Saturday, June 25, 2011

Custer's Last Stand

It was on this day 135 years ago that the Battle of the Little Bighorn — better known as Custer's Last Stand — began.

In my studies of American history, I have really only read one book on this subject — "Son of the Morning Star," Evan S. Connell's 1984 book, which I was inspired to read in 1991 after seeing the TV dramatization of it starring Gary Cole and Rosanna Arquette.

The TV adaptation received some Emmy Awards, and I felt that both the book and the movie gave a pretty balanced look at what was, essentially, the Indians' last hurrah in the Plains Wars.

Today, I've been reading an interesting article by Bruce Kauffmann of the Appeal–Democrat of Marysville, Calif.

Kauffmann calls Custer's Last Stand "one of the great myths in American history," and I am inclined to agree. I mean, I know of other myths that enjoy a certain amount of currency with people, but I'm not sure if any are greater than the one that was born shortly after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The version of events that was given to the public in the immediate aftermath of the battle was one that portrayed Gen. George Armstrong Custer as a heroic victim. That image was perpetuated by Custer's devoted widow.

More recent examinations of the events of June 1876 have been sympathetic to the Indians. Kauffmann favors the Indians.

"Custer and the U.S. Army were the aggressors," he writes. He doesn't necessarily blame Custer, just observes that he was "part of that army" that President Grant sent to the Plains to drive the Indians from their land.

In a sense, you could say Custer was simply following orders — but, as the commander of his cavalry regiment, he had considerable latitude in the tactics he chose to use in pursuit of his objective. In other words, sometimes the orders were his, not his superiors'.

Kauffmann accuses Custer of being "foolhardy in the extreme" and writes that he was "vain and impetuous," a glory hog.

Well, that is what Kauffmann thinks. I haven't really formed any opinions of the soldiers or Indians who participated in the battle.

That probably puts me in a distinct minority. My guess is that I would be in the minority if I attended one of the re–creations of the battle being staged in southeastern Montana this weekend.

That might not be true, though. The folks who attend the re–creations may just be history buffs, like myself, who don't know much about this chapter and want to learn a little more about the history of their country. I'm definitely in favor of that.

One thing I have learned in a lifetime of studying history is that there is always something interesting that you didn't know before. As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

And that leads me to something I have learned that I didn't know about Custer's Last Stand.

I've heard about the tactical mistakes that Custer made. I have heard of how he underestimated the size of the Indian force. But this is something I hadn't heard before.

Richard Mize of The Oklahoman writes that, after Custer and his men were beaten decisively at the Little Bighorn, the federal government considered relocating the Indians to Oklahoma.

If that had happened, Mize writes, there would have been no alternative but to put them in the so–called "Unassigned Lands" in the central part of the state (then territory).

If those lands had been assigned to the Indians in the 1870s, he points out, there would have been "no land run of April 22, 1889 — no Oklahoma City, or Edmond, Guthrie, Stillwater, Kingfisher or Norman."

That certainly would have affected the course of my life. I lived in Norman for four years.

Anyway, a delegation of Lakota Sioux came to look at the Unassigned Lands and ultimately rejected the plan. They didn't want to go so far from their native soil.

If the Indians had chosen differently, Mize writes, "Oklahoma City probably wouldn't exist and Oklahoma's colorful land history could have turned kaleidoscopic."

It's a reminder, I suppose, that there is always a road not taken.

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