Custer and 19th Century Army Doctrine

By “Tyrtaios”

Best Defense department of military revisionism

In the spring of 1876, a three-pronged campaign was launched by the U.S. Army to drive the Lakota (Sioux) back to their reservation.

The first prong, under General John Gibbon, marched east from Fort Ellis (near Bozeman, Montana). The second prong, led by General Alfred Terry (that also included Lieutenant Colonel George Custer), headed west from Fort Lincoln (near Bismarck, N. Dakota), while the third prong consisted of General George Crook’s force moving up north from Wyoming into Montana.

Unknown to Terry and Gibbon, on June 17, Crook encountered a camp near the Rosebud Creek in southern Montana, and a battle ensued lasting about six hours. Although Crook was not defeated by the standards of the day, having held the battlefield, it demonstrated the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne would fight long and ferociously, and must have given Crook pause, as he decided to withdraw his force to Wyoming. This broke one side of the triangle the three prongs were supposed to create.

Meanwhile, while Crook was retiring back into Wyoming, Terry was moving west up the Yellowstone River to the Little Bighorn with the 7th Cavalry, with George Custer scouting up ahead in advance after leaving Terry’s sight on 22 June.

On the morning of the 25th, the 7th Cavalry was at a fork between the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn Rivers, known as the Crow’s Nest, where Custer observed another large camp. It’s possible there was a haze by the time Custer came to the Crow’s Nest that prevented him seeing how very large the camp actually was.

Concerned the Sioux and Cheyenne might escape, and appreciating the element of surprise, Custer decided to attack and moved down into the valley of the Little Bighorn. However, prior to moving, Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to beak-off and head to the southwest with three companies to block what was seen as a likely escape route. A few more miles from the Little Bighorn, Custer again divided his command, ordering Major Marcus Reno to take three companies along the river bottom and attack the village on its southern tip, while Custer would lead the five remaining companies and follow Reno in support.

As a side note, George Custer’s two brothers, Thomas, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, and the youngest of the three, Boston, were also with him.

Following the top of the ridge to an intermittent tributary of the Little Bighorn, Custer may have finally realized the gravity of the situation as the north end of the village came into view. We know this, and that he must have become concerned, because he sent a message back to Benteen stating, “Benteen, come on. Big village, be quick, bring packs, P.S. Bring packs.”

The trooper Custer chose to deliver that message was bugler John Martini, and he would be the last, with certainty, to see George Custer and his fellow troopers alive. It is at this point that all movements by Custer and his force are speculation, as no white survivors lived to tell the tale. Unfortunately, Sioux and Cheyenne accounts of the battle were discounted at the time, exacerbated probably by the Indians’ fear of retribution in coming forward with their accounts, and/or confused by language barriers, which created inaccuracies, further complicated by fading memories as time went on.

Was George Armstrong Custer imprudent in dividing his command? Most people with a passing familiarity with the events will immediately accuse Custer of poor judgment, and say yes.

However, say what you will about the man’s flamboyance and previous dash toward battle, Custer was no fool in the real sense of the word, and he was a fine cavalry commander. Some historians are reviewing his importance at Gettysburg — where he thwarted J.E.B. Stewart, who was coming around to support Pickett.

One could argue Custer’s tactics on June 25, 1876 were consistent with army doctrine for that period in time, and appropriate for the situation as he at first grasped it to be. It may be that Custer’s biggest mistake was trusting his subordinate commanders could, or even would support him as planned, and at some early moment while the Indian attack built momentum, he must have recognized his plan was faltering, and the luck he had been once famous for was evaporating.

Tyrtaios” is a retired Marine with interest in events where quick decisionmaking might have changed outcomes.

Source: Tom Ricks, Foreign Policy“The Best Defense,”

I’ve seen some comments on H-Net about this, and the consensus seems to be that Custer was indeed following proper doctrine. Regardless, Custer divided his forces at the Battle of the Washita in 1868, and though that particular battle was a victory for Custer, he ended up leaving Major Joel Elliott and a small party lost and surrounded by Cheyennes. Elliott and all the men with him were killed, and my understanding is that many of the officers in the Seventh Cavalry continued to bitterly resent Custer for his abandoning of Elliott, right up until the time that they were all killed on the Little Bighorn in 1876.


From NPR

The Curious Fate Of Stonewall Jackson’s Arm


Audio for this story from Morning Edition will be available at approx. 9:00 a.m. ET

Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's body is buried in Lexington, Va. But his left arm is buried more than 100 miles away in Chancellorsville, Va., where the limb was amputated after a Civil War battle in 1863.

EnlargeLibrary of CongressGen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s body is buried in Lexington, Va. But his left arm is buried more than 100 miles away in Chancellorsville, Va., where the limb was amputated after a Civil War battle in 1863.
June 28, 2012

About an hour outside Washington, near Chancellorsville, Va., lies one of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s graves. A major Civil War battle was fought here in 1863. That’s when Jackson was accidentally shot by his own Confederate troops.

As Park Ranger Chuck Young tells a group of visitors, Jackson didn’t die here — but his left arm was amputated.

“Both of these doctors had performed that procedure literally hundreds, if not thousands of times by this point in the war,” Young says.

Jackson’s arm was about to be tossed on the pile of limbs outside the medical tents — until his military chaplain decided to save it.

“Remembering that Jackson was the rock star of 1863 — everybody knew who Stonewall was, and to have his arm just simply thrown on the scrap pile with the other arms, Rev. Lacy couldn’t let that happen,” Young says.

So the arm was buried in a private cemetery at Ellwood Manor, not far from the field hospital where it was amputated. Soon after, Jackson died of pneumonia, and his body was sent to his family in Lexington, Va.

But, Young says, Jackson’s arm was never reunited with the rest of his remains.

“When Mrs. Jackson is informed that the arm was amputated and given a full Christian burial,” Young says, “they will ask her if she wants it exhumed and buried with the general. She will decline, not wishing to disturb a Christian burial.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Despite Mrs. Jackson’s wishes, the general’s arm was not left alone. Union soldiers dug it up in 1864. They said they reburied it; no one knows where.

In 1903, one of Jackson’s staff officers set up a granite stone in the small cemetery. It’s unclear if the stone marks the exact location of the arm, or if it indicates that the burial happened somewhere in the area.

Some believe the arm was stolen decades ago, or secretly put into storageBut park historian Frank O’Reilly says these are rumors.

“The safe thing for us to say here is that Jackson’s arm was indeed buried there, is indeed buried there,” O’Reilly says. “It may very well have disintegrated as a result of time, being dug up and aerated — or it just simply is somewhere else in the cemetery, long lost, forgotten.”

The National Park Service won’t disturb the burial site in Chancellorsville. But people from all over come to visit where the famous limb is, or was. Gerald Chambers stopped by to see for himself.

“To tell you the truth, I thought it was sort of strange,” he says. “I mean, it seems like Jackson is a real hero that doesn’t die in this area. … It was an interesting idea to bury his arm.”

Chambers snaps a picture of the granite stone that bears a simple inscription: “Arm of Stonewall Jackson May 3, 1863.”

Source: National Public Radio (

Andrew Jackson, Class Warrior

          I am currently reading What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe, for a Graduate Seminar in American History. It is a fascinating and very well-written account of the development of the nation between the ends of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Howe contends that two intertwined and interdependent revolutions were responsible for the transformation of the United States during this period, revolutions in transportation and in communication. The era began with the building of the Erie Canal, and ended with Samuel Morse’s telegraph, and Howe argues that the expansion of America during that time was a direct result of these revolutions.

          Of course, Andrew Jackson looms large during this period, and Howe does a good job of fleshing out Old Hickory, warts and all. Jackson was many things–the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Indian fighter, backwoods lawyer, and of course, President of the United States. But he was also in many ways a bully, perhaps even a bit of a thug. His attitude toward the Indians, particularly the Five Civilized Tribes of the southeastern United States, was particularly disturbing. While it is true that his racist attitudes were certainly in keeping with the prevailing opinions of most white Americans of the day, Jackson possessed the power and resources to actually do something about it on a very large scale. He almost single-handedly forced the relocation of nearly all Native Americans east of the Mississippi to areas west of that river, most notably into modern-day Oklahoma. While still an Army general, Jackson procured enormous areas of Indian land in the southeast through military conquest and grotesquely lopsided treaties. Later, as president, he finished the job with the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

          This aspect of Andrew Jackson is fascinating to me, and I intend to explore it more fully. However, something unrelated to Indian Removal jumped out at me the other day, and this is what I want to talk about. The charter of the Second Bank of the United States was due to expire in 1836, but Nicholas Biddle, the president of the Bank, decided to try to get the charter renewed in 1832. Biddle knew that Jackson hated him and the BUS (Jackson professed to hate all banks, and he apparently hated a lot of people, as well), but Biddle felt that the BUS was popular enough that Jackson would not dare veto a new charter, especially during an election year. As Biddle expected, the new charter was passed by the Congress, but he had underestimated Jackson’s personal loathing of Biddle and his Bank. Jackson vetoed the new charter, and he did so in words that could have been penned by a member of Occupy Wall Street:

The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers–who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

Old Hickory was very cynical in his attempt to foment class warfare, but he was successful. He handily won re-election, and a public that was largely supportive of the BUS gave Jackson a pass.

Source: David Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 373-80.