The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 3 No 2 - December 1974

Battles of the Little Big Horn AND Isandhlwana/Rorke's Drift and the similarities between the American Plains Indians and the Zulus


Originally compiled as an epilogue to the talk given by the author's father, the late Mr R. Murchison, this account adds a new dimension to the study of the Battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift.


Let us consider first some of the sociological similarities between the American Plains Indians and the Zulus. Both groups were semi-nomadic peoples whose way of life required large areas of grazing land; in the case of the Indian, for the vast herds of bison which were hunted from horseback, and in the case of the Zulu, for the cattle herds. Farming was certainly not a major factor for either group because of the migratory pattern of existence forced upon them by the bison and cattle. The high level of mobility in warfare found in the Plains Indians and the Zulus was a direct result of their continual movement with the herds.

Although the Zulu with their domesticated cattle show a higher degree of control over their environment than do the hunting Indians of the American Plains, neither attempted any form of technological manipulation of the ecology. The American Indian can, in fact, be classified as simply another predator, like the wolf packs, serving to keep down the huge numbers of bison. It can be reasonably argued that the Zulu cattle in Southern Africa and the bison of North America play the same role in their respective ecological systems. As far as the Indians and Zulus are concerned, the herds certainly occupied a most important place in their lives and were the basis of the economics of the two groups.

The basic social unit in each culture was the village or kraal. These were of roughly equal size, to a great extent, because the hunting-herding pattern of life made it very difficult to support any major population concentrations. Each village or kraal had its own headman who was in complete control of the day to day administration of the group. He decided, usually in consultation with the resident medicine-man or witch-doctor, when and whence to move; dispensed justice and arbitrated quarrels, and acted as supervisor and overseer of the procurement of food for his group. All these sub-groups were bound together in a loose tribal confederation, very similar to the Scottish clan system, and owed allegiance to the chief or king of the 'nation'. In addition to the purely political ties, there was a common religious, or superstitious, background which helped to unify the large number of villages or kraals into a single national structure.

The Plains Indian and Zulu societies were both male-dominated with the women being relegated to the position of labour force for all menial tasks as well as for child-bearing. In each society the ideal was the strong young hunter-warrior whose prowess in war overcame all foes and whose skill in the hunt never failed to bring back a kill. Besides fighting and hunting, the males' only duties were to participate in certain religious and 'state' rituals from which women were usually barred. In essence, the Zulu and the American Indian had developed a quasi-military society focused on the citizen-soldier and based on a Spartan life and superb physical conditioning. As a result of this, they had each managed to establish themselves as the single dominant power in their respective areas before the arrival of the white man.


From the military viewpoint, the similarities between the Zulu nation and the Plains Indian tribes are striking.

Although the Zulu fought as a light infantryman, of which he is an excellent example, and the Cheyenne and Sioux as light cavalry, there are many parallels between their respective weaponry and techniques. The basic armament of the Zulu impis was the stabbing spear. They also used knobkerries, axes and throwing spears and had a few guns. There was a larger variety in weaponry available to the North American Indians, but none of it was really superior to that of the Zulu. The Plains tribes had tomahawks, knives, war clubs and lances for hand to hand combat and bows, throwing spears and some rifles for longer range work. The arms of the two groups were essentially equivalent, the major difference being the bow and arrow. This is not so great a consideration, however, when one remembers the very short range at which the Zulus and the Indians liked to fight. Both groups were advocates of close contact with the enemy and would rather hack their man down at about arm's length than shoot him at a few hundred yards' distance. One noteworthy point of difference is that while both groups had rifles, the average Zulu was not a particularly good shot and the Plains Indian tended to be a very accurate marksman. Although it was not actually a weapon, mention should be made of the 'coup-stick' which the Sioux and Cheyenne carried into battle and which had no parallel among the Zulu. The American Indians believed, and rightly so, that it was far more difficult and worthy of praise to get close to one's opponent, hit him lightly with a stick and then escape than simply to kill him. They, therefore, carried special sticks, often decorated with ceremonial symbols, to use in 'counting coup' and thereby demonstrate their courage and skill as warriors. Conversely, it was considered an insult for an Indian to have a foe 'count coup' upon him and this made the use of the 'coup stick' a far more dangerous operation since the victim was sure to be aroused to a murderous rage.

The basic battle tactics of the Zulus and the Indians were to make a charge in superior numbers, scatter the enemy ranks and then carve up the broken and fleeing foemen. The famous horns and chest formation was not exclusive to the Zulu and was a favourite manoeuvre of the Sioux and Cheyenne as well. Despite the fact that the Zulu was basically an infantryman and the Plains Indian a horseman, at the close ranges involved the ability and combat effectiveness of a Zulu on foot was not very much inferior to that of the mounted Redskin. Both were highly determined and courageous fighters and their charges could only be broken by controlled fire from a reasonably defensive position.

The organizational units of the two savage armies, if they can be called armies, (home-guard militia being a more accurate description), tended to be much the same. A Zulu regiment was about the same size as the group of braves available in a medium-sized Indian tribe. The various regiments among the Zulus were distinguished by special head-dresses and shield patterns while the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes used certain feather patterns and totemic shield designs in much the same way that the Scots use their various tartans. In neither case was there any sort of battle flag or standard. The Zulu and Indian formations were totally undisciplined in the European sense of straight lines, careful spacing and fighting by numbers. They were, however, highly responsive to their war chief or induna as far as strategic and general tactical manoeuvres were concerned. Once actually engaged in combat, every warrior followed his own way and no great degree of control could any longer be exercised over his movements.

In spite of the inflated reputation various medicine-men, notably Sitting Bull, now enjoy, neither they nor the witch-doctors and soothsayers attached to the impis had any more influence in military matters than modern army chaplains. They blessed weapons, consecrated the day of the battle and generally helped to keep up the morale of the warriors. Certain medical duties also fell on them in that they were frequently called upon to dispense potions (of unknown benefit) for various purposes. Other than the potions, gyrations and chants supplied by the medicine-men or witch-doctors, the medical services among the Zulus and the Indians were exactly the same: none at all. Wounded men were expected to make their way unaided back to their homes, unless they were fortunate enough to encounter friends, and to recover or die, depending on the severity of their wounds and their own strength and resilience. In the years following the Indian Wars of the American West and the Zulu Wars in South Africa, white men were continually amazed at the terrible wounds which their enemies had managed to survive without any real therapy or medicaments. For those who were obviously too seriously hurt to move or be moved there was but one solution, mercy killing. The Zulu usually employed a swift thrust under the armpit for this purpose while the custom among the Indians was to stab directly into the heart with the man's own knife.

To the white man, one of the most horrible and repugnant aspects of fighting these savages was their ritual mutilation of their enemies. The scalpings and disembowelments carried out by the Indians and the Zulus had common roots. In each case, besides ensuring that the foeman was dead, the purpose was to prevent the dead man's spirit from returning to haunt his slayer. To the Sioux and Cheyenne there was the additional attraction of having the scalp as a ready-made trophy of much the same status as German helmets and Lugers and Japanese Samurai swords were during the Second World War. In addition, it provided a count of defeated opponents like the notches on a gunfighter's revolver.


Unfortunately for the indigenous populations of South Africa and the Western United States, the vast grazing areas they required were coveted by the whites as good locations for farms and ranches and as a rich source of minerals. As the white settlers and explorers pushed their invasion farther and farther into their lands, the black and red men found themselves severely constricted and their traditional ways of living threatened with extinction. The reactions of the Zulu and the Plains Indian to this aggression on the part of the whites was, at first, retreat and conciliation. However, as it became clear that the white man wanted everything and that retreat was no longer a viable option, they changed to a policy of resistance. Their resistance led to demands by the white settlers that military forces be used to subdue and eliminate these people - who would not obligingly die out quietly - and thereby open the road for progress and the exploitation of the Zulu and Indian territories by civilisation. Thus it was that the perfectly reasonable desire of the native populace to continue to live in their accustomed ways led to the entry of the United States Cavalry and the British Infantry.

It is an almost tournament-style matching of opponents: light infantry versus heavy infantry and light cavalry versus heavy cavalry with the winners meeting for the championship. (It is unfortunate that geographical and temporal considerations have prevented the fascinating spectacle of a clash between Zulu and Sioux.) Both invading forces were moving against an enemy who was thoroughly familiar with the terrain and completely adapted to the country and climate of the theatre of operations, whilst their own training and equipment were unsuited to the conditions under which they would have to operate.


The Americans and the British evolved the same sort of strategy for dealing with their very similar problems. They decided to invade the lands occupied by their adversaries in three columns which were to converge on what they believed to be the location of the enemy's main forces. The British columns moved in from the north-west, the west and the south. The forces of the U.S. Army attacked from the north-east, the north and the south. The directions from which these invasions were launched reflect the direction of movement of the expansion of the white man into native territories. Because of the limited transport resources of that time and the rough nature of the ground, the communications among the various columns of the two white armies were, of necessity, extremely limited. Close co-operation and mutual support in the case of any trouble were impossible until the area of convergence was reached. In both expeditions, the reconnaissance was poor to useless and the knowledge of their respective enemies was practically nil. This lack of information resulted in a gross underestimation of the fighting ability and strength of the savages on the part of the Europeans which was, in each case, to have tragic consequences.

It is interesting to note that it was the central one of the three columns which was struck and nearly destroyed by both the Zulus and the Indians. One point of difference which should be noted is that while the Sioux and Cheyenne made a secondary attack on the left (Crook's) column before they met Custer, the Zulus moved against the British Left (Wood) only after they had fought at Isandhlwana. The two battles of the Little Big Horn and Isandhlwana were the only major native successes, during the campaigns. To a certain extent, these battles represent the end of one campaign and the beginning of another since, as a result of the disaster which they had suffered, both the British and Americans reconsidered their plans and brought up reinforcements. It is somehow tragically ironic that it should have been these two overwhelming victories of the defending forces which caused the massive reaction of the whites and, thus, led to the loss of the traditional homelands. If the Zulus and Indians had been able to repeat their performance against the central columns in their clashes with the other two columns, the results would have provided classical examples of highly mobile, lightly armed forces defeating enemies with superior equipment by catching them before they could concentrate, and crushing them in detail. The fact remains, however, that, no matter what success the black man in Africa and the red man in North America might have achieved, the relentless pressure of white settlement and the progress of civilization had already doomed him to eventual defeat.


The officers commanding the defeated troops at the battles of the Little Big Horn and Isandhlwana were both operating under the cloud of an official reprimand and, no doubt, desired to bring about an action in which they might win glory and restore themselves to good standing. As a result of this misguided and desperate zeal on their parts, neither Custer nor Durnford followed his orders. Whatever their superiors may have thought of them at that time and whatever the official position may have been, history and the general populace have now awarded both men a fair amount of renown and very little censure for doing what a reckless or foolhardy soldier does best: dying bravely. Let us now consider their errors.

Upon coming into the immediate vicinity of the hostile Indians whom he was seeking, Custer divided his forces, sending Reno and Benteen out on their own. While this may be good practice in a scouting sweep by cavalry, it is disastrous to one contemplating battle with a foe whose massed attack could only be dealt with by large volumes of disciplined fire from a tenable position. Durnford also committed the mistake of scattering his troops in the face of an enemy who was vastly superior in numbers. He himself moved off in the direction of Chelmsford's advance to find the force of Zulus reported to be in that area. He also directed Pulleine to post a company of Imperial Infantry at the head of the spur. This error was compounded further when Pulleine sent a second company to the spur. Thus it was that both white forces were hit by the full weight of the enemy while dispersed so widely that mutual support became an impossibility.

The actual progress of the two battles is very similar in form. It was the right wing of the Zulu and Indian forces which first made contact with the white soldiers. They, however, took no real part in the main struggle of the central battle and, instead, attacked small sections of the European armies which had managed to get into defensive positions at some distance from their main body. The centre and left portions of the two savage armies consisted of those who actually participated in the slaughter of the invading troops. In both cases, after the massacre and a short siege, the Zulu and Indian warriors departed from the field and dispersed to their homes.

It is believed that Custer's Last Stand took about an hour. Once the braves had stampeded the ammunition mules of Custer's detachment, the American soldiers were no longer able to keep up a heavy fire and were overwhelmed in the final charge of the Sioux and Cheyenne. The Isandhlwana engagement lasted longer but its final moments must have been very much like those of Little Big Horn. When the ammunition supplies began to run out and more could not be got through to the firing line quickly enough, the Zulus rose and charged, causing the Natal Native Contingent to stampede. After that gap had opened in the British line, the fight separated into a number of small struggles and the obliteration of the various little groups of soldiers followed in short order.

Those contingents of the Zulu and Indian forces which had not had an opportunity to participate in the principal battle. the right wings, proceeded to attack other sections of the European forces which had been able to fortify their positions. These groups, Reno and Benteen on their hill and Bromhead and Chard at Rorke's Drift, managed to survive, primarily because they were concentrated in defensible positions and had access to sufficient supplies of ammunition.


The following details of parallel incidents in the two battles, whilst by no means providing an exhaustive coverage, should be sufficient to give a feel for the high degree of similarity between the battles of Isandhlwana/ Rorke's Drift and the Little Big Horn.

In the main part of this article, the composition of the U.S. Army - the huge responsibilities and its small size, the slowness of promotion, the lack of comforts, the wide range of persons enlisting and the large numbers of foreigners in the Army is described. All these statements could also apply to the British Army except, perhaps, the foreign component of troops. It should be mentioned however, that many of the soldiers at Isandhlwana and at Rorke's Drift were Irish or Welsh and not really 'proper' Englishmen.

The American forces fighting the Sioux and Cheyenne employed a number of Arikaras and Crows as scouts since they were traditional enemies of the Sioux. In the invasion of Zululand, the British were accompanied by the N.N.C., made up from tribes who had a long history of conflict with the Zulus. Both of these native auxiliary groups fled from the battlefields before the actual massacres began and thereby deprived the European armies of their support. In the case of the N.N.C., their departure actually precipitated the disaster, while the Indian scouts with the Seventh Cavalry were, more or less, sent away by Custer.

Imagine a swift river with steep and slippery banks. Consider the plight of a small group of white soldiers attempting to cross it under pressure from hordes of savage warriors - tired and fearful men on exhausted and terrified horses striking at their attackers with clubbed rifles, firing the last rounds in their revolvers and then throwing them at the nearest enemy, being dragged down and hacked to death by their foes, losing their lives in an effort to rescue a comrade, some rushing on heedless of the pleas for help, all with but a single objective - escape from a horrible death. This is the terrible aftermath of defeat - Sauve qui peut! Such a scene is to be found in each battle: Fugitives' Drift and Reno's retreat. Even those who survived the initial shock, reached the river and managed to cross, were not safe. Just as Dr. De Wolf and his orderly were caught and killed on the far side of the river, so Melville and Coghill met their deaths on the Natal bank.

Some of the survivors of these crossings later reached a place which was successfully defended by a very small number of men against the same massive attacks that had wiped out the main commands. A major point of difference here is that, although a few of those who had escaped Isandhlwana carried the news of the defeat and a warning to Rorke's Drift, none of them stayed to defend it. On the other hand, every member of Reno's command, who crossed the Big Horn and was not too badly wounded, immediately became a defender of Reno Hill. The fortifications used in each of the defences are very similar. At Rorke's Drift they built walls of biscuit boxes, wagons and mealie bags and on Reno Hill the remnants of A, G and M companies piled bread boxes, saddles, flower sacks and dead horses and mules in front of their shallow trenches. For the rest of the afternoon of the day of the disaster and all through the night, both groups of defenders were under continual pressure. Men risked their lives and sometimes lost them in an attempt to remove wounded comrades to a place of relative safety. Counter-attacks were launched to drive away the enemy wherever they managed to get a lodgement. The troopers of the Seventh Cavalry and the soldiers of the 2nd/24th fired so furiously and so long that their rifles became painfully hot to hold, cooked off unaimed rounds and jammed as cartridges stuck in the overheated chambers. When a man's rifle jammed he had to use his knife to pry out the cartridge case before he could resume firing. Most of the survivors of these two defensive actions appear to have been badly bruised on one shoulder because of the terrific kick of the fouled rifles. In the course of the night on the hill by the Little Big Horn and at the mission station by the Buffalo, it was found that the men were suffering from thirst, especially the wounded. Certain men of Reno's command crept down to the river to fill canteens. Chard led a charge out of the final perimeter to seize the water-wagon and bring it close to the wall where it could be drained through its hose. There were many examples of heroism during the two sieges which led, in each case, to many high decorations being awarded. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won at Rorke's Drift and twenty-four Congressional Medals of Honour were won by troopers on Reno Hill.

Finally, as the exhausted men were beginning to feel that they could not possibly withstand another attack, the Indians and Zulus withdrew toward the Big Horn mountains and around the Oscarberg to Zululand, leaving the whites barely able to appreciate the fact that they had managed to stay alive. Both garrisons remained on the alert, in fear and ignorance of events outside their own tiny area until the relief forces appeared. Terry and Gibbon reached Reno two days after the fight began, having spent the previous night on the site of Custer's Last Stand. They had found only Commanche, Keogh's horse, alive. Chelmsford arrived at Rorke's Drift on the day after the battle. He had spent the night near the saddle at Isandhlwana and found nothing but a few drunken Zulus in the camp. The questions of the survivors were answered, the wounded received proper care and the whites started to plan a new assault on their savage enemies to revenge the massacres.

Not very much was known of the final moments of Custer's command nor of those of the broken companies at Isandhlwana until years later when the Indians and Zulus considered it safe to talk. By that time their power had been broken and they had lost their lands to the continuing advance of white civilization. The Indians never achieved so great a concentration of the tribes again and began their long downward path to the status of second class citizens of a European-dominated nation. When the impis went home to their kraals for the cleansing ceremonies, the greatest force ever fielded by Black Africa vanished, leaving only the cairns at Isandhlwana as reminders of its existence.


  1. Morris, D. R., The Washing of the Spears, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1956).
  2. American Heritage Book of Indians, (American Heritage, New York, 1961).
  3. Becker, Peter, Rule of Fear, (Longmans, London, 1964).
  4. Ritter, E. A., Shaka Zulu, (Longmans, London, 1955).

Map of Custer's Last Stand

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