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Posted on Feb 25, 2009 in Stuff We Like

For Want of a Saber the Battle was Lost – Little Bighorn, 1876

By David Tabner, BA MSc

David Tabner, BA MSc, formerly assistant curator at the Custer Battlefield Museum, Garryowen, Montana, considers he critical factor of the sabers not carried by the 7th U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and asks if those blades might have made a difference.

George Armstrong Custer met his end, along with over two hundred men of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory, 1876.

Custer’s Civil War combat experience consisted largely of cavalry against cavalry action or raiding. It was marked by his ability to use rapid shock maneuver to destabilize the enemy’s movements and use close action (i.e., swords and pistols) to break the enemy’s will to continue action. He had a great sense of timing which enabled him to play his force (such as the Michigan cavalry brigade at Gettysburg) most effectively against often vastly numerically superior Confederate forces. Following the Civil War, he saw little action against the Indians apart from the Battle of Washita, where he personally led against inferior forces.

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It had been proved in America’s Civil War, and previously in the Crimea (the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, for example), that when facing superior odds, cavalry had to rely on their bladed-weapon skills or use rapid shock maneuvers. However, when the 7th Cavalry set out as part of General Alfred H. Terry’s column in the 1876 campaign to clear the northern plains of Indians, they left their sabers behind at Fort Abraham Lincoln to travel lighter; this was in keeping with common post–Civil War U.S. Cavalry procedure. Thus, they went into battle with only their single-shot, breechloading carbines (Springfield Model 1873—which was prone to jamming with extended use) and Colt revolvers, the latter supplied with only 24 rounds per man.

Custer planned to envelop the Indian camp in the Little Bighorn Valley, so the Indians could be rounded up to be taken to the reservations. To do this, he divided his 600-man force into three battalions.

The initial action was the second battalion, under Major Marcus Reno, charging up the valley into the massive Indian camp—with up to ten thousand Indians there. The size of the camp, and the fact that the troopers did not have their sabers, made Reno unwilling to make close contact with the Indians. Despite initially achieving surprise, the troopers were continuously forced back for this same reason. As the retreat became a rout up to the hill line, the pursuing Indians operated as irregular light cavalry, quick to maneuver and exploit weaknesses. In addition to rifles—many of them Army surplus repeaters—the Indians carried clubs, lances and similar for when they got in close to their enemy, which the troopers would have countered with their sabers, had they brought them. Thus, casualties were heavy. Only the sheer sides of the hill allowed Reno’s men to hold out for the rest of the battle, until relief by the main column arrived.

By this rout, Reno had disengaged and the primary maneuver of the battle, which should have kept the enemy on the defensive and reacting to the troopers, had failed. His pursuers, now seeing Reno’s battalion as no threat were able to turn and head away to deal with Custer’s battalion.

Custer and the first battalion were waiting for reinforcements further north on the hill line. He, too, saw how big the Indian camp was and knew his battalion could not deal with it on their own. With sabers, he could have tried a charge down the hill, fording the river and plowing through the camp with his five companies stabbing and slashing as they went, without needing to stop. But the only way they could use their firepower was to stop, dismount and form a skirmish line to use their carbines. This would have required using every fourth trooper to hold the horses, limiting their effective firepower. Reno had done this and been pushed back repeatedly, as Custer had seen from atop the hill line.

The Indians came on to remove the threat posed by Custer’s battalion. His choice of position was not as sheer as Reno’s and his force was overwhelmed by sheer numbers in a short period of time. Captain (Bvt. Lt. Col.) Myles Keogh led a countercharge at one point against the repeated Indian attacks up Deep Ravine, but it was hit in the flank by an Indian charge from an inferior ridge. Again, the Indians were able to get in close, and the mounted troopers had no way to fend them off. Their revolvers, the only weapon they could use on horseback, were inaccurate and quickly emptied. Thus, in reality, they were nothing more than second-rate mounted infantry and were not fit to fight the well-equipped Indian irregular light cavalry.

One can argue that the battle might have been winnable, or at least survivable for most of the 7th, if Reno had maintained the charge into the Indian camp. To do that, he needed blades—either lances or swords. With sabers, his men would have been able to cut through even a numerically superior enemy and maintain their momentum without needing to dismount and form a skirmish line.

My question: Could the battle have been won, or at least not lost so terribly, if Custer and Reno had acted more forcefully knowing they could engage the Indians closely with sabers—to either reunite the regiment to make a single successful stand,  retain the initiative and take the Indian village thus forcing the warriors to stop fighting, or to withdraw the regiment in battalions (or together) from the field of battle and prevent encirclement?

Editor’s Note: For additional Little Bighorn information, see Ten Myths of the Little Bighorn and Battle of the Little Bighorn – Were the Weapons the Deciding Factor?

44 Comments

  1. I am from Montana, and grew up in the area. I have hunted those hills near the battlefield for deer and elk and spent years and years out there. I also did my graduate work in History.

    Sabers were rightfully left behind in this action. With the size of the camp, getting in that close with sabers would have been fool hardy at best. There’s a really good documentary that’s now on Youtube about the battle, and it shows the rate of fire issue. As former curator of the park, I’m astounded you don’t mention this issue, and frankly, find it a bit irresponsible that you do not at least raise the issue in general.

    The rate of fire issue refers to the rate that the Indian rifles could fire versus the soldier’s weapons. Archeologic findings of groupings of cartridges from repeaters and the groupings of cases near soldier positions indicate that the natives often got off three to four times as many shots as Custer’s men did. Combine that with having 3-4 times as many men in the field–albeit not all had repeating rifles, and it is reasonable to conclude that the &th Cav, was at the least, outgunned maybe 3 or 4 to one. Sabers would have made an effective charge, but only as long as surprise carried the day. With as many men as there were on the Sioux/Cheyenne side of this battle, that surprise would have been overcome fairly shortly.

    There is no way that the Indians would have been killed in sufficient numbers that they would not have been able to regain control once their overwhelming superiority in weapons fire rates was brought to bear as surprise faded to hand to hand combat. Even had they not brough their overwhelming firepower to bear, sheer numbers of expert hand to hand combat veterans—as nearly all native American tribesmen were—would have overwhelmed the saber-bearing 16-22 year old soldiers. Don’t forget that these were kids.

    Once they were in hand to hand, the overwhelming numbers would have crushed Custer. The only difference sabers would have made was in the location of the dead bodies. Custer attacked despite being told by Terry to wait for Crook and Gibbon. Custer did not and went to his own death. Had he waited, this battle would have likely never occurred as the camp likely would have broken up within days, with all the gathered bands scattering into their normal small groups of a hundred or so. Had this occurred, the Indians would have been slaughtered in small groups as the three columns ran across them and then the US soldiers would have had the superior numbers.

    As an additional fun note….the re-enactment of the battle is held by the losers of this battle—the Crow Indians. The Crow were allied with Custer, as they were already on Reservation. The actual combatants, the Sioux and Norther Cheyenne, are on reservations in worse places, like Fort Peck and Pine Ridge. The battlefield is actually on the Crow Reservation, and the re-enactors are mostly Crow, not Sioux/N Cheyenne. To this day the Crow and Sioux do not really get along.

    • Montana Native I have read the order General Terry gave to Custer no where in it does it give a mention of General Crooks column (which had already been defeated on the 17th of June and retreated back to the vicinity of now Sheridan WY nor does it mention waiting for Gibbon and Terry in fact it tells Custer to contact Terry no later than the date his supplies (15 days worth) ran out. So please enlighten me with the source of your comments. Seriously I would like to read them myself.

    • I totally agree with Montana….he is absolutely correct in his facts and view…I am also from the area and spent my entire life in and around the battlefield…either working, hunting or researching and of course just taking time to think over the possibilities that the 7th had or did not have……I want to add one thing that was important as to the many factors that led up to the 7th being defeated…..If you have ever been in that area during the summer months you will quickly find out how hot the weather can be…I read that it was in the upper 80’s to mid 90’s…..The soil in the area is almost powder like…. This would add to the problem of mis-fires taking place in an already jamb prone rifle….The dust kicked up while traveling on horse back is enough to lessen the function of most modern rifles let alone the rifles the 7th used….And yes even to this day…The Northern Cheyenne have a problem with the Crow…..Not much can be said as to the outcome of this battle being swayed by having the saber, other than the fact Custer was out numbered…out gunned and with seasoned battle ready warriors well equipped…..Sabers or not….he lost….

    • Those Natives dispersing was why Custer attacked when he did. If they could have dispersed then they would have been hard to track down one at a time and the whole campaign would have been a failure.
      The Natives had more firepower maybe but you still have to reload a Henry or Winchester and the beginning was long range fire that wasn’t doing any damage to Custer’s contingent. False sense of security maybe when the Natives got in close in numbers and then it was over fairly quickly. Shells found on the battlefield over a hundred years later is not proper evidence that the Troopers we’re not keeping up fire. They might have been wasting ammunition though and not firing in cohesion.
      Sabers, it lack there of didn’t affect the outcome one bit. Those Natives were amongst them very quickly and drawing the saber might not have been possible. If they had them on their belts they would have been tripped up trying to walk and run. If they were on the horses only mounted men could use them and they would have to be well trained. Sabers are not easy to use.
      I agree with you except the rate of fire thing. We don’t know how many rounds were fired by the Troopers. Natives had arrows also which don’t leave casings. Custer was outnumbered for his tactics.
      Out West we can’t get Natives to reenact at all. They just won’t do it.

    • Marine Gunnery Sergeant (ret.) There is but one priority on the battlefield, any battlefield and that is to gain fire superiority without which you are doomed to failure. By firing rapidly during the assault phase you keep your opponent’s head down long enough to allow you to over run is position or out flank him. But, while these are modern tactics with automatic weapons, but the principles of gaining fire superiority on the battlefield is still paramount regardless of where you are in time.

  2. For the past week I have been struggling with this blog, which contains some fairly substantial historical errors, some of them already noted by MontanaNative.

    Mr. Tabner says, “It had been proved in America’s Civil War, and previously in the Crimea (the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, for example), that when facing superior odds, cavalry had to rely on their bladed-weapon skills or use rapid shock maneuvers.”
    When I went out to the Gettysburg reenactment as a member of the 2nd US cavalry I did substantial research on the history and tactics of Civil War cavalry. Mounted troops during the war were issued the best breech-loading and repeating rifles so they could skirmish with the enemy, not so that they could use their sabers. Troopers were used for raiding, recon, and skirmishing. The cavalry would go into battle and unload their seven-shooters, and after falling back might charge with a saber if they knew they would be running down and capturing retreating enemies or guns (the best use for the saber, besides its need as a status symbol). European observers wrote about their disapointment at how indecisive American cavalry tactics were (the constant skirmishing, and lack of “impact” in charges). Also, as far as the Crimean war is concerned, we should not forget the charge of the *Light Brigade*, which was a total disaster.

    Mr. Tabner also says, “The size of the camp, and the fact that the troopers did not have their sabers, made Reno unwilling to make close contact with the Indians.”
    In the book _Black Elk Speaks_ a Native American fellow named “Standing Bear” gives ample reason for Reno to have avoided close combat, “There were so many of us that I think we did not need guns. Just the hoofs would have been enough.” The “hoofs” refers to trampling. Close contact would have only resulted in total slaughter. This is particularly true since the plains Indians were skilled horseman who could guide their horses with their knees. This allowed them to be free to fire their bows upon buffalo while riding at a run. A mounted trooper with a saber would be worthless against a mounted Native with a bow, much less a Native with a gun. I fear Mr. Tabner’s conception of the Native American warrior is quite flawed.

    Mr. Tabner fails to even bother mentioning that Reno survived the fight only because he formed a defensive ring, fighting from cover and digging holes during the night. He says ” Only the sheer sides of the hill allowed Reno’s men to hold out for the rest of the battle, until relief by the main column arrived”, but “Standing Bear”, in the book _Black Elk Speaks_ says, “…they had saddles and other things in front of them to hide themselves from bullets, but we surrounded them, and the hill we were on was higher and we could see them plain.” The Natives were ready to let the Whites starve, but the reported movement of additional US troops caused them to pack their things and leave.

    Francis Parkman, in his work _The Conspiracy of Pontiac_, gives an interesting account of the Native American resolve when engaging fortified posts. During the siege of Detroit, the British officers were about to leave the post since they assumed the fort would be quickly taken when the Natives chopping through the walls, but “Their anxiety on this score was relieved by a Canadian in the fort, who had spent his life among Indians, and who now assured the commandant that every maxim of their warfare was opposed to such a measure.” Native Americans did not do well against fortified posts, partly because they sought individual glory. The only thing that saved Reno was the fact that he did *not* attack the Native villages.

    • The Charge of the Light Brigade was a disaster for matters completely unrelated to the troops, weapons or the tactics involved. They were simply given the wrong orders through a staff mistake, and still managed to carry them out and return. The casualties were horrendous, but show how determined charges with sabre could succeed against vastly superior forces backed up but artillery.

      However, the use of the sabre required years of practice and training, so it is debatable whether Custer’s men would have been able to use it well enough. Another question is the conditions of their horses – would they have stood up to such treatment following their time in the field?

  3. I agree that during the Civil War, cavalry were used to find the enemy, range into the rear to disrupt lines of communication and supply, and occasionally attack enemy cavalry or disrupted enemy formations. I cannot recall battles won by cavalry attacking infantry in fixed positions. How long would Custer’s men have survived sitting 6 feet up in the saddle, making excellent targets for the Indian riflemen, while trying to close with sabers?

    • Not only were sabers noisy, the Union Army was notorious for having dull saber blades. The Confederates on the other hand kept their saber highly sharpened. If I remember correctly there was one saber carried by a trooper at the Little Bighorn and that trooper was Private Giovanni Martini better known by his American name Private John Martin who was a “runner” for Custer and survived the battle by not being present with his company. He was carrying dispatches to Reno and Benteen.

      I agree with CDB, being the highest object on a hill, whether on horseback or above the military crest of a hill, turns you into the center of attention and makes you believe that you are a copper-lead magnate.

      One of my 3x great uncles, James Lewis Wilmoth was a Cavalry Sergeant with the 4th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry during the U.S. Civil War. After several battles he had mentioned that the title when they first arrived was Cavalry, but soon they were referred to as Mounted Infantry. They would ride quickly to close with the enemy, they would skirmish with the enemy while mounted but once the battle ensued, they dismounted and fought as infantry. James survived the war, but suffered from wounds he recieved at Stone’s River and another at Chickamaugua for the rest of his life..

      • You need to remember the Indian warriors were terrified by swords and that would have stiffened the calvary’s resolve. Battles turn on such things think of Henry the fifth at Agincourt. Numbers alone don’t win battles but courage, resolve, skill and often luck are part of the mix.

  4. You make a valid point Mr. CBD. When we compare the silhouette of a mounted trooper with the total target area of a kneeling skirmisher, we have a substantial reduction in favor of the dismounted variety. When they are prone behind a saddle, they almost disappear completely.

    In the Book _Black Elk Speaks_ a fellow named Iron Hawk says of Custer’s men, “There were soldiers along the ridge up there and they were on foot holding their horses.” Mr. Tabner’s reference to the loss of firepower due to every fourth man holding horses might not have application here, particularly since Iron Hawk then recalls, “We looked up and saw the cavalry horses stampeding.” It was the loose horses that caused the general Indian assault upon the U.S. troopers. It is interesting to speculate that had the fourth man been holding the horses to keep them from running, the mass of Native Americans might not have charged the hill. The Indian style of fighting was very opportunistic, as noted by Iron Hawk when he says, “We stayed there a while waiting for something…”. When the soldier’s horses ran, the “something” had occurred.

    One regularly noted feature of combat against Native Americans was the fact that you could rarely get them to go into pitched battle, unless you attacked their settlements. This was common knowledge for military men who were constantly frustrated by the ghost-like nature of the Indian style of combat. It is this feature of U.S. military thinking that might have inclined Custer toward an attack upon the villages, specifically intending to hit them before they had a chance to break up and separate into a multitude of little groups spread across the plains. I am not so convinced that Custer was foolish in his attack. He perished, true, but that is a risk fairly commonly accepted in war. Colonel J.H. Kidd of the 6th Michigan Cavalry speaks well of Custer by saying, “He was not a reckless commander. He was not regardless of human life…” (Philip Katcher, _American Civil War Commanders(1)_, Osprey Pub.,2002, p.13) He was flamboyant, and graduated last in his class partly because of his constant pranks, but he was brave, and always calculated his moment for decisive victory. He did not earn his position, and the regard of many commanders, by accident.

  5. Thomas Eaton Graham was my great grandmothers uncle Tom. He survived the battle as part of the 7th cav.. I was told in handed down history that Custer realized that the situation was in serious doubt. That maybe Custer thought the rest of his army would show up, but that was not possible. Graham’s company lived in fear until terry’s outfit showed up. Custer had no choice once he felt he had to dismount.

  6. It should be added that the sabers were left at the Powder River encampment partly due to the effort to keep the advance as quiet as possible. It may be that the need for them was not anticipated, as cavalry sabers were not a primary arm used in battle by cavalry in the late 1870’s. Custer anticipated flight, not hand-to-hand combat.

    I have read that Native warriors were especially fearful of swords or sabers, but find such a general statement difficult to consider.

    I, like most students of the battle, believe that the separated groups of soldiers were too far apart to support each other and were destroyed in a chain of collapse.

    • Exactly

  7. When custer saw the size of the indian camp from the ridge he sent a message to the pack train to come quick. Did he think the indians would move aside and stop shooting to let the mules through if they did try to reach him.

  8. There were no Indians between Custer and the pack train when the message was sent. Martini had no problem getting through to the pack train. In fact, Boston Custer who was with the pack train when the message was received was able to rife all the way back to Custer unhindered. So, the last battlefield intelligence Custer would have gotten would have been from Boston Custer that the way was open for both Benteen and the pack train to get through. In fact, recent scholarship (Last Stand Nathan Philbrick, A Terrible Glory, Jim Donovan) has come to believe that part of the deployment of Custer’s command was made to keep his line of supply open to Benteen’s Battalion.

    Regarding the out-fired comment above, it is based on archeological results. However, what isn’t mentioned in that report is that visitors in the years after the battle reported piles of spent army shell casings that were collected by tourists. Therefore the belief that the Army was badly out-fired is not factually supported.

    I have come to believe based on years of study of first hand Indian and Army accounts along with recent scholarship.that Benteen could have readily reached Custer. What wold have transpired after that may have been simply more dead troopers. But he did have the opportunity to do so.

    Reno as a disgrace at best. He was drunk according to many first hand-accounts. Benteen did take charge of the defense and saved the res of the command. This is probably why the surviving officers and men of the 7th rallied around Benteen in the Court of Inquiry and no charges were ever made against him.

    • @ John Leahy,

      Re: the supply line to Custer.

      Don’t you think that one or two men making their way to Custer would probably hardly even been noticed by the Native folks? Whereas Benteen plus the packs – the slow moving packs – would attract the attention of the Indians?

      A small group of men can move much more freely and also have the flexibility to respond quickly to threat, basically why reconnaissance patrols tend to be small and light. Contrast that to Benteen’s 3 companies who could walk, canter or gallop, accompanying effectively a herd of mules. If under attack what would he do? Stay in the open with the mule train, and lose flexibility and speed? Or rush ahead to Custer?

      As I see it, Custer made sure he had the largest battalion by far, 60% larger than either of the other two combat battalions { after all his battalion was only one company less than the other two combined} if Custer with 60% more combat troops than Benteen couldn’t hold the Natives off, then Benteen would have been routed sooner than he.

      Of course we don’t know what would have happened but for sure the Indians saw Custer approaching and changed their attack direction. There can’t be much doubt that the Indians would have seen the approach of Benteen and the packs, and attacked, the result would have been either: 1) they Benteen, encumbered by the packs, stays and fights, gets annihilated or 2) Benteen leaves the packs and is either annihilated with Custer or survives rushing back to Benteen.

      Fact is, that in the open in a defensive position {all be it a poor one}, Custer with 5 battalions couldn’t stop the Indians from killing his command in detail. Whereas, high on a better defensive position Reno and Benteen survived, and even they had a hard long fight of it.

      All that would have happened if Benteen went to aid Custer, is his command would have just been more grave-markers at Calhoun, Keogh and Custer’s defensive positions – if they managed to get that far.

      As I see it, the important thing was the ‘bring pacs’ message, implying that Custer was aware that ammunition could be critical to the outcome, he specifically asked for packs, and that for me is important, for the packs would be slow moving and easier targets. Getting Benteen’s battalion alone to Custer, without the packs, would just have increased the rate of fire for a while, until ammunition was expended or guns jammed or broke.

      I’ve heard some say that the packs could have been broken out and taken with Benteen’s command BUT that means time repacking, and also could slow down the speed of his troops.

      For me I can see only total lose of all the attending command that day if Benteen went to Custer’s aid. Benteen would have been wiped out with or on his way to Custer, then the pack train, whether with Reno or not, and then finally Reno, some people talk about the Indians would wait to starve them out, but the survivors did have an uncomfortable night as the Indians persisted with attacks, so who knows?

      Whatever the reasons or motivation for Reno and Benteen to stay atop that hill, be it drunkenness, cowardice or even hate for their commander, the fact is, that that action saved some of the 7th, it could have gone down in history as an even bigger loss, and some would today be celebrating the great heroic death of Custer and over 700 men instead.

      • My reply to Nigel Bennett.

        Nigel wrote: “Don’t you think that one or two men making their way to Custer would probably hardly even been noticed by the Native folks? Whereas Benteen plus the packs – the slow moving packs – would attract the attention of the Indians?

        A small group of men can move much more freely and also have the flexibility to respond quickly to threat, basically why reconnaissance patrols tend to be small and light. Contrast that to Benteen’s 3 companies who could walk, canter or gallop, accompanying effectively a herd of mules. If under attack what would he do? Stay in the open with the mule train, and lose flexibility and speed? Or rush ahead to Custer?”

        My reply: The point is that there were NO Indians near that route at the time. Reno was being engaged. The Indians had started to react to that attack. They had no way to cross the river to even get to any Cavalry advancing along the route to Custer at that point. One man or three hundred matters not!

        You seem to be saying that Benteen must bring the packs or pack train with him to Custer. Perhaps a few packs or not. That’s isn’t my point. 3 Companies of Cavalry arriving and allowing Custer to make a fighting withdrawal (or some part of his Command) was possible. I’ll address that below.

        Nigel wrote: “As I see it, Custer made sure he had the largest battalion by far, 60% larger than either of the other two combat battalions { after all his battalion was only one company less than the other two combined} if Custer with 60% more combat troops than Benteen couldn’t hold the Natives off, then Benteen would have been routed sooner than he.

        Of course we don’t know what would have happened but for sure the Indians saw Custer approaching and changed their attack direction. There can’t be much doubt that the Indians would have seen the approach of Benteen and the packs, and attacked, the result would have been either: 1) they Benteen, encumbered by the packs, stays and fights, gets annihilated or 2) Benteen leaves the packs and is either annihilated with Custer or survives rushing back to Benteen.

        Fact is, that in the open in a defensive position {all be it a poor one}, Custer with 5 battalions couldn’t stop the Indians from killing his command in detail. Whereas, high on a better defensive position Reno and Benteen survived, and even they had a hard long fight of it.

        All that would have happened if Benteen went to aid Custer, is his command would have just been more grave-markers at Calhoun, Keogh and Custer’s defensive positions – if they managed to get that far.”

        My reply: You seem to be missing some of the facts related to what actually happened. Based on your line of thinking you state that since Custer had 60% of the Command and couldn’t handle the Indians how could the addition of Benteen have changed that? You seem to be forgetting that this is EXACTLY what Reno and Benteen’s command did during their defense of Reno Hill.

        Again you make another claim that simply is not correct. the Indians saw Custer and changed their attack direction. That is only partially correct. Reno’s attack had been repulsed with serious losses. Word had come that the cavalry was approaching the village from another direction. The Indians were facing no organized resistance at that point and rode off to attack Custer’s column. Nothing prevented them from doing so.

        You also claim that the advance of Benteen’s column would have simply resulted in more casualties. I dispute this. We are unsure of what condition or cohesion Custer’s Companies were in. However we do know that when Weir and Benteen’s companies advanced to Weir Point they were suddenly facing the same mass of Indians soon after they defeated the remnants of Custer’s 5 Companies. So, let’s examine what happened then. Godfrey used K company (IIRC) to make a fighting withdrawal back to Reno hill. That’s exactly ONE COMPANY of cavalry vs all the Indians (or most of them ) who had faced Custer. They were in good order and suffered exactly ONE CASUALTY during that encounter. That’s right. One man was lost. Now this was certainly not an anomaly during the Plain’s Wars.a solid defense almost always was able to hold off substantial numbers of Indians. They certainly did in this case. We also can see what occurred when a solid front was not made. Again, this battle displays the results. Reno suffered 32 killed and had 15-20 missing during his rout. Pretty substantial difference from Godfrey isn’t it.

        The basic facts are that Benteen was facing no Indians along the route Custer had taken if he simply had not dawdled and advanced with some conviction to do his duty. He never would have met Reno. Could he have saved all of Custer’s Command? I doubt it. But it has become somewhat more clear (based on the most recent scholarship on the battle) that Custer was trying to keep his line of supply open along the route Benteen should have taken. His disposition of his Command supports this theory. I personally think that contact would have been made and 1-3 Companies or portions therein may have been allowed to retreat to Reno Hill.

        Thanks,

        John

    • Those dismounted and mounted companies of the Right Wing under Capt. Keogh we’re there to keep the avenue open for the expected men and packs. I think Company E tried to clear an avenue for the riders to get out and were supposed to return to that hill. Losing them left no doubt to the outcome. I bet they were looking for sign of Benteen right up until the end. Had he gotten there in due time the Right Wing would have been strengthened and maybe not collapsed so fast if at all. Unbeknownst to Custer his Right Wing was getting folded up behind the ridge while he was figuring out what to do. Really had a pale face when he realized only 20 or so men were left out of Capt. Keogh’s Wing. Sad way to end no matter what the causes.

  9. I, too, believe the idea that the sabers were left behind because of noise rather than weight. I have a recovered 7th cav saber which came from an elderly gentleman from Rapid City, SD, and it was his understanding that the noise factor was the reason they were left behind.

    • Could you tell me what the markings are on the 7th cav saber.

      I am trying to identify if the saber I have is one that was left behind or one from the original Volunteer 7th Cav. out of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

      Thanks.

    • There is a “7” stamped on the guard of the sabre, which has a 1864 date on the blade. Sorry for the late reply…had not looked at this site until recently.

      • You seem very knowledgeable on this battle.

        I’m trying to get more info on a possible relative – Daniel or David O’Connell.

        I’ve got the basics, but wondering if you have any way of uncovering more about this private.

        Thank you
        Southregionbaseball@hotmail.com

      • 7th US cavalry were formed in 1866

  10. Sabres (well swords really) proved notably ineffective in the Crimea when the Heavy Brigade fought the Russian cavalry. By all accounts they had difficulty even breaching, let alone penetrating the heavy winter great-coats worn by the Russians!

    • They were Sabers not Swords.

      • Arguably not. Regiments of the ‘Heavy Brigade’ at Balaklava were armed with the 1853 universal pattern Cavalry Sword – the first sword to be issued to both light and heavy cavalry regiments. This replaced the Light Cavalry sword which took a curved sabre form. THe 1853 sword was straight with just a slight curve at the tip.

  11. From the point of Waterloo onward the main threat of Cavalry was not the charge itself but rather the threat of the charge. The Charge of the Heavy Brigade during the Crimean War was successful more for the mounts of the Heavy Brigade than for the swordsmanship of the troopers. General Scarlet who led the charge reported the heavy winter coats of the Russian Cavalry turned away the blades of his men. The disaster of the Light Brigade was because Cavalry attacking a formed position is at the best at a disadvantage. The squares of Waterloo or the thin Red Line of the Crimea illustrate it only too well. By the time of the Plains War the US Cavalry was fighting more like dragoons then cavalry even though the name dragoon had disappeared from from the US Army list of regiments. It is possible the morale factor of a saber charge would have caused some problems for the Indians initially but a formed charge through the village be it by Reno’s small battalion or Custer’s larger one would have lost both cohesion and impetus in among the lodges of the Indians and been butchered.

  12. “Again, the Indians were able to get in close, and the mounted troopers had no way to fend them off. Their revolvers, the only weapon they could use on horseback, were inaccurate and quickly emptied.”

    I don’t get how a saber is supposed to a more effective close combat weapon than a revolver. That makes no sense. A revolver is much easier to wield, much deadlier, takes less training to operate effectively, and has a much greater range (anything that you can hope to hit with a saber you can easily hit with a revolver!). I get that a revolver needs to reloaded, but that seems an extremely small price to pay for its other huge advantages over a saber. The only real possible advantage that I see with a saber is psychological. Perhaps the sight of saber wielding cavalrymen would panic Indians while revolver wielding cavalrymen would not; I’m skeptical about this proposition but suppose it’s possible.

  13. Mr. Tabner should be given the benefit of the doubt because he is not alone in this theory about the sabers the 7th left behind.

    For example, Edgar I. Stewart in his book “Custer’s Luck” notes while discussing the leaving behind of the sabers that ‘Although experienced army officers seldom took sabers into an Indian fight, there are those who believe that this decision was was a great mistake because the Sioux had such a horror of the “long knife” that that it was too effective a threat to have been so casually left behind.” (Page 229).

  14. I believe Lt . Cool. Custer and his men were defeated at Little Big Horn because the were issue basicly useless for combat use single shot rifles and defective copper ammunition that swelled up when fired and often could not be extracted from the rifle. If his troops had been properly equipped with rapid fire repeating rifles and quality brass ammunition they most likely could have inflicted so many casualties on them Indians as to cause them to break off attack.

    • Nothing wrong with the Springfield Trapdoor. Thanks ammunition was too soft but the rifle packed a punch at great range. If they had not let the Indians get into their range they would have faired better. Experienced troopers might have helped also.

  15. I believe lt..Col. Clusters men lost at Little Big Horn because they were issued useless for combat single shot rifles and defective copper ammuntion that when fired swelled and got stuck in the chamber of the rifle. If his troops had been properly equipped with rapid firing repeating rifles and quality brass ammunition they most likely could have inflicted so man casualties on them Indians as to cause them to break off attack.

    • Really? I know this has been mentioned by some sources. However, it has largely been discredited. One thing to keep in mind is that this is the EXACT same weapon used by the Cavalry in ever other battle of the period. There were no claims of it malfunctioning by any other units during any other battle. Did it happen at all? Yep. Was it decisive? Nope. The carbine had excellent range and hitting power compared to the Winchester. It was slower. But overall it was a solid weapon.

      Thanks,

      John

  16. Hi…I find the little Big horn battle facinating..Im not as well versed as you guys but its so hard to say its a battle full of ‘what ifs’.Would sabres of saved the day?Maybe if Custer had kept the full regiment together and attacked in surprise yes that many horses and three foot lengths of steel hacking down on your family,women, kids and all would of panicked the very best.The camp would been thrown into major panic and may of won the day for Custer.But could he of got that close unnoticed to perform a Sabre charge before the horses were blown..Heap big village to maintain a charge through.Custer had turned,it seems into a excellent talker with the indians..but on this campaign he was out for glory he so often sort..was he looking at a bigger issue?President of The United States?I Dont think Sabres would of helped on this day.I think Custers ego had lost it already

  17. I appreciate the level of knowledge regarding Cavalry procedures and the possible outcome had the 7th been equipped with sabers.
    At the same time, I remember reading the history of a Denver restaurant and the owners claim of having the saber Custer wore on that fateful day. The excerpt that follows, if true, would indicate that at least Custer wore a saber.

    Excerpt from the website of the Denver Restaurant named The Buckhorn Exchange. “Another historic moment and most incredible scene was recorded in 1938 when Sitting Bull’s nephew, Chief Red Cloud, and a delegation of thirty Sioux and Blackfoot Indians rode slowly down Osage Street in full battle regalia, and ceremoniously turned over to Shorty Scout Zietz the military saber taken from the vanquished General George Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn. The sword remains in the Zietz family today.”

    http://www.buckhorn.com/history.php

  18. Well, I feel the need, as a fencer (I also performed HEMA) of speaking about a couple of point missed here. I know that in a western style fight cavalry sabres proved to be almost worthless from 1870 onwards.

    But I also remind that in the first half of the XIX century mexicans still used to great effect some cavalry tactics of the “cuera calvaryman” inherited from the spanish colonial times. Cueras always had to deal with small numbers on their side and the skirmishing nature of warfare against plain indians. But they did retain some valuable assets just in case of a close quarters combat: they wielded a sword, a lance (far better in a cavalry charge than the saber in most scenarios) and also carried a rifle. They also used a special set of body armor, consisting in a leather jacket with multiple thick layers that were particullary effective against indian arrows, and also offered some protection against knives and tomahawaks.

    Some may say that Crazy Horse men were equipped with repeating rifles, which is actually made any attempt of “last stand” a suicide, as it was. I also think that this firearms were pivotal in the indian victory, added to the close quarter fighting prowess of the plain men. It’s true and I’m not going to deny that.

    Western close-quarters weapons of the era were designed for an human wave attack or (in this case) a calvary charge: bayonets at sabres. Springfields had bayonets, but I think that as you had pointed out, soldiers were not so well trained in the use of their close quarters weapons as indians were (bayonet instruction was very basic in military manuals of that era).

    But, I have to break a lance in favour of the sabre. Why? Well, let’s face facts. Sabre wielding in Little Big Horn wouldn’t have surely saved the day, maybe (and just maybe) could delay the “last stand” of Custer to something a bit less one-sided.

    Because in the final charge, as well in the first (Reno escaping the indian charge at the camp) it would had provided a suitable ancillary weapon for matching plain knives and axes.

    As an historian I know that discipline and better decisions were what is was needed that day. Buy as I fenced I know that a capable man with a blade in his hands could hold off a charging man for a few minutes. Sabres were longer than the hand-to-hand weapons they face, so the indians may had a disadvantage when dealing with that (it’s funny how longer hand-to-hand combat weapons can deterr the charge of an oponent wielding a shorter one), forcing them to use other options (such as throwing their tomahawks or using bows and arrows at short range).

    Nevertheless, the 7th cavalry on that ridge was doomed, and they were so dispersed that even sabres wouldn’t had been effective. Indians had superior numbers and could (and they did) overrun quickly any defence.

    So, Why I am saying all of this? Well, in this kind of desperate close quarters battle any resource and weapon you have if priceless. They can make you last longer. It’s about “fighting to the end” and not dying under a knive charge when trying to desperately reload a trapdoor carbine. A romantic thought, I know, and maybe a futile gesture. But how we die when we lose a battle it’s as important (to me) as how we behave when we win one. We spaniars know (sadly) a lot about that. But I respect that for americans what it’s really worth is winning… always. But this is the story of a defeat, and I think that’s why is so shocking for you all.

  19. Sabers are difficult to weird and without training and practice they won’t do much good. With the modern weapons the range and rate of fire was increased from the Civil War and Crimea. With disciplined Veterans the result may have been better but not sabers. Reno attacks and unexpected large numbers not only resist but push him back. Those Troops making a organized rearward movement shouldn’t have had that much of a problem especially in the trees. Sabers on their belts would just trip them up. On the horses out of reach unless mounted. As the Natives closed a saber wouldn’t have been a deciding factor. In the trees it was too long possibly. Reno charging into the camp with Sabers would have been magnificent and deadly and confusing as they rode in but then what. Rally and ride back the way they came? Dismount and fight from the middle of the camp? His job was to keep the pressure up on his front while Custer made his move for the non combatants from another direction. Reno panicking his men into a route doomed those guys. Leaving Troopers in the trees without support or even making sure they knew everyone else was leaving was murder. Maybe a skilled Trooper could have used his saber effectively against natives riding along side to club him. By then the cohesion was lost and terror had spread.
    No, a saber charge by Reno would not have changed his outcome except they would have had casualties in the camp. A saber charge all the way through the camp and on to Custer might have done some good looking back but that wasn’t the plan.
    Custer’s men were taking long distance fire and his companies were too separated to effectively cover each other plus hills between them. They were separate forces. C Company I believe broke and came pouring over the hill to Keogh’s position and then the Natives closed right after them. Mounted Troopers with sabers might have had individual success but a mounted charge with pistols would be preferred. They couldn’t get far even with that. Reno’s collapse meant Native Warriors were adding to their front and flanks as time went on. Those individual Companies on foot retired towards the high ground. Sabers on their belts would have just tripped them up and added to the panic. Wherever the Natives closed they either stayed in the grass and fired practically point blank or when the Troopers had been weakened swarmed them. Even a skilled saber weilding soldier can’t do much to multiple attackers on foot.
    The horses up on LSH stampeded with ammunition and if they had sabers on their saddles then those would have gone along with the ammunition in the saddle bags.The final rush was after the Natives poured in small arms fire and arching arrow shots. I doubt many were unscathed by the time the Natives piunced on that position. 40 guys with many wounded taking casualties until the final arrow barrage from all sides. I think this last part of the action is where it was described as lasting as long as a hungry man eats his dinner.
    Piecemeal destruction of separated Companies could not be saved by sabers. It’s laughable.

    • Well said Gary!

      • Hey thanks! I just came across these later comments. I’ve read yours and we are in agreement.

  20. Yeah, I think it makes the most sense. It is certainly a battle that still draws a lot of interest.

    Thanks!

    John

  21. It wouldn’t have mattered. The Natives had better guns and would have shot Custer’s men before getting close enough to charge in.

  22. Bullshit

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