The honor of the first mistakes in this series of errors that doomed a people goes to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. If there were a single cause for the many lapses in judgment that led to the death of Custer and nearly 300 troopers of the Seventh Cavalry, it was frustration. Just plain, simple frustration.
Custer could not get the enemy to face him, and he needed a victory. George Armstrong Custer was an unquestioned Civil War hero. His greatest moment came when Jeb Stuart was leading the bulk of the Confederate cavalry behind the Union lines at Gettysburg. Stuart was going to attack from behind the same units and artillery that Pickett’s Charge would face. General Custer led his Wolverine Cavalry against ten times their number. It held Stuart up until more Union horses arrived and the Southern riders were forced to retreat. Had Stuart’s attack succeeded, Gettysburg might well have been a Southern victory and so Custer’s courage may have saved the Union. This and the fact that he was the youngest brigadier general in the Union Army helped the young officer develop an ego and ambition. General Grant had become president and other war heroes saw their chance. What Custer needed was a win that would get national coverage and advance his political prospects. But the Indian war dragged on, and the great victory he needed eluded him.
Custer commanded the Seventh Cavalry in the Dakotas. The different style of fighting employed by the tribes, hit-and-run tactics and withdrawals when confronted by a strong force, gave him the wrong impression of their determination and courage. He felt they were cowards who would run when faced with any serious opposition. Subsequent encounters encouraged this view.
After months of trying unsuccessfully to bring the tribes in the Dakota territories to battle, a strategy was devised to force a battle. The plan was that the army would invade in three columns from three directions. The three were to converge and force the “hostiles” ahead of them until they could be beaten by the combined forces. The Seventh Cavalry was one of those columns. It was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Custer, who like most officers had taken a demotion from general when the U.S. Army downsized after the war.
The plan quickly fell apart. The northern force was met, stopped, and driven back. So the other two columns continued with the invasion. Once the three columns were riding across the Indian lands, they were out of contact with one another and the telegraph. This meant that Custer did not know of the northern column being driven back or that the third column was delayed. He did not know he was unsupported. What he was mostly concerned about was not support but that the hostiles would once again slip away.
So the former general made a number of decisions, all of which were intended to allow his cavalry to ride faster and so bring to battle an elusive opponent. The first of these decisions was to leave behind the wagons and similar horse-drawn items that might slow his troopers down. This included the new Gatling guns, which alone might have given Custer’s Last Stand a new name. These early machine guns had been used by the Union Navy in the American Civil War, but a decade later they were still distrusted by army officers. The second decision George Custer made was to disregard the scouting reports of how many hostiles he was facing. This may have been partially inspired by the disdain in which he held the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Finally, Custer broke one of the basic rules by splitting his own command into three parts. Once more the reason for this was to ensure that the hostiles did not escape. This was not likely to happen since the camp he was approaching contained more than 5,000 women and children. The 2,000 armed warriors guarding it had no choice but to defend their families.
One column, commanded by Captain Benteen, was sent to prevent any retreat. The other two columns under Major Reno and Custer himself would hit the village from both north and south. This would force the warriors to stay and fight. Before it got close to the village, Major Reno’s column was confronted by hundreds of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. They drove Reno back across a river and up a bluff. The blocking column was also under pressure and forced to withdraw as well. When Custer and 210 men attacked the village, it took most of the pressure off Reno’s column, which was later able to unite with Benteen’s men and withdraw. But that left no one to reinforce Custer’s force.
As he led his 210 men down toward the encampment, the Civil War hero realized that there were well over a thousand tepees in it. His small force would have little effect on so large a village and would quickly be broken up as they rode through the maze of dwellings. So he diverted his attack off to one side, but that took him out to the rolling ground beyond. There they met more than a thousand warriors who were riding hard to meet what they justifiably saw as an attack on their wives and children. Custer had to stand and fight. He spread his men in an extended formation, hoping their Spencer repeating rifles would be enough. They weren’t. Without the artillery or Gatling guns, which Custer had left behind, they were quickly overwhelmed. Custer’s command died to the last man.
The men of the Seventh Cavalry certainly paid a high price for George Armstrong Custer’s mistakes. It was the most one-sided defeat in American history. The victory also reinforced the white opinion that Indians were violent savages. After the defeat at Little Big Horn, the U.S. Army reinforced and increased their efforts all through the Dakotas. Within a few years, the only Native Americans not starving on reservations were the few hundred that remained exiled in Canada.
The final mistake that doomed the Sioux and other tribes was a betrayal. The Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse was perhaps their most respected leader. A competing chief told General Crook, who commanded the U.S. cavalry in the territory, that Crazy Horse planned to kill him during a parley. On the basis of this statement, Crook issued an arrest warrant for the Oglala chief. Ironically, after successfully leading warriors in many battles, Crazy Horse may have become convinced that war was not the best route for his people. In early September, the chief had refused to join a small band of warriors led by Chief Red Cloud, and then later that month, he convinced Chief Spotted Tail and hundreds of his warriors to return peacefully to the reservation. When asked by Colonel Luther Bradley to come to Camp Robinson on a promise that no harm would befall him, Crazy Horse agreed. It was a mistake.
Thousands of Lakotas were already gathered at Camp Robinson when Crazy Horse arrived. Many of them were families he had personally led there that May. He entered the camp with Indian agent Jesse Lee accompanying him. Lee pleaded that the chief be allowed to speak his piece. His request was refused. Chief Crazy Horse was too influential and this made him a threat. Bradley ordered his immediate arrest. Being arrested virtually guaranteed that the chief would be killed or shipped off to die at a desolate prison in the Florida Keys.
At first Crazy Horse went willingly with the officer of the day. When they entered the building and he realized he was being taken in the camp jail, the old warrior pulled a knife and ran back out. One Lakota warrior who had fought with Crazy Horse earlier was now working for the army. His name was Little Big Man, though his story is very different from the Dustin Hoffman movie by that name. As Crazy Horse ran out the door, Little Big Man grabbed his arm. Crazy Horse stabbed the Indian scout and ran a few steps farther.
Armed only with a knife, Crazy Horse found himself surrounded by soldiers. Dozens ran toward the fleeing chief, and one officer yelled, “Kill him, kill him.” Crazy Horse was bayoneted and died that evening. With his death went the best hope for a peaceful resolution of the problems in the Indian Territories. It was the final act that guaranteed the near destruction of the Cheyenne and Sioux cultures.
Custer’s mistakes in command led to a massacre that reinforced public opinion that the tribes were savages whose violent way of life needed to be exterminated. The results were increased efforts and massacres of women and children, such as the revenge taken by the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee. With the death of Crazy Horse, the loss was guaranteed. It is a terrible irony that the Sioux and Cheyenne paid such a terrible price for their one-sided victory. George Armstrong Custer may have made the mistakes, but both his troopers and the Native Americans felt the repercussions.