Lessons from Custer’s Last Stand

On June 25, 1876 a distant relative of mine, Major General George A Custer, met his end leading 210 troopers into a disastrous aborted attack against a thousand or more Dakota (Sioux), Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors. Today Custer is remembered most often as the butt of jokes and cartoons.

However, a twist of fate related his family to my family. To better understand our infamous kin my grandpa acquired a small collection of books by* and about Custer that I read as a kid. It became clear the popular story of “stupid idiot attacks huge Indian camp with tiny army” wasn’t accurate.

In 1876 Custer was one of America’s best frontier soldiers. Only 7 years before in a brilliant and nearly bloodless (thus nearly forgotten) campaign he had concluded an enormously successful posting in Kansas ending the Indian wars in that part of the plains. Going into his final battle there is good evidence that Custer believe he would repeat that success. And with good reason—he was an expert–he understood the tribes of the plains. The facts as he knew them:

1)Villages were small—the plains tribes engaged in hunting for survival and trade**. Small villages were more efficient.
2)Villages were highly mobile, but hard to defend. When attacked villagers typically fled.
3)If villagers spotted an enemy scout they would flee first and ask questions later. Thus reconnaissance/scouting was kept to a minimum.

Chief Gall
As he approached the village he attacked according to this “truth”. He divided his command into three groups. One to attack from one side, one to attack from the other, the third to circle around and cut off fleeing villagers. Custer didn’t live long to appreciate his mistake. The “village” was actually a tribal gathering of about half a dozen villages who may have outnumbered his entire command two or three to one. His small bands were easily pinned down to be destroyed at will. The first attack was immediately beaten back. The second band of attackers was completely annihilated. The third group found no fleeing villagers and returned in time only to save the first group from annihilation. 

What happened on the Little Bighorn in 1876 is nothing unusual. After a few years of success in any field it is natural to being to feel like an expert. The inquisitiveness of the junior employee disappears in the confidence of accomplishment. Experts understand the “truth”. But when that “truth” changes experts are often caught totally off guard. As a computer programmer I have to constantly guard against falling into my own “Last Stands”–technology changes, best methods change, problems change. The only solution is to keep open, growing and flexible.

*Custer was an excellent writer
**By this time the tribes were very dependent on non-indigenous technology—guns, ammunition and durable metal arrowheads.
Note: Photos from wikipedia. Top: Custer, Middle: Chief Gall, Bottom: Cheyenne village


2 Responses to “Lessons from Custer’s Last Stand”

  1. Steve H. Says:

    I have an old Bible that I can’t find a date on it. Inside the pages of Exodus was something that looks something like a post card dated 1806 titled The Books of the Bible with the name Edith Margaret Custer written on it. Curious to know if there is any relations to Maj.General George A.Custer ? My email address is smhtriple7@hotmail.com Thanks for your time…..Steve H.

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