Book Reviews

So many books (you know the rest)

Crazy Horse and Custer
by Stephen E Ambrose
Published in 1975 (I finished it on August 10, 2017)

General George Armstrong Custer: The man, the myth, the legend.

Though not really in a great way.

It’s a fascinating exploration of two greater-than-life men of the late 19th century. I recommend this novel as a solid insight into what led up to that fateful battle (for Custer and his men at least).

Really, hitherto, all I knew is that Custer lost the battle in a massacre at “Custer’s Last Stand.” But now, it’s nice to know more about the decades that produced such a tragedy.

Most see Custer as a villain, and for the most part, he was certainly culpable of hubris to the extreme, wasting his own life and hundreds others as a result. Perhaps if Reno (another general with troops nearby that pulled back due to exhaustion and miscommunication) had attacked, then things might have turned out different. But the strategic mistakes were numerous: declining two more cavalry units that might have helped, declining the Gatling gun, doing no recon on the enemy (essentially 10 times larger), splitting the forces needlessly, and charging into the unknown.

Such mistakes didn’t cost him his life throughout the Civil War, though countless men were lost due to such actions; however, that was pretty much the axiom of the war: we’ll win through attrition. Fine when it’s cannonballs, not so much when it’s men’s lives. (Of course WWI would later continue the same mentality.)

One does get a sense of how he became that way. He had very early promotions due to the war (a general at age 23!) and seemed to get away with being undisciplined far too often, disobeying direct orders multiple times. When you’re considered a war icon and hero all before age 25, it’s hard to avoid letting it inflate your ego to the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Balloon. (See Hollywood celebrities.)

This doesn’t excuse his actions, though he has some merits nevertheless. He was strongly sympathetic to the south and didn’t seem to be for abolition, yet still did his duty and fought for the North, despite having to fight against close friends on the other side (yes, along with many others). He was insanely brave, though many charges cost needless casualties. He, for the most part, got the job done, with perhaps his luck running out at the end. While the Army did learn to avoid the Indian decoys, the training at West Point seemed to still include blindly following precedent without promoting adaptive thinking or evolving tactics. However, if you consistently underestimate how well your enemy can fight, or that they may evolve their own tactics, then failure will eventually come, despite superior firepower. That’s if all the Army troops had been given time to join up. Supposedly, the rush to engage was to possibly meet an election deadline back east—which is fairly stupid since very few politicians are elected posthumously.

The book also covers Crazy Horse and other Indians to a great degree. We see the noble and good men, but the less-than-honorable ones too. The love triangles are covered. The lifestyles are discussed as well. A large aspect of the culture and the skirmishes is written about. In the treatment of women, both the Native Americans and Europeans had quite a few things in common.

The most tragic element is when the Crazy Horse (and later Sitting Bull) resign. At that point, the rebellion (for a lack of a better word) is lost. But with the US essentially lying repeatedly about what would happen to him once he surrendered is difficult to learn about.

One just stops and thinks, “Holy Cow! Did our country have absolutely no honor at all?!?”

And that’s one of many instances. Breaking the treaties is tough to observe too. Granted, there were many citizens that were against this kind of abuse just as there were many in the Army who were smart enough to avoid needless bloodshed. But they were too few and not high enough in power. The author points out that while many mistakes were made in the Army and while there were numerous awful officers, the brunt of the shameful policies came from the government. And when you’re in the Army, you follow orders—for better or for worse.

Sadly, the slaughter at Little Bighorn didn’t have to happen. Likewise, an Army victory would have been needless. Despite a large unification of Sioux tribes at the time, their way of life was ending with more railroads heading west and the buffalo being slaughtered by the tens of thousands. Often, people would just shoot the animals from the train cars, leaving the carcasses for the wild animals. With a declining food supply, most Indians would simply have to come in to the agencies to avoid starvation.

One final thing that struck me was the whole idea of the ownership of the land. The Native Americans were there first, but nomadic in lifestyle. The author notes their days were mostly spent being lazy, but it’s a tricky and misleading word, in that it might suggest they were neglecting doing what needed to be done. Not really the case. They hunted when necessary, “counted coup” when desired, and enjoyed life otherwise. It might be akin to a retired lifestyle, but they just didn’t “work” in the same way as the Europeans. They had beaten the elements, procured sustenance, and now reaped the spoils. Generations flourished. Life was good.

I imagine to the Europeans (hard to really say “Westerners” in this case) they just didn’t equate a nomadic lifestyle as directly owning the land. No fences or established pastures. No agreed-upon spaces. So it was harder to accept that a tribe could simply own vast tracks of land. And if they’re not squatting on one particular spot and “working,” then it’s up for grabs.

Had they been, would that have even changed anything? Doubtful. I’m sure any farms and pastures would have been “reclaimed’ just as quickly. If you don’t consider men and women as people, you likely won’t respect their property rights either. European history is filled with new conquerors coming in and saying, “This is mine now!” even when the occupants are of the same race.

It’s just a period with a great deal of shame. Even if one accepts the whole “I’m claiming this land since you’re not growing anything on it” idea, there’s still the whole disgusting path of broken treaties and constant lies.

A warrior without honor is just not a warrior.

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