George Custer was a general in the US army who shouldn’t have been. He was brave but incapable of making a quick decision; he had high political ambitions, but disagreeable in society, holding the opinion that no one else’s should be attended to; his sense of timing was bad; at the time of Little Big Horn he was only thirty-seven years old. His war record in the Civil War was exellent, and he had served in it with some distinction. Ten horses had been shot under him. His impulsive disposition led to a Court Martial in 1867, but Sheridan got him re-instated.
Custer was a non-smoker who never swore, an impulsive talker who would not brook argument. He was easily moved to tears and wept at the theatre. He read aloud to his subordinates and frequently choked during the most moving passages. He adored noisy party games, and amateur theatricals, always acting the Leader. He studied hard, especially British military history. He was unpopular with fellow officers, because he was didactic, though he had an engaging personality when he chose.
From what has been said it could be judged that George Custer was, to say the least, eccentric. He was secretive in planning, hardly ever letting his fellow officers into the secret! He was devious most of the time, immensely proud, embarrassingly open at time when an officer of high rank should have stayed quiet. He was a Victorian man of action, not untypical: as a soldier he should not really be judged only by his last and fatal campaign, or the events that led up to it.
On the 25 June, 1876 General Custer made a last stand in South Dakota when he and 266 men of the 7th Cavalry were killed as they stood by a much, much larger group of fighting Sioux. These had been surprised at their rest in a huge encampment at a curve of the winding Little Bighorn river. Different estimates by historians of the Indian Wars give us an idea that between ten and thirteen thousand braves were, like hornets in their nests, suddenly disturbed, in this case by less than three hundred men. It was not the largest assembly of Native Americans in history, but was certainly among the biggest (there had been twice this number at the Camp Robinson council in 1875). The makeshift wartime camp was probably between three and five miles long.
The battle itself was the last of a series of brilliant strategic moves made by the Sioux leader Crazy Horse, who, if not a Native American might have ended as President. This paramount chief had decided that the invasion (and subsequent murderous assaults on native camps) by white Gold Rush prospectors was the last straw, as well as being in direct violation of the Treaty of 1868. The ‘White man’s forked tongue’ would no more be tolerated by the inhabitants of the savage and beautiful land which had been theirs. It was not to be the final showdown, but it was a good beginning.
It may be that Custer, with customary egoism, thought that the four Cheyenne braves who rode up to gaze with amazement at his puny little force were planning to launch a four-handed assault on him. When they turned and rode back (according to witnesses with telescopes laughing) to the camps hidden by forested hills, Custer called for the attack, and the rest is History. I0 or 12 thousand braves, brought up from childhood to kill or be killed, were impossible odds for 266 men and their yellow-haired leader.
Crazy Horse, Spotted Tail, Sitting Bull and other stirring names were there, plus most of the Cheyenne and the Sioux nations. Playing and singing their Garryowen, the troopers of the 7th Cavalry were slaughtered as they stood with their rifle barrels hot. General Custer (and his younger brother Tom) died with them.
Of the native leaders present at the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse was captured and starved into surrender in 1847, later ‘killed while trying to escape’. Sitting Bull, the Dakota Sioux chief, was appearing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Western Show in 1885, much photographed. In 1890 he was ‘killed while resisting arrest’ by Native American policemen. Spotted Tail knew some English. He was apparently of magnificent appearance and good-natured. He had dined once at the White House, where he assured President Grant that he had a ‘good tipi’. In 1877 he was murdered by fellow Native American Crow Dog. Most of the many films featuring this crucial battle have lost themselves in emotion or incredulity, but one stands out as almost historically accurate – Little Big Man (1970), based on the true story of a warrior, half white, half-native, who served in the US Cavalry as a scout, at the same time fighting at the Little Bighorn on the natives’ side. If you are a reader, get hold of George Macdonald’s good Flashman and the Redskin, one of a series by this author that brings History to you as it should be – entertaining and educational. In the book there are superb pen sketches of Geronimo, Gall, Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail the Little Big Man himself and of course Crazy Horse, as well as Georg and Tom Custer and Major Reno – the latter not as bad as he is usually painted.
Wounded Knee, 1890
This was the ultimate battle in a series of ‘The Indian Wars’ fought between the US Army and the Sioux nation in the Great Plains of the USA. The name refers to a creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Native Americans had revolted again after news of the death of Sitting Bull, and ironoically enough it was the new 7th Cavalry that surrounded a group of Sioux.
The natives were dancing at the time, the Ghost Dance evolved among the Paiute by a religious leader called Wovoka, who was preaching the imminent arrival of a Native American messiah who would restore the country to them, and, much more ominous for White Americans, reunite dead natives with live ones.
Having cornered them, the US soldiers ‘eliminated’ around 200 Tuton Sioux. This was interpreted by American liberal newspapers as revenge taken by the 7th Cavalry for the killing of 267 of them by ten thousand braves at the Little Bighorn. Eighty three years later the Wounded Knee massacre was recalled when members of the American Indian Movement took over the site by force. The group was surrounded by federal marshals and a fire fight began. Two Native Americans were killed and a federal marshal seriously wounded. The end came when both sides agreed to a conference on negotiation of Native American grievances.