BY 1876, THE YEAR THE Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought, the United States had become a nation of some forty million people, the vast majority of whom had never seen a fighting Indian—not, that is, unless they happened to glimpse one or another of the powerful Indian leaders whom the government periodically paraded through Washington or New York, usually Red Cloud, the powerful Sioux diplomat, who made a long-winded speech at Cooper Union in 1870. Or, it might be Spotted Tail, of the Brulé Sioux; or American Horse, or even, if they were lucky, Sitting Bull, who hated whites, the main exceptions being Annie Oakley, his “Little Sure Shot,” or Buffalo Bill Cody, who once described Sitting Bull as “peevish,” surely the understatement of the century. Sitting Bull often tried to marry Annie Oakley, who was married; he did not succeed.
The main purpose of this parading of Native American leaders—better not call them chiefs, not a title the red man accepted, or cared to use in their tribal life—was to overwhelm the Indians with their tall buildings, large cannon, and teeming masses, so they would realize the futility of further resistance. The Indians saw the point with perfect clarity, but continued to resist anyway. They were fighting for their culture, which was all they had.
One white who recognized this was the young cavalry officer George Armstrong Custer himself, who, in his flamboyant autobiography, My Life on the Plains, makes this point:
If I were an Indian I think that I would greatly prefer to cast my lot with those of my people who adhered to the free life of the plains rather than to the limits of a reservation, there to be the recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with the vices thrown in without stint or measure.
Captain Frederick Benteen, who hated Custer and made no secret of it, called Custer’s book My Lie on the Plains. Yet the book, despite its inaccuracies, is still readable today.
Ulysses S. Grant, who didn’t like Custer either, had this to say about the dreadful loss of life at the Little Bighorn:
I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary. . . . He was not to have made the attack before effecting the juncture with Generals Terry and Gibbon. Custer had been notified to meet them, but instead of marching slowly, as his orders required, in order to effect that juncture on the 26th, he entered upon a forced march of eighty-three miles in twenty-four hours, and thus had to meet the Indians alone.
That comment made Custer’s widow, Libbie Custer, an enemy of Grant for life.
Thinking back on a number of important issues, Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux made this comment: “The Whites made us many promises, more than I can remember,” he said. “But they only kept one. They said they would take our land and they took it.”
RED CLOUD ADDRESSING A NEW YORK AUDIENCE.
Crazy Horse, now thought by many to be the greatest Sioux warrior, refused to go to Washington. He didn’t need to see tall buildings, big cannon, or teeming masses to know that his people’s situation was dire. After the victory at the Little Bighorn the smart Indians all knew that they were playing an endgame. The white leaders—Crook, Miles, Terry, Mackenzie—especially Mackenzie—were even so impolite as to fight in the dead of winter, something they didn’t often do, although the Sioux Indians did wipe out the racist Captain Fetterman and his eighty men on the day of the winter solstice in 1866.
In Texas the so-called Red River War had ended in 1875 and some of its fighting talent, especially Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, went north to help out and did help out.
LINCOLN MEETS CUSTER, OCT. 3, 1862, AT ANTIETAM.
In the East and Midwest, as people became increasingly urbanized or suburbanized, these settled folk developed a huge appetite for stories of Western violence. Reportage suddenly surged; the New York Times and other major papers kept stringers all over the West, to report at once Sitting Bull’s final resistance, or some mischief of Billy the Kid’s or the Earps’ revenge or any other signal violence that might have occurred. Publicity from the frontier helped keep Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show thriving. For a time the railroad bookstores groaned with dime novels describing Western deeds, the bloodier the better. (See Richard Slotkin’s masterpiece The Fatal Environment for a brilliant analysis of how the frontier affected our increasing urbanization.)
By Cody’s day, indeed, the press had the power to make legends, names with an almost worldwide resonance. One of the legends that hasn’t faded was that of the scruffy New Mexico outlaw Bill Bonney (one of several names he used), or Billy the Kid—no angel, it is true, but by no means the most deadly outlaw of his time. That was probably the sociopath John Wesley Hardin.
The other legend that remains very much alive is Custer’s. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is considered by able historians to be one of the most important battles in world history, a claim we’ll deal with in due course.
What Billy the Kid and Custer had in common was fighting; it’s what we remember them for. Both died young, Billy the Kid at twenty-two and Custer at a somewhat weathered thirty-seven. Custer had barely managed to graduate from the military academy (34th out of 34) and then walked right into one of the biggest fights of all time, the American Civil War, a conflict in which 750,000 men lost their lives—warfare on a scale far different from the small-scale range wars that Billy the Kid engaged in.
In the Civil War, Custer’s flair as a cavalry officer was immediately manifest; it found him at war’s end the youngest major general in the U.S. Army. Custer’s ambition, throughout his career, was furthered by the short, brusque General Philip Sheridan, of whom it was said that his head was so lumpy that he had trouble finding a hat that fit.
PHILIP HENRY SHERIDAN.
Not only did Custer have disciplinary problems at West Point, he continued to have disciplinary problems until the moment of his death, June 25, 1876. One thing was for sure: Custer would fight. Time after time his dash and aggression was rewarded, by Sheridan and others.
Ulysses Grant, also a man who would fight, came to distrust Custer—or maybe he just didn’t like him. Grant was never convinced that Custer’s virtues offset his liabilities.
Before the Battle of the Washita (1868), Custer was court-martialed on eight counts, the most serious being his abandonment of his command—he drifted off in search of his wife. He was convicted on all eight counts and put on the shelf for a year; though long before the year was up Sheridan was lobbying to get him back in the saddle.
SHERIDAN WITH CUSTER, THOMAS DEVIN, JAMES FORSYTH, AND WESLEY MERRITT, BY MATTHEW BRADY.
Excerpted from Custer
by Larry McMurtry
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