To what extent was General Custer responsible for the defeat at the Little Bighorn

Topics: Military

My first initial judgement of Custer is that he was very arrogant, ignorant and independent. That he only thinks of himself and his own glory and no one else’s (selfish). He will not listen to anyone but and him self and is willing to put other people before himself even and is not a good leader. I think that he is almost fanatic about the war and unlike other solders, gets excited by it.

Custer’s training and early career

Custer’s image in the US army was that of glamour, dashing, bravery and ambitious.

Custer received many demerits and had a bad reputation for being quite sloppy and unconcerned. But he managed to impress General Sheridan due to his recklessness and sheer courage. After the war ended, he was reverted to captain rank, but made him self popular and a daring Indian fighter. He had been court-marshalled in 1867 which suspended him for one year, he successfully returned to the army in 1868.

His record against the Indians prior to 1876

After that he took part in several campaigns against, raising his status as a brave and heroic Indian fighter. For example he first took part in General Winfield Scott Hancock’s expedition against the Cheyenne. Marching from Fort Supply, Indian Territory, he successfully attacked an encampment of Cheyenne’s and Arapahos (of 150 warriors and some 50 civilians and 6 white hostages) – the Battle of Washita River.

This was thought of as the first significant victory against the Indians where a large southern branch of the Indians were forced into reservations.

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Hostages were freed including 2 boys and a woman called miss Crocker’s. 120 warriors were killed and 20 civilians, but still this infuriated some humanists in the east. This shows that Custer is quite reckless as he allowed a lot of civilians die by not putting them in top priority but only victory against the Indians.

In 1874, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek. Custer’s announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood, South Dakota. ‘Long Hair’ Custer was one of the army commanders most hated by the Plains Indians. He had a reputation as a ruthless Indian fighter amongst the Indians.

Custer’s motives – political ambitions (campaign that went wrong)

Custer only had certain political ambitions and they were only related to himself and his glory. Looking at his early career, you can tell that he was only concerned with himself and that all he wanted was to be in the army, be in command; above everyone else and be very popular and a glamorous and brave fighter. His presidential ambitions were clear; he wanted to be quite high in the rank –General. He was only promoted due to his bravery and reckless courage, not necessary anything else such as being a good leader. Although in truth, Custer was a brave and bold man who was reckless, but I think he over exaggerated on him being heroic.

Identify the strengths and weaknesses of General Sheridan’s plan

General Sheridan’s plan was to have three columns starting at different points, and each meeting the Indian camp from all directions in order to surround them and take them out. The plans strength was that, I theory, if all three columns arrived at the camp at the same time. The Sioux would be trapped and the US army would have a big advantage. Also each column had a lot of men and would be carrying powerful gattling guns.

But there are some weaknesses in the plan. Firstly there was no effective communication between Terry and Crook. When they started the three columns were 300-500 km away from the Indians, which led to the likely hood that they would reach at different times. Also, they didn’t seriously make an effort to find out how Many Indians there are and what they would be up against.

Disobeying orders, what was the military significance of this?

Custer disobeying orders was one of the reasons why the plan fell apart and why Custer and his column were annihilated. The plan was that he would encircle the wolf mountains, but since instead he cut through the mountains and ended up arriving a day early with a many of exhausted men, this was a big mistake. The problem is that it wasn’t as planned and was unnecessary to do so, so it caused problems and the Indians ended up spotting them, and Custer 7th cavalry having to fight the entire Sioux tribe by himself. So Custer ended up being on his own with out the reinforcements of Terry and Gibbon.

Dividing his forces – Reno/Benteen (also, they dug in and survived)

Custer divided up his force into three smaller forces. Reno took 125 men, Benteen 125 and Custer himself took 260. They split up and tried to surround the Indians like in Custer’s other successful campaign. But this time it was a failure. This was a big mistake because he did not take into account the number of Indians each group would have to face. So Reno’s men ended up being overwhelmed by the number of Indians, but instead Reno and Benteen’s decision to take up a defensive; saved them. But it was ultimately Custer’s mistake of dividing them up that led to their defeat as he did no take into account the number of Indians. But also I think that I know what Custer was thinking when he split them up, that since it worked before it may work again.

Refusing Gatling guns and reinforcements

By refusing the Gatling Guns and reinforcements, he worsened his chance of defeating the Indians. Maybe if he had a 180 more men and especially garaging guns- which would have given him the advantage as the Indians didn’t have them. Also the extra men could have made it equal or slightly better against the Indians. But on the other hand, I understand why Custer didn’t take them, because he thought it would slow him down too much.

Taking a reporter

The fact that he took a reporter along with him, to make sure that everyone knows his glory tells me that he is very attention seeking. But by bringing a reporter, this simply led to the opposite of what Custer intended to happen. Instead his humiliating defeat was reported which gave him a very bad image amongst the public. But I can understand why he would bring one- since it was in his nature to be bashful and boastful, I can understand why he would want his successes reported.

Fighting in difficult terrain

By leading his troops across the river and into the quicksand, this gave a chance for the Indians to attack them when they went for higher ground. This meant the end for Custer troops as the attack of Crazy Horse was so overwhelming that without Reno’s and Benteen’s help, they were done for. But Custer wouldn’t have known that the river was uncross able and that there was quick sand, so this was just an unlucky mistake.

Attacking with tired men

This was in a way Custer’s fault, by attacking immediately after they had finished a log argues journey- which meant that all his men and horse were exhausted. They wouldn’t have had enough energy to fight well or properly, which may be one of the reasons why they were easily defeated. Also since he allowed the men to light fires, which effectively gave them selves away to the Indians, lost the element of surprise. In addition to that, his men could have rested up, wait for the other columns and surprised the Indians with a much better chance of defeating the Indians.

Events that were out of Custer’s control – The fighting ability of the Sioux

One of the things that Custer couldn’t be blamed for would be the fighting ability of the Sioux. They were determined to not give up their scared land and were prepared to fight for it. But a lot of people underestimated the Indians fighting abilities compared to that of the US army; and that it would be an easy win. Custer can not have had any control over their fighting abilities as it was all to do with the Indians.

Custer’s Luck

When Custer went through the river to get to the other side to fight the Indians, he could not have clearly known that that river was uncross able, and that it contained quick sand. It was simply bad luck that that it was dangerous to cross. This led to Custer’s men becoming more vulnerable and weaker- which meant their defeat. But Custer should have been able to see and check if the water was safe to cross, which may have saved him.

The fact that some of the Sioux were better armed than the Seventh Cavalry

This was one of the main reasons why Custer’s men lost during battle. Some of the Indian warriors had better guns- Winchester repeating rifles, while Custer’s men only had a slightly less powerful gun – the Springfield Single shot rifles .This meant that they had had the upper hand with better and more powerful guns. This was one of the factors that were out of Custer’s control as couldn’t have known what type of weapons they would have.

The number of Indians – did Custer know how many there were?

One thing that Custer did not know about was the number of Indians there would be. If he had known in advance from the Indian Bureau (who were the only one who could have known how many Indians there were). Then maybe he would have accepted the extra men and Gatling guns and have a better chance of defeating them. But the scouts did inform him that there were too many Indians to take on before the actual battle, but he still decided to risk it. So the fact that there were so many Indians, Custer couldn’t have controlled, but the bad decision to still attack against so many Indians was Custer’s fault.

Tactics used

Custer decided to use the same tactics that he used in the battle of Washita, since the use of these tactics showed to be successful, Custer thought that by using these again, he would have a better chance of winning. The tactic to split up the group into three separate groups was, I think quite a good idea, as by doing this, they will try to surround the Indians which I think is quite a good tactic. But it isn’t Custer’s fault as they were vastly outnumbered 2000 to 600- which was the main cause of their defeat.


In conclusion, I think that Custer and his actions are the majority if the cause for the defeat at Little Bighorn, but I stress that not all of it was his fault. Though most of the reasons why they lost were due to Custer, Custer cannot entirely be blamed. Other people responsible for factors of the defeat include General Sheridan for his bad and un- through plan. Other people involved included Reno, Benteen, Terry and Sheridan, as they played different roles which affected the battle, Reno and Benteen for example took up a defensive stance when they were under attack form the Indians which saved them, and Sheridan who organised the whole campaign and did not plan it in enough detail. But in my overall view, Custer was the man most responsible more than anyone else, as he made the most mistakes which led to the defeat. To support my answer I have in detail explained all of Custer’s mistakes that led to a large part of the defeat for many reasons which were , refusing to take Gatling guns, also disobeying orders, dividing up his men, fighting in difficult terrain, and also attacking with tired men. Also there were some factors out of Custer’s control, which were the vast number of Indians, the fighting ability of the Sioux and also the tactics used by Custer.

On the other hand the war was not such a victory for the Indians. In the short-term the end result was that they had won a battle over the US army and managed to protect their scared land. However, in the long term it was the Indians who lost as the US army were out for revenge for their humiliating defeat. Where in the later battle of Wounded Knee, the Indians were defeated and had fully given in to the US and were forced to move into reservations which effectively destroyed their way of life. Finally the belief of manifest destiny was achieved as the rest of the territories became states and the goal to acquire all of the US was achieved.

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