The Northern Plains were alive with tension between the Natives and the American military charged with keeping the peace during the summer of 1876. Civil War hero Lt. Col. George A. Custer was itching for a fight after nearly two uneventful years at Fort Abraham Lincoln and he found it at the Little Big Horn.
Custer scholars have dissected the events leading up to the battle and the conflict itself for over 100 years, and multitudes of books and articles have been published furthering one theory or another. The subject is so immense that it behooves us to narrow in on one aspect which particularly intrigues me.
Aside from the fact that Custer ignored direct orders as to the movement of his troops, thus placing the men immediately under his command in mortal danger, there is a more fundamental error in judgment which could have changed everything.
Crow scout Bloody Knife and the half-breed Mitch Bouyer who voluntarily accompanied the 7th Cavalry, had found disturbing evidence of a larger enemy presence than even Reno’s reconnaissance had related (an estimated 800 warriors). They reportedly found prairie “so furrowed by thousands of travois poles that it resembled a plowed field.”
Despite these warnings, Custer’s paramount concern seemed to be the fear of letting the Sioux slip away without a fight. Bob Lee, in his 1998 book, Black Hills Notebook, cites a June 6th telegram from General Sheridan (which was inexplicably delayed until five days after the battle) revising the enemy estimates upward to 3,000 – thus suggesting that poor field communications also played a role in the outcome. Whether Custer would have heeded this intelligence (even if it had been available to him) is of course, problematical.
So the question here is, what if Custer had believed his scout’s dire warnings that, as Mitch Bouyer was reputed to say, “If we go in there, we will never come out”?