Monday, May 21, 2018

George Armstrong Custer: Life on the Plains

George Armstrong Custer

     In 1874, Custer published My Life on the Plains, an account of his career as an Indian fighter to that time.  This book gives us important insights into the kind of man Custer was and the type of tactics he habitually used.

     Like many professional Victorian era soldiers, Custer saw war as a great adventure, he reveled in the freedom of the frontier, “I had several English greyhounds, whose speed I was anxious to test with that of the antelope….Taking with me but one man…and calling my dogs around me, I galloped ahead of the column as soon as it was daylight, for the purpose of having a chase after some antelope.” While war might be the greatest game of all, Custer respected the Indian as an opponent, “I had an opportunity to witness the Indian mode of fighting in all its perfection. Surely no race of men, not even the famous Cossacks, could display more wonderful skill in feats of horsemanship than the Indian warrior on his native plains, mounted on his well-trained war pony….” (G.A. Custer, 136) He also showed that he knew what defeat meant when writing about the fate of  “…poor Kidder and his party, yet so brutally hacked and disfigured as to be beyond recognition save as human beings….Every individual of the party had been scalped and his skull broken….even the clothes of all the party and him carried away, some of the bodies were lying in beds of ashes with partly burned fragments of wood near them, showing that the savages had put some of them to death by the terrible tortures of fire. The sinews of the arms and legs had been cut away, the nose of every man hacked off, and the features otherwise defaced so that it would have been scarcely possible for even a relative to recognize a single one of the unfortunate victims. We could not even distinguish the officer from his men. Each body was pierced by from twenty to fifty arrows, and the arrows were found as the Savage demons had left them, bristling in the bodies.” (G.A. Custer, 77) 

      Indian warfare was irregular warfare.  The central problem was catching the hostiles, and Custer laments, “Many of (our) men and horses were far from being familiar with actual warfare, particularly of this irregular character.  Some of the troopers were quite inexperienced as horsemen and still more inexpert in the use of their weapons, as their in accuracy of fire when attempting to bring down an Indian within easy range clearly proved.” (G.A. Custer, 137) Custer recounts how he whipped the Seventh Cavalry into shape and prepared it for the Army’s proposed winter campaign, designed to catch the Indians in camp during the supposedly impassable winter snows.

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. 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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