June 25, 1876 the country was preparing to celebrate the centennial on July 4th. It was going to be a grand event.
Far to the West on the plains several hundred men were riding to the call of duty. Little did they know that their ride was one of destiny. In the pages of history glory would be assigned to those who would fight and die in the Valley of the Little Big Horn.
The Plains Indians were fed-up with their white brothers’ empty promises and broken treaties in Washington. Life on the reservations was difficult and harsh, especially for the women and children.
In the midst of their discontentment, they decided to leave the reservations and head toward Canada. The white brothers were too numerous, and their manifest destiny religion allowed no compromise with the natives who had dwelt on those lands for centuries.
The US Military decided to end the Plains Indian Conflict with a massive attack. General Alfred Terry with George Armstrong Custer came from the East; General George Crook moved from the North; and Colonel John Gibbon came from the West.
The plan should have worked, but Crook’s decisions to limit his men to a set amount of food and ammunitions would prove disastrous. Crook encountered Crazy Horse at the Rosebud where a fierce battle ensued. Crook had underestimated the determination of Crazy Horse and paid a dear price. Crook withdrew to Wyoming to wait for reinforcements and take care of his wounded.
George Custer with his twelve companies was well ahead of General Terry. He assumed that Gibbon and Crook would be nearby and was unaware of Crook’s defeat.
On June 25 Custer divided his men into four groups. Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen were each given three companies. Custer took five companies, and Captain Thomas McDougall was given one company to bring up the supply train.
What happened next on that Sunday has been a source of controversy and legend. It is estimated that there were 7000 braves under Crazy Horse’s command. The visions of Sitting Bull were coming true. With their recent victory over Crook who had over a thousand men, several hundred men did not seem like a challenge to the Native Americans even if “yellow-hair” led them.
To Easterners the American West was a strange, barbaric land. What captivated the Easterners was this young man named George Armstrong Custer—Civil War general and hero, devoted husband, Indian fighter, flamboyant, audacious, flowing golden hair and youthful vitality. Compared to the sitting President U. S. Grant, Custer was everything the newspapers as well as many of the American people wanted in a president.
After the plains campaign, Custer seemed destined for political office, especially after his vicious attacks to Congress about the Grant Administration and its handling of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Hated by the politicians, loved by the American people and respected by the Native Americans, Custer’s future seemed a certainty.
Outnumbered, the 7th Calvary did not have much of a chance against a people who believed the visions of Sitting Bull and the determination of Crazy Horse. Reno and Benteen were pinned down and could not reach Custer; Gibbon was hours away. What happened on that hill on Sunday afternoon is based on assumptions and the accounts of the Native Americans who were there.
Custer’s five companies were killed. Custer died with a number of family members—his brothers Thomas and Boston, his brother-in-law James Calhoun and nephew Henry Reed.
Unfortunately, the victory of the Plains Indians was a bitter one. The military crushed and killed the spirit of these Native Americans.
Manifest destiny was now a reality. The white brothers had secured the West and ended the Indian threat to their continental expansion. The sacred Black Hills were profaned by gold seekers and the railroads.
For Custer and his men books, films, television programs and other assorted media have kept the legend alive. It is part of the American West mythology.
And what of the Native Americans? Before Europe knew of the existence of the Americas, civilizations thrived with only their own assortment of problems and conflicts.
History has shown that civilizations flourish and die. Unfortunately, the death of a civilization is usually by the hand of a superior power. Many a time it is after a decay of values and purposes.
Many believe the USA’s time is nearing its tragic end. Eventuality is a sad reality for a civilization.
G. D. Williams © 2013
Valley of the Little Big Horn Song
The sun arose far to the east where we had once been born
The orders had been given to be riding before morn.
Mounted men on cavalry we faced a trail of thorns,
In the Valley of the Little Big Horn.
I was a soldier who rode to the tune
Of a bugler’s “Garryowen” on a June afternoon.
Away from my loved ones, away from my home,
Apart from the woman that I held as my own.
Little Bighorn Battlefield
Comanche: Captain Myles Keogh’s horse
In the Fighting Seventh’s the place for me,
It’s the cream of the Cavalry;
No other regiment ever can claim
Its pride, honor, glory and undying fame.