Battle of Little Big Horn

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Karl Heidenreich
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Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Mon Jan 11, 2010 12:14 am

As a child I used to see a TV series called the "Custer" it was plain clear that G.A. Custer was a brave man and a hero. My dad was cautious and told me Custer was a megalomaniac that got himself and his men killed because of his vanity and stupidity.

With time the Battle of Little Big Horn became known to me and always interest me. It was clear for me, then, that Custer acted foolishly by not taking the Gattling guns with him, making his men leave the swords at the Fort and that his Sprinfield rifles were defective. He also divided his command in three and he didn´t bother to gather any inteligence before his ill fated attack. We can also add to that Cpt. Benteen´s resilience to obey his orders and support his commander when he was most needed. At the end, Custer´s heroic last stand was a butchery he (but not his men) deserved.

But I have been reading that archeological excavations as some new info made things a little bit different, not dramatically but at least some weight must be withdrawn from Custer and Benteen.

Custer´s information, as that of all the commanders in that Campaign, was that the Hostiles were no more than 800 men and that it was likely that not all of them were concentrated in a single village. Reservations and other agencies failed to report that thousand of warriors fled during that spring to join Sitting Bull´s braves. So, when Custer split his command at all times he was convinced he will never opposed a force that could overwhelm his units. Other commanders in other circumstances had done the same, successfully as Robert E. Lee at Chancerlorville. Of course, the information was at fault and Custer was facing from 1,800 to 2,000 warriors which, obviously, overwhelmed his command.

Benteen´s desicion of not going to help Custer but to protect Reno´s survivors is not that debatable, now, as it was before. Benteen´s had orders, yes, but if obeyed and brought the ammunition to Custer and joined him, he and his men would have likely been annihilated too. Also, by staying with Reno´s survivors he assured that at least that group of men returned alive to fight another day.

It seems that the painting potraying Custer fighting surrounded is wrong too. He formed a line of fire which was broken and the cavalry men attempted to flee and got killed. As a matter of fact the group was, in reality, three groups that were isolated and destroyed piecemeal.

As in all important events there is no single cause and it is no easy thing to pinpoint just one "guilty". Custer´s last charge seems to be one of them. However, not being the bloodiest combat for the US Cavalry in the Indian Wars, it is the most famous and surrounded of legend and glory. 242 troopers plus 26 civilians and scouts lost their lives in that combat, not such an important number, compared to other combats, however their ghost still haunt History.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Bgile » Mon Jan 11, 2010 2:01 am

I've been there twice now. It's an interesting place. I'd like to go again and spend more time there. As you indicated, his command was strung out over several miles and slaughtered piecemeal. I agree that Reno and Benteen probably did the right thing and saved their men by digging in.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Mon Jan 11, 2010 2:18 am

Steve,

I heard there is even a grave fot the 7th Cavalry horses. Must be an interesting place. I have been taking a look at it by Google earth but yet you cannot feel the geography that deceived Custer. It´s interesting that in the despictions of the battle always you can see huge forests where the indian village was, but by Google Earth you cannot see but plain land, nor the hills risen that high. What can you say about that geography having been there?

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Bgile » Mon Jan 11, 2010 3:06 am

It's pretty much open plains with rolling hills. There were apparently some trees and other foliage near the streams, but most of the battle was in open country although it definitely isn't flat; there are low ridges and ravines in the battle area. Part of one troop got caught in a shallow ravine where the indians were shooting them in the back from opposite sides. There are reproductions of the fighting at each point of interest on the battlefield; pictures showing the scene from where you are standing.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby lwd » Mon Jan 11, 2010 2:54 pm

I believe it's fairly typical in that part of the country for there to be thick brush and small trees along the stream beds. There was probably more there then than now but not at all certain of that. For instance "The Wilderness" battlefield may be even more wooded now than when the battle was fought there during the ACW.

When you googled it you did look at the satelite picture right? Much of the plain of the river was probably forest at that time. The picrute I'm looking at now shows some pretty extensive forrest still. Of course I suspect they are just minor brush by Costa Rican standards. You have real tropical rainforest there correct?

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby RF » Mon Jan 11, 2010 3:03 pm

The Battle of Little Big Horn offers to posterity that all important memo to all military commanders and decision makers - never underestimate your enemy.

And Custer was not alone. Remember Isandlwana and the overconfidence of Lord Chelmsford; Colonel Hicks and his mirage chasing of the Mahdi in the Sudanese desert; and of course the Italians at the Battle of Adowa, who like Custer, split their forces into three with the same consequences as at Little Big Horn.
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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Mon Jan 11, 2010 8:36 pm

lwd:


When you googled it you did look at the satelite picture right? Much of the plain of the river was probably forest at that time. The picrute I'm looking at now shows some pretty extensive forrest still. Of course I suspect they are just minor brush by Costa Rican standards. You have real tropical rainforest there correct?


Correct: for Costa Rican standards that´s a lifeless desert. And from what I see from the Google Earth it seems odd, because I was in the understanding that the forests were a reason which Custer didn´t realized the extent of the Indian Village until he was crossing the stream (too late). If that´s so the vegetation needs to have diminished a lot in the last hundred years.

RF:

The Battle of Little Big Horn offers to posterity that all important memo to all military commanders and decision makers - never underestimate your enemy.

And Custer was not alone. Remember Isandlwana and the overconfidence of Lord Chelmsford; Colonel Hicks and his mirage chasing of the Mahdi in the Sudanese desert; and of course the Italians at the Battle of Adowa, who like Custer, split their forces into three with the same consequences as at Little Big Horn.


I think we must be carefull with this. Custer´s sin was not spliting his forces, per se. As I pointed out some other outstanding commanders have split their forces with good results. In this case the problem was that, precisely, Custer underestimated the enemy and then the splitting of forces became a mistake. In this case it was the inteligence gathering the first in a series of mistakes, which have not happened will not let the other mistakes to happen.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby tommy303 » Tue Jan 12, 2010 1:26 am

An interesting possible scenario of what transpired with Custer's five companies has come about in the last few years and makes a great deal of sense if one thinks about it. Custer it seems sent Benteen to scout south of the village area, apparently wishing to not make the same mistake he made at the Washita in 1868--there he had not scouted thoroughly enough and had pitched into the first village he came across only to come under pressure from warriors arriving from other villages farther upstream. Reno, was to act as a diversion and keep the hostiles busy, and was given three companies for that purpose. McDougal, with the pack train and an escort drawn from each of the companies of the regiment was to wait until needed. Finally Custer, with the main striking force of five companies headed north to find the northern boundary of the village. He further divided his immediate command into a right and left wing with the left wing scouting while the right remained in reserve.

It appears that the left wing scouted near the river, down Medicine Tail Coulee looking for a ford in the river and at the same time looking for the northern end of the village. They came under fire near the river and withdrew, and later a short skirmish developed along Blimer ridge with the soldiers having both a numerical and weaponry advantage at this point. After the few hostiles in that area were driven off, the battalion proceeded along the line of bluffs where the battle eventually concluded. However, evidence in the form of artifacts seems to indicate a portion of the force reached the end of the bluffs and discovered precisely what Custer hoped to find--the women and children who had evacuated the camp when Reno's diversionary attack began. It is probable that Custer hoped to bag the women and children as that would almost certainly take the fight out of the hostiles. The left wing then withdrew and rejoined the battalion. Custer, at about this time was not under any pressure from the Indians and sent Trumpeter Martini to Benteen with orders to come at once and bring the pack train with him. It appears that the battalion then formed a classic cavalry offensive stance with one company deployed forward in skirmish order, the main body of three companies in support, and one company (Calhoun) as the rear guard.

Custer then waited for Benteen, and in waiting lost his chance of victory. The wait proved fatal and little by little the hostiles were able to use the deep ravines and broken ground to get close and attack. Custer's men were caught in their offensive formation and cohesion was lost. Had they been in a defensive formation or dug in, it might well have been different.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Dave Saxton » Tue Jan 12, 2010 3:10 am

I have been to that battlefield several times and I'm in complete agreement with Steve's comments. If you get the chance to visit that battlefield you will get a good "feel" for what had happened.

Custer divided his forces and sent a small group to advance northward through the valley bottom, hopefully drawing the oppossing forces southward down the valley. Meanwhile he could advance with his main body northward quickly along the ridge line, to quickly reach the Native American encampment farther north.

A problem here was that except for the river bottom it was mostly open country as Steve has described, and Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull's forces could see his dispositions and manuvers along the ridgeline and hill slopes for miles and miles. These ridgelines are populated with sage brush and bunch grass and do not offer any cover. Certainly his dust trail would have marked his advance. He certainly did not have the element of surprize. However, he seemed to assume that he did.

The cotton wood tree groves, willows, waste high grass, and so forth hid the true nature of the enemy forces along the river bottom from his eyes. He could not also see down into the deep gulleys and ravines to his left as he made his advance. These ravines also made perfect avenues for the Native American warriors to deliver lighting quick assaults enmasse. He held the high ground, but in this case it was actually a disadvantage, compounding his severe disadvantage in numbers and firepower.

He must have disregarded the intelligence about the Indian strength and numbers, seeminly assuming, once again, that he had the element of surprize. His force was only one of three that were to converge on the valley. Moreover, his force was actually the weakest of the three. He arrived there days before the others could, and acted rashly.

When the other forces arrived days later, the Indians were long gone and the corpses were rotting in the summer sun. They buried each corpse exactly were they found them, which was where they fell. It gives a good idea of how the forces were deployed and from the terrain you can easily see that they had no chance against the lighting attacks to his flanks by the Indians up the ravines. Other enemy laid in wait in other gulleys nearer the top and to the eastward, a perfect ambush. When I first visted the battlefield as kid they had not modified the gave sites and made the whole battlefield so tourist friendly as much as it is now, and they allowed more or less free roaming about the place.
Entering a night sea battle is an awesome business.The enveloping darkness, hiding the enemy's.. seems a living thing, malignant and oppressive.Swishing water at the bow and stern mark an inexorable advance toward an unknown destiny.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby RF » Tue Jan 12, 2010 9:43 am

On Channel 4 TV in Britain a couple of years ago there was an ''alternate explanation'' for the defeat of Custer, in which it was claimed that the Sioux were as well armed as the US cavalry, including Winchester and Springfield rifles and that these were the main weapons used by the tribes and not the bow and arrow, and this was the main reason for Custer's defeat - he was simply outgunned.

Is this the case?
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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Bgile » Tue Jan 12, 2010 10:14 am

RF wrote:On Channel 4 TV in Britain a couple of years ago there was an ''alternate explanation'' for the defeat of Custer, in which it was claimed that the Sioux were as well armed as the US cavalry, including Winchester and Springfield rifles and that these were the main weapons used by the tribes and not the bow and arrow, and this was the main reason for Custer's defeat - he was simply outgunned.

Is this the case?


Their weapons were a mixed bag, but some of them did have repeating rifles. I don't think that was the main reason for the defeat, though. For example, once Reno and Benteen had established a perimeter they were able to hold their position until the Indians went away.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby RF » Tue Jan 12, 2010 2:00 pm

The battle was reconstructed on the basis that Custer's group was specifically identified by the tribal chiefs once Custer had split his forces, and the native Indian attack was concentrated on that group along with their best weapons. Sitting Bull according to the account did not have the firepower to take on the combined cavalry force with a certainty of winning a fire fight - the fire instead was concentrated on the smaller group.
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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Dave Saxton » Tue Jan 12, 2010 3:17 pm

The soldiers were equipped with single shot rifles in most cases. They would have to fire a shot, open the breach removing the spent cartridge, insert a new cartridge, close the breach, and then take aim again. This was hardly handy. The standard procedure was to dismount and assume a firing position, hoping your poorly trained remount horse didn't bolt.

New evidence indicates that the Indians owned a surprizingly high number of lever action repeating rifles as well as revolvers. Evidence from spent cartridges recovered from the Indian positions indicate that the Indians used repeating rifles very effectively while remaining mobile. Moreover, bow and arrow in the hands of the skilled warrior could obtain high rates of fire, and could be used effectively while mounted in a close range fight.

Considering the numbers, the Indians probably held a huge firepower advantage. Where Benteen and Reno could dig into a natural defensive position they could use their single shot rifles to better effect.
Entering a night sea battle is an awesome business.The enveloping darkness, hiding the enemy's.. seems a living thing, malignant and oppressive.Swishing water at the bow and stern mark an inexorable advance toward an unknown destiny.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby tommy303 » Tue Jan 12, 2010 3:31 pm

Hi RF,

The battle was reconstructed on the basis that Custer's group was specifically identified by the tribal chiefs once Custer had split his forces, and the native Indian attack was concentrated on that group along with their best weapons. Sitting Bull according to the account did not have the firepower to take on the combined cavalry force with a certainty of winning a fire fight - the fire instead was concentrated on the smaller group.


I am not sure that is absolutely correct regarding Indian identification of Custer's group, if you mean that it was led by Custer. It would appear that the Indian belief was the force they faced was Crook again, whom they had fought on the Rosebud a few days before. That it was Custer was not realized until after the battle was over. They did, however, descern that Custer's five companies represented the greatest threat to their families which had abandoned the village and hidden among the cottonwoods and rushes along the river to the north. This was probably the main reason that their best warriors were diverted to deal with the new threat while a smaller number remained on the Reno battlefield to contain Reno and Benteen.

The cavalry's 45 calibre Springfield Carbine, using either the 45-55 cavalry round or the 45-70 infantry round, was a powerful weapon, and it outranged the majority of Indian weapons, including the Henry and Winchester repeaters. It was most useful in long range fire where it could hold an attacker at a distance outside of the range of the repeaters and the bows and arrows. The problem for Custer's unit was that the Indians were able to make use of terrain to infiltrate and get in close enough to deliver a withering fire of small arms and arrows where rapidity of fire placed the soldiers at a disadvantage and led to a collapse of unit cohesion starting with Calhoun's rear guard and progressing on through Keogh's main body and the advance guard.

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Re: Battle of Little Big Horn

Postby Karl Heidenreich » Tue Jan 12, 2010 3:33 pm

Dave Saxton:


Custer divided his forces and sent a small group to advance northward through the valley bottom, hopefully drawing the oppossing forces southward down the valley. Meanwhile he could advance with his main body northward quickly along the ridge line, to quickly reach the Native American encampment farther north.

A problem here was that except for the river bottom it was mostly open country as Steve has described, and Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull's forces could see his dispositions and manuvers along the ridgeline and hill slopes for miles and miles. These ridgelines are populated with sage brush and bunch grass and do not offer any cover. Certainly his dust trail would have marked his advance. He certainly did not have the element of surprize. However, he seemed to assume that he did.


Dave, I´m confused here. As for the "valley bottom" we are refering to the stream bed itself, isn´t it? If that´s so it was at the same level, aprox. of where the Native Village was which gave Sitting Bull and Crazu Horse the same perspective of the landscape.

From what I read of it Custer came from the highland on the south of the stream up where the Village was, at the bottom. The native warriores were in the Village but scramble at the sight of Reno´s force. This also brings up the fact that, at the begining, Custer HAD the surprise factor which was lost because of Reno´s charge to be halted and the skirmish line formed. The warriors had, then, enough time to assamble and attack the cavalry.

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Karl
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