Custer and The Little Bighorn – Big Mistakes or Mistaken Motives?

It’s summer and vacation time. And for me, a history buff, that often means layering in a bit of the past with some leisure time in the present. Case in point: A bucket list “check off” journey to Yellowstone followed by a trek a bit east and south to Little Bighorn, the site of “Custer’s Last Stand.” With some 500 books written on the subject, the battle has been analyzed and debated for well over a century including, in particular the decisions of George Armstrong Custer. Did he act irrationally as some have penned or, as others have written, were miscommunications and misunderstandings the real cause of the terrible defeat?

In Larry Sklenar’s book, “To Hell With Honor,” written in 2000, all elements of the personalities and particulars leading up to and through the battle are thoroughly and exhaustedly analyzed. That includes two of Custer’s senior officers, Majors Marcus Reeno and Frederick Benteen. Both loathed their superior, feeling he was a “glory hound.” Benteen, in fact, had publicly criticized Custer, leaking an open letter to the press regarding a previous battle. Reeno, on the other hand, was an alcoholic and had never battled Indians. If, Sklenar implies, Custer exercised poor judgement anywhere, it was in putting his trust in these two individuals.

In June of 1876, those three men and others would lead more than 600 troops of the Seventh Cavalry into Montana in search and pursuit of Indians who had chosen not to surrender themselves to reservations. When evidence of a large village became apparent, Custer divided his command. Many have criticized Custer for this move although, as Sklenar sees it, this militarily-sound move enabled the troops to approach from different sides and in different waves – the latter to make the army appear larger while reducing the chance of Indian flight in a particular direction before they could be apprehended. Reno was instructed to engage first but was not able to hold his ground. Some say he panicked and retreated too quickly. At either rate, he lost half of his command as his men scurried through woods and over river to high ground. Benteen, overseeing the mule pack train to the rear on the other hand, was reportedly summoned by Custer to “come quickly” but did not. Skelnar writes that the man who delivered the note from Custer to Benteen may have given the sense that Custer had the situation in hand (the glory) with Benteen seeing no reason to adjust his pace of advance for mere “mop up” duty. Instead, he would join Reno and fight there – several miles from the increasingly overwhelmed Custer.

Much has also been written of Custer’s attack on a village that most likely carried more than 2,000 warriers, many calling the move foolish. Yet, in a previous battle (of the Washita) Custer had overcome being outnumbered by capturing noncombatants (women and children) early, forcing the men to capitulate.  Here, in the valley of the Little Bighorn, Custer, Skenar opines, was attempting to do the same, in two waves and from two different locations (remember Reno and Benteen?). Was this plan communicated implicitly to his commanders? Was this even possible as the situation changed and deteriorated rapidly?

Today, many tales continue to be told of this time, including from the solemn ground on and surrounding Last Stand Hill.  Our guide on the bus tour, a Crow Indian (the battlefield and monument is located within the Crow agency) and great, great descendent of a participant in the battle, was openly critical of Custer, his moves and decisions – unsurprising as several of Custer’s Crow scouts were killed in the battle against their enemies the Sioux and the Cheyenne. Yet, despite the many theories and assumptions, none of us will ever really know what happened on those bluffs and in those valleys in June of 1876.  The real truth will remain buried forever both in dirt and in legend.