Nine Yang Sword Saint

Lt. Col. Harold Baker Jr.'s thesis on the Little Big Horn. Col Baker is a West Point graduate who has served as an officer in the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood. My own annotations are in brackets. PART 3

Although aggravated by the difficulties of fighting this type of enemy, Custer was soon to experience an extremely successful campaign, one that would establish his reputation on the Great Plains and shape the tactics of the military stationed there. That event was the Battle of the Washita. This single fight produced a formula that should have ensured military success against the Indian tribes of the region. It called for the effective mobilization of troops and a simultaneous attack from multiple directions by units of equal, or nearly equal, strength against an unsuspecting village. The only tactical difference from the Battle of the Little Bighorn was that Custer attacked Black Kettle's Southern Cheyenne in the winter and before full daylight. But, the similarities between his and the enemy's initial actions during that battle and the one eight years later are striking.

In November 1868, Custer received explicit orders from Sheridan to move "toward the Washita River, the supposed winter seat of the hostile tribes: to destroy their villages and ponies, to kill or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children." The foe he faced was an enormous winter camp containing Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahos, Apaches, and Southern Cheyennes. On November 26, in a snowstorm, Custer's Osage scouts struck the trail of a raiding party returning from Kansas to villages in Oklahoma. The command followed it to the river, arriving at 2:00 a.m., and Custer promptly accompanied his scouts forward to view the objective. The scouts, pointing toward the river, reported in broken English, "Heaps Injuns down there." Custer thought he could make out the shape of a large body of animals, but he could not see the village. Only the distant tinkling of bells and the bark of a dog convinced him that a village actually existed.

Although he did not know of the camp's exact dimensions or which tribe occupied it, he gathered his officers and devised a scheme of attack. "The general plan," Custer later wrote, "was to employ the hours between then and daylight to completely surround the village, and at daybreak, or as soon as it was barely light enough for the purpose, to attack the Indians from all sides." Custer divided his column into four equal detachments. One group would swing around to the far end of the village, while two others would proceed to the sides. Custer stayed with the fourth detachment at his present location. Once the detachments were in position, they would wait in place until first light, when Custer would give the signal to attack: the regimental band at his side opening into "Garry Owen."

"He had made no reconnaissance, held nothing back in reserve, was miles away from his wagon train, and had ordered the most complex maneuver in military affairs, a four-pronged simultaneous attack," wrote Custer critic Stephen Ambrose in an almost praiseworthy manner. "It was foolish at best, crazy at worst, but it was magnificent and it was pure Custer." The Seventh Cavalry caught the Indians sleeping and within an hour the fight was over. A few warriors fired sporadically from hiding along the banks of the river, but there was no organized resistance. Surveying the village, Custer could see over one hundred dead Indians, and his command held some fifty captives and a pony herd of almost nine hundred animals. In context of his lack of a full reconnaissance, Custer's victory would seem pure luck; however, Edward S. Godfrey, as a general some years later, wrote:

"It is a rare occurrence in Indian warfare that gives a commander the opportunity to reconnoiter the enemy's position in daylight.... At all events his attack must be made with celerity, and generally without other knowledge of the numbers of the opposing force than that discovered or conjectured while following the trail. The dispositions for the attack may be said to be 'made in the dark,' and successful surprise to depend upon luck. If the advance to the attack be made in daylight it is next to impossible that a near approach can be made without discovery. In all our previous experiences, when the immediate presence of the troops was once known to them, the warriors swarmed to the attack, and resorted to all kinds of ruses to mislead the troops, to delay the advance toward their camp or village while the squaws and children secured what personal effects they could, drove off the pony herd, and by flight put themselves beyond danger, and then scattering, made successful pursuit next to impossible." Nine Yang Sword Saint

(to be continued)