Friday, May 25, 2018

George Armstrong Custer: Influence of the Battle of the Washita


     It was during the campaign of 1868 that George Armstrong Custer distinguished himself as an Indian fighter at the Battle of the Washita (Oklahoma).  The formal order directing operations to commence came in the shape of a brief letter of instructions from Department headquarters.  “…as nothing was known positively as to the exact whereabouts of the Indian villages, the instructions (had) to be general in terms.  In substance, I was to march my command in search of the winter hiding places of the hostile Indians and wherever found to administer such punishment for past depredations as my force was able.”

     Major Joel Elliott located the Indian trail.  Custer writes, “We…at once set out to join in the pursuit, a pursuit which could and would only end when we overtook our enemies.  And in order that we should not be trammeled in our movements it was my intention then and there to abandon our train of wagons, taking with us only such supplies as we could carry on our persons and strapped to our saddles….”  The battle of the Washita commenced with the regimental band playing Gary Owen as, “the bugle sounded the charge and the entire command dashed rapidly into the village.  The Indians were caught napping….”

     The actual possession of the village and its lodges was achieved within a few moments, but now on all sides Indians began gathering around Custer’s command.   Custer writes, “Making dispositions to overcome any resistance which might be offered to our advance by throwing out a strong force of skirmishers, we set out down the valley in the direction where the other villages had been reported and toward the hills on which were collected the greatest number of Indians.”  By prominently displaying captive women and children hostages, Custer was able to force the Indians to disengage.  “Whether the fact that they could not fire upon our advance without endangering the lives of their own people, who were prisoners in our hands, or some other reason prevailed with them, they never offered to fire a shot or retard our movements in any manner, but instead assembled their outlying detachments as rapidly as possible, and began a precipitate movement down the valley”

      Understanding Custer’s state of mind and tactics at the Washita is essential to understanding his later actions on the Little Bighorn: (1) the central problem in this type of irregular warfare was catching the enemy, Indians would scatter rather than fight, and (2) Indians would not endanger their women and children (Custer wrote, “Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger thereof.”)  Clearly, based on his earlier experiences Custer expected the Indians at the Little Bighorn to run.  In any event, he meant to bring them to heel by taking women and children hostages.  His swing to the north of the village was designed to accomplish this one thing.

Battle of the Washita from "Little Big Man"

Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. 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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