Anniversary Post: Battle of the Little Bighorn

Battle of the Greasy GrassOn this day in 1876 was the Battle of the Greasy Grass, or as the losers call it, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or sometimes just Custer’s Last Stand. It was part of the Great Sioux War of 1876. And what was that? Well, it was the usual: previous treaties between the United States and the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne had designated boundaries of their territory. But gold was found and so the Americans came to take over the land because, well, they wanted it and the tribespeople didn’t matter.

Even though they won that battle, they lost the war. There was never any question of that. It would be as if Rhode Island went to war with the rest of the United States. Similarly, when the Confederacy went to war with the United States, it was doomed from the start. In fact, it is something of a miracle that the Civil War lasted as long as it did. As Rhett Butler said in Gone With the Wind, “There’s not a cannon factory in the whole south… I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many gentlemen… I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we; they’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines, and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” Just as the south had no chance, the native tribes had no chance, other than that the Americans would treat them civilly — so it was a lost cause.

The end result of the war was the annexation of the Sioux land and the shipping off of the natives to concentration camps — popularly known as “Indian reservations.” People talk about slavery being America’s original sin, but I would contest that. From the first meetings of Europeans with native Americans, we’ve seen that superior firepower and resources do not imply superior behavior or civilization. But I’m not evolved enough not to take a certain amount of pleasure in George Armstrong Custer getting himself killed. Although he took a lot of people with him. And in the end, I don’t mean to blame him for a centuries long campaign against indigenous people — a campaign that continues to this day.

We mark this day 139 years ago when Custer blew it, as part of an evil war, as part of a longstanding American policy based upon racism and hubris.

4 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Battle of the Little Bighorn

  1. I visited the Black Hills a few years back and most of the mountains are in “Custer State Park.” The name puzzled me. It’s not near the Bighorn battle site. Later, I found out, it’s “Custer” Park because Custer led a geographical expedition there, for the sole purpose of finding gold in the Black Hills (which were, naturally, Native property by treaty signing.) Custer found gold, the prospectors came, Natives tried defending their legal property rights, and Custer was sent back to mop up the “dirt worshippers.”

    I’d actually tried watching “Deadwood” the first few episodes or so when it originally ran on HBO and couldn’t get into it. Once I knew the backstory, I found it a lot easier to understand what was happening.

    • I would have thought that the repetition of “cock sucker” would have won you over! Are you un-American, man?!

      Well, as I was discussing the other day, I don’t think that Custer was a particularly vile man. But his name is the most associated with the Indian Wars. Some day I would like to great clear on all that history, but it is so large in the details and so small in the purpose.

      • For the most part he seems to have been a celebrity general for his time, like Petraeus or Schwartzkopf in ours. He determined no policy so far as I know. Definitely had an eye for any publicity he could catch. Was described dismissively by many contemporaries as something of a “dandy” but without the modern homophobic connotations, more a criticism of Custer’s huge ego. He often brought his wife along on campaigns, and she was pretty enamored of the guy — she’s mostly responsible for the Died With His Boots On myth.

        Basically I understand Custer’s name was tied into the Indian wars because he wanted it that way. He was the face of our final “surge” removing the lesser breed. It was a big rah-rah-America theme and he made himself the face of it. Maybe if he’d been a more efficient killer, less concerned with his public image, he’d have taken the Bighorn battle more seriously (apparently it was a real f***up, although I tend to go numb and skip pages when reading details of battle strategy.)

        So less a true genocidal maniac than someone who paid no attention to what he was doing if it bolstered his career; a classic American!

        (I think I started really liking “Deadwood” not when everybody said “cocksucker” but in the first scenes where Al and Wu use “cocksucker” as their only shared word, yet somehow communicate. People of all sorts can work together, if they have the word “cocksucker” to unite them!)

        • After the Civil War, most of the career military went on to wipe out the Indians. That’s the reason that the military is such a difficult institution. For obvious reasons, people need to follow orders. But following orders is often the wrong thing to do. That’s why I’ve always had a problem with this idea at Nuremberg that “following orders” isn’t a defense. That’s what war is. Obviously, the Nazis should have been punished; that’s not my point. Rather, it’s ridiculous to claim that soldiers should know some nebulous lines they should not cross when the whole point of war is to cross a very clear line you know you should not cross — namely killing. And clearly, there were never trials to punish the American genocide. Also: I don’t mean to blame this all on the military. The bigger problem was a cultural one where Americans just didn’t respect the native peoples and thought they could take anything they had.

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