Bravery and Blame at the Battle of the Little Bighorn

by Josiah (13)
(Chesterfield, MO)

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, an intense struggle between General George A. Custer and his American Calvary against the Plains Indians, occurred on June 25, 1876. It was Custer’s last stand. However, the dispute about whom or what is to blame continues. Some historians, such as Robert Nightengale in his article “Custer's Last Stand Still Stands”, blame Custer’s subordinate Major Reno. Ronald Nichols declares in his book In Custer’s Shadow: Major Marcus Reno that Reno behaved bravely and was blameless, although the tragedy did ruin his career and life. As suggested by Richard Fox in his book entitled Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Reexamined, it could have been the mode of warfare taught at the time that caused the disaster.

Of course the account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is generally agreed upon by these three historians. The battle occurred due to the clash between the northern tribe Indians, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho Indians, and the American settlers moving west on towards the Black Hills. Both the Indians and Americans began to gather forces. The American army engaged in the battle consisted of about 645 men of U.S. 7th Calvary. Led on the field by Lt. General George Custer, the army was ordered to surprise attack an Indian village on the morning of June 26th. However, realizing that some Indians had seen the army, General Custer changed the original plan and began an immediate attack. He divided his command into three columns, one under himself, another under his subordinate Major Reno, and another under Captain Benteen. Reno was to attack the village on one side while Custer attacked on the other side and Benteen was to basically stay as a reserve. Robert Nightengale suggests that it is possible that, “Custer's purpose for making that assignment was to humiliate Benteen,” who was known to have a dislike for Custer. When Reno reached the village he and his 175 men had a sharp fight because of the many warriors in the village. Reno retreated slowly back to the river. Unfortunately Custer, not knowing what had happened to Reno and his men, attacked at the other side and suffered a defeat. While fighting bravely and waiting for the other commands to aid them, Custer and his 210 men were annihilated by an enormous amount of Indians. Meanwhile Reno, after staying for a short time in front of the river retreated still further to a hilltop where, after being joined by Benteen and his men, he held out against huge odds for two day till help arrived.

So far these historians agree, but the cause of the disaster is a subject of great debate. Robert Nightengale declares, “Both Reno and Benteen had refused to follow their orders. They had … abandoned their commander.” Mr. Nichols disagrees and points out that even shortly after the time of the catastrophe Judge Advocate General W.M. Dunn, referring to the court of inquiry, stated that, “I concur with the court in its exoneration of Major Reno from the charges of cowardice which have been brought against him and in its conclusion that no further action is required.” Meanwhile, Richard Fox writes of Custer’s division of his troops that the, “Separation of the wings, though it occurred under favorable conditions, ultimately contributed to erosion in the strategic environment.” Was Major Reno to blame because he retreated? Or did he barely survive against enormous odds? Was the divide and conquer strategy wholly inadequate for a battle against so many Indians?

To sum it up these authors strongly disagree on who is to blame for the defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Referring to Reno and Benteen, Robert Nightengale states very clearly that, “Their actions, or inactions, made Custer's defeat and death inevitable, but it doesn't mean that George A. Custer didn‘t stand tall on Last Stand Hill.” However Mr. Nichols quotes from historical documents of the Army Correction Board that:

On May 5, 1967, the board issued recommendations:

… 6. That the available historical records support the contention that RENO’s
survival of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, though cleared by a Court of
Inquiry of allegations of cowardice and disobedience of orders, made him a very
controversial and unpopular figure; that this experience had a traumatic effect
on his personality and conduct, and the resulting stigma led to a rapid decline
in his prior exemplary conduct and ultimately resulted in his dismissal from the
service (p 365).

The Board then states: “…The execution of a sentence to dismissal was excessive and therefore unjust.” While not blaming Custer, Mr. Nichols does defend Major Reno with historical evidence that clears him of guilt. On the other hand, Fox believes that it was the strategy that caused the defeat. While the divide and conquer method had worked for Custer during the Civil War, it was not the right strategy against this new situation against Indian. How did Custer even expect to escape when fighting against such superior forces of warriors? Maybe Cortez won an empire in Mexico against all odds but he had help from some Indian tribes. According to Fox, the overwhelming Indian warriors caused the Custer battalion units to “disintegrate” and flee in panic. Not that he and his men were cowards, but according to Fox they responded normally to “psychological debilitation”. So the question of who is to blame continues on.

Was Major Reno bravely battling against all odds, or was he insubordinately disobeying and purposely leaving his General to his doom? It seems that neither Reno nor Custer were to blame. Reno was bravely doing all in his power to save his own and Custer’s columns, but if he had done more he would probably have lost his life and the lives of those under his command. Meanwhile Custer was simply doing what he had been taught to do, namely dividing his command to attack, which ultimately led to his destruction. Were Custer and his men brave? Undoubtedly, but you and I would probably have done the same in the circumstances with about 1700 yelling, wild looking Indians running at us. So the battle of the Little Bighorn was a demonstration of the failure a strategy commonly used at the time, which led to the greatest war tragedy of that era. Ultimately, as the push west continued, it led to triumph over tragedy.

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