Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Custer's Last Stand at Little Bighorn

Fig.1: Still not nearly as bad as invading Russia.
There have been many screw-ups in military history. Notable ones include Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Hitler's invasion of Russia, and the Russians' invasion of Russia (boy, did they have egg on their faces when they did that). But among the non-invasion of Russia screw-ups, the one cited most often is United States General George Armstrong Custer's 1876 charge against an alliance of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Native Americans at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in present-day Montana (fig.1). Custer led a regiment of under 700 U.S. soldiers against a Native force believed to have been numbered over 2,000, and got beat worse than a stutterer at a spelling bee. Since then, Custer's name has been synonymous with arrogance, unpreparedness, underestimating one's opponents, and a delectable cream-based dessert sauce. But does he deserve this reputation? Were there uncontrollable forces working against him? Did he receive inaccurate information from his normally reliable spies? Should starch be added to create a thicker variation more suitable as a filling for tarts? Let us examine the man and the situation more thoroughly and, quite possibly, restore the old general's honor. It doesn't get more tasty than that!

Fig.2: Custer helped popularize the
intimidating crossed-arms, dead-eyed 
stare that would later influence several
rap album covers.
George Armstrong Custer (fig.2) was born in Ohio in 1839 and educated in Michigan. He originally became a schoolteacher, but after beating up children grew tiresome, he enrolled in the United States Military Academy with the hope of beating up adults one day. Custer developed a reputation at West Point that still resonates today; he totaled up a record 726 demerits, was nearly expelled three times, and they still haven't been able to retrieve the mascot's costume from that pine tree. He graduated last in his class in 1861, which typically meant he was destined for a small-time posting to someplace terrible like Altoona. But, as luck would have it, a Civil War was breaking out, and he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in a major cavalry regiment, seeing immediate action at Bull Run. Custer worked his way up the ranks as the war progressed, serving as a captain at Antietam, brigadier general at Gettysburg, major general before Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and assistant supreme commander on Endor. Thus Custer's services were in high demand thanks to his reputation following these engagements, and the government sought to use him to deal with another perceived insurrection from within its borders.

Standing in the way of American westward expansion were the "Plains Indians," Native American tribes who dared to occupy the rolling plains from Montana down through Texas as if they had done so for hundreds of years. Migrating American settlers in the area pressured the government for military assistance against the peoples who didn't welcome them with jello molds, and conflicts between U.S. soldiers and Natives became common sport in the area since the 1850s. The most hostile Native group to the American presence were the Sioux, an umbrella term that covered a number of different tribes, including (and most relevant to this particular history) the Lakota. The Lakota had a number of influential leaders, with awesome adjective-noun names such as Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull, who caused problems in the American attempt to subjugate the region. Several other tribes were allied with the Sioux in the struggle, such as the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, as well as their handy friends on the battlefield: Sharp Axe, Flying Arrow, and Booming Gun.

Custer commanded several regiments against the Native Americans following the U.S. Civil War, proud that he became a successful general despite spending more time toilet papering the library than studying inside of it. He earned particular notoriety following his actions in 1868 at the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma, where he attacked a Cheyenne camp and used women and children as hostages in order to necessitate an enemy surrender. While his tactics were effective in limiting the fighting and bringing about a quicker peace, most agreed even then that using non-combatants as negotiation bait was just a tad "jerkish." In addition, stories began to spread that Custer fathered a child with a daughter of a chief killed in the battle, which did make it a whole lot easier to sneak over to her place. Nevertheless, the man was as good as any commander, and when the Great Sioux War of 1876 came about, the army knew the War against the Sioux was going to be too Great not to have Custer on board.

Fig.3: No, it's okay, Sitting Bull.
Don't get up for us.
The war arose primary to force restless Native Americans, who left their designated reservations in defiance of the government's orders, back where sketchy treaties said they should be. Many coalesced around Sitting Bull (fig.3), who was Sitting in the southern part of the Montana Territory, which of course forced everyone to come to him. The number of Lakota and Cheyenne present was unknown to U.S. troops, figuring they only had enough party supplies for about 700 people; in fact, estimates range from 4,000 to 8,000 in the Native camp at this time (including 1,500 to 3,000 able-fighting men), requiring constant runs to the local convenience store for more ice and paper plates. An initial fight took place between the Natives and U.S. forces at the Battle of the Rosebud, where the Americans were caught off-guard by the number of combatants, and were thrown out quicker than a Red Sox fan in a crowded New York sports bar. Unfortunately, the commanders there failed to send a message to the other generals regarding the size of the Native force (probably couldn't get cell service out in middle-of-nowhere Montana), as other regiments, including Custer's, proceeded onward none-the-wiser.

Custer reached the outskirts of the encampment on June 25, 1876, settling 12 miles north along the paradoxically-named Little Bighorn River (sometimes referred to by the Natives as "River-Who-Hath-Identity-Crisis"). Here is where many believe Custer made three huge mistakes. First, he refused to wait for reinforcements from incoming regiments that might have tripled his numbers. Second, he divided his force of under 700 into three parts, keeping 210 under his command, with the hope of eventually surrounding the Natives. Finally, he refused the offer to bring Gatling guns into battle, which were large wheel-mounted rapid-fire weapons that saw success in the latter battles of the Civil War. At the time, Custer's decisions were completely understandable: 1) he did not believe the Native force numbered larger than his own, and saw time as more essential than manpower, 2) holding part of a regiment back and using them to come around from the side and catch the enemy off-guard was a sound strategy that had worked since the days of rocks being the primary weapon of choice, and 3) pulling those big guns around would have slowed them down substantially, and besides, they jammed easily and only worked as often as a federal employee during the holidays. It's only in hindsight that people have questioned Custer's decisions, but at the time they made as much sense as passing on Michael Jordan to draft Sam Bowie (hey, he had tremendous upside!).

Fig.4: This Native sketch of the Battle of Little 
Bighorn gruesomely details the horror and
carnage of war.
One detachment of 140, led by Major Marcus Reno, moved ahead to attack the Native encampment, with the hope that there were enough marshmallows left over to make s'mores. Sitting Bull rallied the warriors, led by Crazy Horse, to the defense. Reno and the rest of his battalion quickly saw how Crazy they were outnumbered; they initially stuck around to halt the advance, but eventually said, "Screw this!" and retreated back to the position of the second detachment under the command of Captain Frederick Benteen. Reno and Benteen had trenches and rifle pits quickly dug for defense and to relieve a little stress (I know a good digging in the neighbor's yard always helps me out). However, they faced little opposition, and instead heard gunfire downstream. They eventually received a message from Custer saying, "Come on. Big Village. Be Quick," which was a nice little invitation for them to join the action. Benteen decided to tend to Reno's heavily wounded force instead, which would prove to be yet another mistake pointed out by those Monday morning historians.

Reno and Benteen's men were confined to their position until June 27, when they were relieved by reinforcements who finally decided to show up. Heading down the river, they were shocked to find Custer's entire command of over 200 soldiers wiped out on the hills; this included Custer himself, two of his brothers, a nephew, a reporter, and the ever-popular comic relief character of the battalion (it's always saddest when that one dies). Many of the corpses were mutilated, as the Natives believed people weren't allowed into Heaven with their intestines hanging out like that (there's a strict dress code, after all). Custer's body, however, was practically untouched save for bullet holes to the head and chest. Theories abound as to why he escaped this fate, including his dress (he preferred to wear his favorite buckskin jacket while in battle instead of his military uniform, so the Natives might not have known he was an actual solider), his possible parentage to a Native child (his body was protected by two Native women who saw him as good as a relative, despite his late child support payments), and his totally fit bod (his six-pack was just too beautiful to rip open).

Because no soldier survived the fight, we have no definitive record of what occurred to Custer's battalion. The only living thing left on the battlefield was a horse named Comanche, but a horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse, of course. But what those dirt-loving archaeologists have concluded is that the Natives overwhelmed the Americans and drove them against the hills, leaving Custer no choice but to put up his Last Stand (shortly followed by his Last Sit, and then his Last Lay Down). The Natives gunned down every last U.S. soldier in what many would call a massacre, even though it probably would have been termed a "decisive victory" if 200 Native Americans were left to waste on the hills (hey, I'm an equal opportunity historian!).

Fig.5: Eh, the Native account was a lot more graphic.
The defeat at the Little Bighorn sent shockwaves across the United States. An inquiry was set up partly to find answers for the debacle, but mostly to find a scapegoat to blame it on (it's the American way!). More troops were ordered to the front, and victories over the Natives pushed them into Canada (who were way more apologetic about the whole thing). Following U.S. victory in the war, new reservations conveniently located away from the gold-rich Black Hills were established, and Lakota resistance faded with the death of Crazy Horse in 1877 to a Crazy bayonet "accident." Nevertheless, the Battle of the Little Bighorn retains a strong legacy among participating Native tribes, most of whom have erected their own monuments at the battlesite for out-of-control schoolchildren to disrespectfully climb all over. For U.S. citizens, the battle is the most widely known of all the contests against Native Americans, though whether they know exactly who won the fight (or who even fought in it) remains questionable ("That's where we kicked the Brits out, right?").

But what about Custer? Even immediately following the battle, he was blamed for rushing in unprepared, undermanned, and unbearably musky (his cologne line was never very popular). His reputation has sunk through the years, and today his name is a byword for arrogance and failure (hey, at least he's no Benedict Arnold!). But was Little Bighorn really his fault? The data he had showed that he would facing, at most, 500 Natives; if there was any hint of much more than that, no doubt he would have waited for reinforcements or at least kept his regiment intact. The Gatling guns he refused might have made a difference, but Custer knew by experience from previous battles against the Sioux that it was better to travel lightly and quickly, explaining why he had his troops run laps and eat nothing but celery while on the march. The prevailing idea that Custer underestimated his opponents because they were simple Natives belies the fact that he deployed careful tactics against them that he would have done if he was up against any ol' whitey. In the end, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a nightmare for the U.S., but it should not be blamed on George Armstrong Custer alone. I think I speak for the masses when I say: "THANKS, OBAMA!"

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