History: What Happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn?

28 February 2017 - Humanities - Year 8

Year 8 Historians have been researching the events of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

This is an excellent assignment by Stella year 8, which analyses the reasons for the defeat of General Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the battle in 1876. It is a thing of wonder!

"The US Army lost the Battle of the Little Big Horn because of the mistakes made by General George Custer"

To what extent do you agree with this statement?

An essay by Stella Price

The Battle of the Little Big Horn took place on 25th June 1876. All 210 soldiers in General George Custer’s force were killed by Plains Indians led by the formidable leader Sitting Bull. In this essay, I will attempt to uncover the true reasons why the Battle of Little Big Horn was lost by the US army and whether General Custer is at fault and to blame for the loss of all 210 fighting men.

Many historians believe that Custer was to blame for the horrendous defeat. When looking at the evidence I saw that there were a number of huge errors made by Custer which contributed to the US army’s loss. Firstly, prior to the battle, General Custer and General Terry (The leaders of the East and West columns) met at Rosebud creek to discuss a plan. The two generals agreed that they would head in different directions in an attempt to find the Sioux tribe and if one of them did they would wait for the other column to arrive before any attacks were made. Custer was an extremely confident – and occasionally arrogant – person and the prospect of this mission was very exciting for him, not least for the fame it would bring. This drive for fame is suspected to have clouded better judgement and this led to be fatal for the US army. During the meeting, Custer refused an offer of 180 more men and the Gatling guns; some extras which could have completely changed what happened next if Custer hadn’t said no. On one hand this could have been a good thing as it was maybe a sign of his confidence in his column. However, if he really had believed in his group then he might not have put their lives at risk for the sake of a bit of attention and more potential fame. It seems the more likely option as he probably didn’t want to look like he needed General Terry’s help.

Furthermore, at Rosebud Creek, Custer was individually told not to attack by Colonel Gibbon who then said “Don’t be greedy” to which he responded “No, I won’t”. This particular statement is hard to read as one might think at first that he means he will not be greedy and will obey the instructions given to him, but on the other hand, this could be portrayed as him meaning he will not take the orders, which is indeed what he did. Again this suggests Custer to be quite a big-headed and selfish person as he might ignore and overrule what someone in a higher status says for his own interests and beliefs. He learnt the hard way that that was a wrong move.

An additional point is that after the meeting with General Terry dispersed, Custer drove his men hard on the hunt for the Sioux. Under a blistering and merciless prairie sun, Custer and his column rode for three days covering around 73 miles. This backs up the thought that Custer was selfish in his actions by being so unforgiving and preventing the chance for a rest on the trek; whether he was tired or not, he should have kept the needs of this soldiers in mind. This also then earned him the nickname “hard-ass” from his exhausted men.

Despite all this, I believe the main mistakes made by Custer happened on June 25th, the day of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. On this day, Custer and his men sighted the Plains Indians camped by a tributary named Little Big Horn. By this point all of Custer’s column was extremely tired and in desperate need of rest but his first thought was that the Sioux had seen them. He had let his men light a fire despite warnings from the Crow tribe (One of the Plains Indians tribes who joined the US army due to a grudge against the Sioux for stealing their land) that the smoke would attract their enemies notice and was apparently convinced that the Plains Indians would try to flee as they had been known to do and Custer believed he had to attack straight away. Whether he truly thought that the tribe had seen him or not cannot be known although we do think that he was on a mission for fame and power and he might have thought that winning this battle without help from his fellow column – despite Colonel Gibbon’s orders – would give him what he wanted and show everyone that he was the best.

It was a rushed attack. General Custer knew nothing of the landscape or how many Plains Indians he was against and despite the meagre amount of 210 men, he still split his force in an attempt to catch out his enemies. He sent Major Reno to the bottom of the Sioux village with 140 men and told him that he would be right behind him. However, that is not what happened. Custer disobeyed his own orders showing a lack of leadership and went a different way in an attempt to cut off the Plains Indians as they ran away. The battle was a shambles and when Custer saw his men outnumbered and his opponents fighting and winning – not fleeing – he backtracked on his second set of his own orders and went to fight. It was too late. The battle continued to result in the death of each and every one of his men; something which might have been prevented if he acted differently and with the army’s interests at heart, not his own.

Despite these colossal mistakes, there is evidence that suggests that the battles outcome wasn’t all down to Custer’s actions. There were obvious flaws in the US armies plan from the beginning, something not completely decided by Custer. Firstly, and possibly most importantly, they didn’t know exactly where the Plains Indians were. There were no devices they could have used to find out this information and they had to rely on the hope that someone would find them. Moreover, there were three columns led by Generals Crook, Terry and Custer coming from the East, West and Southern sides. There was also no means of communication between the three groups so if one was defeated, diverted or found the Sioux, the others had no way of knowing. So, even before the plan had been put into action, there were large risks.

On June 17th, Crooks southern column was defeated by an unexpected attack from the Indians and was forced to retreat but, due to a lack in technology and gaps in the plan, terry and Custer didn’t know. The battle loomed but the US soldiers had single shot ‘Springfield’ rifles while the Indians had Winchester repeater rifles which shows increasingly high chances of defeat as it would take a lot longer for them to shoot their opponents and then reload. Finally, when the battle finally came, the horses were much shaken at the sight of so many enemies and during the fight they bucked and made shooting even more difficult than previously expected. This contributed greatly to the aim of the US soldiers, resulting in death. These mistakes made a big difference to the battle and are another thing to consider when wondering who to blame for the defeat.

We can’t ignore the fact that the Plains Indians fought well during the battle and were a prepared and concentrated force that, in the heat of the moment, chose to fight their opponents (and then won!). First of all, they knew the land well as it was their birthplace and home, already something which helped their chances of winning. They also did quite a few unexpected things which supplied the US army with a harder job to do, for example, the Plains Indians weren’t expected to fight ‘head on’ and surprise attacks had always previously worked on them before but due to particular things which happened prior to the battle, they had no intensions of fleeing like they usually did.

The Sioux leader named Sitting bull was a respected and honoured leader who was often guided by his ancestors, as in their traditional manner. In 1876, before any signs of an attack, he received a vision depicting a storm cloud settling over the village. However, this cloud eventually passes leaving the tribe unharmed. This cloud was expected to be the white men but what he had seen gave his people confidence and hope that whatever dangers the opposition posed, they could defeat or overcome it. Sitting Bull, as an offering to Waken Tanka, performed a sun dance in front of some of the most trusted members of the tribe; a ceremony which involves the painful, 100 times slashing of his arm. This was closely followed by a second vision not too dissimilar from the first where the US army were riding into the village upside down and falling off their horses as they did so. Their limbs and heads were cut off. This news gave the tribe hope and even more confidence. Their ancestors had told them that they would succeed in beating the US army and this fired up the warriors, giving them a thirst only quenchable by battle. The motivated warriors of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes joined those of the Sioux and provided them with 6000 people including 1800 trained warriors; a huge amount compared to Custer’s single column. They looked for a fight and swiftly found one with General Crook’s men, before another with Custer’s. On the day a Sioux warrior named Crazy Horse said “Today is a good day to die.” A sentence which spread hope, courage and determination around the force. The Plains Indians fought well and quickly slaughtered the US men. One warrior named White Bull said “That was a fight, a hard fight but it was a glorious battle. I enjoyed it.” This proved that their forces were strong and assured and that even though things went wrong for the opposing side, the Plains Indians still won the fight with a strength and confidence that Custer couldn’t master.

To conclude, I agree to some extent with the idea that General George Custer was the main reason why the US army was defeated and lost the Battle of the Little Big Horn. There were many mistakes he made and he generally put himself and his wants and needs before those on his side. A suspected desire for power and fame is likely to have resulted in this and contributed greatly to his performance and in turn, the battle. However, lacks in the basics of the US army’s plan and way of attack also affected the outcome as well as a strong opposing force provided by the Plains Indians who fought with confidence, spirit and morale. So, it is a mix of all three that ended the lives of all 210 US army warriors and landed Custer dead on Sioux land with the Plains Indians winning the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The year 8 historians are displaying colour coded mind maps catagorising the reasons for general Custer's defeat at the Battle in preparation for an upcoming assesment.