Columbus Day 2021
From Chapter 13
Education of a Wandering Man
First publication: 1989
Many of the Army officers serving in the West of the period before and after the Civil War were cultured, intelligent men, and although they were defending the frontier against raids by Indians, many of them had a strong interest in the Indian and his culture. Much that we know might have been lost had it not been for their intelligent observation and comments.
On the Border with Crook by Major John G. Bourke and Life Among the Apaches by John C. Cremony are examples, but only two of many. That much maligned man, General George Armstrong Custer — about whom more nonsense has been written by people who know nothing about him than has been written about any man in history — was another. Secretary of War William Belknap (later dismissed from office) had been appointing political friends of his as Indian agents, and they were robbing the Indians, starving them, and taking every advantage. Custer objected, but a mere Lieutenant Colonel (Custer’s actual rank) got nowhere by complaining to the Secretary of War, and later they contrived an excuse for a court martial.
Custer saw the Indians being mistreated and in his book, My Life on the Plains, said that if he were an Indian he would be fighting.
How many Indians were present at the Little Bighorn we will never know. Their numbers were estimated at from two thousand to nine thousand. Logic was completely on Custer’s side. The Indians had never been able to field a large force because of the supply problem. When so many Indians came into an area, the game fled the country, so whatever food the Indian had he must bring with him. For the same reason he could not stay long in the field.
A fact often missed is that just a few miles south and a few days earlier, General George Crook, another of our most successful Indian fighters, had made the same mistake.
In the bitter Battle of the Rosebud, often overlooked due to the drama of the Custer massacre, Crook was fought to a standstill by many of the same Indians. Had it not been for the protests of Frank Grouard, Crook’s chief of scouts, and the fact that he was down to eight rounds of ammunition per man, Crook might have pursued the Sioux down the canyon of the Rosebud into an even worse trap than Custer’s, where he would have lost three times the men.
Knowing the Indian problems with supply, neither Crook on June 17 or Custer on June 25  was willing to believe that such a large force was in the field.
Few of those who write so glibly about Custer have ever examined his career. His defeat of Jeb Stuart was without doubt one of the major reasons the North won the Battle of Gettysburg. Some may object to the term defeat, but without a doubt Custer prevented Stuart from obtaining his objective, and Stuart was a great cavalry officer.
Custer’s troops often complained about some of his brutally long marches, but no matter how far he asked them to go, he was up there in front of them and in plain sight. The men called him old “Iron-Ass.”
Often forgotten is the fact that the Seventh Cavalry, proud of its name and reputation, had an unusually large number of raw recruits when they left Fort Lincoln, which contributed to the great loss of life at the Little Bighorn.
There are so many things about Indians and their ways that were simply not known. For example: no Indian who was not present at the signing of a treaty felt bound by it. For this reason, many Indians would deliberately absent themselves on such occasions.
In most cases, when a chief signed a treaty, he was signing for himself. He had no authority to force other Indians to abide by it. This most white men never understood.
In most cases, the only way for a young Indian to become a man and a warrior was to take a scalp or to count coup, which means to strike a living, armed enemy. Until he had done so, he could not get a bride and he could not speak in council. He was literally a nobody. This is why Indians often said they could not live without war.
A strike against the Indian in dealing with white men was that to him, a battle was a war. The Indian never learned about campaigns, a series of extended battles. When the Indian battle was over, all the Indians went home. The white man kept coming.
Although Crazy Horse was but one of the chiefs present at the Little Bighorn, he is usually given credit for the tactical planning. It is more likely that it grew out of a council. The fact of the matter is, had the Indians a supply system of food and ammunition, they might have whipped General Alfred Terry (Custer’s commanding officer) and Gibbon as well.
That’s a wild speculation, of course, but they had put Crook’s command out of action and had whipped Custer and knew that Terry and Gibbon were approaching.
Personally, I do not believe that the sites of the battles were a matter of chance. I believe the Indians deliberately led the coming battle into terrain favorable to their way of fighting and where such traps as they often used were available.
Military tactics had interested me since my youth, and when I got older I read Sun-tzu, Marshal Saxe, Vegetius, Clausewitz and dozens of others on the subject. Sun-tzu, who composed his work about 500 B.C., laid down the basic principles of military strategy and has rarely been improved upon. The American Indian used a variety of tactics but the favorite was always a variation of what Hannibal used to defeat the Romans at Cannae. It was also used by T.E. Lawrence at the Battle of Tafila in World War I. This was definitely what was prepared for Crook at the Rosebud but he failed to enter the trap. It also was used by the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Fetterman massacre in Wyoming, in 1866.
My mention of Vegetius, who wrote on the tactics and camps of the Roman legions, offers an opportunity to correct a mistaken impression that has long existed. When Jesus was suffering on the Cross, a Roman soldier offered him vinegar to drink, and this has been considered by many to have been an unkind act. As a matter of fact, vinegar is what the Roman legions drank, believing it a better thirst-quencher than plain water. We often put lemon in water for the same purpose. In any event, that Roman legionnaire was simply trying to share his own drink with Jesus.
Fortunately, we who write about America’s frontier have no shortage of basic material. Soldiers of every rank have written of their experiences in one place or another, and the records in many areas are excellent. The only limitation on any writer is how much effort he or she is willing to put in to be accurate.
We cannot, of course, know all the story, but we do know much of it, and from what we know can easily surmise the rest. We who write fiction are not writing history, yet I do not believe anybody has a right to alter history for the sake of a story. If nothing else, it betrays a lack of creative ability. The actual history is amazing enough and I prefer to put my characters into what is actually happening and let it happen to them.