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