Saturday, June 25, 2011

Arrogance and the Defeat of Custer

Today, is the anniversary of the Greasy Grass Fight or as you may have heard it called the Battle of Little Bighorn.  On this day in 1876, the 7th Cavalry led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was utterly defeated. 

Three forces led by Crook, Gibbon, and Custer were dispatched to bring about the defeat of the Lakota.  The US Army thought it could trap the Indians and end the Indian problem.  However, Custer made a series of errors, which turned the table.

First, he advanced more quickly than he was ordered to do.  Gibbon was leading the infantry brigade and was advancing very slowly.  Crook had been turned back by Crazy Horse and his band at Rosebud Creek.  So, by moving too quickly, Custer had placed himself in an isolated position. 

Second, he had grossly underestimated the number of Indians in the village he was attacking.  The Lakota had been joined by the Cheyenne and Arapaho and there were thousands of Indians gathered there.

Third, he had no respect for the fighting ability of the Indian military.  Once he neared what he thought was just a village, he ordered an immediate attack and split his troops into three groups.  This was to ensure few Indians would be able to escape.  What it ensured was Custer's troops were weakened and at the end of the day Custer and 210 men were dead.

According to Lakota writer Joseph Marshall, III in his book The Day The World Ended at Little Bighorn, the Lakota claimed victory, but "uneasiness settled in the minds of many of the old ones."  They had seen the whites go from annoying interlopers to land-hungry enemies.  Marshall says, "That knowledge was the basis for a nagging question that some asked one another, or simply wrestled with alone.  What would this victory bring?"

This incredible victory would bring terror, sorrow, and death.  Crazy Horse would be killed in 1877 after surrendering.  Sitting Bull would surrender and be killed on a reservation in 1890.  From June 25, 1876 until December 29, 1890, the Lakota would be hunted down, put on reservations, and finally over 200 Lakota would be massacred at Wounded Knee bringing about the end of the "Indian conflicts."

The bright spot in all of this is the Lakota were not utterly destroyed.  Their way of life was forever changed, but the army couldn't destroy their spirit.  Marshall says, "The forces that sent armies to herd our ancestors onto reservations could not destroy the essence of our culture."

The Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho are still among us.  Most are on reservations today, but they have preserved their culture, traditions, and language for the most part.  And, within the last few years, both sides of the story has been told.  What was once called Custer's Last Stand, is now called the Battle of Little Bighorn.  And, thankfully, reasonable people realize the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho were defending their way of life - just as all of us would do if we were suddenly invaded by hostile forces today.

Little Bighorn is now a National Monument where both the 7th Cavalry and the Indian tribes are remembered and honored for both sides fought bravely that day in 1876, and as with any war only one side could be victorious. 

Perhaps the lesson we can learn from this is arrogance can make us think we are invincible when in fact all it really does is cloud our ability to see how vulnerable we are until it's too late.

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