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.

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