The Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) June 25-26, 1876.
This weekend marks the 139th anniversary of the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it was called by the Lakota (Sioux) Indians. We know it as Custer’s Last Stand. Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and five companies of his 7th Cavalry were wiped out in a short battle on June 25, 1876. Several more companies of men under Major Marcus Reno also fought with the Indians on June 25th and 26th, losing about 60 men. Altogether the 7th Cavalry lost 268 men killed and 55 wounded in these two days. Indian losses are much harder to ascertain and reports vary wildly but the estimates center around 30-40 warriors and several women and children killed because the battle started when Major Reno’s companies charged at the southern end of the Indian encampment and shot indiscriminately into the village. Among the first casualties were the two wives and daughter of Chief Gall of the Hunkpapa Sioux whose tipi was in the line of fire because the Hunkpapa always camped at that end of any village they were in. That’s what their name means: they camp at the end.
The gathering of the various Lakota (Sioux,) Cheyenne, and Arapahoe tribes in the valley of the Little Bighorn river was unique in the history of the North American Indians. This gathering was estimated to be from 6,000 to 8,000 individuals with about 1,000 to 2,000 fighting men. Most villages of hunter-gatherer tribes would be a few hundred individuals at most. Horses would graze down the prairie land in a rather short time and the tribe would have to move on to “greener pastures” and new hunting grounds in search of bison, elk, antelope and other game animals. But during the 19th century a migration of white people from the east to the west along the Oregon Trail increased from a trickle to a flood, especially after the Civil War was over. Additionally, gold was discovered both in the Black Hills of South Dakota and in California. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, guaranteeing the Indians certain lands in perpetuity, was disregarded and more and more white prospectors and settlers moved into “Indian” lands. The concept of Manifest Destiny also contributed to this continuous push into the west. Manifest Destiny told the Christian, white Americans that it was essentially God’s will that we should inhabit all of North America and spread our religion and culture from “sea to shining sea.” We did.
The Indians had at least two things to fear from the white man. The first thing that they noticed early in their experience with white travelers and settlers was that the Indians often sickened and died after meeting white people. They caught the “running face” sickness, smallpox as well as influenza. The running face referred to the pox or pustules that broke out all over the victim. Having no experience with this disease ever in their history, thousands died. All tribes reported this. Today, in the Amazon basin of Peru and Brazil, “civilized” people continue to transmit fatal infectious diseases to indigenous tribes whose immune systems have never encountered our diseases. And, in America in the 19th century the whites were stealing Indian lands. The Indians did not have a concept that they owned the land that they lived on but they were certainly aware that they were being pushed off their traditional lands by the ceaseless flood of white immigrants and the soldiers who were continuously arriving to protect the immigrants. Unfortunately this, too, continues in the Amazon basin and other regions where indigenous people inhabit lands whose resources we deem valuable.
Because of the ominous situation in 1876, Sitting Bull, an Oglala Medicine Man and Spiritual Leader, had suggested that as many people as possible get together for a short time to discuss what to do. In the Spring he had participated in a ceremony wherein he had 50 pieces of flesh cut off his arms. The pain and blood loss induced a trance in which he saw white soldiers falling into the Indian camp. The gathering in the valley of the Little Bighorn, more than ten times larger than any other gathering in the memory of anyone who was there, was the result of Sitting Bull’s call. If Custer had not happened on the village when he did, it would have had to disperse again within a week due to exhaustion of the grass and other resources. But, it was the intention of the United States government to push all the Indians onto reservations that summer. Three columns of soldiers were dispatched under General Crook, Colonel Gibbon, and General Terry, (with Lt. Colonel Custer commanding the 7th Cavalry) about 3,000 men altogether, to march from the South, Northwest, and East, hoping to catch the Indians in a pincer, destroy their will to resist, and herd them onto new, more restricted reservations. The Indians, having been lied to before, were naturally reluctant to comply. Custer had the bad luck to find the hugd Indian village first with his column of about 700 men, having no idea that he was outnumbered by as much as three or four to one. To add to his bad luck, the Indians, led by Crazy Horse, and General Crook had fought the Battle of the Rosebud in the southeast a week before. This was an engagement without a clear winner but it did have the effect of stopping Crook in his tracks to regroup and wait for reinforcements, thus delaying his ability to join up with Custer for several fatal days. In fact, it was Terry’s column from the North that first happened on the site of the Little Bighorn battle two days after it was over. The pincer closed too late.
The elements of the Battle of the Little Bighorn are now pretty well known both from descriptions by Reno’s surviving troops and interviews of many Indians who annihilated Custer’s five companies. Reno’s men started the battle by crossing the river from the east and attacking the southern end of the Indian camp. Even though the Indians were taken pretty much by surprise they stopped Reno cold because of their superior numbers, and forced him to retreat back across the river and up a bluff where he dug in and established a defensive position. Then the Indians saw Custer on hills further north across the river, at about the level of the middle of the Indian Camp. He had divided his force so that Reno could hit the camp at one end and Custer could hit it from the other. But the camp was so big that Custer arrived near its middle. He apparently divided his force again and sent some men down Medicine Tail Coulee to see if they could cross the river and attack the camp but they were repulsed and rode back up on the northeast side of the river in a northerly direction, even further away from Reno’s position. A running battle developed with the Indians, led by Gall, pursuing from the South toward what is now Calhoun Hill. There Miles Keogh’s company was wiped out by warriors led by Crazy Horse, who had crossed the river further north. The remainder of Custer’s men retreated even further north to Custer Hill where the “last stand” took place and where Custer’s body was found shot in the chest and the head. By the time of the last stand, even more Indians who had crossed the river even further north had helped surround Custer’s men and killed them all. At the end of the battle some of the men on Last Stand Hill tried to break out and run toward the river down a ravine but they were pursued and all of them were killed. The whole battle lasted about as long as it takes for the sun to move “one lodge pole,” or about 45 minutes to one hour. Indian descriptions are of complete chaos with no chance for Custer to ever organize an effective fighting force. During the whole battle the troopers were running for their lives. They stopped when they were surrounded and were then wiped out. Many were stripped and mutilated. Custer was not.
The Indians then returned to besiege Reno’s men where they were dug in. They fought all the next day, June 26, but then had to leave because their scouts told them of the approach of Terry’s column from the North. So the village broke up and the various tribes scattered into their smaller, more normally sized groups. The US Army did not immediately pursue them because they stopped to bury the dead and try to assess what had happened.
Major Reno was tried by court-martial and acquitted.
The fate of the Indians was sealed. Their society was not rich enough to form and supply a standing army. All men of fighting age were also responsible for hunting for their families and performing all other familial duties. There were just too many White Men to deal with. Sitting Bull led his group into Canada where they remained for some time. As his people were cold and starving, he eventually came back to the United States, surrendered his people, and was killed “resisting arrest” on the reservation. Crazy Horse surrendered a year after the battle because his band was also starving, and was killed at Fort Robinson while “resisting arrest.” Crazy Horse had been told he would get his own reservation for himself and his band. But when he came in it became obvious that he was going to be arrested and jailed, basically to remove him as an effective leader. Gall surrendered and lived out his natural days. He became a respected judge in the tribal court system and was a successful farmer. Why he could adapt and the other chiefs could not is not clear.
Are their lessons for today that we can take away from looking back at our nineteenth century, the gold rush, and Manifest Destiny? I think there are obvious parallels between the concept of Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century and the concept of American Exceptionalism today. Both ideas consider American civilization, as it is imagined in the minds of some, to be ordained by God. We are almost commanded to take our view of life everywhere and introduce it to or even impose it on everyone else. This applies not only on our continent, as it did in the 1800s but everywhere in the world today. The principal resource and measure of wealth that motivates us has changed from gold to oil but we still have to send troops out to protect this resource and our access to it. There can be no doubt that our interest in the goings on in the Middle East would be far less substantial if there were no oil there. Certainly part of the hatred that Islamic Terrorists have for us and our way of life comes from the way we have treated Arab countries and the dictators and royal families we have propped up to assure our access to oil. The true cost of oil to our society must include consideration of all these military expenditures, all the foreign aid, and all the enmity we have generated around the world to assure our supply. These expenditures may very well account for the lion’s share of our national debt, though the recent excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were done “off budget”.
Although we eventually wiped out the resistance of American Indians to our westward progress by force of arms, (and disease) we should have learned that even a technologically inferior society will fight to the death and inflict a lot of casualties on us to defend what it regards as its homeland. In the case of North America in the nineteenth century, we intended to occupy a land already occupied for thousands of years and live on it ourselves. In the case of foreign wars where we do not intend to live on the land, we will eventually have to leave and we cannot be sure that those peoples whose countries we eventually vacate will regard our time with them with warm nostalgia. I would note that most American Indians today do not celebrate Columbus Day. And every year the Lakota hold a rodeo across the highway from the Custer Battlefield National Park.
What can we do? Could we try to set an example of a society that will make everyone else in the world want to be like us? In many ways we are already that society but we can do much better. Our enormous appetite for energy and the pollution we generate certainly leave room for improvement. As a matter of national security, we would be better off if we were energy independent, something we can achieve both through aggressive programs to increase the use of solar power, wind power, geothermal power, and even nuclear power. Our distribution of health care to all our citizens is shamefully weak considering our aggregate wealth. We have lots of models, particularly in Europe (sorry, Senator McConnell) of how we can do that better. We have lots to work on here and lots of opportunities to create jobs in the society of the future that we can develop. All it takes is a sense of community and brotherhood and perhaps a little bit of redistribution of wealth downward instead of the skyrocketing upward trend of the last generation. (Let’s hear it for Bernie Sanders.) You may have noticed that our policy of tax breaks for the wealthy really has created lots of jobs, not here at home but overseas, including among the “evil, communist” Chinese.
And, lastly, I think that we will be perfectly safe while concentrating on affairs here at home. We have lots of nuclear weapons and anyone that studies American history will have learned that we are quite willing to annihilate anyone that we perceive to be in our way. Even if we do not have large standing armies overseas, no one will bother us.