Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Book Review - Little Bighorn Special Part One - Red Sabbath : the Battle of Little Bighorn by Robert Kershaw

Red Sabbath : the Battle of Little Bighorn by Robert Kershaw

Hersham, Surrey : Ian Allen Publishing, 2008 (2005)            ISBN 9780711033252


With some reservations (which I'll get into later), I can recommend Red Sabbath as the one book to read if you want to know what happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn - "Custer's Last Stand". Robert Kershaw has given us an up-to-date and accurate description of what was the US Army's greatest disaster in its wars against the Plains Indians.

Something has always fascinated me about Custer's last battle: given the amount of paper and ink given over to it, it seems that I'm not the only one. The tragedy of his demise along with most of the 7th Cavalry attains Greek proportions - hubris, courage, disaster - they are all here. I've had the fortune to visit the battlefield, and it's a very moving place, with grave markers scattered around the field indicating where the men actually fell (there are not many Indian markers on the battlefield, partly owing to lack of intelligence about where they fell, but also - as Kershaw points out - while over 260 US servicemen, civilians and scouts lost their lives at Little Bighorn, the Indian deaths probably numbered just over 40).

Red Sabbath is a book that is oriented more at the military side of affairs, with a detailed look at the command and control aspects of the battle, and more focused on the Government rather than the Indian side. The first chapters set the scene, with a detailed account of the Fetterman Massacre 11 years before Little Bighorn, and briefly taking us through the Laramie Treaty, and the underhanded way the US Government broke that treaty, which led to the three columns under Generals Terry, Crook and Gibbon entering the Powder River Country during May 1876.

By taking us through the details of the Fetterman engagement, and the "Wagon box fight" of 1867, Kershaw points out that the way for the Army to defeat Indians was to combine, stand, and fight: not disperse, scatter and run. In retrospect, that seems obvious, but in the ten years between those events and Little Bighorn, most Indian engagements involved the Army making contact and the Indians fleeing, so the strategy had developed of splitting Army forces - one force to engage, and the others to attack the fleeing enemy. Engagements since 1867 had been with small forces of Indians - usually less than 100.

The summer of 1876 was different. The Indians - usually moving in small tribal bands - had decided to take a stand. They called as many groups as possible together, both to provide safety in numbers, and to attack the Army en masse if they could. Another key development on the Indian side was their ability to gather together a large number of modern rifles, including many repeating rifles such as Henrys and Winchesters. These key facts had eluded the intelligence gatherers for the Army.

The vaunted 7th Cavalry was not what some of the old movies would have us believe. The Army was a last choice occupation in the 19th Century, and many of the regular soldiers were recent migrants, wastrels, or joined up only to desert when they had made it out West. Many of them were not great horsemen, and while their Springfield rifles were mostly reliable, accurate and had a long range, they were single shot (breech-loaded), and most of the soldiers were very poor marksmen, with only 15 practice rounds  per year allocated to each soldier.

The Army had other problems that summer as well: while we all know Custer as a General, that was a brevet rank given during the Civil War, and he had reverted to his substantive rank of Captain on the cessation of hostilities (he again held a brevet rank of Major General at the time of his death, but was a substantive Lieutenant Colonel). He was not the only officer in that situation, and with the size of the army greatly reduced after the Civil War, promotion was difficult to obtain. For a man with Custer's personality, that was hard to take, and he leaped at the chance to battle the Indians with the hope of a jump in his substantive rank. The officer over him, Terry, was aware of his chafing, and gave him a pretty free reign in carrying out his orders, which was not a good idea. In fact communication was a problem for this whole campaign, with Crook's forces severely tested at the Battle of the Rosebud some days before Custer's battle - if Crook had passed on some crucial facts such as the number of enemy gathered in the area, and their firepower, Custer may not have made some fateful decisions on the day of his battle.

And so we come to the 25th of June 1876. Custer and his troops were weary before the day began, desperate for a victory to end their constant marching. With no serious reconnaissance, Custer divided his command before heading out to do battle. The first surprise for Custer was the size of the Indian encampment. The second surprise was that they were standing and fighting rather than fleeing. The third surprise was that Custer's plan to circle around and support Reno was denied him by topography which had not been fully scouted before the plan was formulated. Custer then further divided his forces, refusing it seems to believe that the Indians could and would stand and fight against Army troops. To be fair to Custer he did think support was on its way. But that support was halted before it could get to Custer, with its inexperienced men, and officers not used to what was happening in front of them, both unwilling and unable to bridge the - what now seems almost unbearably short - gap between themselves and Custer's dwindling force.

The end came very quickly for Custer, as the Indians spared no-one, and made sure their bodies were useless in the spirit world by mutilation. This cultural practice made the discovery of the disaster the next day all the more horrific for Terry's men, and for the public as news of the disaster spread. What was to have been a great centennial victory over the savages had turned into a horror story.

Kershaw's description of the Battle is first rate: he has used some up-to-date research and Indian testimony to refute some of the earlier theories on how the battle progressed. His general style is easy to read and informative, and rarely slips into hyperbole. He does however sometimes slip into jargon, most noticeable when he is comparing the Plains Wars to modern warfare, and in particular modern peace-keeping missions. Why he felt he had to do this is a mystery, as in my view it adds nothing to the book, either in helping the reader understand Custer or modern peace-keeping.

This problem is an indicator, yet again, that books published under the Ian Allen umbrella lack a serious editorial presence. Kershaw would have benifitted greatly from that, as his  repetitions of key themes can verge on the tedious (how many times do we have to have explained in detail that the Indians tactics resembled that of a buffalo hunt?). Another criticism that I'd make is that the Bibliography seems a little odd - I'm not sure that it's a full one.

However those criticisms are minor in the wider scheme of this book - if you are interested in Custer and his final days, this book is well worth finding and reading. Recommended.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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