November 27, 1868 Goat

One of the more amusing images to emerge from this terrible chapter in American history is the notion of Custer, cinnamon-oiled hair, trademark red scarf and that broad brimmed sombrero, riding away with Wilmer McClean’s table, strapped to the backside of his horse.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’.  No, that doesn’t mean ‘Greatest of all Time’. This ‘Goat” was dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, Custer’s contributions to history were vastly out of proportion to a less than brilliant academic record.

At 23, Custer was one of the youngest General officers in the Union army. History.com calls him the youngest, but I believe that to be in error.  That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker who, at twenty years of age, was the only General Officer in American history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

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As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day.  The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. The third day, was different.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. The superior mobility of men on horse allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.

For the first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving the General effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

dhm1254On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼-miles distant from the Federal line.

Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.

The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back.

But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line? The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.

Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.

Let the battle be described by one of its participants:

As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.

Stuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day but, of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them belonged to Custer’s brigade.

It was Custer’s cavalry who blocked Lee’s forces at Appomattox, and forced the white flag of surrender.  After the final capitulation, Major General Philip Sheridan helped himself to the table, and presented it to Custer as a gift to his wife, Libbie,   “Permit me to say, Madam,” Sheridan wrote, “that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.”

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One of the more amusing images to emerge from this terrible chapter in American history is the notion of Custer, cinnamon-oiled hair, trademark red scarf and that broad brimmed sombrero, riding away with Wilmer McClean’s table, strapped to the backside of his horse.

Fun fact:  Custer served the duration of the Civil War, from 1st Bull Run (First Manassas), to Appomattox.  Another man who could say the same was Wilmer McClean, whose Manassas, Virginia home was taken as headquarters, by Confederate General PGT Beauregard.  McLean wanted to get away from it all and moved to the quiet town of Appomattox Courthouse.  It was in his parlor that General Grant met with General Lee, to discuss terms of surrender.  After the war, McClean would famously quip: “The war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”

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On April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant sat on the chair to the right and General Robert E. Lee to the left, in the Wilmer McLean home at Appomattox Courthouse, to discuss terms of surrender. This is the table that later rode away, with George Armstrong Custer. H/T Smithsonian Museum

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, now-Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th United States Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles which would end, for him, eight years later on a hillside, in the eastern Montana territory.

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Las Stand Hill

“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have turned out, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign was Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States to go their own way.  On that third day at Gettysburg, our history could have taken a very different direction.

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June 25, 1876 Little Big Horn

No whites were to be permitted onto these territories but for Federal Government officials, but the rich resources of the Black Hills, first in timber and then in gold, made the provision near-impossible to enforce.

During the late summer of 1854, 4,000 natives of the Brulé and Oglala Sioux were camped in the future Wyoming territory, near the modern city of Torrington, WY.   On August 17, visiting Miniconjou High Forehead killed a wandering cow, belonging to a Mormon traveling the nearby Oregon trail.  The native camp accorded with the terms of the treaty of 1851 and the cow episode could have been amicably handled, but events quickly spun out of control.

GrattanPhilKonstantinChief Conquering Bear attempted to negotiate recompense, offering a horse or cow from the tribe’s herd.  The owner refused, demanding $25.  That same treaty of 1851 specified that such matters would be handled by the local Indian agent, in this case John Whitfield, scheduled to arrive within days with tribal annuities more than sufficient to settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction.

Ignorant of this provision or deliberately choosing to ignore it, senior officer Lieutenant Hugh Fleming from nearby Ft. Laramie requested that the Sioux Chief arrest High Forehead, and hand him over to the fort.  Conquering Bear refused, not wanting to violate rules of hospitality.  Besides, the Oglala Chief had no authority over a Miniconjou.

6th Infantry Regiment Second Lieutenant John Grattan arrived with a force of twenty-nine and a bad attitude, intent on arresting the cow’s killer.  One Ft. Laramie commander later remarked, “There is no doubt that Lt. Grattan left this post with a desire to have a fight with the Indians, and that he had determined to take the man at all hazards.”  French-Native interpreter Lucienne Auguste was contemptuous, taunting Sioux warriors as “women” and threatening that the soldiers had come not to talk, but to kill.

What followed was all but inevitable.  Angry warriors took up flanking positions around the soldiers, one of whom panicked and fired, mortally wounding Conquering Bear.  When it was over, all thirty soldiers were dead, their bodies ritually mutilated.

The Federal government was quick to respond to the “Gratton Massacre”, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis characterizing the incident as “the result of a deliberately formed plan.”

The first Sioux War of 1854 – ’56 became the first of seven major wars and countless skirmishes between the United States and various sub-groups of the Sioux people, culminating in the Ghost Dance War of 1890.

Diametrically opposite cultures steeped in mutual distrust engaged in savage cruelty each upon the other, often at the expense of innocents. There was even one major massacre of natives by other natives, when a war band of some 1,500 Oglala/Brulé Sioux attacked a much smaller group of Pawnee, during their summer buffalo hunt. Seventy-one Pawnee warriors were killed along with 102 of their women and children, their bodies horribly mutilated and scalped, some even set on fire.

Today, a 35-foot obelisk stands in mute witness, to the horrors of “Massacre Canyon”.

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Massacre Canyon Monument

In the early eighteenth century, peoples of the Suhtai and Tsitsista tribes migrated across the northern Mississippi River, pushing the Kiowa to the southern plains and in turn being pushed westward, by the more numerous Lakota, or “Teton” Sioux. These were the first to adopt the horse culture of the northern plains, the two tribes merging in the early 19th century to become the northern Cheyenne.

The ten bands comprising the northern Cheyenne spread from the black hills of South Dakota, to the Platte Rivers of Colorado, at times antagonistic to and at others allied with all or part of the seven nations of the Sioux.

In 1866, the Lakota people went to war behind Chief Red Cloud, over Army encroachment onto the Powder River basin area, in northeastern Wyoming. The war ended two years later with the Treaty of Fort Laramie, granting a Great Sioux Reservation to include the western half of South Dakota including the Black Hills, as well as large, “unceded territory” in Wyoming and Montana and the Powder River Country, as Cheyenne and Lakota hunting grounds.

No whites were to be permitted onto these territories but for Federal Government officials, but the rich resources of the Black Hills, first in timber and then in gold, made the provision near-impossible to enforce.

The Army attempted for a time to keep settlers out of Indian territories, while political pressure mounted on the Grant administration to take back the Black Hills from the Lakota.   Delegations of Sioux Chieftains traveled to Washington, D.C. in an effort to persuade the President to honor existing treaties, and to stem the flow of miners into their territories. Congress offered $25,000 for the land, and for the tribes to relocate south to Indian Territory, in modern-day Oklahoma.  Chief Spotted Tail spoke for the whole delegation: “You speak of another country, but it is not my country; it does not concern me, and I want nothing to do with it. I was not born there … If it is such a good country, you ought to send the white men now in our country there and let us alone.”

The government now determined to force the issue, and imposed a deadline of January 31.  That many of the tribes even knew of such a time limit seems unlikely.  The government’s response was unworthy of a Great Nation.  On February 8, 1876, Major General Philip Sheridan ordered the commencement of military operations against those deemed “hostiles”.

The Great Sioux War of 1876-’77 began with a ham-fisted assault on the frigid morning of March 17, when Colonel Joseph Reynolds and six companies of cavalry attacked a village believed to that of the renegade Crazy Horse, but turned out to be a village of Northern Cheyenne.

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Cheyenne Artist’s Depiction of the Battle of Little bighorn

A second, far larger campaign was launched that Spring, when three columns were sent to converge on the Lakota hunting grounds. Brigadier General George Crook’s column was the first to make contact, resulting in the Battle of Rosebud Creek on June 17. While Crook claimed victory afterward, the native camp was vastly larger than expected, and Crook withdrew to camp and wait for reinforcements.  He had just taken his force out of what was to come.

General Alfred Terry dispatched the 7th Cavalry, 31 officers and 566 enlisted men led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, to begin a reconnaissance in force along the Rosebud.  Custer was given the option of departing from his orders and going on the offence, should there be “sufficient reason”.   For a man possessed of physical bravery bordering on recklessness – Custer had proven that thirteen years earlier at Gettysburg – there was bound to be sufficient reason.

Custer divided his force into three detachments, more concerned about preventing the escape of the “hostiles”, than with fighting them. It was a big mistake.

Battle-of-Little-BighornThe tale of those other two columns is worth a “Today in History” essay of their own if not an entire book, but this is a story about Little Big Horn. Suffice it to say that Major Marcus Reno‘s experience of this day was as grizzly and as shocking, as that moment when the brains and face of his Arikara scout Bloody Knife spattered across his own. Reno’s detachment had entered a buzz saw and would have been annihilated altogether, had it not met up with that of captain Frederick Benteen.

To describe what followed as “Custer’s last stand“ is to conjure images of soldiers fighting back to back, or crouched behind dead and dying horses amidst a swirling tide of warriors. Later archaeological evidence reveals not piles of spent casings marking the site of each man’s last desperate stand, but rather a scattering of brass across the hillside. Like a handful of rice, tossed across a hardwood floor.

2,500 warriors swept down on 268.  There were no survivors.

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Capture The Flag, at Little Bighorn

The Battle of Little Big Horn, the Natives called it the “Battle of the Greasy Grass”, may be more properly regarded as the Indian’s last stand.  Custer’s detachment was destroyed, to a man.  Within hours, an enormous encampment of 10,000 natives or more were returning to their reservations, leaving no more than 600 in their place.

Crook and Terry awaited reinforcements for nearly two months after the battle.  Neither cared to venture out again, until there were at least 2,000 men.