Sunday, July 3, 2011

AAR: Little Bighorn 1876

At the end of last month we talked about one of history's (and North America's) better known military engagements; the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Regardless of the strategic and political consequences, this battle has always been a touchstone for military historians because of the personalities involved and the controversy that surrounds it.

Before I published the piece I asked jim, from Ranger Against War, to provide some commentary on the famous day in June, and I am please to post them here without further moderation. His military experience needs no introduction, but his vision and the degree that he has spent thinking about, and acting on, the way that the killer ape has hacked his way through history are exceptional, and his observations on the events that took place 135 years ago along the Greasy Grass are well worth the time to ponder.

My comments are based upon Chief's impeccable battle presentation and are an analysis from a former Soldier's viewpoint. It is my belief the weakness of military history is that it is written by historians rather than Soldiers. Therefore, I will try and weigh my comments to the soldier's view.

I. Initial thoughts: What this Battle Lacked:

Unity of command at the tactical level. At the strategic level there is little to suggest that Commander Terry's intent was translated into mission-type statements, directive in nature. Absent a cohesive game plan, the possibility of success becomes a crap shoot.The total committed forces at tactical level were not mutually supportive, either intra- or inter-unit.

At the 7th Cavalry level, there was not a clearly defined operational order. Even today, after a lifetime of study, it is impossible to ascertain if Custer's Battalion or Reno's Battalion was the main attack. Doctrinally the Commander is usually with the main attack/maneuver element, but we cannot assume this was the case at LBH.

It's difficult to understand how the 7th would have exploited a success if they had been successful. They just lacked the combat power to do so, especially after a tough fight. Battles that have no exploitation phase are not worth fighting.

At Gettysburg, Buford's Cavalry Division fought defensively against a Confederate Corps in the assault. He controlled his horses by moving them to the rear. Custer could not do this since there was no rear, hence his horses became a liability. My instincts would have been to release the horses after stripping off the ammo and to bring the horse holders into the firing line. But that is pure Monday morning quarterbacking.

Benteen's element could not support or reinforce one, much less both of them. It is difficult to ascertain Custer's expectations from Benteen (who was no fan of Custer's.) It is hard to imagine any maneuver being expected of Benteen once visual contact was broken.

The Regimental system produced intense antagonisms and friendships, which affected unit cohesion and effectiveness.

The troops were tired and depleted before the battle began; ideally, troops should be fresh approaching a major fight. (In the Battle of LZ X-Ray in Vietnam elements of the 7th Cav saw a modern correlate when they went into battle spent. This is just an observation indicating the unit's leadership climate.)

While there is no definitive proof, it is my contention that during the engagement the troops lost control of their horses, upon which they carried the bulk of their basic load of carbine and pistol rounds. Once separated from their ammunition, they were doomed. (Similarly, in the Battle of Islandlhwana there is some evidence that the firing line could not be supplied with the volume of ammo necessary to repulse the waves of attackers.)

Unlike the British, the 7th Cav lacked bayonets for final close-in fighting.Custer's adjutant, William W. Cooke, wrote a final note to Benteen, "Be quick. Bring packs. PS Bring pacs [sic]." At that point Custer probably knew that only firepower would save him, though he obviously pushed when his punch was neutralized.

The soldiers were not carrying sabres in this engagement. While the sabres would not have saved them, leaving them behind to save weight seems unreasonable. The sabre was the basis of cavalry warfare -- how could they forgo this weapon? In today's Army, this is equivalent to leaving your body armor in the rear.

Frederick the Great said, "It is better to lose a province than split the forces with which one seeks victory." Obviously, Custer didn't get the word.

II. Comments on the Battle as reported by Chief:

The Indian encampment was defensively logical, but it is doubtful that this was planned. The high-speed avenues of approach were limited.

A brief regress: In the Battle of Beecher's Island and at Adobe Wells, while the friendlies were vastly outnumbered, they defended logically and used their superior firepower (Spenser carbines and Sharps rifles). Even at the Washita, where the pistols were front-loaders cap and ball, the assigned carbine was the Spenser which was accurate, reliable and had sustained fire capability with a rimfire cartridge. Unfortunately, the 1873 carbine used at Little Bighorn (LBH) had an extractor that was knife-like and cut through the copper cartridge base when the weapon was hot or dirty.At LBH, these carbines were probably malfunctioning at an unacceptable rate, and the troops were forced to use their 1873 Colt Six Shooters. These pistols were close-in defensive weapons, and the troops habitually carried only six in the pistol and 12 rounds on the body. Taken together, the prognosis is dim, even if it were a more balanced fight.

Personally, I have never understood why the Spensers were superseded by the single shot '73 carbines. The 1863 single shot Sharps carbine converted to 50/70 was a superior weapon to the '73 carbine. Both the Spenser and the Sharps were in the post-Civil War inventory. However, if the troops were separated from their ammo and fighting isolated actions, then even firepower would not tip the tactical scale.

After this battle it became vogue for the Cavalry men of the West to carry their extra ammo on their pistol belts (as did the cowboys). The old CW
carbine strap continued to be used to attach the carbine to the body.

The unit saddlers made custom holsters and looped frontier belts for the
troopers. Traditional flapped holster and cartridge boxes of the CW era were eschewed. In fact, at LBH, Custer was carrying non-custom pistols of British origin (44 Bulldogs), and was carrying a non-issue Remington Rolling Block 50/70 rifle which had a strong positive extractor, making it superior to the '73 carbine. Ditto the Sharps carbine. He customarily carried his ammo in an ammo belt affixed to his body.

While the data indicate Custer's pistols were fired at least 20 times at Last Stand Hill, this is not a lock-tight case for his being killed later in that
battle. Soldiers in dire circumstances will co-opt any available weapon, and there is no proof of who fired Custer's pistols.It also seems illogical that the "hostiles" did not have outer security in the form of mounted patrols to screen the perimeter. Their protective posture seems minimal.

As for Custer's splitting his force, I do not accept the military wisdom of the action. The split seems based upon emotions rather than logic. When backward planning, we always worst-case plan, designating escape routes and rally points; these contingencies appear missing from the engagement.

It is a minor miracle the Reno's force escaped relatively intact. The decision to quit the assault was a good example of the FRAGO. Reno Frag ordered a withdrawal under enemy pressure to a defensive location to facilitate consolidation and reorganization. At least that is how my training would interpret his actions, and Reno's Civil War record indicates a seasoned veteran of reliable standards.

The fact that the attackers moved in defilade is key to understanding the LBH battle. The 7th most probably remained silhouetted throughout the
battle, while the Indians used all cover and concealment in a military manner.

In accordance with Chief's estimates of when Keogh was dropped off and Custer continued the movement to contact, this was when the Benteen
element should have come forward in what we now called a phased operation. However, this did not happen.

While a strong defensive position might have had some benefits, logically, the lack of access to water would have precluded a long defensive fight. Water was essential to the animals and the troops, a fact that seems to have eluded the Commander in his planning.Sundry details: LBH is one of the only battles in which Custer had his hair close-shorn, so the Indians were unaware they were fighting him.

Thomas Ward Custer -- younger brother of George Armstrong and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor -- also died at LBH. He was one of only 19 men in U.S. history to have received that honor.This concludes my comments, and I will next prepare an analysis vis-a-vis the current War on Terror. I hope I have made some small contribution to Chief's incisive presentation of the battle.


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