Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Little Bighorn Special Part Two - E Troop, Documentaries, Mitch Boyer and Archaeology

Killing Custer : the battle of Little Bighorn and the fate of the Plains Indians by James Welch with Paul Stekler

New York : W.W. Norton, 1994                                ISBN 039303657X

The mystery of E Troop : Custer's gray horse company at the Little Bighorn by Gregory Michno

Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1994         ISBN 0878423044

Archaeological insights into the Custer Battle : an assessment of the 1984 field season by Douglas D. Scott and Richard A. Fox, Jr. with a contribution by Dick Harmon

Norman, Oklahoma : University of Oklahoma Press, 1987       ISBN 0806120657

Custer's last campaign : Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn reconstructed by John S. Gray, Foreword by Robert M. Utley

Lincoln, Nebraska : University of Nebraska Press, 1991            ISBN 080322138X

As is often the case, one book leads to many others - my reading of Red Sabbath has taken me on a bit of a Little Bighorn odyssey. Having a childhood love of "Cowboys and Indians", which grew into a more mature interest in military history, the Custer Battle is something that I've long known about in a general way, having read a few treatments over the years. In 2003 I had the fortune of visiting the battlefield, and from time-to-time I've revisited my photos, and the material I got from the visitor centre, which includes a fridge magnet of the famous Cassily Adams painting Custer's last fight.

James Welch has a little to say about that painting, in his personal reflection on the Last Stand and what it meant in Indian as well as White Man history in Killing Custer. Welch is an Indian himself (Blackfeet), and brings that cultural base to bear on his writing. In the early 1990s he was hired as a scriptwriter by Paul Stekler to write a documentary for PBS that Stekler was filming. Stekler wanted to look at the Little Bighorn battle from a "new" perspective, balancing the White view with that of the Indians.

Welch, although having lived in Montana most of his life, had little interest in Custer before taking on this project, and had only been to the battlefield once (when he was admonished for eating at a National Monument!). While Welch is known for his novels that deal with the Indian experience, he recalls early in Killing Custer going to the movies in his youth and cheering the Cavalry, along with all the other Indians in the audience, which is an indication that this book is not a "standard" history.

And it's not - Welch intersperses writing about the battle with scenes from the making of the documentary, and the modern politics of the Little Bighorn battle and site - and it is a site with meaning for many. The Indians that now own the area, the Crow, were on the side of Custer at the time of Little Bighorn, as the Sioux had dispossessed them of these lands. That they were naive in thinking that by supporting the US Government they would get their land back is beyond doubt. Many of the Sioux were less naive - Welch shows that Sitting Bull and some of the other Sioux Chiefs called together the "Big Village" with the foreboding that this would be a grand finale to their way of life. When writing about the making of the documentary Welch describes interviewing Indians about the battle, and the thing that stands out from the exchanges is how close Custer and the Little Bighorn are to us: many of these Indians were talking about their Grandfathers, who had been in the thick of the fighting.

The Indian narratives of the battle historically  have been discounted as being too episodic and contradictory to be of any use to historians trying to recreate what occurred on that June day 138 years ago. In 1983, a grass fire at the battlefield led to a series of events that threw new light not only on the archaeology of the site, but on the relevance of Indian accounts of what occurred on that day. Gregory Michno has used the results of those digs, and a clear-headed look at the Indian and White oral/written evidence to try and clear up a mystery that had surrounded what happened to 28 bodies that were said to lie in the "Deep Ravine" of the battlefield. If you go to the field today, there are no markers in that place, and it was a mystery that intrigued Michno, who has made a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature of Little Bighorn.

His book is an excellent synthesis of available evidence - especially useful is the comparison of Indian evidence, which when read one after the other seems, if anything, less contradictory than that of the White witnesses. Gray's Custer's last campaign clearly shows that the much belittled testimony of Curley, one of the Indian scouts with Custer and the only survivor from his troops, is actually quite accurate. When read together, it is possible to piece together a fairly accurate picture of what happened on Battle Ridge that afternoon. The archaeological digs after the fire have allowed historians to more accurately chart the flow of the battle - it seems that the final stand was in fact on Custer Hill, after skirmish lines thrown out around the hill were driven back onto the troops on that feature.

Many other old controversies have been put to rest by the archaeological work that has continued beyond the initial 1984 excavations. The Indians were fairly well armed with modern weapons - given how many fighting Indians there were on that day, even a ratio of 25% of Indian combatants with firearms means Custer's men were out-gunned. The number of armed Indians increased as the battle progressed when they took arms from the dead soldiers: the evidence indicates more than one trooper was shot with his own - or a comrades - weapon. The last stand was most probably on Custer Hill, with the last survivors making a doomed dash for Deep Ravine and being cut down on the way.

Of course the controversies about Custer and his character will probably simmer on for ever: certainly he can be held accountable for not reconnoitring the village before his attack, but once committed, it now seems that the 7th Cavalry fought the way it knew how: the only problem was that the Indians were too many and too mobile a force to succumb to Army tactics. the question of whether Benteen could have changed the outcome by obeying Custer's order to advance is moot: he didn't, and his explanations of why he didn't must always be viewed through the prism of self-vindication. However, if Gray's estimate of  over1800 Indian warriors thronging the field that day is correct, perhaps Benteen chose wisely.

What is beyond dispute is that Custer's men - including his brothers Tom and Boston, his nephew and his brother-in-law - died, along with Mitch Boyer, who I haven't really mentioned in this review, but as described by Gray was a fascinating product of the age. While we'll never know Boyer's exact words, it seems he knew when he ordered Curley to leave the fight that no-one in the command would survive that day. Standing on the battlefield, knowing that, is a sobering experience.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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