custerA few weeks back, an old friend of the decanter put up a link on FB to General George A. Custer’s My Life on the Plains.  Originally written as a series of articles between 1872 and 1874 and later condensed in book form, it recounts Custer’s campaigns against the Plains Indians from 1867 to 1869 in Oklahoma and Texas, including the Battle of the Washita River

Being what I am, I immediately nipped over to the devil’s website and secured myself a copy.  With the help (so I gather from the introduction) of some very generous editing, I found the book to be a quite satisfying and lucid account of frontier life at the time, told in a surprisingly fair manner.  Custer didn’t moralize much about Westward Expansion and the plight of the Indigenous Peoples,  he simply recognized it as an inevitable and inherently ugly historical clash and got on with his job.  And  his views on the inept treatment of the matter by the muckety-mucks back in Washington are quite clear-sighted.

I also believe I gained a much better understanding of Custer’s disastrous tactical decisions at Little Big Horn.

You see, from his earlier experiences described in this book, it quickly became clear to Custer that chasing Indians all over the plains was a mug’s game, and that the only way to strike an effective military blow was to catch them in their villages.   Custer also learned from experience that even if you managed to find a village, as soon as the Indians got wind of your approach they would scatter in every direction and you’d have to start the chase all over again.   At the Washita, again putting aside the morality of the thing, Custer in fact did a very good job in getting the drop on his enemies and then hammering them.

Hence his belief that to mop up the Sioux at Little Big Horn, he would have to hit their camp hard and fast while also leading a flanking force to bottle them up.   As to his failure to properly scout the Sioux in order to learn how many he was actually dealing with,  other sources I’ve read state that Custer thought his troops had been spotted coming over the ridge and that he believed he didn’t have time for fooling with recon operations, lest his quarry fade away.

So while I certainly am not defending Custer’s movements at Little Big Horn, I think it’s fair to say that he was not just acting the arrogant loon, but instead was working from successful combat experience, at least so far as his initial attack plan went.

By the way, it was also genuinely creepy to read what Custer was writing in 1874 while knowing full well what awaited him two years later.

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