Ghosts of the Indian Wars

July 30th, 2008
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Among the foremost historical sites in the Great American West that continue to lure and fascinate visitors from across North America and around the world is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monumment (formerly known as the Custer Battlefield). It overlooks the Little Bighorn River, just off the Interstate between Billings, Montana and Sheridan, Wyoming.
Touring the site with Mrs. K. on the recent camping trip that I wrote about in the last blog entry was intellectually fascinating – and emotionally almost overwhelming. Halfway through I had to ask myself why the battle remains so compelling 132 years after the day in June 1876 that Lt. Col. George Custer and over 200 men of the 7th Cavalry were surrounded and slaughtered by an allied force of Plains Indians that included the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho and others.
People would offer various answers, I’m sure. For myself, it’s because the battle and its main characters were a churning cauldron of virtues and vices, brilliance and folly, competence and corruption, stunning feats of arms and bizarre strokes of life-saving or mortal luck. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was triumph and tragedy on the scale of both Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.
In addition, the passing of one society in the face of remorseless pressure from another has always exerted a weird draw on me – whether it’s the fall of Romano-Celtic Britain to the Saxons, the Roman Empire to the barbarians or the wiping out of civilizations throughout central Asia by the Mongols.
Nowadays it’s fashionable to lean towards the Sioux – whom most people would say were merely defending their land. One must say the battlefield’s visitor’s centre, its printed literature and the detailed plaques placed around the huge hilly site are scrupulously balanced. I dimly recall grainy photos of mutilated cavalrymen from my only previous visit 35 years ago as a child. If they ever existed, they’re gone now. But I’m sure the legions of Custer hobbyists who remain would rebel fiercely against any excessive slide into political correctness.
Custer himself was a deeply flawed man with almost bizarre shortcomings as a military officer. Vain to the point of megalomania, with a burning ambition fuelled by apparent narcissism, his habitual irresponsibility well before the battle suggests he may have been slightly unhinged. As Evan S. Connell pointed out in his great biography, Son of the Morning Star, Custer is proof that many people don’t learn from their fundamental mistakes – they repeat them until their undoing.
In Custer’s case, the fatal habit was pushing impetuously into un-reconnoitred ground, then attacking an unknown, much larger force. Twice in the past he’d done the same – escaping only after suffering huge casualties, leaving numerous dead young Americans behind.
The third time, it killed him and all the men directly under him – though not the two groups he had detached just hours earlier, hoping to “trap” the estimated 7,000 Indians with his force of just 600 men. The two detachments, under Capt. Frederik Benteen and Maj. Marcus Reno, merely suffered massive casualties over two days of brutal combat, suffering and thirst.
More information on the battle is here and here.
With a white cast of characters like this one, it’s easy to sympathize with the Sioux. Still, it’s worth recalling that the Sioux themselves only lived in the region because they had taken it by force of arms from the Crow and Shoshone Indians, with whom they nursed an age-old and implacable mutual hatred.
Indeed, the Plains Indians were never united in any meaningful way. They were irredeemably fractious at almost every level – from nation or people to branch, tribe, clan, family and internal sub-society. Betrayal, deceit, reversal, incompetence, venality and cowardice were as known to them as the opposite characteristics. The Crow, for one, willingly fell in with the U.S. government, offering assistance, scouts and even company-sized groups of warriors in return for modern rifles, ammunition, horses and other goods.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn was remarkable not merely for its outcome, but because it was one of the few times that such a large force of Plains Indians was gathered and used effectively. The battle’s conduct under war leaders such as Crazy Horse was the apotheosis of the Plains Indians’ warrior culture. Its flowering – a brief period in which the Indians had the horse and the gun while the wide open spaces and buffalo herds remained – produced what some describe as the finest horsemanship the world has ever seen. And this was its finest hour.
Although the Indian warriors outnumbered the cavalry by anywhere from 2.5- to eight-to-one (one of many unresolved points that’s been bitterly contested), only about one in every ten warriors even had a rifle – of which no more than a few dozen were the new repeaters. Most Indians fought with bow-and-arrow, war club and knife.
The terrain continues to exert a powerful effect on the visitor. Partly this is because it’s so little changed from the 1800s (as I wrote about last time). OK, in this case an Interstate runs alongside the Little Bighorn River. But the hills, river and Indian village site are virtually untouched. There’s an unbroken view from the hills from which Custer prepared the attack to the distant Wolf Mountains, from where Custer’s scouts first saw evidence of the Indian encampment. Closer in, one can look directly down the rippling, ravine-separated slopes and envision the cavalry first trotting down in attack formation, then galloping madly back up to find defensive positions as the much larger force of Indians counter-attacked. From there one can imagine the resulting horror. As I said, emotionally almost overwhelming.
Sitting Bull, a true intellectual whose brilliance burns unmistakeably from 140-year-old black-and-white photos, immediately understood that the military triumph had almost no strategic significance – except to intensify the U.S. government’s determination to finish off the resistance of those Plains Indians not already on the reservation. By the Battle of the Little Bighorn, those living free were already in the minority.
To Sitting Bull, the idea of life on the reservation was simply horrifying. The way of life he loved, and the society and culture that went with it, were doomed by any sedentary existence. So he chose to fight and lose rather than go passively. He and Crazy Horse each would meet an ignominious end. Had they known what was in store, they might have preferred dying opposite Custer.
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