but in some cases are based on myth.

 

Criticisms

 

Custer’s critics have asserted that General Custer committed at least five military blunders.

 

One, while camped at the Rosebud River, Custer refused the support offered by General Terry on June 21, 1876, of an additional four companies of the Second Cavalry.  Critics argue that Custer could have used those additional troops four days later at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in southeastern Montana.

 

Two, Custer left behind a battery of Gatling guns on the steamer Far West on the Yellowstone, knowing he was facing superior numbers. In addition, before leaving the camp, Custer ordered his troops to box their sabers and sent the sabers back with the wagons.

 

Three, on the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command in the face of superior numbers. Not only did he divide his regiment into three battalions, but he also divided his battalion once he separated from Reno and Benteen. When the Indians launched their onslaught against Custer's battalion, they were able to defeat the divided units in detail.

 

Four, when Custer attacked the Indian camp, he did so without knowing the exact size and disposition of the camp. Critics contend that he should have conducted a more thorough reconnaissance before deciding to attack the village.

 

Five, according to most critics, Custer disobeyed General Terry's orders by going directly to the Indian village instead of passing south of it and by attacking the village before Colonel Gibbon's column arrived.[1] Critics claim that if Custer had followed General Terry's plan, the disaster at the Little Big Horn would not have occurred.

 

Response

 

Most scholars who defend Custer acknowledge that Custer made some mistakes, but they contend that those mistakes were understandable under the circumstances and could have been overcome, and in a few cases even avoided, if Reno and Benteen had done their duty.

 

Custer declined to bring Gatling guns because they were known to be fragile and hard to transport. They were drawn by teams of mules or horses and could not keep up with the cavalry horses. In fact, during the Reno reconnaissance up the Powder River a week earlier, Reno's troops decided to abandon the Gatling guns because they proved to be too difficult to haul over the rough terrain they were traversing (the guns were recovered on the return leg of the trip). Custer had to travel through equally rough terrain to get to the Little Big Horn, and Custer’s men would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to move the Gatling guns rapidly from place to place in the area surrounding the Little Big Horn River. So Custer’s decision not to bring the Gatling guns was entirely reasonable.

 

Custer's dec­­ision to leave the sabers behind had no meaningful impact on the outcome of the battle, and even many critics don't fault him on this issue. The sabers weighed several pounds each and were somewhat cumbersome to carry. Some of the soldiers on Custer Hill may have survived a few minutes longer if they'd had sabers, but this would not have altered the eventual outcome of the battle.

 

Custer had valid reasons to refuse the offer of four companies from the 2nd Calvary. In fact, after making the offer, General Terry himself apparently realized that it was not practical to attach four 2nd Calvary companies to Custer's regiment. In his official report, Terry noted that more than half of the 2nd Calvary was infantry "who would be unable to keep up with cavalry in a rapid movement," and that to detach the 2nd Cavalry's cavalrymen would leave that regiment "too small to act as an independent force."[2] So it simply was not feasible to take four companies from the 2nd Cavalry and give them to the 7th Cavalry. In addition, Terry later stated that he believed that any one of his columns by itself--his own column (i.e., Colonel Gibbon's column), General Crook's column, or Custer's column--could handle the Indian force.

 

We should keep in mind that Major Reno and Captain Benteen's combined force of two battalions was able to hold off the same Indian force that wiped out Custer's battalion. So if Benteen had hurried to Custer’s aid as soon as he received the order to come to Custer quickly, most of Custer’s force probably would have survived.

 

The splitting of a regiment to perform a two- or three-pronged attack, as Custer did, was a standard tactic designed to demoralize the enemy with the appearance of the cavalry in different places all at once, especially when a contingent threatened the line of retreat. In fact, this tactic was recommended in the Army's manual on cavalry tactics. Indeed, General Terry divided his force into three columns--Gibbons’ column, Crook’s column, and Custer’s column—with the idea that the Gibbon and Custer columns would converge on the Indian village from different directions.

 

Although Custer split his regiment at the outset of the battle, when he realized how large the Indian village was, he twice ordered Benteen to come quickly. The first order was explicit, according to Sergeant Kanipe, who conveyed it: He said he told Benteen that "they want you up there as quick as you can get there" because they had "struck a huge Indian camp."[3] The second order was a written order that read: "Benteen. Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs [ammo]." John Martin, who delivered the order, later recalled that when he gave Benteen the order, he told him that Custer was about 3 miles away and that he was under fire (at that point Custer’s force was engaged in an intermittent, long-range skirmish with the Indians).[4]

 

But Benteen did not come. Scholars and students of the battle still debate Benteen's motives, but it seems clear that he made no serious effort to go to Custer's aid. Dr. Robert Utley, one of the most respected historians on the Battle of the Little Big Horn, notes that Benteen showed little if any sense of urgency even after receiving the written "come on . . . be quick":

 

Most critical were Benteen's actions. His scout to the left had quickly confirmed the absence of Indians in the upper Little Big Horn Valley, and Benteen had rejoined the main trail. He did not send word of his findings to Custer, however, nor did he hurry to catch up. The arrival of Custer's first courier [Kanipe] failed to quicken the pace. Only after the second [Martin] appeared, his horse bleeding from a bullet wound, did Benteen exhibit any sense of urgency, and even then not much.[5]

 

John Gray, a widely respected scholar on Custer and the Indian wars, goes even further. He argues that Benteen "ignored" Custer's order and that he sought to hide the facts about the delay in moving from Reno Hill toward Custer.[6] In addition, Gray contends that when Custer sent the written order, he assumed that Benteen would be with or very near the pack train when he received it, and Gray notes that Benteen failed to mention this distinct possibility in his official report on the battle.[7] There is strong logic behind Gray’s point, because Custer sent Kanipe at least 12 minutes before he sent Martin. Custer would have logically assumed that by the time Martin reached Benteen, Benteen would be with or near the pack train.

 

Custer kept his own battalion divided into two wings because he assumed that Benteen would be arriving soon. Many scholars argue that Custer deployed part of his battalion to facilitate the expected arrival of Benteen’s force. Custer sent two messages to Benteen to come quickly, and he had no reason to think that Benteen would disobey his orders. In addition, when Custer's brother, Boston, returned from getting a fresh horse, he would have informed Custer that Benteen was only about half an hour away.[8] So Custer assumed that Benteen would arrive in about half an hour; therefore, he thought he could safely keep his battalion split into two wings, and he probably deployed one of those wings to facilitate Benteen’s expected arrival. It should be kept in mind that Boston Custer returned at least 50 minutes before the Indians launched their main attack on Custer's battalion.

 

Regarding the complaint that Custer attacked the Indian village before he knew how large it was, it was not uncommon for Army units to attack an Indian camp without knowing the exact size and layout of the camp beforehand.

 

Custer made a good-faith effort to determine the size and location of the village before he attacked it; he did so when he went to the Crow's Nest to try to observe the village. Additionally, many battle students contend that Custer conducted a reconnaissance in force after he detached Reno's battalion and headed north. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, when Custer realized how large the Indian camp was, he ordered Benteen to “come on . . . be quick,” but Benteen did not come.

 

As for the claim that Custer disobeyed General Terry's orders, most scholars reject it.[9] Dr. Charles Kuhlman, one of the greatest early Custer scholars, wrote a detailed refutation of this claim titled Did Custer Disobey Orders at the Battle of the Little Big Horn?[10] In point of fact, General Terry's orders gave Custer wide latitude. In his orders, Terry told Custer that he was not giving him “any definite instructions” and that Custer was at liberty to deviate from Terry’s proposed actions if Custer saw “sufficient reasons for departing from them.”[11] Scholars note that Terry offered Custer the Gatling guns and the four additional companies precisely because Custer's regiment was going to be the attack force of the operation and would be the first to engage the Indians. A number of scholars suggest that the “plan” that General Terry and others later accused Custer of disregarding was invented after the fact as part of the effort to place all the blame on Custer.[12]

 

Reno, Benteen, and Falsehood

 

Most Custer critics defend Reno and Benteen’s actions and deny that they failed to do their duty. But most scholars who have studied the subject now agree that Reno and Benteen lied about key events of that day, failed to do all they could to help Custer, and falsely placed the blame on Custer.

 

One of the biggest indications of falsehood and cover-up is Reno and Benteen’s claim that they were unaware that Custer was in a pitched battle. Another clear indicator of deception is Reno and Benteen’s story that they had no idea what had happened to Custer until the bodies of his men were discovered two days later by Colonel Gibbon’s column.

 

It is very hard to believe that Reno and Benteen did not know what had happened to Custer until two days later. Even if one assumes that Captain Thomas Weir failed to tell Reno and Benteen what he saw when he was on Weir Point, many soldiers on Reno Hill heard heavy gunfire coming from Custer's position, and about an hour later they saw Indians tauntingly waving 7th Cavalry guidons and numerous Indians wearing Army uniforms.[13] Where else would Reno and Benteen have thought the Indians obtained those guidons and uniforms except from Custer's force?

 

Moreover, both Reno and Benteen knew that Custer had twice ordered Benteen to come quickly, and that when he issued the second order he was taking fire. Why else would Reno and Benteen have thought that Custer wanted Benteen to come quickly if not because he needed help as soon as possible?

 

Scholars have noted that Major Reno’s 1879 court of inquiry used a fabricated version of an important map of the battlefield. The original map was prepared by Lieutenant Edward Maguire, a topographical engineer with General Terry's column. The copy of the Maguire map submitted to the court of inquiry differed substantially from the original version.[14] Among other things, the altered map made Reno's skirmish line appear much closer to the village than did the original map. The fabricated map also added a fictional spur to the ridge line north of Major Reno's position, possibly to discredit testimony that from Reno’s position some of Custer's forces could be seen battling Indians farther down the valley. In addition, the altered map made the Indian village larger than it was on the original map.[15]

 

A number of scholars have observed that Major Reno's story changed substantially by the time he testified at his court of inquiry. There are several notable contradictions between Reno's July 1876 official report on the battle and his testimony to the court of inquiry in 1879.[16] For example, in his official report, Reno said that on Reno Hill he heard firing coming from Custer's direction and "knew it could only be Custer." But at the court of inquiry, Reno said that he heard no firing while he was on Reno Hill. In his official report, Reno said that he determined that Custer had intended to "support" him by attacking the flank of the Indian village at some point north of Reno's position (which is what Custer tried to do). But he told the court of inquiry that he expected Custer to support him only from the rear and that Custer failed to do so.[17] In his official report, Reno said the pack train reached his position on Reno Hill "a short time" after Captain Benteen's force arrived. But he told the court of inquiry that the pack train did not reach Reno Hill until about an hour and a half after Benteen arrived.[18]

 

Reno's claim at his court of inquiry that he heard no gunfire from Custer's direction while on Reno Hill has drawn the attention of many scholars. Reno testified that he never heard gunfire from down the river and that he was never told that anyone else had heard gunfire. The court recorder, Lt. Lee, doubted Reno's claim. Lt. Lee noted that Reno was the only witness at the inquiry who claimed to have no knowledge of fighting down the river while he was on Reno Hill:

 

Major Reno stands alone in denying in 1879 that he was informed that there was fighting down the river after he arrived on the hill. He now states that he neither heard firing nor was it reported to him at that time. In his official report he states, "We heard firing in that direction, and knew it could only be Custer". . . . Even Captain Godfrey, who admits to be somewhat deaf, swears that he heard more or less firing from that direction. The Indians had nearly all left Major Reno's front, and great dust and smoke were seen by several witnesses in the direction of the hostile village.[19]  

 

Not only did many soldiers hear gunfire coming from the north but this gunfire reportedly continued for quite some time. For instance, B. F. Churchill, a civilian packer with the pack train, said that after he arrived at Reno Hill, he heard gunfire coming from a short distance to the north and that it continued for at least an hour and a half.[20] Even Captain Benteen said he heard "15 or 20 shots" coming from the north.[21] Dr. Philbrick expresses the skepticism that many scholars feel about Reno's claim that he heard no gunfire:

 

Somewhere to the south of Thompson and Watson's lair, George Herendeen and a dozen or so soldiers . . . heard the beginning of Custer's battle--what Herendeen remembered as two earthshaking volleys followed by the crackling pop of uncoordinated fire. More than two miles farther south, Captain Thomas McDougall, who was still marching north with the pack train, also heard volleys. . . . On the bluff occupied by Reno's and Benteen's battalions . . . the volleys were so distinct that Lieutenant Varnum shouted "&%$#@&%! What does that mean?" Even Lieutenant Godfrey, who, like Peter Thompson, was deaf in one ear, heard the volleys. But not Marcus Reno. . . .[22]

 

Bruce Liddic, author of one of the most highly regarded books on the Custer fight (Vanishing Victory), shares Philbrick's view of Reno's claim that he heard no gunfire from Custer's location:

 

That the sounds of gunfire to the north were very audible to the men on Reno Hill is undeniable. They were plainly heard by the officers, the enlisted men, the scouts, and anybody else who wasn't in denial or trying to obscure the facts. Who said they didn't hear the gunfire? Not surprisingly, it was Major Reno. At his court of inquiry, Reno testified that he heard only a few scattered shots but thought they were coming from the direction of the village, but that in no manner did the shooting suggest a general battle was taking place. He further stated that the firing was so light it didn't give the impression of a general engagement. Reno's official report suggested otherwise: "We could hear firing in that direction and knew it could only be Custer." In addition, the Bozeman Avant Courier's dispatch of July 7, 1876, reported "in the judgment of Major Reno, who heard the first and last volleys of the firing."[23]

 

When Captain McDougall arrived at Reno Hill, "right away" he "heard firing" to the north and heard men talking about "trying to join Custer."[24] McDougall noted that when he reached the hill, "all was quiet with Reno and Benteen's men and one would not have imagined that a battle had been fought."[25] When he heard the gunfire to the north and the talk of going to support Custer, McDougall walked over to Reno and Benteen and told them he thought they should go help Custer.[26] He added that even though "it appeared to everyone that all should go to support Custer," Reno decided they should remain on the hill.[27]

 

Reno and Benteen only began to move toward Custer after Captain Weir got fed up with Reno's refusal to move and took off toward Custer without permission. When Weir rode off, his company followed him. This, in turn, apparently shamed Benteen into ordering his battalion to follow Weir's company. After waiting another 10-15 minutes, Reno finally started to move his battalion toward Custer.[28]

 

Benteen's testimony that he heard 15 or 20 scattered shots strikes many scholars as carefully contrived perjury. Benteen seems to have decided that he would avoid the gaffe of claiming to have heard no gunfire and instead opted to say that he heard "very little firing," only 15 to 20 intermittent shots from down the river (he said he thought they came from the area of Ford B, i.e., about the middle of the village). Benteen stressed that he heard no volley firing. In other words, Benteen was saying he heard no firing that indicated that a battle was occurring at Custer's location. If Benteen had admitted to hearing volley firing, his failure to go help Custer would have looked even worse than it already did.

 

Major Reno and Captain Benteen had about a one-hour window of opportunity to go to Custer's aid in time to save much or most of Custer's force.[29] When General Nelson Miles, a famous Indian fighter, conducted a reenactment at the battle site in 1878, he found that Reno could have reached Last Stand Hill in about 15 to 20 minutes.[30] After conducting his reenactment, and after talking with members of Reno and Benteen's units and with some of the Indians who fought in the battle, Miles became convinced that Reno and Benteen had failed to do their duty, and he called for a congressional into the matter.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force.  He also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.  He is a graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas.  In addition, he has completed Advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.  He is the author of five books on Mormonism and one book on the JFK assassination.  His books on Mormonism include How Firm A Foundation, A Ready Reply, and One Lord, One Faith.

 



NOTES

[1]. General Terry traveled with Colonel Gibbon’s column.

[2]. William A. Graham, The Custer Myth (New York: Bonanza Books, 1953), p. 147.

[3]. Ken Hammer, editor, Custer in '76: Walter Camp’s Notes on the Custer Fight (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1976), p. 93.

[4] . Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 101.

[5]. Robert Utley, "The Little Big Horn," in Paul Hutton, editor, The Custer Reader (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), p. 251.

[6]. John Gray, Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pp. 280-281, 311.

[7]. Gray, Custer's Last Campaign, p. 281. Kanipe explained that Custer gave him two messages to relay: If he happened to see Benteen on his way to the pack train, he was to tell him to "come on quick," and he was to tell the pack train to hurry up, to come "straight across country," and to cut loose any non-ammo packs that came loose rather than take time to refit them. Kanipe stated that he did see Benteen and that he did tell him that Custer wanted him to "come on quick" (Gray, Custer's Last Campaign, p. 280; Hammer, Custer in '76, pp. 93-98).

[8]. Nathan Philbrick, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (New York: Viking, 2010), p. 216. Boston arrived a short time after Custer had sent Martin to deliver the written "be quick" order. In fact, Boston saw Martin when he, Boston, was riding back to Custer's battalion.  

[9]. See, for example, Robert Utley, Custer: Cavalier in Buckskin (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), pp. 156-158; James Donovan, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008), pp. 312-322.

[10]. Kuhlman, Did Custer Disobey Orders at the Battle of the Little Big Horn? (Martini Fine Books, 2012, reprint of 1957 edition).

[11]. Hammer, Custer in ’76, p. 257. Hammer reprints General Terry’s order in its entirety. Anyone can read that order and see for themselves that Terry clearly gave Custer wide latitude in carrying them out.

[12]. See, for example, Robert Nightengale, Little Big Horn (Far West Publishing, 1996), pp. 133-153.

[13]. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, pp. 13-15.

[14]. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, pp. 176-177.

[15]. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, p. 177.

[16]. Bruce Liddic, Vanishing Victory: Custer's Final March (El Segundo, CA: Upton & Sons, 2004), pp. 38-92; Nightengale, Little Big Horn, p. 160. Nightengale provides Reno's entire battle report on pp. 3-7. Liddic also discusses Benteen's dubious testimony to the court of inquiry.

[17]. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, p. 160.

[18]. In agreement with Major Reno's official report, but contrary to Reno's court of inquiry testimony, B. F. Churchill, a civilian packer with the pack train, said the pack train arrived to Reno Hill "a few minutes" after Captain Benteen arrived there (Reno Court of Inquiry, volume 2, p. 415). Lt. Edgerly, Lt. DeRudio, and Trumpeter Martin also said that the pack train arrived 10-15 minutes after Benteen arrived. In fact, Edgerly indicated that the pack train was only about 8-10 minutes behind Benteen's column; he noted that Benteen stopped to water the horses for 8-10 minutes and that the pack train arrived right as Benteen's force was leaving the watering point. In changing his story for the court of inquiry, Reno was apparently trying to make it seem as though his window of opportunity to help Custer was shorter than it really was. If the pack train arrived a few minutes after Benteen arrived, then Reno had over an hour to go help Custer after Reno had ample time to distribute the additional ammunition from the pack train. He could have reached Custer's position in about 15-20 minutes and would have arrived in time to save much or most of Custer's force.

[19]. Reno Court of Inquiry, vol. 2, p. 552.

[20]. Reno Court of Inquiry, vol. 2, pp. 414-415.

[21]. Reno Court of Inquiry, vol. 2, pp. 357-358, 360. 

[22]. Philbrick, The Last Stand, p. 220.

[23]. Liddic, Vanishing Victory, p. 122.

[24]. Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 70.

[25]. Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 71.

[26]. Hammer, Custer in '76, pp. 70-71.

[27]. Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 70.  

[28]. Donovan, A Terrible Glory, pp. 275, 348; Sklenar, To Hell With Honor (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), pp. 302-303.

[29]. Sklenar, To Hell with Honor, pp. 298-305; Philbrick, The Last Stand, pp. 208-229.

[30]. Miles, Personal Recollections of General Nelson A. Miles (Bison Books, 1992, reprint), p. 290.