Saturday, on my drive to Colorado, I stopped by the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Mount Agency, Montana, also referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand.” The Battle of Little Bighorn is widely known as a major defeat of a Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. Custer is thought to have worked himself into a position of being surrounded and having to maintain a “last stand” position. Later it was determined his force was too small to engage the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. They were overrun by a singular overwhelming charge. This has been theorized by archeologists; all 268 in his command were killed in action.
This battle did not have to go this way. Custer had scouts trying to determine the positions of the Native American camp and the areas around his forces. The scouts reported they had come in contact with the largest camp they had ever laid eyes on. He ignored this information. Custer had optional reinforcements nearby (the entire 2nd Calvary) and an additional battery of Gatling guns. He refused both. He split 12 battalions into three groups. Custer took five battalions and sent three battalions with each of his captains leaving the remaining battalion to guard the supplies. His 647 soldiers were split up against 2,500 warriors. Part of his hurry to attack was to seize non-combatants (women, children and the disabled) as hostages and force the enemy to surrender; an ethically bankrupt decision.
Despite all of the resources and information he had available, Custer attacked anyway. Everyone in his five battalions was killed. For many years he was considered a heroic figure, someone able to hold on to the bitter end against a ruthless enemy. In actual fact, this highly decorated Civil War colonel made decisions considered both wrong and arrogant by military historians.
Notably, his scouts were Native Americans from other tribes. When they heard of Custer’s decision to attack, they removed their uniforms and dressed in their Native American garb. Custer promptly dismissed them unwittingly sparing their lives.
Custer was graduated from West Point - last in his class. This fact makes me think of the old joke, “What do you call the guy who graduates last in his class at medical school? Doctor.”