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Vol. 4, No. 7
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

Three Lessons We Can Learn from General Custer at Little Big Horn 

That We Can Apply Today

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.

© 2006 William A. Cohen, PhD  

One of the traditions carried on by the U.S. military which came from it’s British origins are the dining-ins (stag) and dining-outs (with families). These are formal ceremonial dinners in which “members of the mess” must be dressed in formal military dress, black tie, regalia. However, though formal these dinners are not completely serious. In fact the dining-ins can be absolutely rowdy. One officer who was on exchange with the Royal Air Force in England, reported that after the president of the mess lit a cigarette, it was the signal for wild physical games in which many were at least slightly injured. He reported taking a taxi home afterwards with most of his formal clothes torn and rolled in a ball.

Dining-outs with families are much tamer in comparison. However, a guest speaker is engaged and expected to be both informative and light, even humorous if at all possible. 

About ten years ago I was invited to be a guest speaker for an Air Force unit at a dining-out and to speak on any topic that I felt appropriate. At the time I was conducting a  research on Major General George Armstrong Custer in preparation for a book of fiction I wanted to write about Custer. 

George Armstrong Custer

Custer was killed along with every man of the part of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under his direct command at the Battle of Little Big Horn near Billings, Montana on June 25th, 1876. With 261 cavalrymen, Custer was overwhelmed by between 3000 to 5000 Cheyenne and Sioux warriors which he had attacked with the whole of the 7th Cavalry, which itself numbered only a little over 600.

For many years, Custer has been the symbol of military stupidity, glory hunting, and the U.S. government’s lies and mistreatment of native Americans. I was therefore surprised some years ago to come across a book entitled, Custer Victorious (University of Nebraska Press, 1983). It was written by historian Gregory Urwin. It described Custer’s Civil War battles. Amazingly, he was never defeated. His troops worshipped him. At age 26, he became the youngest major general in the Union Army. This got me interested.

Here are some quotes from others about Custer during this period taken from the book. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised:

“There was in him an indescribable something . . . it may have been genius . . . by whatever name entitled, it nearly always caused him to do the right thing.”

“One thing that characterized Custer was this: having measured as accurately as possible the strength and morale of his enemy, and having made his own disposition of troops carefully and personally, he went in to every fight with complete confidence in the ability of his division to do the work marked for it.”

“For all that this Brigade has accomplished all praise is due to Gen Custer. So brave a man I never saw and as competent as brave. Under him a man is ashamed to be cowardly. Under him our men achieve wonders.”

“He probably shared with the private soldier the dangers of the skirmish line oftener than any other officer of his rank.”

“By timely praise, oftener than by harsh criticism, he stimulated his subordinates to fidelity, watchfullness, and gallantry.”

Far from being foolhardy and stupidly risking his men’s lives, Custer once risked disciplinary action for refusing to obey an order to make a charge against the enemy that he knew would lead to extraordinary casualties for small results.

I read over a 100 books about Custer, some published shortly after the battle. I read a book Custer himself had written (My Life on the Plains) and articles he had written for magazines. I read the three books his wife had written and what contemporaries, both supporters and detractors had written about him. And I read numerous Indian narratives about the battle.

I learned that after the Civil War Custer had been part of an occupation force in the South. Though he forcefully put down the Klu Klux Klan in his area, he was well respected by Southerners. He made a name for himself as an Indian fighter, but he himself wrote, that were he an Indian, he would be fighting against the white man. He got in trouble with then President Grant for testifying before Congress for the Indians and against Grant’s Secretary of War, who with the collaboration of a string of dishonest Indian agents, was cheating the Indians of promised food and pocketing the money. Secretary of War William W. Belknap was forced to resign on March 3, 1876, only a few months before Custer’s death primarily because of Custer’s testimony.

At the battle itself, intelligence was given Custer that he should expect no more than 800 warriors. Custer knew better. Based on his experience, Custer felt there would be twice that number. By the time he learned the truth, he had no option but to attack. After studying so much written material and visiting the battlefield, and the West Point museum for more information going back to his days as a West Point cadet, I concluded that Custer’s reputation had been ruined mostly over the last half century, by those that wanted to use him as a symbol of our unconscionable conduct toward Native Americans. I thought this a terrible miscarriage of justice, and thus my interest in a book.

My Book Barely Gets Started, When I am Pre-Empted

I barely got my book started when two books appeared in rapid succession. The first was Marching to Valhalla by Michael Blake. Blake is best known for his novel, Dances with WolvesDances with Wolves showed the treachery and violence with which America of the 19th century treated Native Americans. It captured the hearts of its readers and made them feel real sympathy for Native Americans due to some of our ancestors’ actions. It was made into a popular movie. Blake wrote a new book Marching to Valhalla (Random House, 1996) about Custer.

Blake appeared on the Today Show to promote Marching to Valhalla. He was critically pressed by the interviewer, for shockingly, the book was decidedly pro-Custer. “How could you, of all people, write such a book?” he was asked.

“I started my research on Custer like everyone else, believing Custer was a villain and a megalomaniac. In truth, Custer was a great American hero, and likeDances with Wolves, I only wrote the truth as I found it.”

The second book was A Road We Do Not Know by Frederick J. Chiaventone (Simon & Schuster, 1996). Chiaventone, a former officer in the modern U.S. cavalry and instructor at the Army’s Command and General Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas also wrote a novel about Custer at Little Big Horn. He described in his foreword how he had helped conduct a battlefield walk at the battlefield with students, all of which had combat experience. At every phase of the battle, the students were given the same information that Custer had at that time, and asked to make a decision by consensus. “Much to their surprise, and ours,” reported Chiaventone, “the students made exactly the same decisions that Custer made at the battle over a hundred years earlier.”

Back to My Dining-Out Speech

Because of these two books, I never wrote my own book, although I might still might do so some day. Meanwhile I had done all this research and I needed a topic that was informative, but that I could keep light for my dining-out speech. I came up with “Three Lessons from Little Big Horn That You Can Apply to Your Daily Lives.”

You see, although Custer did what was expected of him, I had analyzed the battle myself. I asked myself: was there anyway that Custer might have won this battle despite these overwhelming odds? I found three decisions that Custer made, or actions that he did or did not take that might have given him at least a better chance. Moreover, these are lessons that we all might apply to the leadership decisions we make today. These are:

1. Question your assumptions

2. Position people for their strengths

3. Explain what needs to be done and why

Let’s look at each in turn.

Question Your Assumptions

The U.S. Army almost invariably fought Native Americans with much fewer numbers than their adversaries. They were able to do this and win time after time for several reasons, none of which reflected on the American Indians’ courage or fighting ability. Native Americans were incredibly brave and their lives revolved around hunting and fighting. They were far better horsemen than the U.S. cavalry. How then could the Army win?

The secret was in organization and discipline. The 7th Cavalry was a regiment with a commanding officer, a colonel or lieutenant colonel. Under him were subunits called battalions which also had a commander, a major or captain. Each battalion had several troops or companies also with a commander, a captain or lieutenant. At the lower echelons, sergeants commanded. If a commander was incapacitated, his second-in-command was immediately ready to take over.

Native Americans had no such organizations. They were loosely organized under a Chief and band leaders. However, even these leaders had limited authority. This was one reason that treaties agreed top by chiefs and signed with representatives of the U.S. government could not always be enforced by the chiefs who signed them. 

When an army commander gave an order, those under saluted smartly and obeyed. The commander had the authority to enforce his orders. They were disciplined.

Native Americans on the other hand were sometimes called the freest people on earth. Although they fought hard and bravely, if a warrior felt that he was having a bad day, he could quit in the middle of a fight. Only social pressure might keep him at a particular tact if he felt he wanted to “call it a day.” 

For these reasons, it was was difficult for Native Americans to carry out complex strategies. They could and did use various rouses on occasion to defeat their enemies. However, more sophisticated tactics were difficult to carry out due the lack of a disciplined organization for warfare. This also meant that if surprised, superior numbers could be defeated by inducing panic.

The U.S. Army attacked superior numbers and won time and again by using surprise to panic their adversaries. Defense against surprise depends on a formal disciplined organization. Lacking this, Native Americans were particularly vulnerable.

Custer knew he would be going up against superior numbers. However, until he realized the full strength of his enemy, he assumed that surprise would be sufficient to panic the warriors and carry the day. However, there were two factors that were bound to ameliorate this advantage at the Little Big Horn Battle which Custer did not know.

First, less than a week earlier, the same tribes had encountered a force of 1000 soldiers under General Crook that had advanced on them from the south. Though General Crook was an experienced Indian-fighter, they had been prepared, and defeated him, forcing him to withdraw. Custer did not know this. The Indians did, and they had high morale due to this major victory over one of the largest forces ever sent against them. They would not panic easily, even if surprised.

The second factors was discovered only in the last few years. A recent History Channel special about the battle on TV confirmed what historians have suspected for some time. Native Americans at Little Big Horn not only had numerical superiority, but superiority in weaponry as well! Many have assumed that the warriors that fought Custer were armed only with bow and arrow. Some were. But many others  had repeating rifles, in some cases the very latest model of Winchester repeaters. This was revealed when a fire at the battlefield site cleared all the underbrush and archeologists were allowed in. Spent cartridges and their location told the tale.

Custer’s cavalrymen were armed with the single shot .45-70 Springfield carbines. This was because the single shot Springfield .45-70 was a more powerful cartridge than could be used in a repeater. Being more powerful, it had a much longer range. However, the Battle of Little Big Horn was not fought at long range. As a result, not only could Custer’s adversaries fire seven times as fast, but the copper shell cases of the Springfields frequently corroded in the summer humidity. The shell would jam on firing and had to be cleared with a knife to pry out the old shell before a fresh shell could be chambered. Imagine doing this in the midst of a battle with someone shooting at you!

So the first lesson is to question your assumptions.  Custer attacked a day earlier than planned, before Brigadier General Alfred Terry’s force (a smaller force than Custer’s, but still potent) could arrive in support, because there was evidence, which later turned out to be mistaken, that Custer’s presence at Little Big Horn  had been detected. However, Custer still thought he could achieve tactical surprise. Actually, he  did. However, surprise might have always been sufficient to cause panic to overcome numerical superiority in the past. It might not this time. What will you do then? You’ve got to question your assumptions and come up with “Plan B,” a viable alternative.

Position People for Their Strengths

Custer divided his regiment into four battalions. The smallest, under a captain held the baggage train, pack horses and munitions. 

One battalion was under Custer’s second-in-command, Major Marcus Reno. Reno had graduated from West Point several years before Custer. He had a credible combat record during the Civil War and had ended up a colonel in the war. Like Custer, who had been a major general, he had to revert to a more junior rank after the war. However, despite Reno’s good combat record, he had never before fought Indians. Reno’s job was to charge the Indian village. Simultaneously, a battalion under Custer, would also charge from another direction immediately after Reno launched his attack.

It was through these two attacking units that Custer intended to gain his surprise and to panic the superior number of warriors that he faced.

Since General Terry’s blocking force would not arrive for another day, Custer detailed his second most senior officer, Captain Frederick Benteen to command a force to the south, searching for other warriors, but primarily positioned so the Indian force could not escape. This was a major issue in using surprise to panic the tribes. All too frequently the warriors escaped, so it was always necessary to have a blocking force to trap them so that they would be forced to surrender. Captain Benteen also had a good combat record from the Civil War and had also been a colonel in that conflict. However, there was an important difference. Benteen had been with the 7th Cavalry for more than ten years and was well-experienced in Indian combat.

The two striking forces, Custer’s and Reno’s were critical to Custer’s plan. The blocking force was not. Custer assigned Benteen to a less critical task, either in deference to Reno’s rank, or because of the mutual hatred that he and Benteen felt for each other. Regardless of the reason, Custer failed to honor this important principle of staffing for strength.

Explain What Needs to Be Done and Why

Despite the fact that Reno’s attack was critical to success, Custer compounded his error in not positioning for strength by failing to explain the urgent nature of his assignment. Custer told Reno only where to attack and that “he would be supported by the entire regiment.” It may have been that Benteen would have understood Custer’s short orders, if he had been given the assignment. However even then, with so much depending on this attack, the “what and why” among other important information should have been spelled out, even if briefly.

This was the only chance that Custer had for victory at the Little Big Horn. Reno’s attack toward the village was necessary for the surprise to create the panic. If for any reason, Reno stopped or delayed, the whole strategy collapsed and Custer didn’t stand a chance. Reno should have been explicitly told: “Attack, and maintain your charge into the village no matter what.” However, he was not told this.

This is what happened. Reno began his attack. Halfway to his objective he came under fire and saw the size of the village and numbers of warriors for the first time. He ordered a halt and dismounted his troops to take cover in a group of trees. When a friendly Indian scout next to him was was killed, blood and brains splattering all over Reno, it was he who panicked, not the Indians. He ordered a retreat and in crossing a stream and finding refuge on a hilltop, he lost 20% of his men. A few Indians kept Reno, and later Benteen, who joined Reno on the hilltop later, in check. Meanwhile they surrounded and annihilated those troops directly under Custer’s command. The fate of Custer and the outcome of the battle was determined the instant Reno ordered a halt to his charge.

There have been many desperate battles in history where inferior numbers of troops, less well armed, successfully defeated larger enemy forces. However, in almost every case, these “Custer lessons” were not violated. Custer only lost one battle in his entire career as a cavalry commander from 1861 to 1876. Yet it is this one battle that we remember him for today, and not his many victories.

But if you think that Custer’s lessons apply only to battle, or only to the military, better think again. Organizations large and small succeed or fail  based on these lessons being applied successfully. You must never fail to:

1. Question your assumptions

2. Position people for their strengths

3. Explain what needs to be done and why




The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. – Ecclesiastes IX -11

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