“I have had but little experience in Indian fighting, and Custer has had much, and he is sure he can whip anything he meets.” – Brigadier General Alfred Terry

George Armstrong Custer possessed what has often been referred to as “Custer’s luck.” His uncanny ability to always be “in the right place at the right time” had served him well throughout his career. The colorful cavalryman was well accustomed to victory; his bold methods enabled him to repeatedly pull victory from the jaws of defeat. But, in a cruel and ironic twist of fate, that “luck” ultimately led to his own demise.

With Custer, decisions were made based largely on intuition, drawing on his experiences in war, coupled with an audacity and bravado typical of a cavalry commander of the period. He freely and enthusiastically embraced risk. For a man who had never lost a battle, however, his experiences were extremely limited in scope and, as such, resulted in a recklessly myopic disregard for the unpredictable nature of war.

Custer’s “luck” blinded him to the reality of the ebb and flow of battle, the friction and uncertainty common to war. His decisions in battle were representative of “methodism,” the unthinking application of actions learned through experience without regard to the consequences. Within the human mind, intuition is inextricably linked to experience, knowledge, perception, and character; more than any other single factor, intuition is fundamental to human decision making. For a leader like Custer, intuition was a fatal flaw.

Custer’s previous experiences did not shape his intuition for the dynamic nature of his environment. He was a veteran cavalryman accustomed to simple cause-and-effect relationships: when he made a decision, he could witness the results without significant delay. The notion that the effects of his decisions could be delayed by hours – or even days – was completely foreign to him. Similarly, he would not have accepted the suggestion that his decisions could spin out of control without his knowledge.

In war, there exists no singularity of action: every action will result in a reaction at some point in space and time. Recognizing, understanding, and anticipating the complex nature of warfare – an ability developed through a wide range of experience in equally diverse situations – enables leaders to make qualitatively better decisions. In battle, the commander who possesses that ability has a decided advantage over their opponent. From Cedar Creek to Washita, Custer’s decision making exhibited dangerous parallels that would haunt the 7th Cavalry.

Custer’s Ride Into Chaos

In planning the Little Big Horn campaign, Brigadier General Alfred Terry, Colonel John Gibbon, and Custer lacked the situational understanding necessary to make sound, informed decisions prior to committing to action. Sitting Bull’s commune with Wakan Tanka fundamentally altered the preconditions for battle; his vision of the “upside down soldiers” set in motion a chain of events that, when combined with “Custer’s Luck”, would effectively seal the fate of the 7th Cavalry.

The assumptions and decisions that ultimately framed their plan, and each individual subsequent decision contributed additional momentum to a system rapidly accelerating out of control. Into the midst of this chaos rode Custer, his defeat was as inevitable as any in history. With a flawed instinct for battle, Custer was already mired in a vicious cycle, in which events began badly and grew increasingly worse with the passage of time. The same intuitive decisions that had characterized “Custer’s luck” since the Civil War would catapult him into a violent, unforgiving battle that would leave the remains of 257 cavalrymen strewn across the grassy hills of southeastern Montana.

Crazy Horse, the enigmatic Oglala war chief, made the first decision of consequence, choosing to adopt the aggressive tactics of the “bluecoats” in fulfillment of Sitting Bull’s vision. This decision, combined with a growing Lakota confederation drawn to that vision, achieved a unity of purpose and effort rare among the various tribes of the Sioux nation. They carried this momentum into their encounter with Brigadier General George Crook at the Battle of the Rosebud, an unusually violent engagement where the Lakota and Cheyenne demonstrated a willingness to accept casualties rather than disengage.

Exhausted and bloodied, Crook chose to declare victory and withdraw his forces from the engagement, making no effort to inform Terry of the tactics now employed by the Sioux. Crook’s decision was the single inexplicable action during the campaign; he possessed the one element of information that could have interrupted the vicious cycle but chose instead not to share it.

Without the benefit of that information, Terry’s chose to split his forces into two columns, effectively dividing his combat power, a decision that effectively isolated Custer’s forces in space. Custer, in turn, chose to follow a trail that led directly into the Little Big Horn Valley, isolating the 7th Cavalry in time. Combined, those decisions ensured that at whatever point Custer encountered the Lakota, he would do so alone, without significant support or reinforcement.

As his column approached the divide separating the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn, Custer had one opportunity to halt the chain of events rapidly gaining momentum. Having received reports of the enormity of the Sioux village, in conjunction with the many signs on the trail of a village of incalculable proportions, he rode to the Crow’s Nest to see for himself. Since the haze prevented him from confirming the mounting facts, Custer committed what is recognized today as a de minimus error: the information he was receiving was inconsistent with his experiences, so he chose to discount any evidence that indicated a village and confederation of historical proportion.

A simple kind of man

Custer proceeded toward the village, conceiving a plan “on the fly” that would enable his forces to complete their assigned mission alone. Not surprisingly, Custer’s subsequent execution of that plan bore remarkable similarities to every significant encounter he had experienced during the Indian Wars. Custer was many things to many people, but he remained a dangerously simple man under the intense duress of combat.

He ordered his most experienced officer, Captain Frederick Benteen, on a reconnaissance to the south, essentially to gather information while blocking any attempted Indian retreat in that direction. When he thought he might lose the element of surprise, he launched his most inexperienced officer, Major Marcus Reno, into a charge to flush the warriors from the village while he led five troops around the northern edge of the village to block the withdrawal of the noncombatants.

Here, the effects Custer’s decisions on the growing momentum of the “vicious cycle” are increasingly evident. Had Custer encountered the rear guard of the approaching village even two hours earlier, he would likely have ordered Benteen, his most seasoned Indian fighter, to take the pursuit.  Reno, although a veteran of the Civil War, had little frontier experience and was more suited to the reconnaissance and blocking action assigned to Benteen. But Custer was hopelessly following his battle-tested instincts and intuition. Events were already spinning out of his control, along with any chance of slowing a decision cycle rapidly descending into chaos.

Reno charged his column blindly into the village with pistols drawn high, in full expectation of flushing the warriors from their lodges. But his own limited experience had not prepared him for what occurred next: the warriors rode out in a wild fury to meet his charge. Fear paralyzed him with indecision. He ordered his men to dismount, then remount and withdraw to a nearby cottonwood grove. He directed his men to dismount again. Then, inexplicably, he called a retreat, abandoned his force south of the river, and made his own escape to the bluffs on the other side.

The real Last Stand and the Men of Reno Hill

Custer’s fate was virtually sealed. When Benteen found a hysterical Reno atop the bluffs with only the shattered remnants remaining of his command, the old cavalryman chose to halt his forces and establish a makeshift defense. Benteen’s decision surely saved the lives of the men on Reno Hill. He could not have overtaken Custer and joined in a heroic “Last Stand” in the hills above the far end of the village.

Benteen’s decision also sealed Custer’s fate. The warriors adopted a textbook economy of force operation at Reno Hill and brought the mass of their forces to bear on Custer’s isolated battalion. As command and control dissolved into anarchy, the code of the akicita reigned supreme on the battlefield and the warriors systematically decimated the dispirited and disorganized remnants of Custer’s command. There was no heroic last stand, no final moment of glory for the famed cavalryman.

When Custer passed his last written order to Private John Martini, he looked down into Medicine Tail Coulee. For a brief moment in time, he stood at the very edge of Chaos: “the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive.” Then, confident as ever, he led his force headlong into the full fury of the great Sioux nation.

In the aftermath of battle, the Lakota dispersed from the valley under the cover of smoke from the burning prairie grass. As Custer’s intuition would have foretold, the confederation dissolved, lasting less than a week; such alliances rarely endured. An enraged government launched a full-scale offensive against the Sioux, eventually capturing both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. And, as Red Cloud predicted, the entire Sioux nation followed him to the reservations.

Making the Simple Decision

Custer was not a victim of disobedience, cowardice, or even his own zeal for glory. Rather, he was a victim of human nature, the tendency of man to make simple, logical decisions regardless of the complexity of his environment. He was a victim of his own limited experience, his legendary past, and his renowned luck. Ultimately, his intuition, flawed and imperfect, led him to make decisions that assured his destiny, the very place in history he had so diligently sought.

The defeat of the 7th Cavalry, however tragic in retrospect, imparted lessons that prove contemporarily invaluable. Intuition developed and honed through a lifetime of experience, education, and observation is inseparable from decision making. Little Big Horn taught us that planning for simplicity is analogous to scheduling failure.

Nothing in war is simple.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.