General Custer and the Little Big Horn:
Setting the Record Straight
Michael T. Griffith
@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
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.
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
Two, Custer left behind a battery of Gatling guns on the
steamer Far West on the
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
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. Critics claim that if Custer had followed General Terry's plan, the disaster at the Little Big Horn would not have occurred.
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
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
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." 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).
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
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.
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. 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. 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,
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
As for the claim that Custer disobeyed General Terry's
orders, most scholars reject it.
Dr. Charles Kuhlman, one of the greatest early Custer scholars, wrote a
detailed refutation of this claim titled Did Custer Disobey Orders at the
Most Custer critics defend
One of the biggest indications of falsehood and cover-up
It is very hard to believe that
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.
Among other things, the altered map made
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
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.
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.
Even Captain Benteen said he heard "15 or 20
shots" coming from the north.
Dr. Philbrick expresses the skepticism that many scholars feel about
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
Bruce Liddic, author of one of
the most highly regarded books on the Custer fight (Vanishing Victory),
shares Philbrick's view of
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,
When Captain McDougall arrived at Reno Hill, "right
away" he "heard firing" to the north and heard men talking about
"trying to join Custer."
McDougall noted that when he reached the hill, "all was quiet with
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.
When General Nelson Miles, a famous Indian fighter, conducted a reenactment at
the battle site in 1878, he found that
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
. William A. Graham, The Custer Myth (New York: Bonanza Books, 1953), p. 147.
. Ken Hammer, editor, Custer in '76: Walter Camp’s Notes on the Custer Fight (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1976), p. 93.
 . Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 101.
. Robert Utley,
"The Little Big Horn," in Paul Hutton, editor, The Custer Reader
. John Gray, Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed (University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pp. 280-281, 311.
. 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).
Nathan Philbrick, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and
. See, for
example, Robert Utley, Custer: Cavalier in Buckskin (
. Kuhlman, Did
Custer Disobey Orders at the
. 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.
. See, for example, Robert Nightengale, Little Big Horn (Far West Publishing, 1996), pp. 133-153.
. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, pp. 13-15.
. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, pp. 176-177.
. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, p. 177.
. Bruce Liddic, Vanishing
Victory: Custer's Final March (
. Nightengale, Little Big Horn, p. 160.
. 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
. Philbrick, The Last Stand, p. 220.
. Liddic, Vanishing Victory, p. 122.
. Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 70.
. Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 71.
. Hammer, Custer in '76, pp. 70-71.
. Hammer, Custer in '76, p. 70.
Donovan, A Terrible Glory, pp. 275,
348; Sklenar, To Hell With Honor (
. Sklenar, To Hell with Honor, pp. 298-305; Philbrick, The Last Stand, pp. 208-229.
. Miles, Personal Recollections of General Nelson A. Miles (Bison Books, 1992, reprint), p. 290.