Sunday, June 15, 2014

Alfred Terry: The True Villain of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the LittleBighorn, George Armstrong Custer was the victim of another man’s devious scheming at the battle of the Little Bighorn.     The villain of the Little Bighorn was General Alfred Terry and his flawed battle plan.  According to Philbrick, General Terry “wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail.”  He says, everyone knew perfectly well what Custer was going to do once Terry,” in the words of Major Brisbin ‘turned the wild man loose.’”(Philbrick, 99) 

General Terry was protective of his own military reputation however and was spinning an invisible and cunning web.  “Terry had a lawyer’s talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it.”  Terry’s ambiguously worded orders to Custer, allowed him to protect his reputation no matter what happened.  “If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had the wisdom to give him an independent command.  If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry’s written orders.”  Philbrick continues, “As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn.  But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces.  Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.” (Philbrick, 102-103) 

Custer was a simple soldier, doing his duty, being manipulated by forces beyond his understanding or control.  “After September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, it (is) possible to recognize…that no matter how misguided the conflict, soldiers such as Custer were only doing their duty.” Philbrick continues, “As it turns out, Custer’s Native opponents had known this all along.”  The warrior He Dog summed it up, “Washington was the place all the troubles started.”(Philbrick, 305)

Paperback edition

For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

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