Friday, 4 March 2016

Custer: Defender of the Indians

     A certain ironic justice has ensured that when the Red Indians achieved a major victory in the defense of their homes, the opposing general's humiliation would be compounded by having the defeat named after him. Thus, their greatest victory, which left 632 white soldiers and up to 200 female camp followers dead, and mostly scalpless, on the ground, is known as St Clair's Defeat. If it is any consolation to General St Clair - who escaped alive and unharmed, but with eight bullet wounds in his hat and clothing - his débacle has been largely forgotten by his compatriots.
     Not so lucky was George Armstrong Custer. Not only was his own body included among the 258 dead near the Little Bighorn River, but his action has remained forever famous as Custer's Last Stand. In a way, this is a pity, for it has overshadowed all the other aspects of his life.
     For example, after fighting against the Cheyenne, he made peace with them, an action which led Chief Rock Forehead to tell him: "Now remember: if you ever fight against the Cheyenne again, the Everywhere Spirit will see it and hold you to account." (You are aware, no doubt, that there was a contingent of Cheyenne at the Little Bighorn? 'Nuff said.)
     During the Civil War his predilection for leading from the front resulted in eleven horses bing shot from under him. Dandy, glory hound, Don Quixote, Custer was a complex character, and one of those rare breed who regard war as a glorious adventure, and fear an inconvenient distraction. With such a background, it was not surprising that he recognized more than a passing similarity between himself and the coup-counting braves he was fighting. He once told a superior that he could easily have been an Indian himself, an if he were, he would have been one of those fighting for the freedom of the plains rather than the misery of the reservation.
     In particular, he objected to the manner in which they were handled on the reservations, with corrupt officials skimming off the money raised for their subsistence, and palming off rotten and mouldy handouts. This was no way to treat a gallant opponent when he was down! Besides, it was plain common sense that if you didn't want the Indians breaking loose from the reservations, keeping them well fed and provisioned would have to be the first step. Like his superiors, he wanted the Bureau of Indian Affairs removed from the Department of the Interior, where it had been since 1849, and back to the less corrupt War Department.
     He also had bones to pick with the corrupt and inept administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, whose advancement from military leader to national leader is virtually a textbook example of the Peter Principle that people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. While holidaying in the east during the winter of 1875/76 he fed "dirt" about the administration to anti-Grant journalists. Although his name was not cited, it did not take those in the know much to put two and two together. The House Committee on Expenditures under Representative Hiester Clymer had been investigating Secretary of War William Belknap with respect to corruption involving post traderships. Belknap resigned on March 2, but the more Clymer dug the more corruption he turned up. So, in March 1876, having just returned from his vacation, Custer received a telegram summoning him to give evidence before the Committee. Before he left, his wife warned him to "avoid politics".
     He was a national hero, celebrated in books and adventure stories, so the evidence he gave on 18 and 19 April was dynamite. He pulled no punches. He detailed corruption and misadministration from both personal experience and hearsay. He named names: the President's brother, Orvil Grant as well as Belknap.
     We might just step back a minute and compare Custer with Grant, who had served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War. About that, he stated in his memoirs that he considered it immoral at the time but "I had not moral courage enough to resign". In contrast, Custer's moral courage was obviously equal to his physical courage, for picking a public fight with his Commander-in-Chief is really not a good career move for a general. Grant relieved him of his command. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Custer was able to pull enough strings to get himself reinstated.
     Two months later he had his own date with destiny - and the Everywhere Spirit.

References: Michael Rutter , 2005, Myths and Mysteries of the Old West, Globe Pequot Press. See also the Wikipedia entries for "George Armstrong Custer" and the "Traderpost Scandal".
The reference to the Rock Forehead and the Everywhere Spirit was taken from the 2001 TV series by PBS entitled, The West, episode four.

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