“What Ifs” at Little Bighorn

I‘m used to learning a lot when researching a battle but nothing prepared me for the ‘what ifs’ of Little Bighorn. My doctorate is in computer science but I have been an American Civil War buff since I was about five years old. I’m very familiar with brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer’s achievements during the Appomattox campaign where he commanded a division that smashed Pickett’s right flank at Five Forks. I knew that after the war Custer returned to his previous  rank in the U. S. Army of Lt. Colonel, that he fell under a cloud with U. S. Grant, was stripped of his command, and had to beg for it back from President Grant, himself, at the White House.

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer taken May 1865. Credit: Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.  Click to enlarge.

And, of course, I knew of the debacle at the Little Bighorn.

After I wrote UMS, the first computer wargame construction system, users began to send me Little Bighorn scenarios that included Gatling guns. I assumed that these were science fiction ‘what if’ scenarios. such as a story I read back in the ’60s about what if Civil War units had automatic weapons from the future. But, recently, while reading Stephen Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer I learned that General Alfred Terry, Custer’s superior and the commander of the expedition, had indeed offered Custer not just three Gatling Guns (manned by troops from the 20th Infantry 1)The Guns Custer Left Behind; Historynet
) but four extra troops from the 2nd U. S. Cavalry.  Custer turned down Terry’s offer of reinforcements and more firepower with these infamous words:

“The Seventh can handle anything it meets.” – Custer to Terry

Photo taken by F. Jay Haynes of one of the Gatling guns that were available to the 7th Cavalry. Click to enlarge.

Screen capture of the Order of Battle of the 7th US Cavalry with the addition of 3 Gatling guns and 4 companies of the 2nd US Cavalry. Click to enlarge.

As for the battle of Little Bighorn, itself, I didn’t know much more than the broad outline that Custer and his command were killed to the last man by an overwhelming number of Native American warriors (this, of course, wasn’t correct as members of Reno’s and Benteen’s columns survived). Custer, himself, was the text book image of hubris and became the butt of late night comedians and humorous pop songs. But the reality turned out to be much more complex and nuanced.

Custer had a reputation of being dashing, headstrong, and gallant; the iconic description of a cavalry commander. The traditional narrative of the disastrous battle of Little Bighorn is that Custer impulsively attacked a vastly superior enemy force; possibly propelled by a belief that Native American warriors were no match for organized cavalry armed with 45-70 trap door carbines. Indeed, Napoleon’s maxim was that, “twenty or more European soldiers armed with the best weapons could take on fifty or even a hundred natives, because of European discipline, training and fire control.” 2)Crazy Horse and Custer” p. 425 Stephen Ambrose To make matters worse, Custer had pushed the 7th mercilessly and by the time they arrived at the battlefield both men and horses were exhausted.

Custer’s plan of attack is also widely condemned as overly optimistic. He split his command of 616 officers and enlisted men of the 7th cavalry into three battalions. If the four companies of 2nd Cavalry had come along, Custer’s force would be 30% larger.3)Ibid The main force led by himself would be the right flanking column, Reno would have the left flanking attack column and Benteen and the pack train would be in the middle.  Custer also drastically underestimated the Native American force at about 1,500.

In theory, Custer’s plan of attack wasn’t that bad:

  • If Custer was up against a force that was only two or three times his size and
  • If Reno had pressed home his attack drawing the Native American warriors east toward him and
  • If Custer had been able to cross the Little Bighorn above the Native American camp and
  • If Custer had been able to attack the village while the warriors were engaged with Reno

Custer might have, indeed, had a great victory that would have propelled him to the US Presidency (as he had hoped). But none of these suppositions were correct.

Screen shot of the General Staff Scenario Editor where the battle of Little Bighorn scenario is being set up. Not the Order of Battle of the 7th Cavalry (with attached units of the 2nd Cavalry and Gatling guns) on the left. Units are positioned by clicking and dragging them from the Order of Battle Table on the left onto the map. Click to enlarge.

So, the question remains: what value for Leadership would you give to Custer?

Screen shot of the General Staff Army Editor showing the slider that sets the Leadership value for a commander. What value would you give Custer? Click to enlarge

By the way, there will be three separate Little Bighorn scenarios for the General Staff Wargaming System: historically accurate Order of Battle for the 7th Cavalry, the 7th Cavalry plus four companies of the 2nd US Cavalry and 7th Cavalry plus four companies of the 2nd US Cavalry and 3 Gatling guns.


1 The Guns Custer Left Behind; Historynet
2 Crazy Horse and Custer” p. 425 Stephen Ambrose
3 Ibid

9 thoughts on ““What Ifs” at Little Bighorn

  1. Greg Thornton

    Having lived in that part of Montana (Broadus and later Custer) the Gatling Guns would have hard to move as there were not much in the way roads, etc. 30% more troopers would have been handy, particularly if the force was not split. 1,000 against 1,500 would have been a different story, although I have the the number of Indians was more than 1,500, ranging as high as 5,000.

    1. EzraSidran Post author

      Yes, where research will turn up the exact number of cavalry troopers, the number of Sioux warriors is very vague (I, too, have seen numbers from 1,500 to 5,000). And, as I wrote (quoting Ambrose) Custer was most certainly influenced by Napoleon’s belief in the superiority of ‘European’ arms, tactics and training. In the end, I think this counted for very little at Little Bighorn. More troopers would have helped. The Gatling guns, probably not.

  2. Jeffrey Woody

    “So, the question remains: what value for Leadership would you give to Custer?”

    My answer:. There’s a thin line between bravery and recklessness.

    1. EzraSidran Post author

      Of course. My computer wargames have always been used to run ‘what if’ simulations. Little Bighorn is always at the top of the list of ‘what ifs’ that people are interested in. The tactics that Custer employed successfully at the end of the Civil War were not applicable against the Sioux.

  3. Alan

    The archaeology done at the battlefield some 25 years ago suggests that the biggest problem faced by the 7th Cavalry was more foundational than firepower. It was discipline and cohesion. At the first sign of significant resistance their attack broke down and turned into a route. The U.S. Cavalry of the era was poorly trained and, in all candor, poorly motivated. Had they used their available firepower in accordance with doctrine, they would’ve had plenty of firepower. The problem was their training didn’t match their doctrine. So a more interesting “what if” might be what if the troops were trained and disciplined properly.

    Also, the tactics he applied at the Little Big Horn were the same he used at his “victory” on the Washita River. A “victory” that very well could’ve been like the Little Big Horn had he not bugged out, leaving a detached unit to meet its end unsupported.

    1. EzraSidran Post author

      Those are some very good comments and coincide with what I’ve read recently.
      Still, it’s a battle that many find interesting and, based on popular demand, we decided to include it as one of the bonus scenarios.

  4. Amy Theisen

    I think the biggest what if is What If Reno and Benteen had pressed on after combining forces at Reno Hill. What would be a resonable amount of time for them to get situated and move out? Is there a way to account for fatigue in Benteen’s forces after the reconniasance of the morning and the impact of the retreat up the bluffs and dealing with wounded on Reno’s men? When could that force reasonably be anticpated to arrive to support Custer? Given the archeology suggests that companies L, C, and I were routed along Battle Ridge and suffered major casualties prior to the end of the battle, would Reno and Benteen have arrived in time to prevent that? If not it seems that the individual units would have been destroyed piecemeal. If they arrived prior to those companies disintegrating, they may have been able to stop that and protect Custer’s flank, allowing the 7th to withdraw. Then the big question is would Custer have withdrawn or would he have insisted on staying on the offensive. In that case Custer would continue on the offensive; given the disparity of numbers, the willingness of the warriors to engage the cavalry and the fact that the warriors were defending nearby noncombatants, would the entire command have been wiped out, not just the 5 companies with Custer?

Comments are closed.