By Robert J. Kershaw. Ian Allan Publishing, 2005. 223 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index.  £19.99.*

Robert Kershaw is no stranger to the student of military history. His first book ‘It Never Snows in September’ appeared in 1990 and described the story of the Battle of Arnhem from the German standpoint, based on German documents and interviews with German survivors. By that time he had served 18 years in the Parachute Regiment, had attended the Fuehrungs-akadamie in Hamburg and had been an instructor at the Bundeswehr schools for Infantry, Airborne and Mountain warfare. Subsequently he was to write books covering the Overlord Operation and Operation Barbarossa.  With active service tours in the Gulf, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, Colonel Kershaw brings to this historical perspective the experience of a veteran serving officer.

In 2001, he was to be the senior officer co-ordinating a UK Land Command Exercise, Greasy Grass. (Another exercise that year Western Trail involved British Army Staff Officers and which included participants from the Custer Association of Great Britain.) These involved what is known as a Tactical Exercise Without Troops, loosely based on the concept of the Prussian Staff Ride, and were under the overall direction of Dr. Jerold Brown, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth. This book directly stems from the lessons learned by one British Army participant following that exercise.

It should be emphasised from the beginning that this is not strictly a history book in the sense that most of us would understand the term. It does not specifically consider the events of 1866-1876 in the context of their own time. Rather, its implied and express purpose is to analyse the difficulties of military operations in the Northern Plains and consider them in comparison to the situations likely to be encountered by the forces of the United Kingdom and United States, in what is now termed “out of area” Expeditionary Warfare. In June 2001, these were in their infancy. Although limited scale operations had been underway outside Europe, notably in Somalia, major operations had been confined to the Balkans and these basically involved Peace Enforcement Missions. The spectre of Expeditionary Warfare embracing the full range of war-fighting followed the climacteric of 11 September and shows no sign of diminishing.

Kershaw comments that the American Army had no means of applying the lessons of failure in a uniform manner, noting that the lessons of the Fetterman affair of 1866 were not learned in time for the 1876 campaign. But as the experience of Powell the following August demonstrated the superiority of sustained firepower, the Army might have been forgiven for thinking that the 21 December 1866 engagement was an aberration, due to the incompetence of the force commander. Kershaw notes that the Indians rapidly absorbed the technology of their adversaries in terms of handguns and describes Indian war fighting tactics. He makes a number of pertinent observations with regard to the problems inherent in campaigning across a wide, largely uncharted, geographical area against a highly mobile adversary, whose military doctrine was as elusive to the Army as the Army’s doctrine was as irrelevant to the circumstances which they confronted. Given his sources, Colonel Kershaw’s observations seem to this civilian to be well-based and cogent. But there is a caveat here. It is quite possible that had he carried out still more extensive research his conclusions might well have been refined and in some ways modified. The Sioux War of 1876 was an anachronism in some ways. There were, however, precedents, one successful (the 1874-75 Red River War), and the 1865 expeditions to the Powder River country of which Kershaw is apparently unaware. Had there been any form of institutionalised system of learning from experience, Crook’s notorious “horse meat march” of 1876 might well have been averted as the problems of supply in 1865 had not been fully overcome by 1876. Some lessons may not have been learned by the Army as a result of the 1876 conflict but then no war quite like it was to be fought again by the United States on its own soil. Some lessons were learned: target practice was increased to 240 rounds per person per annum from 90 rounds per man following the 1876 disaster. The School of Application for Infantry and Cavalry was established at Fort Leavenworth in 1881, but the principal focus was the developments in warfare foreshadowed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, not the threat posed by the Indian. Officers, such as Godfrey, who wrote on the problems of Indian warfare, tended to be in a minority. He was to remark that troops, even with appropriate training, needed to be exposed to Indian warfare gradually as inexperienced personnel would simply disintegrate under attack, as he had discovered in 1876. Whittaker, in 1876, had also remarked that man for man, the average individual trooper was no match for the average warrior. But the lack of Congressional funding and the insufficiency of regular forces, properly equipped and trained for the kind of operations that they might face, led inevitably to serious reverse on occasion.

The lack of funding to establish military posts in the appropriate locations; the lack of training for both horses and their riders; the lack of experience and also the lack of basic equipment – 15% of the 7th’s enlisted men lacked horses when they left Fort Abraham Lincoln, a point brought out by Kershaw – to some degree find their echo in recent military deployments. Intelligence in 1876 would have been largely based on the observations of a handful of individuals operating possibly dozens, or even hundreds, of miles from the Force Commanders. By the time information was received, evaluated, and acted upon, it was so stale as it be virtually useless. (One example can be found in Terry’s appreciation of May 15, 1876.  He thought that the hostiles, with some 1,500 lodges, were located between the Little Missouri and the Powder. In reality, there were then only some 400 lodges and they were on the Tongue, hundreds of miles from where Terry placed them.)

With regard to Custer’s last campaign itself, Kershaw feels (on p.84) that Terry’s “written orders provided total flexibility for Custer, should he see fit, to diverge from them.”  But by p.98 we learn that Custer was “technically disobeying orders.” Which is correct?  He cannot have disobeyed discretionary orders. He feels that Terry’s Instructions were “were actually more about attacking Indians than a village.” But this seems hard to accept given that the word attack does not appear anywhere in the document and Terry was more concerned with a movement that would ensure that “their [the Indians] escape will be impossible.”  Nor can one accept that the operational area was “100 square miles”: Does he mean 100 miles square? (100 miles times 100 miles.) This problem appears elsewhere in the volume. Colonel Kershaw seems to have difficulty with areas and dimensions in his book!   

He emphasises that it would have been better for Custer to have delivered an attack in regimental strength from the south. No doubt if Custer had believed when he committed Reno that the village was not dispersing he would have done this. But the point Kershaw makes was not lost on the 7th’s officers that day either, Moylan making a similar observation following Reno’s retreat to the bluffs. With regard to Custer’s own movement, Kershaw generally follows the time frame suggested by Gray, but one suspects that he is uncomfortable with it. He points out that Gray was not a military man and Gray’s analysis allowed no time for hesitancy, or the need to react to events as they unfolded. Indeed, one has the impression that there were a number of “loose ends” in his mind which Kershaw could never fully resolve.  For example, Kershaw has Reno’s action commencing at 1500 hours, with Custer not reaching Weir Point until 1523-34. That would mean that Reno would have been in action for nearly half an hour by that time. But Trumpeter Martini made it clear that the village was still quiet when they were on the bluffs overlooking the village. According to the Arikara scouts who scaled the bluffs east of the village at the opening stage of the action, the rear of Custer’s column was descending Cedar Coulee and some soldiers fired on them, mistaking them for hostiles. Kershaw also has Yates’ movement towards the Miniconjou Ford at 1618 hours without explaining why it would have taken his squadron 45 minutes to cover the 2 miles from below Weir Point.  He quotes Indian testimony that says that the fight was of short duration, but in one of his maps he has it going on for another hour and a half. However, his estimate of carbine discharge rates at 12 to 13 per minute – the sergeants would have been pleased – suggests that the ammunition with Custer’s men would have been totally expended within 10 minutes! 

This reviewer feels that the author has drawn too many conclusions from the limited data that he has had to work with. He doesn’t comprehend Custer’s thinking and thus assumes, by default, that the inexplicable is explained by fatigue. Fatigue is a very pertinent point and it applies throughout the history of warfare. But this was not peculiar to Custer, or the 7th. On 25 June, Terry, with Gibbon’s cavalry, marched until midnight, halting only 15 miles north of Custer’s position. It is doubtful that they had much sleep either! Nor does Kershaw analyse Custer’s military options when he reached the Nye-Cartwright area. Why did Custer only feint towards the Miniconjou Ford with two companies and not five, if he did?  (The evidence is far from conclusive on this point.) Why did he not fall back on his support, or go firm in the Weir Point area? (Although there was no water supply available there, the ground would have provided a sufficiently large area for the five companies to concentrate and deploy defensively, pending reinforcement from Benteen and McDougall.) Alternatively, why did he not pull his depleted wing eastward in the direction of Godfrey Ridge, as it is now called, which is where Dr. Kuhlman thought he went? Why were the companies scattered over such a large area around Battle Ridge, if they were not annihilated until around 1745 to 1800, given that they had apparently assembled in that location an hour earlier? Why had Custer not moved rapidly to the edge of the river, north-west of Custer Hill to secure a sustained water supply and in consequence menace the Indian village from the north? (It was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit that day and the soldiers and horses were parched.) Why did Custer not “seek to establish a consolidated regimental defensive position”? The Indians, after all, had not left Reno’s position until 1600 and many did not join in the action until nearer 1700. That is 90 minutes, according to Kershaw, after Custer reached Weir Point, only 2 miles south east of Custer Hill, a distance that he could have covered in 20 minutes. Custer had plenty of time to organise his forces, if Kershaw’s timings are correct. Kershaw’s tactical observations are well presented, but one feels that he is utterly bemused by Custer’s thought processes, and may possibly have misread the entire situation that confronted Custer and thus his dispositions. If the Indians were not deployed for combat when Custer’s troops entered Medicine Tail Coulee and the northern end of the village not alerted, Custer may well have made his dispositions on premises totally different to those considered by Kershaw.

The author has produced some excellent maps and diagrams and the voluminous photographs include many of those he took on Exercise Greasy Grass. His observations on the similarity of the terrain occupied by Fetterman, Royall and Custer, and the manner in which the Indians exploited it, are especially perceptive. His description of the reactions and responses of troops in combat are excellent. He also dismisses the idea that internecine rivalry and jealousy within the 7th materially affected the outcome of the engagement. “‘Lo’, the fearsome Indian, concentrated the mind. He was the problem, not other commanders.” But he is probably right in this observation: “Custer’s cavalry were trained for ceremony, not war.” His analysis of the fighting capabilities of the two sides is excellent. These aspects are well covered, though it would have been useful for him to have indicated the extent to which the circumstances in 1876 were typical in Plains Warfare. Technically, this book introduces factors usually omitted from studies of the battle. The military student will find this an excellent work with much to commend it.

But what of the traditional Custer “buff.” What will he (or she) make of it? The overwhelming feeling might justifiably be one of some dismay at the incredible number of foolish mistakes! Some examples at random:- Sergeant Finlay (sic) was not in Calhoun’s company, but Tom Custer’s (p.11); Carrington’s infantry was drawn from the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry, which became the 27th Infantry, not the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry (p.16); Powell was not present during the 6th December skirmish outside Fort Phil Kearney – he stayed in the fort despite being ordered to join Carrington – and Brown was a captain, not a lieutenant (p.17). Sheridan’s name was Philip Henry, not Phillip N. (p.33) and by 1868 he commanded the Division of the Missouri, not the Department; Crook was promoted to Brigadier General from Lieutenant Colonel in 1873, not “after 1874” (p.35); Custer’s prolonged absence prior to the 1876 campaign was not entirely related to the Belknap investigation – he had been on extensive leave as well (p.54); the Sioux War would not decide Custer’s rate of promotion, that was on the basis of seniority – and Custer was 36, not 37 in 1876 (p.57);  Reno’s second name was Albert, not Alfred (p.60) Whilst Kershaw has some incisive and valuable comments about the Rosebud fight, some of his comments need consideration. It seems doubtful that Crook’s men had expended 60% of his total ammunition at the Rosebud (p.80). The number discharged is usually given as 25,000 rounds and the 800-odd cavalrymen would have carried 100 rounds per man, the infantry fewer, giving an overall total in excess of 100,000 rounds of carbine and rifle ammunition. His judgement of Crook seems a little harsh given that he had rightly stated that the Rosebud fight had left his men “in a state of shock”. He does not comment on Crook’s disregard of the chain of command in the battle. Nor does he seem to give sufficient weight to the impact of the Crow and Shoshones present; they had probably saved Crook’s command in the opening stages. (This was not the first time Crook had been surprised in camp. In October 1864, his Corps [VIII] had been overrun by the Confederates under Jubal Early at Cedar Creek and he had only narrowly avoided capture.)

A few more examples:- Gibbon didn’t have 723 men in his command (p.88), it was nearer to 375. Custer probably did know that his adversaries were armed with modern repeating rifles (p.90). And Custer was not at 36 “the oldest soldier in the column.” (p.94). NB: on page 57 he had been 37! It is not true that the 7th had operated as a regiment on only two occasions in its history:- ten companies were present in 1873 on the Yellowstone Expedition – and Custer had already had a major engagement with the Sioux that year, after which he had reported that they had modern repeaters, which Kershaw has not appreciated (p.104). Reno’s battalion did not have three to four officers per company in the valley fight. Four of the officers with him were on detached duty, one being his adjutant. The number of officers actually present with M, A and G was four. The intervals for mounted skirmishers were generally twenty yards, not five (p.113). Finally, the poor officers, such as French, Moylan, Weir and McDougall have been demoted in the text for reasons that are not readily clear. Their ranks are correctly stated in the index!

Given the internal inconsistencies and these silly mistakes the conclusion must be either that Bob Kershaw simply did not critically read his own manuscript or he was badly let down by his copy editor.

But in spite of these shortcomings, his general comments and specific analyses are very valuable. A broader, deeper analysis of the subject would have refined some of his conclusions but the student of the battle can profitably read this work.

Francis B. Taunton   

Custer Association of Great Britain

Copyright © 2010 CAGB