The Slaughter at The Battle of Little Bighorn

At the time, no one saw the massacre coming. Yet all the signs were there right from the beginning, and the seemingly unusual tactical incompetence of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer really brought the Battle of Little Bighorn to the forefront of history. Who suffered the most at the Battle of Little Bighorn? How many died, and how many were injured? What went wrong for the U.S. military? Most importantly, could the Battle of Little Bighorn been avoided?

The battle could never have been anything but a slaughter based on the size comparison alone; estimates of Native American numbers vary wildly, but most believe they ranged anywhere from 900 to 2,500. Even at the low end, they vastly outnumbered the just under 700 men under Custer.

Some historians argue that Custer was ordered to do one thing, but arrogantly defied commands given. Some argue he fell into a trap he probably should have seen coming. Some argue that the Native Americans had superior weapons that day. Others argue that perhaps the greatest blunder of the day was his own decision to divide his troops. When a military force is too small, every tactical regulation guarantees that it should never be divided. In war, this rule is fundamental. Custer was perhaps foolhardy enough to break it.

Although these might all be reasons that the massacre could have perhaps been avoided altogether, historians still can’t agree on most of them. The reality is simpler: whether few or many, it seems that mistakes were indeed made. Each mistake then or in fights past added a layer that made the U.S. force weaker, and more prone to debilitating attack. When the Native Americans forced the U.S. army to retreat at the Battle of Rosebud Creek a week prior in order to gain rest and replenish supplies, the Native American forces greatly increased in size. They pushed forward, and they found advantage after advantage. There were too many factors deciding the outcome at Bighorn, and so the battle was probably never salvageable.

During the Battle of Little Bighorn, twelve companies were in play by the U.S. 7th Cavalry. Of those, five were completely wiped out. 268 men were dead including Carter, with dozens more wounded. Of those, six died after the battle when they succumbed to injuries sustained. The forces were complemented by members of the Crow and Pawnee tribes, of which four and two died, respectively.

What made the battle particularly embarrassing wasn’t necessarily the defeat, but the extent to which the U.S. forces suffered compared to those of the force of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Native American forces out for blood. Although we’re less sure of the exact figures, low estimates suggest as many as 31 warriors died, while high estimates indicate as many as 300 (a figure that most believe extremely exaggerated).

When a vastly superior (at this point) military machine falls prey to such an unusual defeat, there usually isn’t a single reason. The slaughter at the Battle of Little Bighorn was a cascading failure. When the first part of that machine failed at the Battle of Rosebud Creek, the Native Americans were granted the time to reinforce themselves. Everything else is history.