Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Fascination of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

On New Years Eve, 2014, while at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and perhaps while slightly inebriated, I made a point of advising my daughters and their friends that it was in that very spot, or somewhere in the hotel in any case, that the U.S. Army held hearings regarding the disastrous Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known in less politically correct times past as Custer's Last Stand.  I may have told them this more than once, alas.  They appeared less impressed than I had hoped.

My daughters notwithstanding, that battle, which seems to have taken a remarkably small period of time and so may not have been a "battle" as commonly conceived, and which was called the Last Stand for reasons unknown to me (I don't think it was much of a stand, and don't know that Custer really had prior "stands"), continues to be a source of fascination and controversy.  I'm one of those who find it fascinating. 

I'm not sure why I do.  Best estimates are that it took one half hour to an hour from the time of Major Reno's abortive charge of the camp of the Sioux and Cheyenne to the annihilation of Custer and his command.  The siege of Reno and Captain Benteen and their men took somewhat longer, of course, and had a happier outcome for the besieged.  Modern archaeological methods based on where cartridges were found indicate that Custer's attack on the flank of the camp became a route in short order.  If there was a heroic Last Stand, it was a brief one.

I suppose it fascinates for several reasons.  First, no one escaped to "tell the tale" of what happened to Custer, his brothers and their men, though Reno and Benteen survived as did others who were not at the Last Stand.  Second, George Armstrong Custer has been portrayed as a hero or a lunatic depending on the fashion and is in any case a remarkable figure.  Third, the idea that the Sioux and Cheyenne could so thoroughly defeat a, regiment of U.S. Calvary was thought and is still apparently thought by some to be shocking.  It's the same reason the defeat of the British by the Zulus at Islandlwanna fascinates.  Some clearly feel that the battle would have been won by the 7th had Reno not panicked or had Benteen not been unwilling to save Custer.  There may be a kind of racism at work here in the obsessive regard for battles in which civilized whites were overrun by "savages."

That this happened, though, is undoubted, just as it cannot be doubted that many of the victories of the 7th Calvary and other army units during the Indian Wars were in fact massacres along the lines of what took place at Washita.  Perhaps it was the working of karma that Custer and his men were eventually massacred themselves. 

Custer still has his backers, who think he was failed by Reno and Benteen.  Reno it seems was not a heroic figure and is commonly portrayed as weak and a drunkard.  Benteen, though, a dour, cantankerous man, was notably brave under fire and was thought to be the "Savior of the Seventh" for a time at least.  Both men loathed Custer, and it seems Custer loathed them.  Custer's backers think Reno a coward and Benteen deliberately slow in coming to the battlefield. 

Questions are asked regarding why Custer split his command into three groups.  There is speculation that Custer was eager for some great victory to regain his reputation which had been somewhat sullied by his conflict with then-President Grant, or rather with certain of his underlings and their friends engaged in corruption.  It's claimed this caused him to be reckless in the disposition of his forces.  It's noted that Custer said he could not see the huge numbers scouts saw encamped on the river.  The Indians had repeater rifles as well as other weapons while the soldiers had carbines, single shot rifles.  Custer told his men not to wear their sabres that day, and the Indians were terrified of those "long knives."

All we can know with relative certainty, though, is that Reno attacked pursuant to orders, halted and formed a skirmish line, then retreated.  Custer and his men came upon the camp and were thrown back in disorder.  Before he attacked Custer sent a messenger back to Benteen to come quick and bring the ammunition packs in the wagons he was leading.  Unfortunately, the messenger he chose was an Italian immigrant whose English is said to have been poor.  Benteen arrived at the battle and assisted Reno in the retreat, eventually taking a position on Reno Hill.  Some say the battlefield is redolent of lonlieness, terror and despair.  I've never visited it, but hope to do so.

Perhaps in the end it fascinates because we empathize with the soldiers and can imagine their terror and despair as they were quickly overrun.  The Sioux and Cheyenne were merciless to survivors; thus one soldier is said to have blown his brains out though the warriors later said he could have escaped had he tried.  They were probably used to easy fights, or were inexperienced young men; the army wasn't much of a career in the years after the Civil War.  The glory of war, forsooth.

They say Sitting Bull was in Buffalo Bill's show for some time, and participated in the "reenactments" of the battle put on by that showman.  What a sad thought that is.  Who ended up worse, by their own lights?  Custer and his heroic dead or Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall and the other victors, put on show or dying not as warriors, but as prisoners?

No comments:

Post a Comment