Le Beau Sabreur

Destroying Black Kettle’s village and capturing women and children had certainly worked for Custer on the Washita, and that objective had been explicit in Sheridan’s marching orders on that campaign. General Terry’s orders on this occasion were far more vague and lawyerly, but surprise attacks on Indian villages was the standard operating procedure in the Plains Wars. The Army justified the tactic on the grounds that the rascally redskins wouldn’t stand and fight, leaving the destruction of their villages as the only option if the tribes were to be subdued.

But hiding behind non-combatant hostages to bring the warriors to terms conflicted with Custer’s image of himself as le beau sabreur, a dashing, fearless adventurer in the Napoleonic mold of Lasalle and Davydov. For those bold horsemen the only true role of the cavalry was to attack no matter what the odds, overwhelming the enemy in a sabre-to-sabre l’attaque a outrance.

“L’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours l’audace,” was the motto embraced by these daring cavalrymen, and it had carried Custer to his greatest victories in the Civil War. Given that mindset, I would suggest his plan as he moved up the east side of the river was to launch a flank attack aimed not at the fleeing villagers but falling on the rear of the mass of warriors engaging Reno. His five companies would be the hammer, Reno’s three companies the anvil that would crush the Sioux and Cheyenne braves between them, with Benteen coming up in time to mop up the fleeing survivors.

A complete victory over this huge assembly of their greatest warriors in the open field would finally convince the tribes that resistance was futile. Custer aimed to end the Great Sioux War in one afternoon.

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