Battle of Little Bighorn: 55 – Custer’s Orders

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"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

On the morning of June 22, Terry gave Custer a copy of his written orders. In some points Terry was “explicit, in others permissive, thereby laying the basis for endless controversy about whether Custer disobeyed,” his orders.

(As Custer’s written orders are lengthy only a portion will be presented here. At the conclusion of this section an Internet link is provided where you may read them in their entirety.)

General Terry’s Orders to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in brief stated on June 22, 1876, that: Custer was to:

proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days ago. It is, of course, impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and were it not impossible to do so, the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.

The orders continue with:

to indicate to you [Custer] his [Terry’s] own views of what your action should be, and he desires that you conform to them unless you see sufficient reason for departing from them.

The orders’ exact wordings are important, as they are the basis of an argument of fault that has lasted since that day.

General Terry’s impression was that they would locate the hostiles on the upper Little Bighorn. But because the exact location still was uncertain, it was necessary for Terry to be flexible. The Indians had fooled many a troop of soldiers before, and stealthily slipped away as well. However, Terry reasoned, if the Indians were lower down they would be approaching the Bighorn from an area from which lay the country of the Crow. If the Sioux and Cheyenne were already alerted to the presence of the Army, the hostiles surly would not want to be caught between their age-old enemies, the Crow, and this more recent threat, the United States Army.

Although it was never exactly stated, according to one historian, everyone fully expected at this point for Custer to first contact the hostiles and attack. Gibbon’s role now was to block the hostiles’ northward escape route.

Little Bighorn Valley

So now Custer was to march up the Rosebud. If the Indians’ trail there turned to the Little Bighorn, he was directed to still continue up the Rosebud before he moved west to the upper portion of the Little Bighorn. This would assure that the Indians did not escape to the south or east. It would also give Gibbon and his troops time to get into a blocking position at the mouth of the Little Bighorn. It was expected that Gibbon would reach this point by June 26. The date was insignificant for any other purpose other than a calculated estimate.