Custer’s Last Stand and The Strategy of Defeat

Hi Fred, thanks so much for the interview.

You’ve done pretty amazing work on Custer’s Last Stand.

First, you wrote “Participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn: A Biographical Dictionary of Sioux, Cheyenne and United States Military Personnel,” a 2011 reference work identifying every participant in the Little Big Horn battle, published by McFarland & Company. 978-0-7864-6289-6-2

The biographical dictionary is so thorough it includes civilians, civilian employees, scouts, horses, uniforms and weapons, among other things.

Now, you’re produced “The Strategy of Defeat at the Little Big Horn: A Military and Timing Analysis of the Battle,” also to be published by McFarland.

51gqEDh0RdL._AA160_The latest book, headed for a January release, contains 53 pages of charts and 18 pages of source notes. Another 1,200 or 1,300 endnotes are included as well as 23 photos, four appendices, seven additional charts and 12 maps.

fred_wagnerFred spent ten years as a Regular Army officer and an officer in the New York Army National Guard. He’s a former paratrooper, Army ranger, and Special Forces-trained psychological operations expert as well as a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and company commander. He wrote the divisional Standing Operating Procedures (SOP) manual for convoy operations in a guerilla warfare environment, First Infantry Division, Di-An, Vietnam, 1966 – 1967. Following that, he spent twenty-four years on Wall Street. He’s now on the Little Big Horn Associate Research Review editorial board.

Q. How did you gather this much information? Did you have a method?

A. I have always been a prolific note-taker… probably because of my Catholic education, but maybe because I have always been interested in collecting “names” associated with certain events.

"Little Big Horn" by Howard Terpning

Whenever I find interesting anecdotes associated with a name or event, I add to it and after a while compelling stories develop. Today’s computers and their programs facilitate this collection process and the organizing of the data becomes fun for me.

Q. What did you conclude about the battle? What WAS the strategy of defeat?

A. The “strategy” of George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn lies in the interpretation of the orders he received from his boss, Brigadier General Alfred Howe Terry.

Gen. Alfred Terry
Gen. Alfred Terry

Controversy rages here, for there are some who feel Custer, because of a certain operational latitude Terry granted him in his orders… this, despite Terry’s expressed wishes to the contrary, was justified in not ascending the full length of the Rosebud Creek valley once he discovered the direction of the Indian trail.Camp-on-The-Little-Big-Horn-1886

Others feel that latitude did not pertain to subverting Terry’s desires, especially in light of the commander’s known wishes for concerted action involving his infantry forces.

Curley, Custer's Crow scout

Curley, Custer’s Crow scout


Custer’s tactics must be viewed with this in mind, for had he followed the letter of his instructions his tactics would have been invariably different.

The strategy employed to accomplish his mission was sound—as were the ultimate tactics employed—but it was the subversion of that strategy—leading to those tactics—and then the subversion of the tactics that led to his defeat.

Photograph of Chief Brave Bear of the Southern Cheyennes, taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s. A veteran of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Brave Bear was "elected" by other Indians as the man who killed Custer at a council held in 1909, although none really knew the identity of Custer's killer.
Chief Brave Bear of the Southern Cheyennes, was “elected” by other Indians as the man who killed Custer, although nobody really knew.

Had George Custer followed his orders as intended, his tactics would have changed, clearly, and while no guaranty of success, the outcome could have very well been different.

Q. Custer has many critics and many defenders. Which are you?

A. I am a critical defender of George Custer.

His orders aside, Custer performed as many military men would have… with some exceptions.

Little_Big_Horn_BattleUnfortunately, those exceptions got him killed, but they were exceptions within the man’s make-up, within the man’s history, and within the man’s experience.

Custer was an aggressive commander, but on this day he took too many risks and committed the classic blunders of an over-confident commander: refusal to heed the signs his scouts warned him about; underestimating the size and intentions of his enemy; not keeping his subordinate commanders informed; and allowing his divided command to fall away from mutual support.

Too many people blame both this division of command and his tactics for the regiment’s defeat, but neither, specifically, is the case.

Comanche, one of only two or three horses who survived the battle

Comanche, one of only two or three horses which survived the battle


As he subverted the strategic plans, so he subverted his tactical plans by allowing these subordinates to fall away with no support.

 Q. How did you figure out when each event occurred in the battle? Custer's_Last_Stand

A. This was a long, hard, time-consuming process, aided substantially by organizing within computer software.

For some time I have believed if you do not understand the time events occurred—as precisely as possible—you cannot understand the battle of the Little Big Horn: too many events and too many personalities are interwoven.

Therefore, I set out to accumulate as much primary source material as I could find, and I developed 233 individual “profiles” (more than 80 of which are Native Americans)—some 810 pages—of battle participants and contemporaries, making a record of what they had to say.

Kicking Bear's visual depiction of Little Big Horn.

 From there, I broke the battle into 37 separate events which I labeled “incident reports” and culled the “profiles” to fill the “incident reports.”


This turned into some 605 Excel pages of 5,583 lines forming 33,498 separate Excel modules of data and descriptive explanations to draw from.

Armed with all this, I set out to draw up a time study for every significant occurrence of June 25, 1876, including the movements of single individuals.

"A sketch of Crazy Horse believed to be accurate. It was drawn in 1934 by a sketch artist interviewing Crazy Horse's daughter, who claimed it was an accurate image."
A sketch of Crazy Horse drawn in 1934 by an artist who interviewed Crazy Horse’s sister.

If and when stymied by obscure or seemingly undeterminable factors, I made three trips to the battlefield, meeting friends and walking, measuring, and discussing every conceivable aspect of the fight.

In addition, two other friends rode various routes—on horseback—and provided me with speed and GPS measurements to confirm or re-compute the data I had already developed.

Bugle found at Little Big Horn

This entire process—from first trip to last—took six years… and I am retired!

The key, however, was “listening” to what these men—and women—told us, and then using my ten years of military experience to assess their viability.

Q. So many people are fascinated with Little Big Horn; including, obviously, you. What do you find fascinating? 

Lt. James Bradley, who discovered the bodies. He was killed the next year during the Nez Pierce war.
Lt. James Bradley, who discovered the bodies. He was killed the next year during the Nez Pierce war.

A. It is a mystery, Julia; an unsolvable mystery.

No white men survived the Custer mélée and Indian accounts are frequently discounted as inaccurate, distorted, unreliable, and mostly recorded well after the fact.

Every conceivable aspect of the battle is in some sort of dispute, including the proper spelling of the river that gave it its name. Studying the battle of the Little Big Horn is like tearing the last ten pages out of a Ngaio Marsh mystery. 

The Far West steamboat, which evacuated the wounded
The Far West steamboat, which evacuated the wounded

Q. Did you discover anything other researchers have missed?

A. Yes… a fairly good amount, but you will have to wait for the book’s publication.

I will give you one tantalizing tidbit, however: there is a very good reason explaining the mystery of why the marble markers of Myles Keogh’s battalion are so haphazardly scattered… and clumped. 

Myles Keogh
Myles Keogh

Q. Was the archeological information important?

A. Immensely important! The archaeological work done in various sectors over a number of years has been brilliant… unquestionably brilliant! One of its most important and least understood factors is its confirming of any number of Indian accounts of the battle’s various stages and occurrences.

In my opinion, the most important single detail is confirmation of Indian accounts of the battle’s south-north flow. 

Visiting the battlefield, 1877.
Visiting the battlefield, 1877

When we look at the terrain, when we analyze the archaeological findings, when we “chronologize” the various warrior accounts, then compare all this to accounts (primarily aural… yes, accounts of sounds heard) left us by the Reno-Benteen survivors, we can make some extremely good assumptions.

It should be stressed here, as well, this was a military event and military events take on a certain predictability. This is all supported by the archaeological work.

 A soldier's saddle D-ring found at LBH
A soldier’s saddle D-ring found at LBH

Q. Did anyone participating in LBH know what they were doing or was it merely reaction on both sides?

A. It was a reaction, clearly, by the Indians.

I believe—equally clearly—the three major army figures—George Custer, Major Marcus Reno, and Captain Fred Benteen—were fully aware, at almost all times, what they were doing. 

Marcus Reno
Marcus Reno

In some ways—several clearer than others—all three men were surprised by events and how those events unfolded. Custer, by the final realization he was no longer in control of events; Reno, by the breakdown of his command; and Benteen, by a sudden reversal of what he was led to believe was happening.

It was also Benteen’s quick actions and responses that saved the rest of the regiment.

Custer’s actions—supported by Indian accounts—indicate he was in control and on the offensive until the last 40 minutes of the battle. Only then did he come under so much pressure and his command so divided and so unable to support other elements that he finally realized what he had done.

Q. While researching your first book, who did you find most interesting, or the handful you found the most interesting (besides Custer), and why? 

Major Frederick Benteen
Major Frederick Benteen

A. In Participants, I found the appendices the most fun and the most interesting to put together.

If memory serves me correct, there were some 2,300+ bios, but they took their own form as I gathered data over a 12-or-so-year period.

Breaking down those data led me into so many other interesting areas, such as uniforms worn; Indian camps leading to the Little Big Horn; who fought with whomever; who fought against whomever; where Indians were located as the battle progressed; where the various companies of the Seventh Cavalry were stationed… and so much more.

As for individuals, many of the more anonymous names were the most interesting.

To discover that a soldier who died with Custer or with Reno had a living descendent in Ohio or New Jersey and I could meet that person and talk about his ancestor became absolutely fascinating to me.

Custer scouts meeting sometime between 1880-1900
Custer scouts meeting sometime between 1880-1900

As for a specific individual, Captain Frederick William Benteen stands foremost in my mind and clearly the most interesting: A man of incredible, unparalleled bravery, an indomitable spirit.

The military historian and writer, Colonel William A. Graham, wrote of Benteen, “… his known character and the habit of his entire life refutes the imputation that at any time or in any circumstances he failed in his duty as an officer and a soldier. He fought as he had lived, fearless, uncompromising, and grimly stern. Benteen was one of the best soldiers the United States Army has ever possessed.”

Benteen, 1885
Benteen, 1885

Yet of all the characters in the play, Fred Benteen remains the most reviled: to some, the man who betrayed George Armstrong Custer, America’s Everyman.

 Q. I’ve felt the LBH has a meaning beyond the obvious, perhaps even a spiritual side. Does that make any sense to you? 

Lt. Tom Custer, who died with his brother.
Lt. Tom Custer, who died with his brother.

A. In some ways, yes… absolutely. Let us not forget, even though this was a great Indian victory—maybe their greatest as a people—it spelled the death knell of their way of life.

Except for some obstinate exceptions, even the greatest of all Plains Indians warriors—Crazy Horse—had been corralled and in many cases, dead.

Only in the Southwest was there any real resistance to the inevitable, and the pitiful events of Wounded Knee paled in comparison to the expenditures of the 1850s – 1870s.

(The Indians’) spiritual ancestors had deserted them and science, technology, and the march of progress had supplanted a seasonal, nomadic, and possibly even spiritual existence. 

Fighting leader of the combined Sioux tribes at LBH
Gall, fighting leader of the combined Sioux tribes at LBH

Q. Taking a look at American battles, from the Revolution through Iraq and Afghanistan, how does LBH fit in? Did the Seventh Cavalry display any of the same strengths and weaknesses we see in the Army today?

A. First of all, the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn may be the most ignominious defeat ever suffered by a reasonably large U. S. military force. For sheer “awakening” affect, it rivals our defeat at the hands of Rommel’s Afrika Korps at early Kasserine.

Little_Bighorn_Battlefield_National_MonumentThe Little Big Horn is a picture-perfect example of how a battle should not be fought, how communications can be muddled, how command instructions should not be handled, how important training should be, and so many other mundane military matters, not the least of which should be the emphasis placed on the part terrain plays in warfare.

Secondly, it needs to be studied even more and its lessons learned, over and over again, indelibly.

In the military it is of paramount importance that subordinates be kept informed, communications open, reconnaissance maintained, and an enemy never underestimated. 7cav

 Q. What are you working on now?

A. What else? Another book about the Little Big Horn. Two, in fact. One—already written, but needing revision—a historical novel of the battle, using the findings of Strategy; and a multi-volume work using the profiles I developed for Strategy.

Nowhere can a researcher find—in a single reference work—virtually everything the participants in the Little Big Horn fight—and their contemporaries—had to say about the battle. I would like to remedy that.

And if McFarland & Company’s appetite for the Little Big Horn is still as strong as it has been, we should see that work within the next couple of years.

Day 26 Little Bighorn, MT 051


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