The playwright Eugene O’Neill said that one of the few events worth celebrating in American history took place on June 25, 1876, when Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, annihilated a unit of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. There are few battles in American history that have generated as much controversy or been as meticulously dissected and examined. And with good reason. The death of Custer and his command stunned the nation. It turned Custer into a martyr for the cause of western expansion and imperialism. His death, portrayed as the ultimate sacrifice for the nation that was at the time celebrating its centennial, was used to justify a massive military campaign against Native Americans that would culminate in the massacre of some 300 Native Americans in 1890 at Wounded Knee. There is a vast disparity between the mythic presentation of Custer and the reality of the so-called Indian wars. Native Americans, including women, the elderly, and children, were slaughtered. The U.S. government repeatedly violated formal treaties to seize land promised in perpetuity to Native Americans. The buffalo herds, which sustained nomadic tribes, were decimated by white hunters.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to The Chris Hedges Report. Today, we discuss the legacy of George Armstrong Custer and the vast disparity of the so-called Indian Wars with the author Nathaniel Philbrick. The playwright Eugene O’Neill said that one of the few events worth celebrating in American history took place on June 25, 1876 when Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, annihilated a unit of the Seventh Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. There are few battles in American history that have generated as much controversy or been as meticulously dissected and examined, and with good reason.
The death of Custer and his command stunned the nation. It turned Custer, although he was criticized after the battle by his superiors for impulsiveness and lack of judgment, especially for splitting his force of some 600 soldiers into three battalions, into a martyr for the cause of Western expansion and imperialism.
His death, portrayed as the ultimate sacrifice for the nation that was, at a time, celebrating its centennial, was used to justify a massive military campaign against Native Americans that would culminate in the massacre of some 300 Native Americans in 1890 at Wounded Knee, many mowed down with Hotchkiss guns fired by the Seventh Cavalry.
The remnants of Native tribes were, after the battle, forcibly relocated to prisoner-of-war camps known later as reservations. There is a vast disparity between the mythic presentation of Custer and the reality of the so-called Indian Wars. Native Americans, including women, the elderly, and children, were slaughtered. The US government repeatedly violated formal treaties to seize land promised in perpetuity to Native Americans. The buffalo herds which sustained nomadic tribes were decimated by white hunters.
Joining me to discuss this seminal moment in American history is Nathaniel Philbrick, author of The Last Stand: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
I’ve told you before we went on that I love this book. I think it ranks with Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Evan Connell’s great work Son of the Morning Star. I want to talk a little bit about Custer, because he wasn’t just a general. He was a celebrity. He had become a celebrity during the Civil War, one of the youngest generals, appointed generals of the volunteer forces. When he was 23, he wrote his memoirs, courted the press. But just before we go into what happened, tell us who Custer was.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. Who was Custer? Well I think there’s a scene from his childhood that really speaks to what he would become. He was four years old, he had to get a tooth extracted. And his father took him to the dentist, it was late at night, and Custer, at that point, was terrified of blood. His father said, be a good soldier. We’ll get through this. Custer gets the tooth extracted, doesn’t whimper at all, and he turns to his dad and he says, Pa, you and me can whip all the Democrats in Ohio. They were in New Rumley, Ohio. He grew up in a highly politicized family. It was Democrats versus Whigs, and a clannish family. Practical jokes were really big, and it was us against the world. He was last in his class, as you said, at West Point, but it was not because he was stupid. It was because he wanted to play the game of being a bad boy and yet not flunk out, because many people did flunk out. He was playing that hairy edge, a hairy edge he would play for the rest of his life.
He would graduate – And that’s the important word: graduate – Last in his class full of notoriety, beloved by many of his classmates, and then he would stumble into the Civil War, where he proved to be one of the great cavalry officers in the Union Army. He didn’t fake it at this point. I mean, he really was good. He was outrageously brave and had good battlefield vision and judgment, charismatic, a little bit of a fop. Once he became a brevet general, he was free to dress as he wanted to, and so he had a velvet uniform and long blond hair. But he was good, and it would be at Gettysburg where he would actually turn back J.E.B. Stuart.
Then the Civil War ends, and Sheridan, Custer’s right, he’s a little bit like Forrest Gump. When something’s happening, he’s there. He was there at Appomattox. General Sheridan ended up giving Custer’s wife, Libby, who would be his press agent throughout his life, the table upon which the treaty had been signed. Then it would be off to the West. But this was a very different kind of war with Native Americans. He struggled, as did the military throughout, and yet he played it as well as he could politically in terms of the press, and kept that reputation of being a risk-taker. So ultimately, it would all catch up with him at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but Custer was Custer almost from the beginning.
Chris Hedges: Well he was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He was widely known. He had celebrity status. I want to talk about two factors: a huge influx of settlers coming into the West, of course, and they are seizing Native American land, Custer led the group into the Black Hills that discovered gold and set off a kind of gold rush, and the Civil War itself. I mean a lot of these figures, Sheridan, Sherman, Custer, most of them had come out of four years of fighting, but the fighting was different. Sheridan, for instance, ordered and Custer carried it out at Washita and other places, that Custer kill all military-age males. Native American males were captured. If they were captured, they were to be killed. It was a very, very brutal conflict, very different from the Civil War, as brutal as that was. In many ways, this was a war about extermination.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Absolutely. I mean it was kind of like going from World War II to Vietnam, where you didn’t feel like you were fighting the good fight. You were eliminating an impediment to manifest destiny. Even someone without much of a conscience couldn’t feel very good about it, unless you’re Custer, who glorifies everything. Because I am here, it is… He is operating from the 17th century cavalier point of view where my presence glorifies this act. Washita was a terrible, brutal attack on a basically friendly village of Cheyenne, and in his portrayal, it was his small band against this huge group of Indians where, in actuality, it was not quite as one-sided as that and really kind of a pointless military campaign. But Custer, with the help of his wife, Libby, who was a great writer, would elevate this to a story of Western imperial vanguard into the West.
The other thing that was happening was you had… It was post-Civil War, so you had an army that had to shrink. So there weren’t a lot of good postings available. Everybody was reduced in rank. It was hard to find people, privates, and so they were relying on a lot of immigrants, German soldiers, to fight the West. Almost a mercenary feeling about it. It was a different kind of venture, and yet Custer always… By going out to the Black Hills, he announces the discovery of gold. Once again, he’s in the media spotlight and they’re talking about him as a potential presidential possibility. His political instincts were terrible. It would never have worked. He was always putting his foot in his mouth. With the ascension of Grant, a Republican who did not like Custer, Custer would make that relationship all the worse by accusing Grant’s brother, Orvil, of malfeasance when it came to managing the Indian reservations.
It all would come to a head when it came to the showdown at the Little Bighorn and the centennial of the country. You almost can’t make this kind of dramatic, historic coincidence up. And Custer was in the middle, a true lightning rod.
Chris Hedges: Well there’s a huge disparity between how he portrays the fighting on the Plains, I think his book is called My Life on the Plains or something, and the reality, including the seizure of Native American women for rape, which was common. He himself took an 18-year-old girl, Mo-nah-se-tah, who he captured and used as a concubine. There’s a quote in your book, one of the soldiers saying something about Indians rape easy. There was a real savagery to this conflict, the burning of villages, and this disparity between how it was portrayed and romanticized by Custer and other whites and what was actually happening on the ground that bore little relation to each other.
Nathaniel Philbrick: No, it was a tawdry, dirty war that no one could feel good about. Custer did not… Here he was. He supposedly idealized his relationship with his wife, Libby, and here he is treating Indian women as his concubines. On top of it, his brother, Tom, who was awarded two Medals of Honor during the Civil War, was at his side throughout this. In fact, historians wonder if Custer himself was actually sterile because of gonorrhea earlier in his career, and it might have been Tom’s child through Mo-nah-se-tah.
But this is just awful stuff. And I think he gets at the heart of what’s going on with Western expansion. Americans did everything they could to portray this as a God-ordained march across the continent in which civilization was being brought to a savage people. So people like Custer felt it incumbent upon themselves to put these horrible acts in as golden a glow as possible.
You really could not find a better person to take that kind of role than Custer, who was great with the press and was good for a quote, particularly if his wife Libby had a chance to massage the prose. Custer is fascinating because he personifies so much of America that is, horrifying really, and yet there is that swashbuckling charge into the maw of death that Americans and people of all nations have… The myth of the last stand. I mean, it’s a way to portray an imperial destiny, to make someone like Custer feel portrayed as the victim.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk a little bit about the battle itself. Custer, when he attacked large Indian encampments – And this was huge, was bigger than anything he had ever seen before – He would take women and children hostage and use them as human shields, knowing that warriors would not attack him if he was surrounded by children, the elderly, and women. This was very much the tactic that he hoped to employ at the Little Bighorn. You argue in your book that he came very close to succeeding before being wiped out. But just lay out what happened on that day.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. Well Custer was desperate to make contact with the village where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse… This is a huge village, 8,000 to 10,000 Native Americans, unprecedented. He had very poor intelligence. He knew they were there, but given the contours of the hills, had no clue as to how many really were there. He divides his forces into three components, basically, which is the last thing you want to do when you are confronting a larger force, and only gradually does he realize how large this force is. There’s a great mystery around the Battle of Little Bighorn because the men who died with Custer obviously could not provide their side of the story, although there were several Crow scouts who were with him pretty close to the end who gave various versions. Basically, this was pure Custer. Slam into there, divide forces so that I’m going to get most of the glory, and then, whoops, this is a really big village.
This was not unusual for Custer. He had put himself in these kinds of positions in the past, and always he had somehow been able to get out. At the Battle of the Washita, it was by using women and children as a human shield, that is how he had extracted himself. There seems to be evidence that’s what he was trying to do at the Battle of Little Bighorn. But because he was divided from the rest of the force, the Cheyenne and Lakota were able to isolate him and wipe out everyone in his command before he accomplished that desperate strategy. So thus ended Custer. For the officers that knew him and survived, it was once again classic Custer, and because Custer surrounded him with so many family members, his two brothers would die with him in what became known as Last Stand Hill along with a brother-in-law. It was a family tragedy as much as a military disaster, and it was the perfect fodder for the myth of the last stand. With the aid of Custer’s wife, grieving widow Libby, this would be elevated to a myth we are still trying to deal with today.
Chris Hedges: So before I get into that myth, which is perpetuated and used in many ways to justify imperial expansion beyond US borders, there was a deep animosity between Reno and Benteen, and I wondered if you could talk about that. Either you kind of love Custer, and he did surround himself with a lot of sycophants, or you detested him. And that played a very key part because he had, in the eyes of Benteen and Reno – They were both captains and were leading two of the other battalions that had split off of Custer – They didn’t rush to his assistance because they didn’t believe he was in trouble, they didn’t trust him, and also because of an anger over the abandonment, in their eyes, of another officer and their men who were killed, I believe, at Washita.
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. This was a deeply dysfunctional regiment. Custer despised his two underlings, and even before the battle, Custer is talking smack in the press when it comes to Major Reno. He’s purposefully isolating him, mocking him among his own coterie, and then you have Benteen, who is right out of Shakespeare; Someone who’s sardonic, quite talented, and yet who has been with Custer for a while and knows his tricks. When it comes to that final chance where maybe he could have gone to Custer’s aid, he’s in no rush, and he’s actually convinced that Custer has left them to what becomes almost the second last stand when Reno’s and Benteen’s forces combine and are under siege by huge Native force for several days, until finally General Terry is able to relieve them. They’re under the impression that Custer has cut out and left them. When they come to Benteen, he claims, oh, Custer can’t be dead. He’s over watering his horses somewhere. But no, Custer was dead.
Yeah, it’s truly Shakespearean. And it was a disaster largely of Custer’s making in terms of what he had done to alienate his own officers. And yet, just given the scale of it, the timing of it. This is 1776, just as the nation is about to open the fair to celebrate its 100th anniversary. There’s a presidential election about to happen, and there’s even some people mentioning Custer as a possibility, whether or not that would have actually been the case, but hey, if he had returned as the hero he expected to be, who knows? So you have all of this combined, and it’s also you have this… Even before it’s over, you have his officers knowing this is history and they’re beginning to control the narrative even while the battle is unfolding. So here we are left today with a significant number of the force wiped out and the others at a distance telling their side of the story. Because there’s a mystery at the heart of it, it’s a battle that will resonate for as long as we are a nation, I think.
Chris Hedges: Well to be fair to Reno, Custer was pretty much a disaster. But as you write, most of the time Reno was drunk, so he hardly knows where he is. But for the intervention of Benteen, Reno’s force would probably have been wiped out. All Reno wanted to do was run away as fast as he could. Custer instantly became a martyr after he was killed, to the American empire and in popular mythology. Supposedly, he was the last to die in battle. There’s no proof of that. You even write about the possibility that he was severely wounded even before they got to Last Stand Hill where the remnants were wiped out, we don’t know, and that he was betrayed by Reno and Benteen. This became, again, popular mythology, and they were later branded as cowards because they didn’t come to his rescue.
Custer becomes the epitome of the American hero. He’s held up as the model of the American empire as the country moves from subjugating Native Americans to subjugating other Native populations overseas. The language that the military used and still uses today to speak about conflicts, this was true in Vietnam or Iraq, where they refer to hostile areas as Indian country. It hasn’t changed. Can you speak about how this moment in history has replicated itself in American culture?
Nathaniel Philbrick: Yeah. Well after World War II and Korea, we move into this era which is eerily like the wars, the tawdry wars fought as the country marched West. It’s the same tactic still being used where you try to infiltrate the other side. You find a soldier there and turn them and use them to get at the others. It’s an amazing similarity. And look what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. That same sense of betrayal, of complete needless… The American West, these were forces that were unfolding. They could have unfolded gradually and much more humanely, but the Indian Wars made sure that it would be a very different story.
For me as an American, it makes me wonder how much of this is the American psyche, how several hundred years of our history of conquest within our own continent, at least as we perceived it, how much of that schooled us in how we approach the world after that. Particularly because you have World War I and World War II where we can say we were legitimately helping European forces of good. But before that, you have the Spanish wars in the Philippines and Cuba, and then you have it on the other side, Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. You see the military having, once again, to make the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that is very hard to justify. How much of that is who we are? How much of that is human nature as the world becomes the battlefield? But I think you can look to the Battle of Little Bighorn in many ways. It wasn’t the first battle by any means, but it created kind of a mythic template that seems to get revisited over and over again.
Chris Hedges: Well, the power of your book is that it captures the DNA of American society. Canada approached this in a very different way. Many historians argue there was no need to attack the Native Americans because with the decimation of the buffalo herds and the seizure of the waterways, which is what the settlers first took, Native Americans who were nomadic couldn’t sustain themselves anyway.
That was Nathaniel Philbrick, author of The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.