Today is the 136th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn; alternatively called Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of Greasy Grass (depending on which side of the bowstring you’re on.) Just in case you were raised by wolves, the Little Big Horn is a river in Montana. In June 1876, it was the home of several thousand pissed-off Native Americans (Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho) who were fed up with being pushed around. On June 25th, General George Custer showed up — with five companies of the 7th Cavalry — to do some major pushing. It wasn’t the best time to pick a fight; by the end of the day, George and all his soldiers were dead.
The Little Big Horn is a pivotal event in US history. It almost exactly bisects the timeline of the American expansion west of the Mississippi. (Mythology aside, the Old West, as it’s called, lasted barely thirty years.) It also marked a change in the American attitude towards the indigenous populations of the West. After Custer, the US military was turned loose to settle some scores. By 1890, the frontier was officially closed, and America, the modern nation, was moving on to bigger and better things.
I realize that writing about Custer and the Little Big Horn is like running with Politically Correct buffalo. Like buffalo, the politically correct are short-sighted and ill-tempered. Chances are good that I’m going to get either trampled or gored. However, I think I speak for all of us when I say Custer is one of the villains of history. He wasn’t always that way. For more than half of the last 136 years, he was a hero. His picture was admired on literally thousands of walls across America, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch’s famous but woefully inaccurate painting of Custer’s Last Stand. It’s only in my lifetime that the painting was taken down and Custer grew fangs and started spitting green saliva. That’s the nature of interpretive history, though. As Mort Sahl once said, “If you keep a consistent political position, you’ll eventually get tried for treason.” That’s kinda what happened to Custer. When the political winds began to change, he was too dead to change with them. You see, history doesn’t change; historians do.
In the last 50 years, Custer has been called everything but nice. He has been portrayed as a megalomaniac; a glory hound, building his political career on the bodies of dead Cheyenne babies; a walking insane asylum; and everything in between – including a nepotist and an unfaithful husband. It’s now universally accepted that hell itself couldn’t hold half his nastiness. He is the poster boy for America’s racist, money-grubbing theft of the continent it now occupies. Unfortunately, these charges could be directed against any 19th century American who took Horace Greeley’s (John Soule’s, actually) advice to “Go West, young man.” (The insane asylum crack, however, is just Hollywood’s way of making amends for Errol Flynn’s They Died with Their Boots On.) Actually, calling Custer a racist is redundant; they all were, including his boss President Ulysses S. Grant — the guy who led the charge when his boss, at the time, Abraham Lincoln, wanted to free the slaves.
I’m not trying to start an “I Love Custer” club, but regurgitating, history half digested, in order to support a moral judgement is how we lose sight of our historical legacy. In fact, representing Custer as a man with character flaws large enough to drive a stagecoach through is actually postulating that it’s no wonder he got everybody killed at Little Big Horn; the guy was a mess. This is the soft prejudice that usually accompanies politically correct. In the end it’s always about us, and everybody else is just a reflection. The last thing these nouveau historians are willing to admit is that a brilliant military leader named George Custer got out generalled by a guy who didn’t wear pants.
The truth is Custer wasn’t drunk, crazy or incompetent, nor was he morally bankrupt and he didn’t torture kittens on his day off. He was just a man of his times. On June 25th, 1876, he planned a classic enveloping maneuver to trap the Sioux and was beaten when Crazy Horse out manoeuvred and outfought him. Like it or not, Custer was good at what he did. It just so happened that Crazy Horse was better. There’s nothing wrong with that. There don’t have to be mitigating circumstances or moral turpitude to explain the Sioux victory. The truth is General Custer (like Captain Fetterman* ten years before him) ran into a 19th century military genius named Crazy Horse, who used his limited resources, the terrain and his opponent’s arrogance to win overwhelming victories. It’s that simple.
Contemporary historians would lead us to believe that, after the Civil War, swarms of snarling swindlers headed west, armed with Winchester rifles and the single evil purpose of destroying everything in their path. The robbed, raped and pillaged their way to the Pacific because the indigenous peoples were too pastorally ignorant to stop them or even figure out what was going on. This makes for good reading in sophomore textbooks, but in actual fact, it’s nothing more than another Anheuser-Busch painting with an academic bibliography.
When we bother to look, history tells us that in the second half of the 19th century, two nations — the United States and the Lakota Sioux — fought it out for supremacy on the northern plains. Both were a dynamic people. The outcome was never in doubt: the United States had overwhelming advantages, yet the Lakota Sioux and their allies managed to keep them at bay for a generation. In the middle of that conflict, on a sunny day in June, the United States 7th cavalry went looking for a fight and got their ass kicked. That’s what happened 136 years ago; I don’t care how you paint the picture.
*Captain William Fetterman may or may not have boasted, “Give me eighty men and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux nation,” but when he did get a crack at it, he got less than 500 yards. On December 21st, 1866, Fetterman, 79 soldiers and two curious civilians marched out of Fort Phil Kearny to relieve a work party that was under attack. Taunted by Crazy Horse and a few of his Oglala buddies, they crossed Lodge Trail Ridge and walked into an elaborate ambush. He and his entire command were killed.