Sunday, July 03, 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.


basilbeast said...

Thanks doubly to both of you guys for writing on a conflict that had caught my attention off and on ever since I was a kid.
It had seemed to me a Perfect Storm of personalities clashing to the point of sabotage in gaining advantage over rivals, underestimating the opponent, lack of proper preparation for the field of battle and for the attack, etc.
However, I do not see how having sabres with them would have helped the doomed company at all.


rangeragainstwar said...

Having sabers with them would have been a boone to present day collectors. Joke.
Sabers wouldn't have done much to help, but this is indicative of the whole battle. Defeat starts with little things.
At Little Round Top Col Coates didn't allow the 15th Alabama time to fill their canteens while on the movement to contact, or b/f they crossed the line of departure.
In the sweltering heat the atk fizzled b/c the troops were physically incapable of going on.
It's all details in the infantry.
In Black Hawk down they didn't carry enuf water , and 1 troop was killed b/c he left his ceramic plate out of his body armor. He died for that mistake, but leadership requires making the troops do what is right.
Back to sabers-i feel it was arrogance that discarded a basic weapon.
BTW it was a bn and not a co that got their clocks cleaned.

rangeragainstwar said...

To all,
Last nite i was thinking about this fight and i must conclude that Terry was derelict in not tying Custers movements to an Infantry column.
By assigning a infy wing and ordering them to maintain supporting distances then this debacle MIGHT HAVE BEEN avoided. But that's assuming that Custer would've obeyed orders.
This move would not have detracted from the shock power of the Cav.

rangeragainstwar said...

To all,
The field display shows a modified pistol belt with cartridge loops added. This was later called a frontier belt.
Since the troops were seated in 1863 CW saddles, it's safe to surmise that they were carrying their pistol ammo in CW cap box es , or cartridge boxes.
I'm not sure that this shown pistol belt is correct for this engagement.

barcalounger said...

I was thinking along the same lines Ranger. IF Custer had had some infantry to use as a blocking force AND some artillery support maybe he would have lived to be an old soldier. Maybe.

So, does this action show Custer to be a bad commander or just sloppy?

rangeragainstwar said...

To all,
Note the 2 gray horsemen pictured. Courtesy of Chief.
Note that the carbine is slung on the carbine strap attached to the troopers body.The muzzle is secured in a CW issue boot while on the move.
In fighting the troops had their carbines attached to their bodies so as not to lose the piece when they throw it aside to access/acquire their pistols.
Also note how small the 1859 saddlebags were. They carried minimum eqpmt.
All the 7th eqp was CW issue, except pistols/carbines.

rangeragainstwar said...

I'd say arrogant and impulsive, but most research shows that the leaders above him always gave him a nod and a wink. Reckless also comes to mind.
These 3 words describe most Cav officers of the day.
I doubt that Terry expected him to follow orders.

rangeragainstwar said...

I doubt he even needed Arty if he had a solid flank secured by well placed Infy in a blocking position.
This would've provided a defensible rally point and bled off Indian combat power.
But like i said, it is what it is , and conjecture ain't anything but conjecture.
I better stick with the facts.

FDChief said...

Lots of good stuff to chew on here.

In terms of weaponry I'm not sure that the lack of the sabers was all that crucial. That particular modification to the cavalry MTO&E came after fifteen years of experience on the plains; the horse tribes just didn't fight like conventional cavalry, and the sabers were usually just dead weight. But, that said, the cavalry never did evolve a replacement melee weapon to replace them, and simply discarding a weapon without giving any real thought to what it does and why seems like pretty careless fieldcraft to me.

Likewise the casual replacement of the repeating Spenser with the 1873 trapdoor Springfield. You're taking away a soldier's seven-shot repeating carbine and giving him a single-shot weapon. My understanding is that the reason was because the Spenser was not as effective at the longer ranges typical on the open plains. But the revision to a single-shot weapon still seems like a step backwards to me.

The other factor here was training. The 1870's Army had forgotten the lesson the Continental Line had learned and that every American rifleman had relearned the hard way; that a weapon is only as good as the marksman, and that marksmanship is a perishable skill and MUST be practiced consistently to be maintained. Range firing was discouraged all the way up to the War Department because of cost, and the standards of marksmanship in the 7th in June of 1876 were probably pretty low. After the defeat along the Greasy Grass the Army mandated biweekly range firing AND instituted marksmanship awards to encourage skill.

FDChief said...

In terms of tactics...

Custer has always struck me as one of those officers who are convinced that reality will conform to his plans, and always takes the most optimistic S-2 assessment as a basis for his planning. To me the "most dangerous enemy course of action" would have been an attack in overwhelming strength. The observations of his scouts, and his own Mark I eyeball should have told him that this was not typical straggle of "hostiles". But, by God, he was going to surround and bag these redsticks, and that's what his boys were going to do. I've served under officers like that, and they scared me then, and I think GAC would have if I'd have been one of his first sergeants back in the day.

He also seems to have been one of these "let's pull this our of our ass and see what happens" sort of commander. I think he never designated a main effort, never fully explained his expectations for Benteen or Reno, because he himself didn't know. I think he was just pulling things out of his ass, riding around the village hoping an opportunity would turn up. Ninety percent of the time that might have worked; the tribes weren't shock cavalry, and their usual MO was to swirl out and conduct a mobile defense while the noncombatants grabbed a hat. He also had no idea that these same tribes had just whipped up on Crook's ass and were feeling pretty cocky. Not an excuse, just a fact.

Regarding the "walk-a-heaps"...I think the larger problem was that the Army still thought of the Indian Wars as "wars", where the Army had to act like a conventional 19th Century army, instead of what really amounted to a campaign of extermination. The plains tribes fought as irregular light cavalry, so the "book solution" was to pursue them with other cavalry, try and match their mobility, and bring them down from the saddle. It was only after the Black Hills War that the War Department recognized that they didn't need to defeat the warrior strength in the field, that the key was to look bigger and destroy the economic base that supported the warriors; kill off the buffalo, restrict the mobility of the tribes, garrison the white population centers and respond to every native outbreak with savage reprisals against the villages instead of trying to catch the warriors.

The bottom line is that the civilian farmers, railroad builders, and buffalo hunters did more to smash the power of the Cheyenne and the Lakota than the Army ever did.

But Crook was the guy who figured out how to use the infantry as the anvil to hammer the tribes with his cavalry hammer. And Nelson Miles who figured out that you needed to use native auxiliaries - Apache Scouts - to do the main finding and fixing of the enemy...that the way to defeat a smart and aggressive local insurgent is to use another smart and aggressive local (only this one on your payroll) to do the hard work.

basilbeast said...


Having sabers with them would have been a boone to present day collectors. Joke.

I happened to be watching an episode of "Pawn Stars" yesterday afternoon when a fellow brought in a CSA sword "handed down through generations of his family". According to the antique weapons expert Sean who was brought in, Union swords are practically worthless and Confederate examples are 99 to one fakes.

At Little Round Top Col Coates didn't allow the 15th Alabama time to fill their canteens . . .

Same in the civilian field. When I was a college kid. I worked a couple of summers on a railroad section crew. We didn't have water and a block of ice in the water tank, we didn't go off down the line, until we had that.

Union rules.

Maybe perhaps unionization would be a good thing for today's military?

Kidding. But just a bit.

it was a bn and not a co that got their clocks cleaned.

bb be a civvie. To me, a goup of soldiers doing something together is a "company", a "crew", a "gang". I suppose I should be more precise, no offense intended, it's just my background.
I also might add, the de facto leader of our railroad section gang was a Mexican who served as a 30-cal machine gunner in WW2 Pacific, army IIRC. Never will forget him, and the major reason I immediately bristle when some yahoo blathers on about the illegals are only here to steal our stuff and get free civil services.


In terms of weaponry I'm not sure that the lack of the sabers was all that crucial.

Maybe if Custer's men had Light Sabers, the conflict might have turned out differently. :)

But with the advent of effective and reliable guns, edged weapons obviously lost their supremacy and eventually their utility.

I assume the bayonet was the replacement for saber, sword and spear. Pardon my ignorance, does any modern fighting force still have the bayonet in its arsenal?

And I'm not talking about decoration or ceremony, but solid effective use in combat.


rangeragainstwar said...

Every infyman should have a bayonet.
It's all about attitude.
btw -i was commissioned by Lew Millette.

rangeragainstwar said...

Correction- it's Col Oates at LRT and it's ADOBE WALLS rather than ADOBE WELLS.

FDChief said...

"Every infantryman should have a bayonet"

And the reality in 1876 was that the "cavalryman" was about 80% of the way to becoming a mounted infantryman because of the effectiveness of repeating firearms. The 1860-1890 Indian Wars were an outlier because of the Plains tribes' style of mounted raiding required a mounted force to pursue them. But you'll notice that every time the cavalry gets engaged, including Reno's attack, the defense of the bluffs, Company L in the defense on Calhoun Hill...they go into dismounted skirmish order.

I forget who it was - Buford, maybe? - who is said to have told one of his lieutenants "Your big fat horse is just transportation." Even though they didn't say the same thing the commanders on the Greasy Grass were acting that way. And, as jim says, an infantryman needs a melee weapon.

Just as an observation, when I was a young troop one of my medical platoon sergeants told me that the best thing I could do to survive combat was to score a rifle - first because it would make me look like a grunt, and his experience was that the NVA/VC would pick on everyone who looked different - medics, RTOs, machinegunners - and if I couldn't, I should get used to the idea of using my E-tool (this was when we still had the big, heavy wooden-handled E-tools) as a chopper in my left hand and my pistol in my right in a hand-to-hand fight. He said it made a decent field-expedient battleaxe...

rangeragainstwar said...

To all,
It's hard to get facts about this fight.
I read Dee Browns book after i wrote this essay, and her report is that the troops carried 100 carbine/25 pistol rds on their bodies.
I doubt this as Reno's troops ran out pretty quickly after engagement.
Also 100 rds of 45/70 on a cart belt is pretty heavy.
The cart belts of the day were about 25 rounders. Research by myself shows that the 7th did have canvas cart belts for their wpns.
These are documented.
The truth is somewhere between twix and twain.

rangeragainstwar said...

The troopers did have a form of entrenching tool/shovel, BUT these were on their horses. These are referred to in most accts of Reno/Benteen phase of the fight.
There was a issue Arsenal knife for the troops, and i'd guess they were present for duty.
Later the army actually issued a bayonet that doubled as a shovel, called a shovel bayonet. I couldn't even imagine sticking someone with that improbable weapon. It was unmanageable to my way of thinking.
This battle really does defy conventional thinking and logig. The units just seemed to be overwhelmed and defeated in detail. Much like a macvsog recon team , or entire Bns in the Chinese early phases of the Korean war.
That's probably the mystique.