Small Wars Journal

Regulars vs. Irregulars: The US Army and the Indian Wars at the End of the 19th Century

Sat, 01/11/2020 - 11:20am

Regulars vs. Irregulars: The US Army and the Indian Wars at the End of the 19th Century

Tal Tovy

As the month of June 1876 waned, one of the largest battles between the American Army and the Indian tribes was waged, the Battle of the Little Bighorn.[i] This battle was part of the Great Sioux War (1876-1877), and at its conclusion, the 7th Cavalry Regiment led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer had lost more than two hundred soldiers, more than half the force.[ii] Numerous studies have focused on the decisions and actions taken by Custer prior to the battle, such as his refusal to take the Gatling guns and to reinforce his unit with additional cavalry companies. An additional mistake was splitting his regiment into three secondary forces. This series of decisions, it has been argued by many researches, deprived Custer of fire power. It has also been argued that some of his actions were based on a desire to enhance his prestige in case he succeeded in destroying the Indian force and thus put an end to the entire war in one decisive battle, and in fact subdue the northern section of the Great Plains.

In order to understand the American rout, this article will argue that the figure of Custer and his actions should not be the main focus. As Robert Epstein contends, such a focus is mistaken, as it creates the deterministic impression that the results were dependent solely on the actions of a handful of people.[iii] Understanding a loss or victory in any battle, campaign, or war in any period requires a broader analysis. One must examine the nature of command, the use of the various weapons available to the warring parties, flexibility of thought, the decisions made in various situations at the tactical and campaign level, and the relevant doctrine according to which the army was operating. All of these factors contribute to understanding the battle effectiveness of a given army,[iv] and thus provide a more complete picture for understanding the flow and results of a battle or war.

Throughout most of the 19th century, the American Army fought a series of battles of various scopes against the Indian tribes, thereby accruing much experience prior to the Great Sioux War. However, the lessons learned were never consolidated into an appropriate doctrine; instead, the American Army prepared itself for battle with a regular army.[v] This article will attempt to answer the question of why the American Army operated in this manner, and thereby will place Custer’s last battle in the context of a larger historical investigation. In other words, this article aims to analyze the factors that prevented the formulation of an American doctrine for fighting irregular forces in the last third of the 19th century. Understanding these factors can explain Custer’s decision-making system and the actions he took prior to the battle, as Custer operated according to the principles that he had learned at West Point and that he formerly applied in the Civil War.

This article will analyze the influence of the military theorist Henri Jomini (1779-1869), who was considered throughout most of the 19th century the foremost commentator on Napoleon.[vi] Napoleon himself did not leave behind him an orderly doctrine, and his operational conception was studied throughout Europe by reading the writings of Jomini and especially the Précis de l'Art de la Guerre (1838). It was through Jomini’s writings that Napoleon’s concept of war and conduct of operations made their way to the United States, where Napoleon’s model was passed onto American officers by way of two circles of influence, one theoretical and the other practical. Dennis Hart Mahan (1802-1871) was responsible for creating the theoretical circle, as he taught for decades at West Point. The second circle was shaped by General Winfield Scott (1786-1866). Both Scott and Mahan traveled to France and studied Napoleon. Mahan actually met with Jomini, and the research literature is almost unanimous regarding the influence of the latter on the former. These two figures had a great influence on the American officer corps, as the former taught them and the latter commanded them. Generations of officers were raised on Jomini’s doctrine as it was passed onto them by Scott and Mahan, who together may be viewed as the founding fathers of the professional American officer corps.

The US Military Academy trained most of the officers that commanded the great battles of the Civil War, including prominent generals in the Union as well as in the Confederate States Army.[vii] Furthermore, some of the senior commanders of the Civil War, such as Henry Halleck, William Hardee, Silas Casey, George McClellan, and others who had gained experience in the war with Mexico (1846-1848), served as instructors at West Point, and some of them wrote tactical guides that were used during the Civil War.[viii] These officers understood the importance of offensive initiative, speed, maneuver, and surprise, which when combined deliver victory, and these elements were indeed manifested in the various campaigns conducted by them.[ix] It comes as no surprise that the best English translation of Jomini’s book was made by two graduates of West Point at the beginning of the Civil War.[x] It is in this context that we may understand Hittle’s statement in the introduction to Jomini’s volume, that “It has been said with good reason that many a Civil War general went into battle with a sword in one hand and Jomini's Summary of the Art of War in the other.”[xi]

The influence of Scott and Mahan on American officers and cadets was concurrent. Although Scott began first, from the middle of the 1830s, the cadets were exposed first to the theory as it was taught by Mahan, and then some of them gained practical experience in the American-Mexican War, in which Scott was active as commander of the southern front. If we define Scott and Mahan as the founding fathers of the American Army, then in this analogy Halleck, Hardee, Casey, and McClellan were the “sons”, so to speak, and Custer and his peers who were commissioned on the eve of the Civil War were the third generation of Mahan’s theoretical-military conception and Scott’s practical-military conception.

There is No God but Napoleon, and Jomini is His Prophet

The military history of the United States cannot be separated from the developments occurring in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.[xii]  In this context, the most prominent role in shaping the American military may belong to the Napoleonic Wars and their chief analyst, Jomini. Nevertheless, stating that Jomini had an exclusive influence on the American Army is to simplify a complex problem, even if we claim that the American officers were familiar with his writings.[xiii] In a fascinating and in-depth historiography, Reardon, an important Civil War historian, challenges the basic assumption regarding Jomini’s crucial influence on the American Army at the time of the Civil War.[xiv] Thus we can determine that there are two historical schools of thought regarding Jomini’s influence: The first believes that his influence was limited, based on an analysis of the number of mentions of Jomini in the years prior to the war and during it. The second school argues for a crucial impact, based on analysis of the military campaigns of the Civil War.[xv] In summary, we may conclude that the research literature does not dispute the influence of European military thought (and the various doctrines developed thereof), merely the extent of influence of one theoretician or another.

There is no doubt that the Napoleonic model was the one that the American officers had in front of them.[xvi] All that was required was to make the connections that would explain the modus operandi of the celebrated general. I believe that the arguments made by Bonura and Jones must be accepted and thus Jomini must be referred to as representing a military school of thought that includes not only the insights that explain the fundamental principles of Napoleon’s way of making war but also the theoretical knowledge written prior to his publications.[xvii] In other words, Jomini may be seen as a generic entity representing the varied European military thought of the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. As Reardon has shown, Jomini based his writings on theoreticians who worked at the close of the 18th century, even if he did not always credit them properly.[xviii]

Jomini began writing at the apex of Napoleon’s military success, a period in which he wrote several essays that eventually became part of Précis de l'Art de la Guerre. Jomini’s fundamental principles may be summarized as follows[xix]: First, the main part of the fighting force must be gradually manuevered to the decisive point in the theater of war; second, one must create a battle alignment in which the main force engages with small enemy units, i.e., a decisive local advantage must be created; this leads to the third principle, according to which during the battle itself, the main part of the force must be manuevered to the point at which a decision can be achieved on the battle field; and fourth, all activities must be coordinated so that the forces are concentrated not only at the decisive points but also, simultaneously, so that their effect is decisive in all the secondary theaters of the battle. In summary, Jomini emphasized both seizing the offensive initiative and attack as the most powerful form of making war. He also emphasized the destruction of the enemy’s army as a primary goal of military operations, which can be achieved by maneuvering against the enemy’s rear, an action that may severe the enemy’s lines of operation and retreat. Jomini further argued that if the enemy split his forces, one must operate from a central position that will destroy each of the enemy’s forces separately (acting within the inner lines). Therefore, a military leader must identify the decisive point in the enemy’s front that must be collapsed, and concentrate the attack against it.

One of Napoleon’s most important principles was seeking for the decisive battle that would bring about the destruction of the enemy army and thus victory in the entire war. This was accomplished through maneuvering toward the enemy flanks and rear. Jomini, who had firsthand experience of Napoleon’s great victories in the years 1804-1809, concluded that the maneuvers conducted by Napoleon against the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm and against the Prussians at the Battles of Jena–Auerstedt caused their defeat.

In fact, modern research has determined that the maneuvers conducted by Napoleon against the flanks and rear were one of the most impressive and most decisive manifestations of the Napoleonic strategy. This led to another of Jomini’s conclusions: The total destruction of the enemy army as a result of its being outflanked created a situation in which the fate of the entire war (the strategic level) was decided in one battle (the tactical level)—which was indeed Napoleon’s goal, i.e., striving for a decisive battle that will put an end to the war due to the complete defeat of the enemy army.

Jomini’s claim that he had succeeded in uncovering Napoleon’s principles of war and consequently the universal principles of war was accepted by Europe’s military personnel, who desired to gain an in-depth understanding of Napoleon’s war doctrine and its component principles, for which Jomini offered a clear theoretical framework. Furthermore, as long as Europe’s armies continued to operate according to the Napoleonic model, Jomini’s literary enterprise, and especially his Art of War, continued be relevant and was taught at the military academies. If we may argue that Napoleon had a crucial influence on shaping modern warfare, generally speaking, then it was Jomini who explained the secret of his success and gained fame thanks to his ability to clearly and concisely explain Napoleon’s method of war.[xx] Thus we may define Jomini, who has been unjustly neglected in our times, as the most prominent commentator on Napoleon’s art of operations and therefore the most important theoretician of the 19th century.[xxi] Jomini’s influence on American officers may be summarized with a quote from a novel written by Frederick Chiaventone, which describes the days leading to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the battle itself:

All of these men had studied Napoleon at West Point and had taken his ideas into that war. There is no God but Napoleon, and Jomini is his prophet.

Therefore, we may argue that at West Point, the American officers learned all the theories that had been consolidated in Europe along with Napoleon’s operational conception, with Jomini being sort of an ultimate summary of the overall European knowledge. Nonetheless, the question of Jomini’s influence still requires an in-depth investigation, although similar to many other historical issues, it may be impossible to secure an unequivocal answer. Either way, such an investigation is beyond the scope of this article.

The first one to introduce the Napoleonic models into the American Army was Winfield Scott, who enlisted in 1808. As he lacked a military education, he constructed for himself an intensive curriculum based on reading the military classics available to Americans at the time and especially the military writings of the French military school of thought.[xxiii] When the War of 1812 broke out, Scott was a division commander and he fought several battles on the northern front. The victories achieved by the forces he commanded gained him high praise, and the argument was made that the victories must be attributed to the exacting system of training and discipline that Scott imparted to his troops, by using French tactics and drills. On the other hand, the miserable performance of the American Army throughout the war caused the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, to argue that a comprehensive reform of the Army in general was required, including the implementation of a unified system of military drills and tactics, according to which the militia units would also be trained.[xxiv]

After the war, Scott was tasked with leading the reforms. Until congressional approval was received for the reforms, Scott embarked on a trip to France, where he conducted a thorough research of the tactical exercises of the French Army and also translated military guides into English. Scott returned with this literary enterprise in hand and began to work toward creating a unified system of drills for the American Army. Indeed, throughout the 1820s and 1830s, several drill manuals were written, in which Napoleon’s modi operandi can be identified.[xxv] Theory turned into practice with the military actions conducted by the American Army during the war with Mexico. This war provided the West Point graduates with their first opportunity to implement the lessons they had learned in the Academy. Analysis of the war actions in the two theaters, the one commanded by General Zachary Taylor and the one commanded by Scott, demonstrates the enormous effect of the Napoleonic model on all areas of military activity, including the organization of the army, planning of operations, and tactical maneuvering.[xxvi] One must point out in particular the fact that on both fronts the American Army seized the offensive initiative and attacked, while relying on the advantages provided by the terrain in which the battles were conducted, as well as the effective combination of artillery and skirmishing in support of infantry assaults. Clear evidence of the shadow cast by Napoleon can be seen in the Battle of Chapultepec (August 1847), which was part of Scott’s campaign that aimed to capture the Mexican capital.[xxvii] Numerous young officers, including McClellan, who was to replace Scott as army commander several months after the start of the Civil War, served under Scott in the battle over Mexico City.

The war with Mexico was the first one in which militia forces were not used, and the American Army relied solely on regular forces and volunteers. In other words, this was an army trained by officers raised on the French drills and whose commanders, at all levels of command, operated according to Jomini’s military principles. The West Point graduates disseminated their theoretical and intellectual learnings in the various units where they were stationed, thereby shaping their subordinates in their own image. The non-participation of militia forces created an American army that was homogeneous in its military training, as the volunteers were also trained according to the principles of the regular army. Thus, Scott believed that the theoretical framework was the cause for victory in the war with Mexico.[xxviii] Indeed, some of the American officers had also gained experience in the various battles that the Army waged against the Indian tribes, but as far as Scott was concerned, this experience was irrelevant; only the training in the Academy that had prepared them for battle against a regular army was relevant.

Napoleon at West Point

The reforms initiated by the American Army after 1812 did not forgo the curriculum of the United States Military Academy. This reform was linked to the appointment of Sylvanus Thayer as superintendent of the Academy in 1817. Thayer began his studies in West Point in 1807 and graduated in 1810, when Napoleon was at the height of his power. He took part in the War of 1812, in the battles of the northern front, where he had the opportunity to observe at firsthand army operations during war. He concluded that the American officer is unfit to command armies and that a comprehensive reform in the training of the officers is necessary. After the war, Thayer managed to get funding for a trip to France where he was impressed by the École Polytechnique, which was one of the most prestigious institutions of military education in all of Europe. He brought back with him to the United States hundreds of compositions on military studies as well as the French method of instruction. In 1817 he was appointed superintendent of West Point, and despite being the third person to occupy this role, he is considered the father of the American military academy.

One of the most important measures taken by Thayer as superintendent of West Point was the appointment of École Polytechnique graduate and former officer in Napoleon’s Army, Claude Corzet, to the position of professor at the Academy. The basic textbook in Corzet’s courses was the English translation of Gay de Vernon’s book, A Treatise on the Science of War and Fortification, as it was the basic textbook in the French military academies. The book was written in 1805 and immediately and personally approved by Napoleon himself as the book according to which the French officer corps was to be educated. Thousands of French officers studied the book prior to its arrival in the United States, where it became West Point’s main book in the 1820s and the 1830s.

In the beginning of the book, Gay de Vernon added a statement regarding the connection between the study of engineering and science and studying the art of war in which he argued that the main purpose is not to teach the narrow field of engineering, but to train officers who are capable of understanding the battle field and to turn them into skilled professionals. Accordingly, the first part of his book deals with the history of the science of war in light of military history from ancient times to the wars of the 18th century. This part also demonstrates the vast shift in warfare brought about by the French Revolution. This review of military history served the author to emphasize the advantages of the French military method and therefore the reason for studying it.

The English translation of the treatise also had introduction and appendix written by Captain John O'Connor, titled A Summary of the Principals and Maxims of Grand Tactics and Operations. Here O'Connor wrote that the purpose of the appendix is to survey the contemporary European theories and particularly those of Jomini. Although O'Connor does mention other theoreticians who wrote in the 18th century, he states that if an officer wishes to succeed in the command of his forces in wartime, he must closely study the principles formulated by Jomini, whom he identifies as the most important theoretician. O'Connor admits, in fact, that his appendix is mainly a summary of Jomini’s principles.[xxix] In his view, Jomini’s most important principle is shifting military forces to the point of the enemy alignment where an attack can bring about the enemy’s defeat. Further along, O'Connor writes that if it is estimated that the enemy is about to attack, one should preempt and strike rather than wait for the enemy attack.[xxx] Thus, we may summarize that in his appendix O'Connor emphasizes Jomini’s argument for seizing the initiative and attacking, and that attack is the most powerful form of warfare.

Bonura’s comprehensive research shows that Jomini’s theories reached the cadets not only by way of O'Connor’s translation. A meticulous examination of the catalogs of the Academy’s library showed that other books by Jomini were purchased as well. Although these were not translated into English, one must keep in mind that French was taught at West Point. This literature enabled the cadets and instructors to delve deeper into Jomini’s doctrine, beyond the basic learning offered by O'Connor’s translation. Furthermore, an examination of the borrowing lists shows that these books were being constantly loaned out by the cadets, though of course we do not know for certain if they were actually read.[xxxi] This emphasis on studying French theories was the future officers’ first exposure to the principles formulated by Jomini in light of the campaigns fought by Napoleon.[xxxii]

An additional phase in the shaping of the professional character of the American Army is related to the activities of Dennis Mahan, who began teaching at West Point in 1832. Mahan was Thayer’s protégé, who identified his academic skills even as Mahan was a cadet in the Academy.[xxxiii] Mahan journeyed to Europe after graduating in order to focus on the French models, serving in fact as Thayer’s emissary, in the context of his desire to instill the French standards in the American Army.[xxxiv] The study of military history and the exposure to Jomini’s early writings, along with personally meeting Jomini himself, led Mahan to determine that Napoleon was the perfect soldier, after whom there was nothing else left to learn. Thus we may claim that Mahan continued the trend of French education, arguing, as Jomini had argued, that the army is a scientific profession, with an accumulated body of knowledge and subject to universal laws. He believed that a good professional officer must be widely read in the scientific professions but also knowledgeable in military history, as there is no place for military amateurism. Mahan instilled this belief in the American officer corps and brought his students to see themselves as professional officers and to view military service as a way of life.

One of the first steps taken by Mahan was to update the cadet’s study books. One must recall that O'Connor’s translation of Gay de Vernon’s book was based on Jomini’s earlier works, and thus when The Art of War was published in English, O'Connor’s translation was abandoned and it was replaced by a series of short publications that Mahan wrote for the cadets. Two short works are noteworthy: The Composition of Armies and Strategy. Both were published in 1838 and provided the cadets with the fundamental basics of French war principles. The first work emphasized the superiority of the infantry as a corps tasked with achieving decisive victory, with the artillery and cavalry serving as supporting forces. In the first pages of Strategy, Mahan provided the most basic principle of war, in which he determined that the goal of war is to achieve peace on terms most favorable to the victor. Such a goal could be accomplished only be delivering a decisive blow by superior forces against an enemy alignment that when breached will bring about the collapse of the entire enemy army.[xxxv] Such a principle can leave no doubt as to the influence of Jomini on Mahan’s way of thinking. Furthermore, both of these short works clearly show that Mahan completely adopted Jomini’s conception regarding attack as the most powerful form of warfare.[xxxvi]

Up until the Civil War, the cadets in Mahan’s classes continued to study the science and art of war according to Jomini’s books.[xxxvii] Under Mahan’s supervision, a “Napoleon Club” was established, which was the crown jewel of intellectual life at West Point, according to Stephen Ambrose.[xxxviii] This consisted of a meeting of the training staff with a select group of cadets, in which the participants delved deep into the analysis of tactical and strategic issues related to Napoleon’s wars, with the aid of Jomini’s books. Many of the future army commanders of the Union and the Confederate armies participated in Mahan’s seminars, and in fact West Point trained the majority of the officers, of the North and the South, who later commanded the great battles of the Civil War.[xxxix] Statements by some of these officers testify to Mahan’s significant influence.[xl] Thus, for example, George McClellan wrote that Jomini was the most talented of military writers and the first to succeed in creating a real list of principles of war, through analyzing the wars of the great military leaders. William Sherman stated that an officer who is not familiar with Jomini’s principles of war will suffer everlasting disgrace.[xli] Ulysses Grant summarized Jomini with the simplicity that characterized him, stating that the art of war is entirely simple: One must discover where the enemy is located, to get there as fast as possible, strike with all one’s force, and continue to advance. Is that not what Custer planned to do?

Preparing for Regular War: Why?

From the analysis of the measures adopted by Scott and Mahan in order to shape the American officer corps, one critical fact is apparent: The American officer corps was prepared for war with a regular army, which indeed took place first with Mexico and then, in devastating form, in the Civil War.[xlii] The latter war was conducted by West Point graduates, and analysis of the tactics employed by both sides as well as the overall strategy of the Civil War indicates a return to Napoleon’s campaigns, conducted with the knowledge acquired by the officers at all levels of command.[xliii] In fact, both armies shared the same military doctrine that they had learned in the same institution and with the same teacher. Some had even served under the same commander, Winfield Scott.

Prior to the Civil War, the War Department had sent three officers as observers to the Crimean War (1853-1856), each of which published a summary report of the issues in his purview. One of the main conclusions was that the Crimean War did not present any new models that must be studied or adapted to by the American Army. Thus, on the eve of the Civil War, the American officer corps felt that the theoretical and intellectual framework it had acquired remained effective and that the technological developments observed in the Crimean War did not represent significant changes in the conduct of war.[xliv]

The fact that the American Army did not develop a theory of war against irregular forces can be explained with the aid of a sociological discussion based on the organizational culture developed by the American Army. Simply put, organizational culture is defined as the values, beliefs, norms, and customs that prevail in a given organization. The concept has two aspects, one explicit and the other implicit. The explicit aspect includes all the objects that represent the values and conceptions of the organization. These are the external, palpable symbols encountered by those who come upon the organization, such as clothes, language, and symbols. The implicit aspect is the normative infrastructure upon which the explicit aspect is built. Here we find the basic assumptions, social values, and behavioral norms of the organization. The implicit aspect also includes the philosophy of the organization, upon which the structure of the organization is based and the processes that turn it into an active organization, or in the case of a military organization—into an operational combat force.[xlv]

For years, the American Army had suffered from isolation from American civilian society. This was caused, in part, by the basic fear American society had of a standing army, and in part by the fact that most Army units were stationed in distant forts on the frontier. This trend continued after the Civil War and even worsened, due to the Army’s involvement in political and social issues, particularly the rehabilitation of the South and the suppression of strikes. The Army was also at the center of a political debate regarding the attitude toward the Indians.[xlvi] Powerful political elements in the East argued that the Army was operating on the side of the settlers in order to destroy the Indians and that in doing so the Army was violating the contracts lawfully signed with the various tribes. On the other hand, settler political elements accused the Army of not doing enough to protect the settlers from Indian raids.

The Army itself aimed to strengthen the bond with American society and to present itself as an organization working to promote and protect the interests of the American nation.[xlvii] However, the wars with the Indians did not further this aim for several reasons. First, as mentioned, these wars placed the Army in the middle of a political controversy. Second, after 1865, the threat posed by the Indians was not perceived as strategic threat to the American nation, as it had been in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in the beginning of the nineteenth. In the 1830s, when the removal of most of the Indians east of the Mississippi was completed, the Indian issue became remote, and not only in the geographical sense. Political, economic, and social issues occupied the residents of the East. Thus, we may state that the overwhelming majority of the American population was not affected by the wars with the Indians, which were waged in the far-off West. A third reason is that the Army itself believed that the Indian threat would disappear of its own accord, and therefore the Army felt no urgency to develop a relevant doctrine for warfare against the Indians. Furthermore, the tactics employed by the Army appeared to be effective to some extent: Army units gained victories and regular tactics were integrated in operational initiatives developed by various officers. One such tactic was attacking Indian villages in the winter, as at this time the warriors are near their villages and thus do not have the offensive initiative, there is a lack of food, and the horses are weak.[xlviii] The campaigns conducted in the winter of 1867-1868 proved that seizing the offensive initiative in  the winter, in  the context of conventional tactics, under the right conditions, can decisively defeat the Indians. These initiatives and their integration within the regular doctrines were based, among other things, on studying the ways in which the Indian tribes themselves made war and developing effective operational measures to cope with them.[xlix]

The Army gained enough victories over the Indians to preclude the need for developing a new doctrine. In other words, even with the absence of a military doctrine for coping with the Indians, the American Army managed to deal with the Indian problem.[l] Here we must also include the argument put forth by John Gates, that the Army’s experience in dealing with guerrilla warfare extends over a lengthy historical context.[li] Thus, the operational experiences gained at a certain time and place are not necessarily relevant to later times or other geographical locations. For example, the combat methods developed by the American Army in the wars against the Seminole in the 1850s, which were conducted in the jungles and swamps of Florida, were unsuitable for the climate and terrain of the Great Plains or the deserts of the American South-West.

Furthermore, the vast experience that was gained was lost due to the fact that many officers and soldiers who had served in the West were killed or wounded during the Civil War and were discharged following it. Again, the defeat of the Seminole tribes in Florida can be presented as an example. For years, the American Army had attempted to eliminate the threat posed by these tribes using random raids, without success. Only after several thousand soldiers were concentrated and pressure was applied even during the scorching summer months, and only after the villages of the Indians were attacked and their crops destroyed as well, did the Seminole surrender.[lii] Much time would pass before the American Army, operating in the West after the Civil War, would adopt these patterns of actions and defeat the large Plain tribes.

Thus we may argue that although the knowledge that had been lost was gradually reacquired by those stationed in the western regions, the experience gained in the past was not always relevant, from the point of view of the military. This due to the fact that the campaigns against the Indians prior to the Civil War did not necessarily permit the creation of a unified doctrine. There were two reasons for this: First, as mentioned, was the large geographical and topographical variance between the various areas of action in the West. Another reason was the cultural differences between the various Indian tribes.[liii] Some lived in permanent agricultural settlements, while other tribes roamed alongside the bison herds and inhabited improvised camps in the winter months. This prevented the creation of a doctrine that would be appropriate for each and every case, certainly regarding the varied terrain existing in the various theaters of war with the Indians.[liv] Also, the irregular warfare that had developed in the war with Mexico and in the final stages of the Civil War failed to change the course of the war, leading the Army to conclude, particularly after the Civil War, that guerilla warfare was unable to defeat the regular army.

Another factor was the Army’s desire to appear as an organization that could make an important contribution to American society and to the national interests of the United States. This obligated the American Army to emphasize regular war, following the threat identified by the Munro Doctrine (1823) regarding possible European intervention in the American continent. Thus, the Army had to prepare for war against a regular army of the European powers, and we must keep in mind that in the previous war against a European power, the War of 1812, the British burned Washington and the United States was almost badly defeated. It is possible that this national trauma obligated the Army to prepare itself for a future confrontation in order to prevent another debacle. In fact, in the final third of the 19th century, the United States continued to see itself as being under the threat of the various European powers. Furthermore, Ian Beckett claims that the essence of armies is to fight large-scale regular battles. Guerilla warfare has none of the glory and the heroic aura of winning a regular battle that may contribute to winning the war in its entirety. In addition, guerilla wars are not decided necessarily by a clear military victory and even involve political and social dimensions that the army has no interest, ability, or skills to deal with.[lv]

A historical analysis that includes an examination of the colonial wars waged by the various European countries, and especially France and England, enables us to suggest another reason why the United States did not develop a doctrine for war against irregular forces. As the American Army was engaged in a lengthy struggle against the Indians, the European armies, and especially France and England, were likewise coping with operational problems caused by war against irregular forces throughout the empires they had conquered. In these confrontations, the regular armies emerged victorious and the military establishment in the various countries did not feel the need to add another relevant doctrine, even though they did suffer defeats, occasionally. Since the fundamental argument of this article is that European military thought had a crucial and formative effect on the American Army, both theoretically and in practice, we can argue that if the European armies saw no need to add a written doctrine regarding irregular warfare, then this approach affected the American Army as well, to some extent, as it still looked up to the theoretical and practical developments in Europe. In addition, the French and British armies actually viewed the regular wars at the time, and especially the Crimean War and afterwards the wars for the unification of Germany, as a low point in their military doctrines, which required updating them to the changing military reality of the second half of the 19th century.[lvi]

In this way we can cope with Waghelstein’s argument according to which the American Army prepared itself for the wrong war.[lvii] Although his research is based on an in-depth analysis, the historical perspective is prominent in his conclusions. In other words, the Army prepared itself for a regular war but throughout most of the 19th century it engaged with guerilla forces and therefore was unprepared for the relevant military challenges. But we must adopt the mindset and thinking of the American Army in this period, as we did throughout the article, and avoid the use of historical hindsight. Such a point of view explains why the American Army continued to prepare itself for regular war. As we have seen, the American Army was not the only army to fight in a series of irregular wars, yet prepare itself for regular war.

The System is Working

In 1867, the American Army published a new doctrine that also was, in essence, for regular war and was based on the doctrine written in 1862. The source of influence of both doctrines was the French drills from the 1850s.[lviii] Nonetheless, it is possible to find in the 1867 doctrine instructions and tactics appropriate for war in the frontier and especially for the activities of small, mobile units, particularly cavalry, which was considered a supporting force of the main army in regular wars. The 1867 doctrine included actions such as ambushes, night movement, raids, accurate fire, and small-unit actions. These were missions that the European armies usually assigned to cavalry commanded by young officers. In other words, a special doctrine was not developed for war against irregular forces (in this case the Indians); instead, parts that were suitable for the operation of small, mobile forces against guerilla forces were appropriated. Furthermore, a tradition that was discontinued because of the Civil War was renewed, in which officers fighting on the frontier created unofficial drills that were passed on orally to the next generation. This was an unconventional conception that combined the regular forces (mainly infantry) with supporting forces (cavalry) and Indian warriors that had enlisted with the American Army as scouts. This unofficial doctrine drew mainly from the actions that were under the operational responsibility of the supporting forces.

The Academy attempted to include in its curriculum the operation of small forces in order to provide the cadets with the necessary military knowledge for when they would be stationed on the frontier. During the 1870s, officers with experience in the wars against the Indians were posted to West Point so that they would be able to pass on their experience to the future officers. Nonetheless, the Academy continued to emphasize the study of conventional warfare according to the French model, which was the dominant conception in the War Department. Despite the ongoing wars against the Indians and even though they were the primary military activity of the American Army, the War Department ignored the absence of a military doctrine for unconventional operations. This approach led American officers to develop their own methods of war according to the military reality they faced and the military experience they had accumulated. Several officers even documented their experiences in writing.

In this context, the handbook written by Captain Randolph Marcy, The Prairie Traveler (1859), is particularly noteworthy. Although the book indeed summarizes the vast experience gained by the author in the West, it also examines the lessons that can be learned from the French experience fighting against the nomadic tribes in North Africa. The military aspect of this composition can be summed up as emphasizing swift movement, seizing the offensive initiative, and night movement in order to surprise guerilla forces that enjoy a high level of mobility and familiarity with the terrain, as well as the support of the local population. Marcy also affirms attack as the critical component of success, since offensive operations seize the initiative from the enemy.[lix]

One may argue that from the beginning, the American Army set out to fight with the wrong tactics, as the drills that were studied were for infantry. But one must remember that the cavalry in the United States were perceived as mounted infantry, and during the military clash itself they dismounted from their horses and fought like infantry. The perception of assaulting cavalry was a myth created in popular culture during the 20th century, first by books and then established by American cinema.[lx] From a military point of view, the cavalry was a support corps for the striking force, which was still based on infantry. Cavalry assaults and chasing retreating forces were part of the cavalry’s role in the general framework of battle. But in this the American cavalry was no different than the cavalry of the European armies.[lxi] The great firepower and range of rifles and cannons, as shown in the Civil War, led to forgoing the assaults of cavalry with drawn swords. This can explain Custer’s decision to embark upon his final war campaign without swords, as he had been exposed to the increasing lethality of the battlefield in the Civil War; instead, he equipped his soldiers with guns and hunting rifles for short range combat.

Several times throughout this article I have argued that the American Army eventually identified that the operations it was conducting against the Indian tribes in the various theaters of combat were successful. Information about these successes, which were the result of initiatives taken by the commanders in the field, among other things, was passed on to the rest of the units that were fighting in the vast expanses of the Great Plains. One of the most successful campaigns was conducted two years before the Battle at Little Bighorn. Analysis of the course of this campaign, The Red River War, which reached its peak in the battle of Palo Duro Canyon (in north Texas), can support this argument.[lxii]

In 1874, General Sheridan ordered the movement of five columns toward the Indian concentrations in the Red River area. The planning of the campaign was an almost perfect copy of the successful campaign that Sheridan himself had conducted in the winter of 1868.[lxiii] The war campaign began as a response to raids conducted by the Indians against the bison hunters, which gravely damaged the tribe’s economy. The purpose of the operation was to move in different directions and to conduct a series of battles against the Indians, simultaneously and for an extended period of time, in order to prevent them from accessing areas of refuge and force them to enter the reservations. The American Army estimated that the tribes could field between 800–1200 warriors.

On September 28, 1874, Indian scouts in Ronald Mackenzie’s column identified a large concentration of Indians in the Palo Duro Canyon. At dawn, 400 of Mackenzie’s soldiers attacked the Indian camp, forcing the Indians to run away despite suffering only a small number of casualties, leaving behind them the food they had stocked for the winter and about 2,000 horses.[lxiv] The raid brought about the surrender of the Indians and their removal to the reservations. This surrender marked the end of the Indian-Texas Wars and the official opening of the Texas Panhandle to the settlement of farmers and ranchers. The war also marked the complete and final removal of the Indians from the southern regions of the Great Plains.


This article aimed to understand the theoretical system behind the decisions taken by Lieutenant Colonel Custer prior to the Battle at Little Bighorn. Indeed, Custer made several dreadful mistakes to go along with his soaring arrogance and desire for glory. But besides his personality, three additional fundamental factors were operating from the outset to bring Custer to behave as he did. These factors are those that prevented the formulation of a written doctrine for combat against irregular forces, and they were the basis for his actions and decision making on the eve of the battle and during it.

The first and main argument is that Custer was the product of an organization that was influenced from its inception by the European conception of warfare. The European form of warfare was focused on war between regular armies. The European conception was instilled in the American officer corps as they studied at West Point by Dennis Mahan and through the military experience they gained under the command of General Winfield Scott. These two figures in fact shaped the image of the American Army during the period under discussion as an organization that adopted the European ways of war. Although the European armies fought against irregular forces in a series of colonial wars, ultimately the local forces prevailed thanks to their firepower and the strict training and discipline of the regular armies. Furthermore, the European armies did not see a need to write an official doctrine for war against irregular forces until the end of the 19th century, and doubtlessly this trend affected the American Army as well.

The second factor, derived from the first, is that after the Civil War, the Army continued to prepare for a regular war. The curricula at the military academies did not change and were constantly updated according to the lessons learned in the regular wars of Europe. Even at the peak of the wars with the Indians in the 1870 and 1880s and even after Custer’s defeat, no fundamental changes were made in the curricula and training continued to focus on preparing for a regular war.

The third factor is a combination of the first two: The European armies did not see an operational need for training their officers or developing a doctrine for war against irregular forces, preferring instead to appropriate the tactical parts suitable for contending with irregular forces. In addition, at the conclusion of the colonial wars, the regular armies had the upper hand and these victories paved the way to the establishment of the European empires. An almost identical conception prevailed in the United States. The successful war campaigns against the Indians made it seem as if there was no need to write a doctrine for irregular war. In the end, the tactics derived from the existing doctrines were found to be effective. Furthermore, these tactics were integrated in the offensive initiatives of the commanders in the field and included attacking the winter camps of the Indians and using Indian scouts in order to locate tribal camps. In one way or the other, the local initiatives turned into a sort of oral doctrine that was passed on to all the units that fought against the Indians.

Indeed, victory was not always to be had, but enough success was gained to convince the American officer corps that no special doctrine was necessary and that such a doctrine would only serve to divert the Army from its primary mission, namely preparing for regular war. In addition, in the cases in which the Indians stood and fought in conditions that were favorable to the regular army, they lost.[lxv] Thus we may conclude by stating that the American officer corps that was sent to fight the Indians in the last third of the 19th century lacked a doctrine suitable for war against irregular forces since it did not feel the need to create one.

The organizational culture of the American Army sanctified firepower, mobility, and above all seizing the offensive initiative as the Army’s way of war. This approach was manifested in the war with Mexico and most clearly in the Civil War, and in both these wars the American Army achieved a palpable military victory. Custer was trained as an officer and gained his military experience in this climate, which emphasized regular war, and he served under commanders that saw no need to fundamentally change the way of war, even against irregular forces. His campaign plan emphasized the principles that he had learned at West Point and that he had implemented in the Civil War and in the previous campaigns against the Indians. These principles were primarily seizing the offensive initiative and the desire to fight a decisive battle. This, in order to bring the battle close to the villages of the Indians and in this way to also fulfill the concept of total war. Custer’s plan was no different from other plans that were executed to varying degrees of success in prior years.

End Notes

[i] On the war with the Indians after 1865, see: Richard W. Stewart, American Military History (vol.1): The United States Army and Forging of a Nation, 1775-1917 (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, 2005), 321-339; Jerome A. Greene, "Indian Wars of the Trans-Mississippi West, 1850s-1890s", in: John M. Carroll and Colin F. Baxter (eds.), The American Military Tradition: From Colonial Times to the Present (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 101-123; Brad D. Lookingbill, The American Military (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 174-194; Matthew S. Muehlbauer and David J. Ulbrich, Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2014), 259-271.

[ii] One of the most comprehensive books written on this battle is the classic Custer Luck by Edgar I. Stewart (Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1955).

[iii] Robert M. Epstein, Napoleon's Last Victory and the Emergence of Modern War (Lawrence: Kansas UP, 1994), 182-183.

[iv] See: Risa A. Brooks, "Introduction: The Impact of Culture, Society, Institutions, and International Forces on Military Effectiveness", in: Risa A. Brooks and Elizabeth A. Stanley (eds.), Creating Military Power: The Source of Military Effectiveness (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007), 1-22.

[v] John D. Waghlstein, "Preparing the US Army for the Wrong War: Educational and Doctrinal Failure 1865-91", Small Wars and Insurgencies 10 (1) 1999, 1-29.

[vi] For the influence of Napoleon’s wars on Jomini, see: John R. Elting, "Jomini: Disciple of Napoleon", Military Affairs 28 (1) 1964, 17-26; Regarding Jomini’s influence in the 19th century, see: John Shy, "Jomini", in: Peter Peret (ed.), Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986), 176-184; Hew Strachan, European Armies and the Conduct of War, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985), 60-75.

[vii] T. Harry Williams, "The Military Leadership of North and South", in: David Donald (ed.), Why the North Won the Civil War (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 27; James L. Morrison, "Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833-1861", Military Affairs 38 (3) 1974, 108.

[viii] For the influence of Jomini on the American officer corps, see: Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), 288 and also: John I. Alger, The Quest for Victory: The History of the Principles of War (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982), 45-46.

[ix]  Bellamy, The Evolution of Modern Land Warfare, 65-67.

[x] See also: Christopher Bellamy, The Evolution of Modern Land Warfare (London: Routledge, 1990), 59.

[xi] James D. Hittle, Jomini and His Summary of the Art of War (Harrisburg: Military Service, 1947), 2. See also: Bellamy, The Evolution of Modern Land Warfare, 65.

[xii] John A. Maxwell, "Warfare in the Age of Napoleon", in: John M. Carroll and Colin F. Baxter (eds.), The American Military Tradition: From Colonial Times to the Present (Wilmington: SR Books, 1993), 25.

[xiii]  James L. Morrison, "Military Education and Strategic Thought, 1846-1861", in: Kenneth J. Hagan and William R. Roberts (eds.), Against All Enemies (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 122-123.

[xiv] See: Carol Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other (Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 2012), 4-9.

[xv]  The most important studies of this school are the articles by Williams, "The Military Leadership of North and South", 33-54, and: T. Harry Williams, "The Return of Jomini: Some Thought on Recent Civil War Writing” Military Affairs 39 (4) 1975, 204-206. See also: David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), 82-102.

[xvi] W. J. Wood, Civil War Generalship: The Art of Command (Westport: Praeger, 1997), 9-19.

[xvii] Archer Jones, "Jomini and the Strategy of the American Civil War: A Reinterpretation", Military Affairs 34 (4) 1970, 127; Michael A. Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon: French Influence on the American Way of Warfare from the War of 1812 to the Outbreak of WWII (New York: New York UP, 2012), 2-3.

[xviii] Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, 2-3; See also: Alger, The Quest for Victory, 10-14.

[xix] This is a simplistic review of Jomini’s fundamental principles, based on the following sources: Hittle, Jomini and His Summary of the Art of War, 10-37; Michael Howard, "Jomini and the Classical Tradition in Military Thought", in: Michael Howard (ed.), The Theory and Practice of War, (London: Cassell, 1965), 5-19; Shy, "Jomini", 148-176.

[xx] Gat, A History of Military Thought, 289.

[xxi] Shy, "Jomini", 143-144.

[xxii] Frederick J. Chiaventone, A Road We Do Not Know (Albuquerque: New Mexico UP, 1997), 132.

[xxiii] Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon, 50.

[xxiv] Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon, 55-56.

[xxv] Walter E. Kretchik, U.S. Army Doctrine: From the revolution to the War on Terror (Lawrence: Kansas UP, 2011), 54.

[xxvi] See: James W. Pohl, "The Influence of Antoine Henri de Jomini on Winfield Scott's Campaign in the Mexican War", The Southern Historical Quarterly 77 (1) 1973, 85-110.

[xxvii] Kretchik, U.S. Army Doctrine, 59-62.

[xxviii] Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon, 84-85, 87-89.

[xxix] O'Connor, Introduction, V; O'Connor, Appendix, p. 386.

[xxx] O'Connor, Appendix, p. 459.

[xxxi] Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon, 80.

[xxxii] In this context, see: Morrison, "Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833-1861", 108-111.

[xxxiii] Thomas J. Fleming, West Point: The men and Times of the United States Academy (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1969), 53.

[xxxiv] Russell F. Weigley, Towards an American Army: Military Thought from Washington to Marshall (New York: Columbia UP, 1962), 43.

[xxxv] Dennis H. Mahan, Strategy (West Point: USMA Press, 1838), 5.

[xxxvi] Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon, 82.

[xxxvii] Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon, 111-112.

[xxxviii] Stephen E. Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999), 138.

[xxxix] Williams, "The Military Leadership of North and South", 27.

[xl] On the transition between generations see the discussion in Weigley, Towards an American Army, 54-78.

[xli] Cited in Gat, A History of Military Thought, 288

[xlii] Regarding the American Army on the eve of the war with the Sioux, see: Paul L. Hedren, Great Sioux War Order of Battle (Norman: Oklahoma Up, 2011), 21-33. This discussion emphasizes both the fact that the operational patterns of the Civil War still influenced the officers who remained in the Army after the war, as well as the fact that new officers and soldiers were enlisted who lacked any prior experience in the wars against the Indian tribes.

[xliii] Kretchik, U.S. Army Doctrine, 70-75.

[xliv] Regarding the influence of the Crimean War on the American officer corps, see: Bonura, Under the Shadow of Napoleon, 113-116.

[xlv] See: Brooks, "Introduction: The Impact of Culture, Society, Institutions, and International Forces on Military Effectiveness", 16-18.

[xlvi] James M. Cooper, "The Army's Search for a Mission, 1865-1890", in: Kenneth J. Hagen and William R. Roberts (eds.), Against All Enemies: Interpretations of American Military History from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 173-178; Robert Wooster, The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903 (Yale: Yale UP, 1988), 42-43.

[xlvii] See also the discussion in: Clyde R Cooper, "The Indians Wars and US Military Thought, 1865-1890", Parameters 22 (1) 1992, 61-65.

[xlviii] Wooster, The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903, 145, 158.

[xlix]  This represented a historical trend that went back to the first encounters between the European settlers and the natives in north America. Generally, we may argue that every army must learn the doctrinal and operational characteristics of its potential enemies in order to be able to confront them. See: Peter E. Russell, "Redcoats in the Wilderness: British Officers and Irregular Warfare in Europe and America, 1740-1760", William and Mary Quarterly 35 (4) 1978, 629-652; Peter Paret, "Colonial Experience and European Military Reform at the End of the Eighteenth Century", in: Douglas M. Peers (ed.), Warfare and Empires (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997), 357-369; Armstrong Starkey, "European – Native American Warfare in North America, 1513-1815", in: Jeremy Black (ed.), War in the Early Modern World (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 237-256. Regarding the study of Indian warfare in the years after the Civil War, see: The View from Officers Row: Army Perceptions of Western Indians (Tucson: Arizona UP, 1995), 139-162.

[l] Cooper, "The Army's Search for a Mission, 1865-1890", 181-182.

[li]  John M. Gates, "Indians and Insurrects: The US Army's Experience with Insurgency", Parameters 13 (1) 1983, 59, 63.

[lii] For the wars with the Seminole, see: John Missall and Mary L. Missall, The Seminole Wars: America's Longest Indian Conflict (Gainesville: Florida UP, 2004), 213-222. 

[liii]  Regarding the differences between the various groups of Indians in the vast lands west of the Mississippi, see: John D. McDermott, A Guide to the Indian Wars of the West, (Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1998), 13-20.

[liv] Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941 (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, 2003), 60; McDermott, A Guide to the Indian Wars of the West, 55-57.

[lv]  Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter Insurgencies: Guerrillas and Their Opponents since 1750 (London: Routledge, 2001), 24. See also: Robert G. Athearn, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Settlement of the West (Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1995), 237.

[lvi] Alger, The Quest for Victory, 51, 75.

[lvii]  Waghlstein, "Preparing the US Army for the Wrong War".

[lviii] Kretchik, U.S. Army Doctrine, 77-84.

[lix] Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, 64-65; Kretchik, U.S. Army Doctrine, 83-84.

[lx]  John D. McDermont, A Guide to the Indian Wars (Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1998), 95.

[lxi] Weller, On Wellington, 134. Regarding the cavalry in Western armies in  the 19th century, see: Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Art of War in the Age of Napoleon (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978), 71-74; Philip J. Haythornthwaite, The Napoleonic Source Book (London: Arms and Armour, 1990), 102-106; Philip J. Haythornthwaite, Napoleon's Military Machine (New York: Sarpedon, c1995), 54-63.

[lxii] For a general review of the Red River War, see: Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indians, 1866-1891 (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 219-233. The most comprehensive book on the war remains the one written by James L. Haley, The Buffalo War: The History of the Red River Indian Uprising of 1874 (New York: Doubleday, 1976).

[lxiii] Paul A. Hutton, Phil Sheridan and His Army (Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1999), 248.

[lxiv] For the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, see: Haley, The Buffalo War, 169-183; S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon (New York: Scribner, 2010), 278-283. Losing such a large number of horses can be likened to an industrial nation losing its transportation infrastructure. Philip Weeks, Farewell, My Nation: The American Indian and the United States, 1820-1890 (Arlington Heights: Harlan Davidson, 1990), 45-47.

[lxv] Cooper, "The Indians Wars and US Military Thought, 1865-1890", 67-68.


Categories: irregular warfare

About the Author(s)

Dr. Tal Tovy is an assistant professor at the History Department, Bar-Ilan University, Israel.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 7:38am

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