The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of Little Bighorn
Bodley Head; £20
Now I will tell you buster that I ain’t a fan of Custer And the General he don’t ride well anymore ...With victories he was swimmin’ he killed children, dogs and women, But the General he don’t ride well anymore
THE great American folk icon Johnny Cash was no fan of George Armstrong Custer and wrote one of his most scathing lyrics about the mercenary.
The jingoistic approach to American history of the 19th century — a strong feature of Hollywood westerns right up to the 1960s — has not only had a profound effect on the consciousness of many Americans, but on the countless millions of others who, beyond the American continent, are influenced by all facets, both negative and positive, of American culture.
Mention the name of General Custer and many will immediately conjure up thoughts of a dashing, long-haired and mustachioed cavalry officer, astride his charger, risking life and limb to protect early white settlers from the “hostiles”. Others, thanks largely to the emergence of objective and non-revisionist histories in relatively recent times, will think of a vain and cold-blooded soldier of fortune who did indeed, as Cash sang, kill women and children as well as the elderly and the infirm as he drove the native Americans from their lands and into reservations. Actions not unlike the pogroms of the 20th century in another more recent example of tribal persecution.
Cash would not have survived singing his blistering ballad through the western saloons of the early 20th century. Attitudes towards native American Indians were slow to change and, by some accounts, still have a way to go.
Custer and his men would never have led their campaign through the Black Hills had these sacred Indian lands been deemed barren and worthless but the Black Hills were found to be the source of immense mineral wealth, gold in particular. The Dakota gold rush began in 1874 and gathered momentum from then until 1877.
In 1868 the government of the United States recognised, in theory, the Black Hills as belonging to the Lakota-Sioux by the Treaty of Laramie.
The discovery of gold, and the criminal and unbridled greed it fuelled, changed all that. In law, this Indian territory was off-limits to white Americans, but that didn’t stop them. When the Indians tried to do so, the army was sent in not to protect the rights of the Indians, but to fight for the thieving white opportunists.
Forget about the men of honour portrayed in the likes of John Ford movies. The US horse soldiers, some of them veterans of the civil war, were poorly trained, hungry and desperate killers. Many were loners who “had no other employment options”. A high percentage were Irish who had fled the poverty and starvation of home.
Some were buffalo hunters who turned to the army when the staple diet of the Indians was almost driven to extinction by insatiable westerners.
“There was a saying among the soldiers of the western frontier, a saying Custer and his officers could heartily endorse: ‘Indian woman rape easily’,” states the author. Custer was no exception and used a captive Indian woman as his sex slave while on campaign.
Vain, short-tempered — the author tells of the general firing his revolver at close range above the head of an Indian scout who displeased him — and self-serving, Custer was charged with removing, by whatever force necessary, those Indian tribes that refused to move to reservations.
He had no respect for the Indian races, was peacock-confident of his own fame and had his sights set on a consequent political career.
As a militarist, he was a white buckskin-suited idiot who showed a great fondness for marching bands which often accompanied his genocidal missions.
In the autumn of 1868, as Custer was leading a winter campaign against the Cheyenne, he decided to “colour the horses”. All the regiment’s horses were assembled in a single group and divided up according to colour. Four companies were assigned the bays, three companies the sorrels and so forth.
The eventual effect may have been pleasing on the eye, his eye, but “this act” one of his officers, Capt Frederick Benteen, declared “at the beginning of a severe campaign was not only ridiculous, but criminal, unjust and arbitrary in the extreme”. Twelve months of bonding between soldiers and horses was immediately erased with the strange aesthetic shuffle.
But his arrogance and foolishness led to the combined Sioux and Cheyenne warrior nations outnumbering and roundly defeating Custer and his few hundred troopers at Little Bighorn.
Custer might have blindly brought the fight to the tribes, but sadly the Indian’s victory was also their undoing. Philbrick quite rightly points out that “the battle marked the beginning of their own Last Stand”.
In the immediate wake of the bloody battle, the US government poured massive resources into a concerted drive against the Indians.
“Not until the summer of 1881 did Sitting Bull submit to US authorities”, Philbrick continues, “but only after first handing his rifle to his son, Crowfoot, who then gave the weapon to an army officer. ‘I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle’, Sitting Bull said.
“ ‘This boy has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.’ ”
Philbrick, an historian, has written a magnificently researched account of a crucial period in the annals of the native Americans.
It’s a book packed with characters but those who make the greatest impression are the Indian leaders Sitting Bull and the Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse.
The Last Stand also features many extraordinary vignettes.
For instance, during the final years of Sitting Bull’s life his household was joined by a 52-year-old Swiss widow named Catherine Weldon and her 12-year-old son. Weldon was a member of an Indian rights group which aided the Hunkpapa leader to get fair treatment at the hands of the US government.
“I honour and respect Sitting Bull as if he was my own father and nothing can ever shake my faith in his good qualities ... but I regret he is so universally misjudged,” she wrote.
Having read this book few could have anything but respect for Sitting Bull, the man who famously declared that his people “wanted to be at peace with all, wanted plenty of food, wanted to live undisturbed in their own country.”
Philbrick has done justice to a story of grave injustice, military madness and genocide on the part of the founding fathers of the modern America.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved