Comments Posted By Big_Mike
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THE BATTLE OF GREASY GRASS CREEK

Well, I've read Catton (and numerous other Civil War histories, though I have never been able to wade through the turgid prose of "Lee's Lieutenants") but I read Catton's trilogy a long time ago and failed to remember where I first heard the story about Custer. I really love his two-volume study of Grant.

Grant Moves South is one of my favorite Civil War histories. Catton was a master of prose who had no equal until Stephen Ambrose came on the scene.

ed.

Comment Posted By Big_Mike On 26.06.2008 @ 16:12

I can't resist correcting a couple mistakes from J. Ewing.

Custer and his men were *not* armed with "flintlocks." Some Confederates early in the Civil War were stuck with flintlocks, and as late as Chancellorsville numerous Confederates used smooth-bore muzzle-loading muskets, but by the 1870's the US Army was using cartridge rifles.

As far as Sioux weaponry is concerned, they couldn't have picked up much from Reno's troopers since he lost only about 30 men, give or take, in the dash across the river and up the face of the bluff. The Indians would have had weapons taken from ambushed travelers, and 80 rifles (including at least two 16-shot Henrys) from the Fetterman massacre. Apparently the Sioux got some rifles (called "Laramie carbines" by the soldiers) as trade goods following the 1868 treaty that ended Red Cloud's War. Given how many Indians (okay if I use that word?) were in the battle, I suspect that the vast majority were armed with bows and arrows.

During the Civil War Custer's cavalry were armed with 7-shot Spencer carbines, and they carried special cartridge boxes that had 6 tubes, each pre-loaded with 7 more cartridges. That's a lot of fire-power. However the Army in its wisdom replaced the Spencers with single-shot (but still breech-loading) carbines. I've read the analyses of modern gun authorities, and they assert that the new carbine out-ranged the Spencer. However the cartridges were copper, not brass, and continual firing may have heated the firing chamber to the point where the copper cartridges jammed. It would have been hard to clear the jam under any circumstances, and while under attack from mounted enemies ... I've also read that copper cartridges in leather cartridge boxes are prone to develop a greasy coating that would have burned in a hot firing chamber, making jams even more likely and much more difficult to clear. I don't know if that's true, but it does seem plausible. At any rate, after a short while the troopers would have been reduced to using handguns which are outranged by bows.

(And don't forget that bows and arrows have a much higher cyclical rate of fire than single-shot rifles, so don't feel bad for the Cheyennes and Sioux that used them in the face of Custer's troopers.)

It's not implausible to me that some of Custer's men -- many of whom were raw recruits -- broke, threw down their carbines, and ran. I never heard of this happening in Viet Nam, but it seems to have happened in some battles in World War I. Nor is it implausible that some killed themselves or were in suicide pacts. Eyewitness accounts of Indian torture of living captives were well-known from pre French and Indian war days, and even if some tribes didn't use torture before the coming of the white man, they would have rapidly glommed on to the fact that white men were terrified of torture and could be counted on to kill themselves instead of fighting to very end. Well, what would *you* do in their shoes (moccasin or cavalry boot, either one)? If you were falling back and saw a friend go down, still alive but too wounded to retreat with you and about to be taken captive -- to die slowly and in excruciating pain -- would you leave him to his fate or would you put a bullet into his brain? If you were down to your last bullet in your revolver and faced capture and torture how would you use that bullet? (Okay, I'd like to think that I'd use it to kill an enemy and hope to force them to kill me in the hand-to-hand fighting but I'm safely at a desk in front of a computer, some 1000 miles and 232 years removed from the decision faced by a trooper of the 7th Cavalry.)

As regards Custer, he comes across to me as utterly impetuous, and since he was effectively rewarded for it by being made a brevet general only a short time out of West Point, this negative trait was highly reinforced. There's a story from the Civil War where his commander and staff were on the banks of river debating about whether it was fordable. Custer finally decided to end the debate by riding his horse into the middle of the river, where the water was about a foot below his horse's belly. They he turned to his commander and yelled "This is how deep it is, General." (Apocryphal? I can't find a reference I trust.)

Also, he won the Battle of the Washita with hardly any casualties, so he probably expected to do much the same at Little Big Horn. Certainly the tactics look like a refinement of his attack on Black Kettle's village. Does that resonate with anybody? The US took down Afghanistan with ease and had no trouble establishing a stable government that looks more like a democracy than anything since the days of Tamerlane. Why wouldn't it work just as well in Iraq?

Your story about Custer fording the river is not apocraphal. It appears in Catton's Mr. Lincoln's Army and the "commander" Custer shouted his "This is how deep it is" remark was none other than General McClellan. Custer was absolutely disgusted with Little Mac's dilly dallying on the Penninsula (he thought McClellan's cautious approach cost them a huge victory and the capture of Richmond. He was right). As Catton tells it (gleaned from several regimental histories) Little Mac stopped the entire column and was pouring over a map looking for a place to ford. Custer lost his patience and found out for him.

ed.

Comment Posted By Big_Mike On 26.06.2008 @ 13:55

Responding to your question. Benteen arrived at the bluffs later, and the pack train later yet. I know it's not authoritative, but I double checked with wikipedia, and they confirm the times (I did learn something new from wikipedia, though, because I always thought that Charley Reynolds was a white scout and was the scout whose brains splattered Reno. Wiki says I'm wrong on both counts.)

Comment Posted By Big_Mike On 26.06.2008 @ 12:40

I think you've got a couple of your facts wrong. Benteen was not leading the 3rd prong of a 3-pronged attack. He himself viewed his assignment to ride off in another direction as a way to get him out of the way so he and his men couldn't share the glory. And it was Reno who let his troops Hell-for-leather up to the bluff. Reno doesn't seem to have been particularly competent, but early in his (mistimed) attack he was splattered by the blood and brains of his leading scout and it seems to have panicked him. He was later cashiered from the Army for a Peeping Tom incident. Benteen and his men joined Reno later and appears to have taken operational command from the more senior Reno. The troops on the bluff assumed that Custer had abandoned them to their fate, probably not dreaming that it was more of less the other way around.

It is possible I confused Reno and Benteen's assignments - should have re read but I distinctly remember Reno's high tailing it from the south end of the village in a running skirmish up the bluffs where he joined Benteen. Am I misremembering that?

ed.

Comment Posted By Big_Mike On 25.06.2008 @ 15:50


 


 


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