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By Charles Bryant
The comparison of the battles of the Little Bighorn and Isandhlwana shows the advantages of the Western armies over indigenous people. The ability to manufacture weapons and maintain armies in the field were the decisive advantages that the British and Americans held over the Sioux and Zulu nations. This combined with the almost total determination by Britain and the United States to conquer and dominate the West and South Africa would provide them to overcome any advantage that modern guerilla warfare could muster.
While these battles have many similarities, there are some significant differences, with the main one being the fate of the two native nations. While both are totally subjugated by the Western forces, the fates of the Sioux and Zulu are totally different. The Zulu did gain some respect in British eyes, going from the dirt under their feet to the grass growing on the dirt under their feet. They became a source of cheap labor for the British and later South Africans. The Sioux would be marginalized by an American economy that had little or no need of them. (James O. Gump. Dust Rose Like Smoke; The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux. Lincoln, Nebraska : University of Nebraska Press, 1994)
These battles occurred in the context of late nineteenth century imperialism, an era when the less technologically developed nations were subjected by the great global economic expansion of the time. (Gump, 3) The setbacks suffered by Western forces in these battles makes them different from other colonial wars and gave rise to many myths and legends. They mark the high point for both Sioux and Zulu forces and the Western nations responded with brutal campaigns that led to the total defeat of both native nations.
The victories of the Sioux and Zulu at the Little Bighorn and Isandhlwana set the stage for the final defeat of these native people by the Western powers in the late nineteenth century. Despite achieving total victory over Western armies the battles marked the beginning of the end of independence for both of the native nations. While technology and tactics played a part in the final defeat, the inability of either native nation to maintain an army in the field for an extended period would prove to be the most decisive factor in the final victory of the British and American forces in these imperial wars.
To see how this inability to maintain troops in the field played a decisive role in the fates of these native nations, one must first look at what led up and happened in these battles. The similarities are striking, but the differences shows the weaknesses of both native forces. First to be considered is the South African battle of Isandhlwana, a small terminal spur near the Buffalo River in southern Africa said to resemble a crouching sphinx. The Zulu said it resembled the second stomach of a ruminant, thus it was called Isandlwana. The British saw it a an excellent camp to begin their invasion of Zululand. (Donald Morris, The Washing of the Spears; A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879, Norwalk Conn.: The Easton Press, 1993) Here the African version of Custer’s Last Stand was fought.
Three forces operating in the area caused the British invasion during the 1870s. These were: the policy of African confederation, the history and standing of the Zulu people, and the personal view of the ruling British governor. ( David Clammer, The Zulu War, Newton Abbot: David & Charles Ltd. 1973) The Earl of Carnarvan pushed for the confederation of South Africa in London in 1874 and in Sir Henry Bertle Edward Frere, he found a man who shared this idea, so in 1877, Frere saw the confederation as the crown jewel of his life’s work. (Clammer, 17).
The Zulu King Shaka had carved out and empire by brute force and the Zulu became feared and hated by all the tribes in South Africa. Shaka was killed by his successor Dingane, setting a precedent for violence in the Zulu kingdom. With this empire a reputation of violence allowed Dingane to approach the British from a position of strength. (Gump, 54) The existence of a powerful, respected, feared, and independent black empire in South Africa was a matter of great concern to the British. (Gump, 86) Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Secretary of Native Affairs, argued that the existence of a strong independent Zulu nation could cause wider conflict. (Clammer, 19) Ferer feared that it would cause other natives to rise up against white civilization in all of South Africa and interfere with British plans to use the natives as a cheap labor pool. (Gump, 90)
The need for cheap labor or challenges to white supremacy did not figure into the United States’ plans to grab the Black Hills. For the Americans the reasons were much simpler; the railroad barons wanted to complete the Northern Pacific along the Yellowstone and through Montana to the Pacific, and gold had been found in the Black Hills. (John Gray, Centennial Campaign, The Sioux War of 1876, Ft. Collins, Colorado: The Old Army Press, 1976) Since the Sioux refused to cede the land through treaty, US President Ulysses Grant was persuaded by his cabinet to use military means. The thought amongst the Americans was that a punishing campaign against the “hostiles” off the reservation would not only shock them, but it would intimidate the reservation chiefs into giving the Americans the land they wanted by treaty. It was thought that this would open land to the railroads, settlers, and miners; thus ending many of Grant’s election year problems. (Gray, 23)
Britain also opted for the military solution to the native problem, but with some reluctance. The spectre of an European war with Russia over problems in Afghanistan and the financial problems of the current British government who feared a costly war would force tax increases that could cost them the election. (Clammer, 27) Governor Frere was not one to wait for a better political climate, he would push South Africa to the forefront by creating a crisis that would force London’s hand. (Clammer, 28) The opportunity to do just that was not long in coming.
In July of 1878 the Zulu inDuna named Sihayo discovered his Great Wife Kaqwelebana was having affairs with younger men while he was with the King in Ulundi. Upon discovering this indiscretion, Kaqwelebana’s eldest son Mehlokazulu and four of Sihayo’s brothers (Zuluhlenga, Bhekzulu, Nkumbikazulu, and Shenkwana) decided that the Great Wife should be killed at once. The first attempt ended in failure as the Great Wife and another wife, also involved in these affairs, escaped into Natal with their lovers. The Zulu responded by crossing over into the Natal and returned the offenders to Zululand for execution. When the British confronted Cetshwayo about the incident, he reminded the British that under Zulu law he could have ordered the execution of the male lovers as well. He further asserted that out of respect for the Natal he had only executed the wives. The King offered to pay a fine, which the British rejected and sent the king an ultimatum to return the offenders or risk war. The Zulu rejected the ultimatum, and Frere had his war. (Morris, 283-288)
Grant also had to do some maneuvering to make his war in Montana legal. First, he decided to stop enforcing the orders forbidding trespassing in the Black Hills, but not to rescind the order. Banking on an uproar over the killing of trespassing miners, he could claim he needed more land from the Indians to alleviate the situation. He then would be able to turn over any off-reservation Indians to the army in an effort to maintain control of this vast area. In this vein, on November 9.1875 Erwin Curtis Watkins issued a report to Commissioner E. P. Smith that accused “a few hundred” warriors under Sitting Bull of being disrespectful, claiming sovereignty over the lands, plunder and murder against civilians, as well as attacks on submissive tribes causing unrest in the territory. The report indicated that it was the government’s duty to bring these hostiles to justice. Using this report as justification, the government sent a ultimatum to the non-reservation Sioux: surrender to the agency by January 31, 1876 or face military retribution. The deadline was ignored, the Great Sioux War of 1876 had begun. (Gray, 23-34)
The biggest fear of both the British and American high command was not meeting a force that might defeat them, but that the natives would run away and escape the advancing armies. To combat this, each plan called for three columns of soldiers to advance to a central point. The Zulu capital of Ulundi was the goal of the British forces while the Americans decided to advance into the Little Bighorn Valley were they thought the Sioux were encamped.
British commander Lord Chelmsford plan was for three columns to advance into Zululand from the following areas:
Right Flank: (no.1) Cross the Tugela at the Lower Drift and move toward Eshowe under the command of Colonel Pearson of the 3rd Foot.
Central Colum (no.3) Cross at Rorke’s Drift under the command of Colonel Glyn of the 24th Foot.
Left Colum (no. 4) Cross from the area of the Upper Blood under the command of Colonel Wood VC of the 90th Foot.
The number two column under Col. Durnford was to be held in reserve while the number 5 column was to patrol the border and prevent incursions from the north. (Clammer, 36-38)
American commander William T. Sheridan came up with a very similar plan as his British counterpart, calling for three columns to move toward a central point. The plan was as follows:
General George Crook was to move north from Ft. Fetterman in eastern Wyoming.
Colonel George Gibbon was to move east from Montana.
General Alfred Terry, with George Custer’s 7th Calvary, was to move west from the Dakota Territory.(Evan Connell, Son of the Morning Star, Norwalk Conn.: The Easton Press, 1987)
Sheridan felt that Terry and Crook would drive the Sioux into the Bighorn Valley and Gibbon would seal off any escape routs to the north and Canada. He was confident that this would force the Indians back to the reservation. To keep them there he would construct two more post and have all the native leaders exiled far from the Montana territory.(Gray, 95) The plan began to quickly unravel as the Sioux did not act as expected. On June 16.1876, Crooks column was defeated at the Rosebud by Crazy Horse, the first shadow on the campaign had been cast. (Gray, 122)
The British had no such problems early on. The invasion of Zululand went off totally as expected with the destruction of Sihayo’s homestead (kraal) and the routing of six thousand Zulu at Victoria Hill, causing overconfidence to enter the minds of the invaders. (Robert Edgerton, Like Lions they Fought, The Zulu War and the Last Black Empire in South Africa, New York, Ballantine books, 1988) Chelmsford set up camp at Isandhlwana looking quickly to go on the offensive, not believing the Zulu would dare attack a British camp. With this in mind, Chelmsford did not fortify the camp or send out pickets, as they would be on the move soon. (Clammer, 50)
Once in camp, Chelmsford and Glyn took a force out of Isandhlwana to reinforce Major Dartnell’s troops who had encountered Zulu the night before.(Gump, 16) Teh camp was left under the command of Lt. Col. Henry Pullein and Brevet Col. Anthony William Durnford; both were given orders to defend the camp. (Morris, 353) When scouts spotted some Zulu Durnford took troops out of the camp, a further reduction of forces at the British position. The Battle of Isandhlwana was about to begin. (Morris, 359)
Shepstone was ahead of the column scouring the plains for Zulu and soon spotted some. He quickly dispatched Lt. Charles Raw to capture them. When Raw and his men got to the ravine, he discovered that he had not found a few Zulu, but the entire 20,000 man Zulu Impi(army). (Morris, 360)
Not anticipating an attack the British had spread themselves thin in the valley and Pulleine compounded the problem by spreading his lines over a one mile front. Thus the British stood in two lines defending a large amount of unnecessary land. Pulleine place a regiment of local South African troops (Natal Kaffirs) in the center of the lines forming a connecting angle between the two British forces. While Pulleine spread himself thin and used troops who had a low reputation for fighting to anchor his center, his messages to Chelmsford conveyed almost no alarm in his situation. Pulliene had set in motion the forces that would cause disaster for the British in the battle. (Morris, 361-367)
Unaware that Crook had been turned back, Terry put the rest of the military plan into action. Terry’s intelligence had estimated the Sioux to be only about 800 strong, a number he felt either column could handle alone. Terry had discounted any notion that this number would be increased by summer roamer, and ignored evidence that many natives were melting away from the reservation and heading to Sitting Bull’s camp. The only concern that the Americans had been to find the village and prevent any Indians from getting away. (Gray, 141)
Terry’s concern that the Sioux might melt away into the Bighorn Mountains would color all of his decisions made in the early days of the campaign. To prevent an escape, Terry split his column and moved his infantry down the valley and sent Custer and the Seventh Calvary to search and strike the village with Terry blocking any escape. With rations for fifteen days and a well supplied ammunition pack train, Custer was expected to locate and strike any Indian force. (Gray, 142-147) To make himself as mobile as possible Custer turned down any additional Calvary units as well as a gatling gun. Traveling light he left his sabers behind and refused to save any Indians for the other troops. Feeling that Custer could handle any situation, Terry expected the 7th to find, meet, and take action against any hostile camp. In this light, General Gibbon chided Custer, as the 7th rode out, “Now Custer, don’t be greedy, but wait for us.” (Connell, 257-260)
On June 24, the 7th reached the deserted Sun Dance camp of the Sioux. There they found many signs of a large Sioux gathering and a very large village on the move. Custer, fearing that the village might be scattering, ordered his scouts to pay close attention to any diverging trails. By the time the soldiers reached Busby Bend, Lt. Charles Varnum, commander of the scouts, reported they had found a large village. Mitch Boyer, Custer’s main scout, said it was the biggest village he ever seen. (Gump, 12-13)
On the morning of June 25, Custer accompanied his scouts to a high ridge called the Crow’s Nest. Here Custer and his scouts argued over whether or not he had been observed by the Sioux; many modern scholars belive that all three columns had been under observation by the Sioux for days. Once convinced that he, Custer, had been spotted, and fearing the Indians would scatter, he moved quickly. He had planned to use the tactics he used at the Battle of Washita and camp for the day and attack in the morning, but now he felt that was no longer an option. He would attack immediately, and at 11:45 am, the Battle of the Little Bighorn began. (Gump,12-14)
The Zulu did not have any overall commander, other than Cetshwayo himself, who did not accompany the impi. The leading Zulu in the impi were Mavmenguwana and Tshingwayo, along with Mayamana (considered Cetshwayo’s prime minister), Dubulamanzi (Cetshwayo’s brother), Sigcwelegcwele, and Usibebu, who had argued for peace and now was loyally following his King’s orders for war. These men acted as a council for the impi as it converged on Isandhlwana. (Morris, 361-362)
Pulleine sent notes to Chelmsford, but never informed him that he had been attacked by the main impi of the Zulu. Pulleine had one safe option, that was to form a compact mass line in front of his wagons. Here with close to 500,000 rounds of ammunition he could have held off the Zulu, as was done at Rorke’s Drift. (Morris, 364)
Durnford had further stretched the line by leading his Natal horsemen out to meet the Zulu. When Durnford realized the size of the impi, he stationed his troops in a rift with a sharp lip facing the attacking Zulu. The Zulu line stretched across the entire valley. The troops on the left under Youghusband, Mostyn, and Cavaye faced the umKhulutshane and the isaNgyu. The center of the impi was made up of the umCijo who advanced on the Natal Kaffirs. On the right, Porteus, Wardel, and Pope were facing the umHlanga and the uVe. Durnford’s forces were attacked by the inGobamakosi. The Undi and uDloko had been ordered by Dubulaunzi to the west and cut the camp off from Rorke’s Drift. (Morris, 370)
The line held up for some time, as the British were trained for this kind of fight, a fight where troops used volley fire against attacking forces. While the battle was static, some uneasiness was creeping into many of the officers minds. Curling noticed that the Natal Kaffirs were deserting the line, two and three at a time. Durnford’s Natal Horse was running out of ammunition as well. Ammunition was becoming a problem in all sectors of the line.(Morris, 371)
The ammunition was in heavy wooden boxes held together with copper bands and six screws. To compound the problem, there was a shortage of screwdrivers in the camp, and the officers in charge of the wagons would only issue it to their own brigades.( Morris, 372) Arguments soon followed and the British resorted to bayonets, axes, and the butt end of their guns to open the boxes. (Morris, 373) Running low on ammunition, Durnford was forced to abandon his position and fall back.
Pulleine may have recovered from Durnford’s retreat, or from the ammunition problem. The British troops only needed to fall back, as they had extensive training in this operation. This would have solved the ammunition problem as well, it would be considerably easier to supply a more concentrated line than one stretching across the valley. The next few minutes would doom the British. When Durnford pulled back, the Zulu charges the entire line. When the unCijo raised their war chant, the Natal Kaffirs broke rank and ran, opening a three hundred yard hole in the center of the British lines. The unCjio and the isaNgqu poured through this hole and fell on the rear of the other two British lines. Cavaye and Mostyns were attacked from both sides as the umKhalutshane charged forward as the gap opened further. (Morris, 374)
Younghusband’s troops fought with bayonets and clubs to the top of a rocky plateau at the southern end of the camp, only sixty men made it to the top. Porteaus caught the full brunt of the uVe charge and the unHaugu swept the left flank away. On the right, Wardel stretched to cover the area between Porteaus and Pope as the uVe entered the camp. Pope faced the combined forces of the uMbonaube and Gobamakhosi. Within twenty minutes of the Natal Kaffir desertion, all organized resistance ended and the Zulu entered the camp. (Morris, 375)
Durnford now made his last stand, as he tried to hold the impi’s horns apart and allow some men to escape. On a rise in the ground, in front of the wagons, with about seventy soldiers, they volleyed into the advancing Zulu line. They forced the inGobamakhosi back, then were overwhelmed by the uMbomanki. (Morris, 376) Durnford was as heroic, dying like a film star in a movie. (Edgerton, 90)
After the war, the Zulu expressed admiration for the Europeans as they told Capt. Hallam-Parr, “Ah,how those red soldiers at Isandhlwana, how few there were and how they fought! They fell like stones-each man in his place.” (Clammer, 86) Durnford and his men volleyed until they ran out of ammunition, then they fought with knives, bayonets, clubs and finally, with their fist. (Clammer, 86) The last soldier crawled into a cave and fought on until several Zulu shot him with a barrage of gunfire. (Clammer, 91) A few feet from Durnford, Charlie Pope and Godwin-Austin died, Pulleine was killed trying to push the uMbonalis back. Younghusband fought with his sword until being shot down by a warrior.(Morris, 377)
The retreating troops found the way to Rorke’s Drift blocked by the Undi, the only escape route was to try to make it to the Buffalo River and the Natal. (Morris, 378) Pursued by the Zulu, the survivors made a bloody retreat from camp to the river, through gullies and marshes. (Morris, 379) Only five officers, all wearing their blue patrol coats, survived the battle and retreat. The blue coats may have saved their lives as Cetshwayo had told his warriors that the officers they wanted to destroy would be wearing red. (Clammer, 95) Of the close to 1,800 men who fought in the camp only fifty-five Europeans would survive, along with about 300 Natal Kaffirs. Over 2,000 Zulu died, prompting Cetshwayo to lament, “An assegas has been thrust into the belly of the nation. There are not enough tears to mourn the dead.” (Morris,387) While Chelmsford marched to the camp, the Zulu finished looting the camp, and as was their tradition, went home. The mightiest army black Africa had ever finished vanished into the sunset. (Morris, 387)
No picture is more vivid in the American mind than the one of Custer, standing tall on a hill, facing the hostile Indian hoard that will soon annihilate him and his men. Clothed in buckskin, sword in one hand, and his long blonde locks flowing in the wind. (Brian Dippe, Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth, Lincoln Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1976) Custer is either hero, villain, or fool and has been a figure of humor,protest, anger, or worship since he died on the Little Bighorn. In 1966, The Saturday Evening Post said in an editorial, “we show a strange affection for losers. Gen. George Custer…was somthing less than a hero, but we have always cherished a certain admiration for the foolishness with which he went down to defeat.” (Dippie, 2) Europeans know of Custer, before they know much else about America, and only the Battle of Gettysburg has more written about it. It is the most research hour in American history, and most of what people think they know about the battle is wrong. (Dippie, 6)
Recent research suggest a very different scenario than the glory hunting charge of legend. Custer’s, and the entire command of the campaign, biggest fear was that the Indians would escape into the Bighorn Mountains. unknown to Custer was that the Indian alliance had been observing him for several days and Gen. Crook had been defeated by Crazy Horse only a few weeks before. Also, he was unaware that summer roamer had increased Sitting Bull’s strength to over 2,000 warriors. ( John Gray, Custer’s Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1991)
Many have argued Custer’s decision to split his forces, but that was done to keep the Indians from fleeing north and to keep himself mobile he had the pack train trail his units. To cover the village he split Reno’s forces (A,G, and M companies) while he took 5 companies (C,E,F, I, and L) to make up his right flank. (Gray, 245)
Moving down Reno Creek from the Lone Teepee, Custer took the right side and Reno the left. They moved together untill Custer received word from his scouts that the Indians were preparing to flee. (Gray, 255) Upset that Benteen, who had a visceral hated for Custer, had not arrived back as ordered, but he could no longer wait if the Indians were fleeing. (Gray, 257) Benteen later claimed that Custer’s orders were vague and basically sent him an endless scouting mission. Despite being passed by Boston Custer and two messengers, all urging to hurry to the front, Benteen would take his time moving towards the battlefield.(Gray, 258) Custer soon received another report from scout Fred Gerard that the camp was breaking up, actually the Indians were preparing to attack, Custer ordered Reno to charge and after waiting as long as he felt he could for Benteen, he followed Reno down the trail. (Gray, 276-278)
Reno’s charge was met by a sizable force of Indians and he was forced to retreat after trying to form two firing lines, one near the village and another in some timber. After being sprayed with blood and brains when the scout Bloody Knife was killed, the panicking Reno led his men up to the top of Reno Hill. (Gray, 287-290) Reno, knowing Custer thought the Indians were fleeing, sent W. W. Cook up to Custer to tell him the reverse was true. Receiving this new information and observations Custer made from a ridge overlooking the field, he turned right to make a flanking attack to relive Reno. This move would have been quicker than following down Reno’s trail to Reno Hill. (Gray, 279)
During this time Custer sent a series of messages to Benteen and McDougall (leading the pack train) urging them to move quickly to rejoin the main columns at the village. Sgt. Kanipe was sent to McDougall telling him to bring the packs straight across country, cutting loose any wagons that broke down. He was also instructed to tell Benteen to come quickly. Soon after Custer sent Tiptr. Martin with his famous message to Benteen. (Come on. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring Packs.ps Bring Packs. W. W. Cook) (Gray, 281)
Custer and his men were sighted four times by Reno’s men along the bluffs above them. (Gray, 281) Tracking Custer’s trail by the testimony of scouts and Reno’s men, some recent scholars assert it shows a soldier looking for a place to launch a flanking attack to relieve Reno. Custer selected to move down Medicine Tail Coulee and Cedar Coulee as they were a more concealed trails to the village. It was here that Custer wrote his famous last message and may have seen that not only was the village bigger that previously thought, but Reno was now in full retreat. Mitch Boyer would soon tell Custer that Reno had been totally routed by the hostile forces. (Gray, 333-356)
In the traditional scenario, Custer charged down Medicine Tale Coulee and was repulsed at the ford. He is then forced back until he is finally overrun at Last Stand Hill. Recent archeological evidence refutes this and, along with a more careful reading of the scouts testimony, a much different scenario is revealed. (Gray, 358) New evidence shows that Custer divided his forces again, sending Yates and his famous gray horse brigade down to the river as a diversion while Custer and the min force road north along the ridges overlooking the village. A messenger was sent north from here, probably to Terry-Gibbon column, but it is not know where for sure as the man disappeared. Many modern researchers Custer may have been feigning an attack on the women and children of the village to gain Reno some more time. He may have been hoping the Benteen would show up and they could reunite with Reno and attack from the west. (Gray, 358-361)
Custer may have had another plan in mind. Some evidence shows that he knew Reno had been pushed back and defeated and now was holding up on Reno Hill. He may have come to the conclusion that Benteen may be under seige by hostile forces as well. (Gray, 355) Indian sources of the battle tell of general disorder and men firing into the air and a battle that lasted only about twenty minutes. (James Welch, Killing Custer, The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians, New York: W W Norton & Co., 1994) What could have Custer been doing at this time: George Armstrong Custer was retreating. All of the moves Custer made were northward, and the Terry Gibbon Column was to the north.(Gray, 341) Some of the men from Reno’s company, who had made it to the sugarloaf ridge assumed the fighting they saw was a rearguard action as Custer was moving towards the north. (James Donovan, A Terrible Glory, Custer and the Little Bighorn-the Last Great Battle of the American West, New York, Back Bay Books, 2008) Along with that many Indians claimed one survivor headed north before shooting himself, and Benteen had for many years accused Custer of abandoning James Elliot and moving to protect himself. (Donovan, 67). He might have figured to slip out of the valley while the Indians were busy with Benteen/Reno, go north and locate Terry, and then ride to the rescue of the besieged soldiers with Terry’s forces. As it was Terry arrived on the 27th anyway. (Gray, 409) That would not happen.
The terrain and the vastly superior numbers of the Indians spelled disaster for the Seventh Calvary. The numerous ridges and gullies along with a thick covering of made the terrain perfect for the Sioux and totally unsuitable for the Americans. (Gray, 383-384) The last minutes of the battle are a source of continuing controversies over exactly what happened. using archeological evidence, Richard Fox concludes that Custer’s troops panicked almost as soon as the battle started. Fox argues that the soldiers broke into small groups and began running, allowing the Indians to easily kill off the troopers. ((Welch, 73) He states, “the battalion disintegrated, prior to collapse, fighting appears to be subdued. Disintegration of order occurred early and spread to remaining battlefield sectors. The flow was generally south to north. There was little or no organization and very little resistance during this process.” (Welch, 170) The end was in a deep ravine where fifteen to twenty soldiers ran for the river and were slaughtered by the Indians. (Welch, 171)
Gregory Michno put forth another theory, citing that Custer’s tactics were in line with contemporary battle theory. In an aggressive role authored by Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan during the Civil War dictated to Custer to find, attack, and destroy the enemy. Michno contents that Custer was, “outmaneuvered and defeated in a conventional battle. Neither Custer nor his tactics were asynchronous.” (Gregory Michno, The Mystery of E Troop, Custer’s Gray Horse Company at the Little Bighorn, Missoula, Montana, Mountain Press Pub. Co., 1994) Custer, who never went near the river, had withdrawn to wait for a chance to reunite with Benteen/Reno and then resume offensive operations. Until then he attempted to employ the basic tactic to deal with a mobile, more numerous enemy; he attempted to make a square. Had he been able to establish a firing field of 400 to 500 yards he might have been successful. (Michno, 277) Michno bases this on his extensive archeological dig in the deep ravine were Fox and others claim the last men in Custer’s command were killed. During this dig he found no human remains and was able to determine that the men in the Gray Horse Company died on Cemetary Ravine. He concludes that after a short period of stalemate the battalion was quickly overrun by the sheer weight of numbers of the Sioux and Cheyenne. (Michino, 279)
In the scenario where Custer was retreating, Gall and Crazy Horse watched the soldiers as they milled around on the hills. The South and Calhoun lines were protecting Custer’s flanks as he prepared to exit the valley. Crazy Horse waited until the soldiers in the skirmish line moved back and mounted, then he called for the attack. As the Indians struck, Gall from the south and Crazy Horse from the river, the men wheeled from their horses and tried to fire. This would have created the scene seen in many Indian drawings of the battle with warriors riding between many soldiers on horseback. The soldiers mostly would have shot into the air and the general disorganization would have given the Indians a quick victory. Most of the soldiers may not have had a chance to be brave or cowardly, the Seventh may have suffer close to 90% casualties within the first ten minutes. Two men did mange to escape, both headed north, one was run down by the Indians and the other killed himself. (Connell, 313) Whatever happen it may be best represented by the old John Ford/ John Wayne western Fort Apache, when the Apache Indians overrun the position held by Henry Fonda. (Dippie, 107)
By late afternoon on June 26, Reno’s men saw the great village break up and disappear into the mountains. A total of 210 men died with Custer and Reno/Benteen lost 53, no records exist of Indian casualties. (Welch, 186) As the sun set, the greatest assembly of Plains Indians was no more. (Welch, 196)
The Zulu next mounted an attack on Rorke’s Drift, against the expressed orders of Catshwayo not to attack entrenched European troops or go into the Natal. (J J Guy, “A Note on Firearms in the Zulu Kingdom with Special Reference to the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879, The Journal of African History, Vol. 12 issue 4, 1971) Dabulamanzi led the uThulwana, uDloko, and the inDlugengwe against only 139 men in the mission. After ten hours of hard fighting almost half of the Zulu were killed compared to the British who only lost seventeen men. eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for this action and the exhausted Zulu withdrew in defeat. (Gump, 24) Cetshwayo had warned the Zulu against attacking entrenched forces and was forced to fight a mainly defensive war against the British after Rorke’s Drift. The King held his army back hoping for a diplomatic solution and suffered military defeat from a vengeful British army. (Guy, 565)
Reno Hill was the Rorke’s Drift of the Little Bighorn. The remains of the Seventh Calvary had a much better defensive position here than Custer had and were able to dig in. Entrench, with plenty of ammunition, they waited for an attack from Sitting Bull, which never came. The Sioux would not attack unless they had superior numbers and their ”medicine” was favorable. They would not engage in costly sieges or brutal frontal attacks against any Western position unless their village and people were threatened. (Donovan, 126) The Sioux would later say it was because they did not wish to kill any more soldiers, but in reality they took no pride in any victory that entailed many causalities. The Indians of Sitting Bull’s alliance followed Cetshwayo’s advice and tired to draw Reno into the open field or wait him out. (Guy, 566)
Another difference between the Indians and the Zulu was their attitude on guns. The Sioux, as all Native Americans did, embraced firearms and used them extensively in warfare. The Zulu saw them as only a secondary weapon, their great Zulu King Shaka boasted that Zulu warriors could easily defeat soldiers with guns by just waiting for them to reload and then charging. (Guy, 562) While that may have been true of muzzle loaders, it certainly was not with breech-loading guns like the Martini- Henry.
The attitudes of both tribes towards their opponents were also an interesting difference between them. The Zulu always spoke admirably about the courage of the British soldiers, commenting on how they died and how many fought to the end, even with their bare hands. (Clammer, 86) In contrast the Sioux and Cheyenne both claimed American soldiers ran and committed suicide, even though recent forensic studies can find little evidence to back this up. ( Douglas Scott, P. Willey, and Melissa Cooper, They Died with Custer, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). The skeletons of soldiers do show many multiple gunshot wounds and evidence of mutilation, showing the total hatred between the forces at the Little Bighorn.(Scott, 302-317)
These victories would prove costly to the native people as both created avenging armies that would destroy both peoples. Conducting a brutal winter war in 1876-77, Col. Nelson Miles so devastated the Sioux and Cheyenne that by spring the majority had surrendered to the agencies and returned to the reservations. Chelmsford, looking to rescue his reputation, conducted an equally brutal march across Zululand that resulted in the Zulu capital being burned and their King imprisoned. (Gump, 95-102) After these wars neither nation would ever regain the power they processed before the battles.
The Zulu and Indians would be treated differently by the victorious forces. The British, and later the South Africans, needed the Zulu as a cheap labor pool, so they encourage an ethnic nationalism on the Zulu part which kept them separate from the rest of Black Africa. The Inkatha Zulu and its ethic nationalism was much more preferable to the whites in South Africa than the growing pan-African socialism that was threatening their power bases. The Sioux soon were marginalized by the Americans which led to the Sun Dance movement of 1880s that ended with the massacre at Pine Ridge. The Sioux became strong supporters of the Civil Rights and pan-Indian movement in the latter 20th century while the ethnic nationalism of the Zulu made them one of the strong supporters of the apartheid policies of South Africa.( Gump, 135-139)
Failure to adopt firearms and the unwillingness to accept a high casualty rate where factors in the defeat of the Zulu and the Sioux. The British would decimate attacking Zulu as the war progressed. The Americans showed at Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg they were more than willing to suffer heavy casualties to achieved and objective. Both the American and British populations were willing to accept whatever it took to achieve what they saw as their destiny to control these areas and be a power in the world.
The Zulu and Sioux were armed people, not armies. When men went to war the economic base of the people was disrupted. Zulu warriors were also the farmers and workers of the kingdom, their homes and livestock became open for enemy attack when they were gone. The Sioux suffered from the same problem, the warriors in both tribes were not just the military arm of their societies, but the political and economic as well. Western powers, on the other hand, could place standing armies in the field for very long periods. Neither the Sioux or Zulu could ever threaten the economic or political bases of their Western opponents, since both were far from the battlefield. Had Custer inflicted a similar defeat on Sitting Bull, it would take the Sioux almost a generation to replace the causalities, while the Seventh replaced much of their manpower by the beginning of the Winter War. The same was true of the British, who quickly replaced their dead, while the Zulu were unable to replace any of their losses. The inability to maintain armies in the field for long periods was the decisive factor that doomed both nations to defeat in the long run. So, even with their decisive victories at the Little Bighorn and Isandhlwana, their ultimate defeat in these war was inevitable. (Guy, 564-565)
The fates of some of the leading characters is of some interest as well. Lord Chelmsford was always blamed for the disaster at Isandlhwana, but as a friend of Queen Victoria he was able to secure a quiet retirement. In 1904, at the age of seventy-eight, he died in the middle of a billiards match. (Connell, 46-47) Major Reno was suffered most of the blame for the defeat at the Little Bighorn, Custer was dead and only his reputation would suffer, and had a black cloud follow him the rest of his life. Dishonorable discharged for conduct unbecoming an officer, his drinking problem had worsen since the battle, he died of throat cancer and destitute on March 29, 1889. Ironically, throat cancer also claimed the life of President Grant, whom Reno had many times appealed to for reinstatement. Benteen survived a court marshall and went on to secure retirement and became fairly successful in Atlanta. He died of a stroke almost fourteen years to the day of the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 22, 1890. (Connell, 40) Immortality only came to Custer, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as they would be tied together in movies, TV, books, comic strips, and jokes making them three of the best know Americans in the world. (Dippie, 61) Crazy horse , who may have been the unofficial commander at the Little Bighorn was killed by soldiers in 1877, while in custody at Camp Robinson. (Donnall, 339) He is later immortalized by a Mt. Rushmore type carving in the Dakota mountains. Sitting Bull and Cetshwayo were later killed by their own people, although Sitting Bull did enjoy wide popularity in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows.
Sitting Bull never trusted or really cared for the Americans , while Cesthwayo expressed admiration for the British and their army. Sitting Bull called the Americans “great liars,” and said he never wanted to fight, but war was forced on him by the Americans. (G S Rawling, “Custer’s Last Stand,” History Today, Vol. 12 no.1, Jan.1962) The Zulu king would have said the same about his war. Both men knew the fight was hopeless, but they were defending their people’s way of life and the independence of their nations. Ironically, their opponents, Chelmsford and Custer, would have done the same thing if the situations had been reversed.