December 28, 2009

Custer's anti-Indian reputation

Correspondent DMarks asks:Where is the best place to read about the crimes of Custer that set him apart, say, from any Army Indian fighter such as Abe Lincoln? One of my blog-readers is a huge Custer fan (not conservative at all, actually, and not any sort of racist that I can see).I think Custer's fame re Indians rests on three things:

1) Little Bighorn.

2) The battle (massacre) of Washita.

3) Leading an expedition to open up the Badlands.

Most people don't know about 3), or don't consider it remarkable, so they focus on 1) and 2).

One could argue that Custer's intent at Little Bighorn was a sneak attack that would turn into a rout if not a massacre. In other words, he was acting as an "Indian killer" even if his plan utterly failed. Hating him for that is somewhat understandable. It's like hating Hitler or Stalin for being anti-American even though they never attacked the US.

But really, Custer's infamy among Indians is mostly due to Washita. Along with Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, Washita was one of the "top three" massacres in the Indian Wars. There may have been one or two others where more Indians died, but these are the ones we remember.

Other "Indian fighters" may have killed more Indians over time, but Custer a) killed dozens in one swoop, and b) knew how to attract and hold the public's attention. I suspect Washita cemented his fame as an Indian fighter--with Custer stoking the legend himself.

Custer the symbol

When people like me list Custer as an Indian hater or killer, it's really because most people know him as one. He's useful as a symbol of anti-Indian aggression, not because he was a racist who hated Indians. Because of Washita and Little Bighorn, he represents someone who wanted to kill Indians, even if he didn't do that much of it.

In fact, Custer's view of Indians may have been typical of the times: he admired their fierce fighting prowess, but thought they had to get out of the way of progress. At one point he even testified on their behalf:

Custer ScrapbookNo one can really understand Custer's Last stand and its whys and hows unless they have a good knowledge of its background and how that background would lead to both an Army and Government coverup of what did take place at the Battle. Robert J. Barnes stated, "...this coverup is perhaps the most massive in American history with effects still being felt today". In 1876, politics were flaming in America with a Presidential Election in sight. The Grant administration was, in many ways, totally corrupt ...especially in the Indian Bureau where government figures were making fortunes cheating the Indians. Few Army Officers dared to speak of it, for their careers would be ruined. Custer, whatever one thought of him, was one of the few in the Army who actually was an admirer and friend of the Indian ... despite political correctness today trying to show the opposite. Custer did speak out and was called before Congress to testify about corruption. Outside of General Sherman and Sheridan, Custer was the most loved and famed Army Officer of the time ... and highly respected. His testimony led to the impeachment of Grant's favorite, Secretary of War Belknap. When Custer implicated Grant's brother, Orville, as king of the thieves, Grant went on a rampage. Custer has set off a firestorm and wrecked any chance Grant had for the third term he wanted so badly.Of course, testifying against the corrupt government doesn't necessarily mean Custer was the Indians' friend. He could've thought they were subhuman savages even though he indirectly took their side. Similarly, many Northerners opposed the slaveowning states while thinking blacks were children who couldn't govern themselves.

Custer open to interpretation

So I'm not sure any firm conclusion about Custer is possible. He led one of the worst massacres of Indians, but otherwise he didn't do much against them. Does that make him much worse than average, just average, or what? Depends how you rank the moral crimes, I'd say.

A better choice for Indian killer would be Col. John Chivington, who led the massacre at Sand Creek. I believe he genuinely hated Indians and thought they should die. Most Indian fighters respected their foes, but not Chivington.

I guess your friend could be a fan of Custer's Civil War record, or his larger-than-life personality. It would be like admiring the South's generals even though they lost the Civil War. But if he's a fan of Custer's Indian record, I'd have to ask why. Unless you think hunting and killing Indians is good, Custer didn't do anything great in the post-war years.

For more on the subject, see Racist Pro-Custer Website and Why We Love Custer and Indians.


Rob said...

A comment from Linde Knighton via Facebook:

Custer was full of himself, and it is well done in Night at the Museum 2.

It's Andy Jackson most of us hate.

dmarks said...

Most of what I have read about Custer comes from the Harry Turtledove alternate history books. He's full of himself there, too.

Tim said...

I'm the fellow Dmarks mentioned. I must say that my admiration of Custer has little to do with his years out west, but more of his exploits in the Civil War. He also hails from my home state.
I really don't think the record conclusively proves he hated Indians or was a racist. I think your comment of admiring their indepenence but feeling that it was time for them to move aside for progress hits the nail on the head.Some historians criticize Custer as the personification of the U.S. Government's ill-treatment of the Native American tribes; others view him as a scapegoat for the Grant Indian policy, which he personally opposed. The Grant administration was so displeased by his testimony on behalf of the abuses sustained by the reservation Indians that it nearly prohibited his command. Custer was a military man whose zenith occurred during the Civil war yet as a man barely in his thirties did not see himself driving a desk or a rocking chair. I'm sure that with the exception of the Little Bighorn, he felt his exploits in the Indian Wars paled in comparison to his accomplishments of the Civil War.
Surely he miscalculated, possibly because he held the Indian's military prowess in low esteem. A miscalculation that in the end cost him his life. Like all men, he was capable of great things, but also capable of great foolishness. Who knows? Maybe his shameless self promotion also had a hand in his undoing at Little Big Horn. If he could route such a superior force, would he not again be the golden boy in the U.S. press?
That duality adds to the legend. Also the fact that he was killed in his prime. That whole going out in a blase of glory mystique, I suppose.
It's not that I idolize the man. I just think that he is a fascinating (if flawed) historical character.

Unknown said...

Face it Tim, George Squaw-Killer Custer was a vain-glorious, megalomaniac, a genocidal assassin who reveled in snuffing the lives of those he mistakenly viewed as inferior. (A big mistake for him personally)
Was he an arrogant racist ? Damn straights. And a mass-murderer. Unfortunately for native first peoples, who'd been on this continent for thousands and thousands of years, perhaps 40,000 years, with rich and flourishing cultures and traditions, with intense knowledge of living sustainably in balance within our natural habitats, a knowledge we could use right now, i'd say, but they were wiped out in barely one hundred years. While Squaw Killer Custer and his ilk justified their murders with racist sayings like, "better dead than red", or when they butchered mere children, "nits become lice".. Despicable ! I find him about as fascinating as Goering or Goebbels or some other garden variety fascist.