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Killing the Custer Myth

On June 25th, 1876 George Armstrong Custer and 210 men of the 7th Cavalry were killed at The Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Custer and the battle took on mythic proportions due to the eastern press and the prejudices and racism of the times. Prejudices continue to this day although books have been written starting with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970) that set the record straight.

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Killing Custer by James Welch (1994) is another book; written from the Indian point of view that seeks to set the record straight.

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My interest in the Indian Wars (1865-95) started when I was a child. I grew up with the John Wayne Western and in particular the John Ford Cavalry Trilogy consisting of Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande.

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For a ten-year-old boy movies about the cavalry on the western plains was great stuff. Weather-beaten horse soldiers pursuing hostile Indians, rescuing white captives or holding the fort became play time themes with friends or with plastic Cowboys and Indians on the basement floor.

From there I graduated to the historian Robert Utley’s books on the Indian Wars and US Cavalry on the plains.  Over the years I’ve read Custer and Crazy Horse by Stephen Ambrose and numerous other books on the Indian Wars and The Battle of the Little Big Horn in particular.

It’s a historical sub-set that still interests me and finding Killing Custer in a used book store stoked my interest since it was obvious it was written from the Indian point of view.

It’s a different take in the sense of how Welch put it together.

Welch begins by telling the story of the Marias River Massacre. On January 23rd, 1870 Col. E.M. Baker (who was drunk) led four companies of cavalry and 55 mounted infantry on a surprise attack on a Pikuni ( Pigean Blackfeet) Indian camp by the Marias River in Montana.

The soldiers were looking for 25 Pikuni warriors who killed a white man named Malcom because the white man had accused their leader Owl Child of being a cowardly horse thief in front the tribe thus causing the man great shame. Malcom also allegedly raped Owl Child’s wife. The link above gives more detail but basically the Pikuni sought revenge for the continued insults and rape of Owl Child’s wife.

The soldiers were supposed to keep the peace and murder should be punished regardless of what Malcom did. The problem was the soldiers led by the drunken Baker came upon the wrong Pikuni camp which was identified as such by their half Pikuni scout.

https://youtu.be/jYVjnOA4LKk (Link to the Montana Historical Society presentation on the massacre.)

No matter declared Baker since Indians are all the same. Baker even threatened the scout lest the scout warn the innocent of the crime sleeping Indians. The soldiers surrounded the village and opened fire. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired into the tents of the sleeping Indians and when it was over 173 men, women and children had been massacred. (Some sources say over 200 were killed.)

Baker’s attitude was unfortunately common on the frontier and was often expressed as, “nits make lice.” The phrase simply reflects the notion that it was quite okay to kill children since they would not grow up to be warriors. The attitude was genocidal even while all the actions taken against the Indians were not executed to that extreme.

Ironically, Owl Child, the leader of the 25 warriors who killed the white man lay dying from small pox in another camp. Small pox killed more Indians than the soldiers ever did since they did not have any immunity from the horrible disease.

My first thought was what does this incident that I had never heard of in all my reading have to do with killing Custer and the Little Big Horn?

Welch makes two points about starting his narrative in such a way.

  1. Most everyone knows about the Little Big Horn and almost no one knows about the Marias River Massacre even though the numbers of dead are similar.
  2. Baker sunk into obscurity even though his superiors approved of the action. Custer, who led a similar winter surprise attack on the Southern Cheyenne at the massacre at the Washita River killed 103 Indians including many women and children became [again because of his Civil War record]  a national hero and famous Indian fighter.

Welch himself was half Blackfoot (d.2003) so the story was personal just as it provided a contrast to the Custer mythology and the reality of what really went on in the Indian Wars.

From there Welch lays out the story of the Sioux and Cheyenne who would eventually destroy Custer and most of the 7th Cavalry at The Battle of the Little Big Horn that also took place in Montana. He interjects his personal journey through out the book and that’s what makes the book different. In Killing Custer you get the facts told well from someone who simply wants the record set straight. I think he succeeds.

Since the publication of the book in 1994 the public attitude has certainly shifted because of books like Killing Custer and the fairer treatment of the Indians in movies (Little Big Man in the 70s and Dances with Wolves in the 90s and recently Hostiles while inaccurate in many ways do show Indians in a more favorable light.)

At one time the 7th Cavalry monument at the Custer Battlefield in Montana was dedicated only to the 210 soldiers who died there, “for their country.” Now the monument commemorates the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who died there as well “for their country.” I think it’s quite fitting.

I can’t leave the subject of Custer without adding my two cents. My father who grew up with the myth far more than I was a huge fan of the boy general. He had a copy of the famous Budweiser painting hanging in our basement for many years. I inherited it after he died and had to throw it out since it was in terrible, worthless condition.

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Budweiser’s famous painting of Custer’s Last Stand. It hung in many a bar. My dad a reproduction in terrible condition.

Dad admired Custer primarily on Custer’s service in the Civil War where he led a Michigan Cavalry Brigade and later a division of cavalry under the aggressive Phil Sheridan in Sheridan’s devastating Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.

There is no question of Custer’s bravery or his flamboyance. He was a fighter and it’s hard not to conclude that he enjoyed the glory that went along with his successes. In that he was not too different from other Union or Confederate officers.

What has always struck me is that Custer’s achievements in the Civil War were largely against a collapsing Confederacy who by late 1864 could not match the Union Cavalry any longer (having earlier in the war been much superior to the Union horsemen).

Other Union Cavalry commanders like Wesley Merrit achieved similar results if not more and did not get the recognition Custer received largely because of Custer’s press and flamboyance. In that, I think Custer was at least over rated in the Civil War and a disaster in the Indian Wars.

For example, at the Massacre at the Washita in 1868 Custer sent 19 men under Major Elliot to do an end around the sleepy Indian camp. The problem was Custer pressed on without any reconnaissance not knowing that the camp he attacked was only the first one in a string along the river.

Eliot, who had no clue was supposed to pursue the survivors from the first camp but instead ran into hundreds of other enraged Indians from the other camps. Eliot and all his men were killed and horribly mutilated. Custer to his shame never looked for them and they were found some time later. Custer claimed that he had to get back to the fort with his captives and besides there were too many other hostiles out there to deal with.

So, no reconnaissance and a callous disregard for the men in his command would ordinarily be unforgivable for an army officer.

On June 25th, 1876 Custer divided the 7th Cavalry into three detachments in an attempt to surround and attack from three directions the massive Indian camp on the Little Big Horn. The problem was he didn’t order a reconnaissance even though his Shoshone and Crow scouts told him that he faced a huge number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors (about 2,000).

Custer valued surprise over accurate intelligence and charged ahead.  One of the other detachments got pinned down immediately and the third detachment joined the pinned down one rather than charge ahead and die with Custer.

All that to say Killing Custer is a good read and could be titled Killing the Custer Myth.

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Indian art depicting the aftermath of the Little Big Horn. Custer’s folly would be a good title.

8 comments on “Killing the Custer Myth

  1. A very informative post about a little-known (and appalling) incident in our history. The Indian Wars are such a hard subject for me because there were just so many awful incidents like this one and I have a hard time stomaching it! Also, I agree with your thoughts on Custer.

  2. according to the world of bruce i must agree with this guy. he has his info correct . As a matter of fact it is ironic that he has opened up this info to the public at a time such as this in our American history. I am not familiar with the book killling Custer but will see if i can get a copy of it. I believe that with all the history of custer in which many books have been written of this vainglorious buffoon ,the most informative of all books written so far is ,Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell. The style Connell used in writing his book is beyond description. I will have to say , just get a copy of his book to understand what i truly can not in my own words except to say the book is a revelation. This book is so outstanding that it is amazing. Simply the best of the best. If any one wants to know in depth exactly what happened at the Little Big Horn fight this is the only book i can recommend .

    • Thanks for stopping by and making a comment. I read Son of the Morning Star many years ago but no longer have it in my library. I do remember it as a good read. Welch’s book is written in an unusual way but clearly personal. Thanks again.

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