Friday, September 14, 2012

Custer myths

Custer in 1875

This may be another mostly USian myth. For those who aren't inundated with tons of United States history, I'll give you some brief context.

George Armstrong Custer was in the US Army from 1862 though 1876. He died at what is called by the US government "The Battle of Little Big Horn", and what the LakotaCheyenne and Arapaho call "The Battle of the Greasy Grass." It's more popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand." 

There are a lot of myths about Custer. I'm not going to cover all of them, but some of the popular ones are: 

1) He was a general who was very popular with his troops.

2) The battle he died in was a trap sprung upon the US troops, after a heroic last stand.

3) There were no US troop survivors /  there was only one survivor and he was Custer's horse.

4) The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota refused to desecrate Custer's body because of their great respect for him. 

I'm afraid that's going to be a no, no, no, and a no.

He was a general who was very popular with his troops

Custer's highest rank achieved was Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, Lieutenant Colonel, 7th U.S. Cavalry. To be brevetted means to do the duty of a different rank for a short time, until someone actually of that rank is available or until the need disappears. A more modern example would be if at a retail store, an area's lead is acting manager until an actual manager is available/hired. It doesn't mean one is actually a manager (or is going to get manager's benefits).  The highest rank he actually achieved was Lieutenant Colonel.

Custer also wasn't popular with his troops. Most liked that he was willing to be in the thick of a battle with them (many officers would hang toward the back of a battle, where it was safer). But the good-will that enthusiasm gained was offset by his quick temper and the way he treated those under him. One of his men, Albert Barnitz, wrote, "the ‘Brevet Major General commanding’ is fast losing whatever little influence for good he may have once had in the Regiment, and… he …will eventually come to grief , as a consequence of his tyrannical conduct." [*]

The battle he died in was a trap sprung upon the US troops, after a heroic last stand

The US troops were on the offensive, not the defensive. 

Custer had been planning a surprise attack on a group that he considered hostile. Due to a series of misunderstandings and bad assumptions on the part of Custer, his troops, and his scouts, Custer decided to attack a nearby village. (This is a very simplified telling of the events. If you'd like more detail, I suggest picking up a copy of Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined by Richard Allan Fox Jr.)

Custer was expecting to be against about 800 combatants. He was actually attacking something closer to 3,500.[**

The "Last Stand" wasn't exactly a protracted blaze of glory either. The entire battle from beginning to Custer's death was about an hour, and the hill where he died was far too small to actually provide any strategic advantage. How exactly he died has been a subject of some debate, he had been shot twice -- once in the left temple, and once right above the heart. The bullet types suggest both wounds came from a ranged riffle. 

While it's impossible to know for certain who killed Custer (at the time, any Arapaho, Cheyenne, or Lakota who did kill him would have kept quiet about it for fear of retribution by the US Army), Cheyenne records have Custer being killed by Buffalo Calf Trail Woman. [***

Comanche, after the battle. 
For the record, the horses in the background aren't dead, it was a hot day and they're resting.

 There were no US troop survivors /  there was only one survivor and he was Custer's horse

This one I think is a simple matter of confusion. The US forces in the battle were the US Army's 7th Cavalry division. (For the record, it's still around today.) At the time, it was organized as a 12 company regiment in 3 battalions -- the first battalion comprised companies A - D, the second had companies E - H, and the third had companies I - M (there was no J company). The 7th Cavalry itself suffered a 52% fatality rate, but five of the twelve companies were were wiped out completely -- the ones that had been fighting under Custer's direct command. So Custer's companies had no survivors, but nearly half of the 7th Calvary survived the battle. [****]

The only survivor to have fought "with" Custer in the battle was a horse named Comanche. But he wasn't Custer's horse, he belonged to Captain Myles Walter Keogh. He was found two days after the battle, and was taken back to Fort Lincoln, where he retired to a life of horsey-luxury, occasionally participating in parades (but he was never ridden again) and indulging in the occasional beer with the troops. He lived for another 15 years, until he passed at the age of 29. At his death he was given full military honors (an honor he shares only with Black Jack).

Post the Battle of Antietam 
The tall guy with the fantastic hat is President Lincoln. 
The guy on the far right is Custer.

The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota refused to desecrate Custer's body because of their great respect for him

According to the Cheyenne,  "When [Custer] fell, he wasn't touched by the warriors because he was unclean. He was bad medicine." [***

Spring Grass (Mo-nah-se-tah), a young Cheyenne woman, had been taken along with 52 other Cheyenne women and children by the 7th Cavalry when she was 17. According to both US Army servicemen and her fellow captives, Custer took her as his "mistress" during the winter and early spring of 1868-1869.[*****] She became pregnant, and had a son named Yellow Bird. The Cheyenne record that Spring Grass's relatives prevented the other tribes from desecrating his body since he was considered family, since they believed that he was Yellow Bird's father. In the 1920s two of Spring Grass's kinswomen described how they had shoved their sewing awls into his ears, to permit Custer's corpse to "hear better in the afterlife" because of all of his broken promises. [******]

1 comment:

  1. Just reading Nathaniel Philbrick's "The Last Stand", my introduction to the world of Custer and Little Bighorn, and stumbled on your site. Great reading -- thank you!