Understanding Custer’s Defeat at Little Big Horn

25 June 2021

Since Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on 25 June 1876, scholars and laypeople—as well as Custerphiles and Custerphobes—have debated what led to the Lakotas’ and Cheyennes’ victory over this officer. Countless reasons have emerged from these arguments.

Some believe that Custer’s decision to split up his Seventh U.S. Cavalry Regiment in the face of a larger, well-armed enemy put him in a precarious position. Many also point to his failure to gather proper intelligence on the size of the Indian forces. Others have argued that the Indians were highly motivated to defend their home turf and their way of life or that they had momentum after their success at the Battle of the Rosebud on 17 June 1876.

Twelve years earlier during the Civil War, Custer found himself in a similar situation at the Battle of Trevilian Station in Virginia. On 11 June 1864, rebel forces almost surrounded Custer and his horsemen, yet he survived what historians often refer to as “Custer’s First Last Stand” after Major General Philip H. Sheridan came to his aid. Having overcome this earlier challenge, one question remains: why did Custer fail to survive his second last stand on those Montana bluffs in 1876?

Based on forty years of research, which informed my recently published book, George Armstrong Custer: A Military Life, I have noted several other possibilities. First, Custer was aware of pending court-martial charges against Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds. At the Battle of the Powder River on 17 March 1876, Reynolds, an officer with decades of experience, routed his foe early on but then hastily withdrew, allowing the American Indians to retake their village. His poor performance led his superior, Brigadier General George Crook, to file a series of charges against him. The court-martial found him guilty on three counts in January 1877. The next June, Reynolds retired.

Reynolds’s experience may have adversely influenced Custer in one way. Throughout his career, Custer completed every assignment he received from his commander, now General Philip Sheridan. In 1868, Sheridan had recalled Custer after a previous suspension, telling him that he could now “smoke a cigar in peace once more as Custer had never failed him.” Although warned about the great number of enemy warriors he might face that June day, Custer advanced without hesitation. He never would have told Sheridan that he decided not to attack because he feared facing powerful opposition.

Custer was known for his strong-minded approach to combat as well. According to his aide Lieutenant Edward Granger, Custer remained calm while making bold decisions during his predicament at Trevilian Station. His Civil War record is full of instances where he charged or otherwise engaged the enemy when others would have held back. At Little Big Horn, the Seventh Cavalry’s actions strongly suggest that Custer remained in active command until the end.

Finally, even in 1876, Custer seemed fearless. Nearly every soldier shows fear when the guns are firing. Custer was clearly an exception. As a young Union general, Custer was often impulsive, impatient, and overly passionate in his duties, but he demonstrated quick thinking and courage. One of his Civil War superiors, Major General Alfred Pleasonton, summarized Custer’s actions during the conflict in an 1880 newspaper interview. Pleasonton recalled the young Custer as “a splendid horseman, fearless, graceful and dashing.” On the battlefield, Custer seemed to hold no fear of death.

No matter the reason behind his defeat, Custer undoubtedly fought that day until he had exhausted his options. Although most remembered for his death, Custer’s life reflects the aggression and fearlessness that contributed to his demise on 25 June 1876.

—Sandy Barnard

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CAPTIONS: (Custer photo, credit: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service), Though remembered for his flowing blond locks, Custer cut his hair short before departing for Montana in 1876.; (Graves photo, credit: Library of Congress), within a decade of Custer’s defeat, the U.S. War Department erected a granite monument to the Seventh U.S. Cavalry Regiment and headstones marking where the men fell during the battle.