British Gatling guns in action at the battle of Ulundi.
In 1875, a group of Native American tribes left the reservations the government had designated for them in the western territories along the Rocky Mountains, and tensions between the American government and the region’s native populations soared. President Grant issued an ultimatum: Return to the reservations by the New Year, he said, or be considered an enemy force. Several tribes formed a coalition under a spiritual leader, Sitting Bull, and defied the president’s demand. In spring 1876, a large American contingent set out to subdue the refusing tribes. The United States Seventh Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, was among the units assigned.
On June 25, after several weeks in the field, Colonel Custer’s column came upon an Indian encampment on the Rosebud River in territory now part of the state of Montana. Thinking the encampment was small and vulnerable, the colonel decided to attack from two sides. He ordered Major Marcus A. Reno, his senior subordinate, to advance on the camp with three cavalry companies from the south. Colonel Custer planned to swing round to the north with five more companies and trap the Indians between his forces. Two other elements, including his logistics train, were given supporting roles. Major Reno began his advance but quickly discovered the native camp was not as small as he had believed, and occupied by a large number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The divided American cavalry was no match. Major Reno withdrew under fire and fell back into the protection of cottonwoods and undergrowth, where the cavalrymen dismounted and fought from the ground. Colonel Custer’s assessment of the size and readiness of the native force had been wrong. He had come upon the camp of Sitting Bull and much of the defiant native coalition, which had many more warriors than the United States Army’s scouts in the field had detected in the weeks before the campaign. Major Reno’s command soon found its position among the cottonwoods untenable; the troops retreated farther, scrambling across the river and leaving behind their dead and more than a dozen of their unwounded fellow soldiers. They dashed pell-mell to the comparative safety of a hilltop. There, to their great fortune, they were met by one of the other detachments of American soldiers. These combined American forces began to dig in, anticipating a large Indian attack. The Indians’ attention, however, had been diverted from the major’s weakened command. It had turned to Colonel Custer.
The regimental commander’s detachment, with slightly more than two hundred cavalrymen, had continued unknowingly toward the river camp. It was quickly enveloped. From their hilltop, Major Reno’s men heard some of the resulting ferocity, including the booms of volley fire during the brief time Colonel Custer’s group managed to fight as a unit and resist. Caught by the Indians in unfamiliar terrain and out of the reach of reinforcements, the soldiers were pinned down, then overrun. It was a highly unusual event. The Indians had been elusive. Combat with them was usually swift and fleeting. In this case, however, a small American contingent had collided with the indigenous warriors during a brief period when they were massed. The battle was over in an hour or less. Every man in the colonel’s command was killed. The victorious Cheyenne and Sioux stripped many of the dead soldiers of their clothes and mutilated and scalped corpses. Precisely what happened between the moment when Major Reno’s detachment galloped away and the time when the last man in Colonel Custer’s contingent fell has never been fully known; no cavalrymen survived to tell. But the disposition of the dead soldiers, discovered when another American unit came upon them the next day, and the available Indian accounts, indicated that Colonel Custer’s group made a wall with the carcasses of dead horses, to little effect, and tried to fight off an Indian charge by the old tactic of volleyed rifle fire. Rifles were not enough. The charge broke the lines. Pandemonium followed, with panicked soldiers dropping weapons and scattering on foot, only to be hacked down by pursuing horsemen.
Colonel Custer, young and intense, had been a public personality. His defeat ignited controversy and an investigation. The investigation found many grounds for criticism of the colonel’s decisions, among them that he had been offered Gatling guns, but had left them behind as he rode off to campaign. Thinking they would slow his movement, he opted to plunge into the Indian territory with cavalry armed with single-shot Model 1873 Springfield rifles, and not any rapid-fire arms. The army had recently issued the Springfields; their slower rate of fire was seen as a means to reduce ammunition consumption in distant territories, where resupply was slow and difficult. Colonel Custer fit the old model of officer who rejected the value of machine-gun fire. His position had merit: The Indians’ superior speed and mobility made it difficult for American units to bring firepower to bear on them, and his Gatlings would have been pulled along on carriages, no doubt slowing his advance as he reconnoitered territory. But at his command, the American government’s plans to bring its material superiority against its enemies were turned upside down. Instead of being able to concentrate fire against a concentrated Indian force, densely packed and in the open, Colonel Custer’s soldiers were armed with rifles designed to help preserve their bullets. Red Horse, a surviving Indian chief, was surprised by the Americans’ weakness. The Sioux, he said, drove Colonel Custer’s isolated cavalrymen:
… into confusion; these soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands “Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners.” The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner, but killed all of them; none were alive for even a few minutes. Those different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt, two cartridges were gone; out of the other five.
No one can say with certitude how the battle might have gone if Colonel Custer had arrived for the fight with rapid-fire weapons. Historians argue both sides, some taking his position. If Colonel Custer had brought his Gatlings, he might not have reached Sitting Bull’s encampment that day. But Colonel Henry J. Hunt, the former chief of artillery for the Army of the Potomac, excoriated Custer posthumously for failing to bring the weapons that he had been issued. The Gatlings, he said, would have kept the Sioux and the Cheyenne attackers at bay.
At the Custer massacre Reno reached the neighboring “bluffs” and saved his command … Custer, when attacked by overwhelming numbers, tried to do so, failed, and his command was exterminated. A battery or half-battery of Gatlings would have been a moving “bluff,” with power to fight and specially fit for keeping “swarms” of Indians in check. The guns would not have “staggered about” from weariness after a forced long march, as Sitting Bull describes our soldiers to have done. Nor would they have lacked the rapidity of fire which that chief claimed. Under their protection our men could have moved about in comparative safety, or at least to cover. The presence of such a battery would have probably saved the command.
Colonel Hunt did not mention the Russian experience three years earlier, moving from oasis to oasis across the Central Asian steppe, where, like the men under Colonel Custer’s command, the Russian and Cossack detachments risked encountering a mobilized indigenous foe on unfamiliar terrain. Outside Khiva, the Russian Gatling guns had stopped a charge cold, as surely as if it had hit a wall. Colonel Custer never had the chance to try. Colonel Hunt fumed at the thought of an officer leaving a Gatling gun battery behind in war. He suggested it was an oversight so galling it could be considered illegal, a dereliction of an officer’s oath to follow the orders of the government that gave him authority and paid his wage.
I know of no good reason why one should have not been on the ground, if they had been kept mounted in accordance with the expressed will of Congress.
Not all of the American army’s officers failed to use the guns. Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard used a pair of Gatlings in 1877 in the campaign that ultimately forced Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce onto a reservation. The guns were carried in packs on mules, and General Howard’s troops were well enough drilled that they were able to rush them forward when the general caught a band of retreating Indians crossing the Clearwater River near Kamiah, in what is now Idaho. “The whole force was put to a brisk run to the river crossing,” wrote Thomas A. Sutherland, a newspaper correspondent covering the campaign. “General Howard with Captain Jackson was the first to reach the destination, as the road taken by Whipple was more circuitous. The Gatling gun was hurried into position and under command of Captain Wilkinson did good work in driving the Indian sharpshooters from their different breastworks on the mountains opposite.”
That encounter was not on the order of what Colonel Custer had faced. It fell to British soldiers to show what an outnumbered force, equipped with modern weapons, might do when faced with a native charge. In spite of high-ranking objections, British curiosity about Gatling’s weapons had been significant enough that machine guns were being sent out with expeditions and units on colonial duty. Their arrival coincided with fresh troubles in the crown’s empire. When the British invaded Zululand in 1879 with a large force, they brought with them several Gatlings, including the British army’s first Gatling battery, which was under command of J. F. Owen, the officer who had criticized Captain Rogers’s enthusiasm for machine guns four years before in London. Owen had been promoted to major, and his guns were used in skirmishes and several battles. Two were present for the war’s final large battle, at Ulundi.
In early July, the British moved toward Ulundi, the Zulu capital, and set up camp nearby. The British commander, Frederic Thesiger, Lord Chelmsford, sent a message demanding that the Zulu king surrender the artillery pieces and roughly one thousand rifles that his fighters had captured after a stinging defeat of the British earlier in the year at Isandlwana. The king did not reply, and British watering parties came under fire. On the morning of July 4, Lord Chelmsford ordered his roughly five thousand troops to battle. His units marched across the Mahlabathini plain, passing the chopped-up corpses of their comrades who had been killed in skirmishes the previous day. As they drew near the huts of the seat of government, which were ahead behind high grass, they were entering what in any other circumstance but this—a technological mismatch of drilled European troops with modern weapons facing indigenous Africans with shields and spears—would have been an inescapable trap, much like what Colonel Custer had faced three years before. The British walked into an encirclement, outnumbered several times.
As the mounted men scrambled out of the donga, the inGobama-khosi regiment rose from the midst of the grass and, as if on signal, other regiments appeared at wide intervals on either side. The silent black masses parted the waving grass, displayed their shields and began to move forward, joining the regiments coming down from the heights as they reached them, until the center of the basin was ringed with dark groupings.
The British formed a square and watched, tightening ranks and readying weapons. The Zulu defenders, estimated to be twenty thousand men, merged and stamped their feet, harassed lightly by the Seventeenth Lancers, a unit of British cavalrymen, who opened fire and peppered the walls of Zulu warriors as their horses cantered in the shrinking open space. The Lancers were outnumbered by thousands. The enclosing circle grew smaller. The British cavalry taunted the Zulus, but they knew, like Colonel Custer’s men, that they would have small chance in a head-to-head fight. They withdrew within the square as the larger clash became imminent. The Zulus advanced slowly until the British artillery opened fire. Then the Zulus broke forward at a run.
For all of his professions of humanitarianism and assurances that machine guns could serve as such a powerful deterrent that they would make wars safe, Richard Gatling had never addressed this.
The battalion opened fire with rifle fire and the rattling bursts from the Gatling guns stitched the crashing volleys together. Regiment after regiment surged forward, and the lines began to melt away in the hail of bullets scything the slopes. Succeeding waves charged over the contorted bodies that littered the grass, and shining faces of the warriors, with gleaming eyes and set teeth, bobbed up and down over the rims of their shields. Raw courage had brought them that far, but bravery alone could not force a way through the crescendo of fire, and the warriors sank to their knees to crash full length in the dust or tumble head over heels in mid-stride. Not a Zulu reached within thirty yards of the British lines.
The Gatling guns had jammed several times, but were still effective. A charge by the Zulu reserve was broken, and then Lord Chelmsford ordered the cavalry back out, to pursue. The Seventeenth Lancers cheered as they bore down on their retreating victims, and cut them with lances and swords. The Zulu charges had been broken in thirty minutes. Most of the mopping up was completed within the hour. Several of the British soldiers had brought champagne on the march, and now, with clusters of African bodies glistening on the field, and the British killing the wounded in vengeance for past defeats, some men shared warm toasts. Lord Chelmsford ordered Ulundi to be set afire. His command had left its camp before 7:00 A.M. It faced the Zulu charge at 9:00 A.M. “Ulundi was burning at noon,” he telegraphed home.The British, with their superior firepower, had completed the destruction of the Zulu nation in a morning, though they were on enemy terrain and outnumbered roughly four to one. One British officer and ten enlisted men were killed. The rout had reached proportions almost absurd, but was also demonstrative of what rapid-fire weapons could do when applied to people who did not have them, or who were ordered in the open by commanders who did not appreciate how machine gunnery worked. Colonel Custer had left his guns behind. The killing at Ulundi had shown their utility in what one officer called “wars with people who wear not trousers.” They would not be left behind anymore.