CONTEXT

June 25, 2010

Past stand

Not a good day for George Armstrong Custer in 1876 – he and his men were wiped out by the Cheyenne and Sioux at Little Big Horn on this date, but once you’ve said that, just about everything else is open to debate, since public reaction to the event had such a powerful effect on its history.

Custer's Crow scouts: White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin, 1907.

First, both the citizenry and officialdom were convinced that only a vastly superior force could defeat the well-armed and well-trained U.S. cavalry.  Thus, for a very long time it was assumed that Custer and his men had been outnumbered by at least three to one.  Over time, that rose until some historians thought it was as much as nine to one.

Second, Custer’s widow Elizabeth was vigilant in defending her husband’s memory, writing three books glorifying his accomplishments.  It became de rigueur not to offend the widow.  Gradually, military figures who might have had evidence to offer passed away and needless to say no one ever thought to ask the Indians.  Even Custer’s own scouts were not interviewed.

Revisionist history  finally began to get around to Little Big Horn after Elizabeth died in 1933 and it is now generally conceded that while the Cheyenne and Sioux might have outnumbered the soldiers, it wasn’t by much.  It was more that Custer was operating with very bad intelligence – he anticipated a small group of warriors – and that resulted in a series of bad decisions.

Photo of Photograph showing Generals Wesley Merritt, Philip Sheridan, George Crook, James William Forsyth, and George Armstrong Custer around a table examining a document. Harpers Weekly, 1865

Gregory Michno has put together a memorable collection of Indian accounts in Lakota Noon that sheds a some light on what happened that day, but a lot of Little Big Horn history is really just pure conjecture.

Sadly, it was a Pyrrhic victory in a way, since the public was so outraged that the Indian wars were newly energized and a Congress which had been considering shrinking the military decided to expand it instead.

In any event, Manifest Destiny triumphed and most of the victors wound up on reservations, except for Sitting Bull and the Lakota that escaped with him to Canada. (Sitting Bull surrendered after five years in Saskatchewan and then joined Buffalo Bill’s wild west show.)

Speaking of war, today is the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, but one of its most interesting aspects is related to a milestone that must wait until tomorrow.

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