Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Custer's Last Stand: The Man Who Killed Custer

Showdown at Little Big Horn by Dee Brown (1964)

     Dee Brown was a novelist and historian.  This book is a dramatic retelling of the battle as seen through the eyes of many of the major participants, military, civilian, and Indian.  The book is essentially a non-fiction novel, in which Brown puts words into the mouths of participants to make historical points.  For example, Brown has Captain French approaching Major Reno during the initial charge on the village and saying, “Winchesters!....Too many blasted redskins armed with new Winchesters.”  There are no new facts here, just Brown embracing certain historical assumptions through the medium of dramatic dialogue.
What is new is Brown’s abandonment of the “Great Man” approach to history.  For Brown, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is not just, or primarily, about George Armstrong Custer.  Using eyewitness accounts, diaries, letters, and testimonies of participants in the battle, Brown embraces the historical perspective of the common man.  Significant too, is Brown’s willingness to embrace Indian testimony on an equal level with that of white participants.  This book anticipates the treatment of the battle in Brown’s more celebrated book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), in which he recounts the battle solely on the basis of Indian testimony.  In Bury My Heart Brown tacitly admits that Indian testimony can be contradictory, acknowledging at one point that no fewer than four different Indians had claims to killing Custer ( Rain-in-the Face, Flat Hip, Brave Bear, and an unidentified Santee warrior named by Red Horse).  Given the contradictions embedded in non-Indian accounts of the battle, however, Brown has concluded that it is reasonable to treat the Indian testimony on an equal footing.
Brown’s use of the Indian perspective is a radical departure from previous histories written from the Anglo perspective of the battle and its aftermath.  Brown writes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, “When the white men in the East heard of Long Hair’s defeat, they called it a massacre and went crazy with anger.  They wanted to punish all the Indians in the West.  Because they could not punish Sitting Bull and the war chiefs, the Great Council in Washington decided to punish the Indians they could find, those who remained on the reservations and had taken no part in the fighting.”  On August 15, 1876, Congress forced the Indians to give up all rights to the Powder River country and the Black Hills, maintaining that the Indians had violated the treaty of 1868 by going to war with the United States.  “This was difficult for the reservation Indians to understand, because they had not attacked United States soldiers, nor had Sitting Bull’s followers attacked them until Custer sent Reno charging through the Sioux villages.” (Brown, 297-298)  By writing from the Indian perspective, Brown reverses the importance of the roles earlier histories assigned to Custer and the Indians.  Custer is now merely the foil for the real heroes of the story…the Indians.

Paperback edition

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