Theodore's World: The Lesson of The Battle of the Greasy Grass ~ Penned by Rhod

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February 18, 2008

The Lesson of The Battle of the Greasy Grass ~ Penned by Rhod

The Lesson of The Battle of the Greasy Grass

No visitor to the museum at the Military Academy at West Point can come away with the impression that America is a militaristic country. The museum's displays are very restrained, with none of the war triumphalism one might expect in a such a place. There's very little representational art in the heroic style, with wild-eye horses carrying plumed, saber-swinging officers, or men with bayonets contending for a position. But there's a vast and exceptional collection of historical hardware and gear, some gathered at places of defeat. Visitor opinion isn't leveraged here; you take your own thoughts and conclusions home with you.

There's a row of cases for artifacts from the Indian Wars, and a collection from the Black Hills Wars of the late 19th-century. Sitting Bull's lever action, brass and steel rifle is here, along with ceremonial and regular dress, tools and weapons and other curiosities assembled from the tribes. You'll see something striking here, and shocking in its own way; not scalps, but arrows. Fletched and painted arrows gathered after The Battle of the Greasy Grass, known to white schools kids of my age as The Battle of The Little Big Horn.

These arrows were bowed on horseback, and launched in one or more of the three engagements that composed the fighting at The Little Big Horn River in June of 1876, the main reason we remember George Armstrong Custer at all. These perishable, fragile missiles are links to the ingenuity, heroism, determination and desperation of that summer day, when they were used against skirmish lines of terrified horse soldiers, led to their deaths on a vain mission to subdue Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho who had abandoned reservation life, and were willing to fight rather than be returned to it.

The details of the full mission to return the recalcitrant tribes is complicated; of less interest than the morbid appeal of Custer's Last Stand, which was a small but lurid part of it. The short story is that Custer attacked an encampment of more than 1200 Lakota Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors and their families, with his 198 men, 6 officers and 3 civilians (a newspaper reporter and two scouts).
Among this group were Custer's brother and brother-in-law.

Custer had already ordered two other units to different locations around the Lakota encampment, with a total force of 277 men, officers and Sioux, Ree/Arikara and Crow scouts. Recent research has shown that throughout the ensuing battles, the 7th Cavalry was at a five-to-one disadvantage. Custer's unit was annihilated, along with his relatives, to the last valiant man. Only two horses are recorded to have survived without wounds on the high ground of Custer's defensive position. It's believed that Crazy Horse personally led the last charge on Custer's unit. The other horse-soldier units were severely bloodied.

Custer's mistake was fatal; the amateur's mistake of underestimating his enemy. He'd refused a Gatling Gun and two additional companies of cavalry two days before the battle, claiming he could handle anything he found. He lacked reliable reconnaissance, and the intelligence that the Cheyenne had Winchester and Spenser repeating rifles. He was also enlarged by his romantic arrogance and scorn for his enemy. The last living day he threw his leg over a saddle, he was confident of victory in spite of the things that he knew, and was rendered fatally vulnerable by the things that he didn't. In this way, he resembled a Congressional Democrat.

Our American model at this moment can never be George Armstrong Custer. We must honor his soldiers, who stood toe-to-toe with their enemies, but our tactical models must be Crazy Horse, He Dog, One Who Walks With Stars, Rain-in-the-Face and Two Moons - all known to have been at Little Big Horn - the good men and true of the Lakota Cheyenne and Arapaho, willing to defend their civilization, culture and families to the death.

They reacted with the total force necessary to abolish the danger to them. Today we know the destiny of these benighted tribes of the 1870's. However inevitable it came to be, and even considering the retrograde and brutal role they played in their own destruction, they made arrows and used them to defend their freedom. I know, because I saw these very arrows. We post-war boys of the 1950's must have sensed this, because none of us ever wanted to play Custer in our games of Cowboys and Indians.

Posted by Rhod at February 18, 2008 01:50 AM


Yellow Hair Custer wore an >>> Arrow Shirt
at Little Big Horn?

Posted by: Chief Sitting Bull at February 18, 2008 05:06 AM

I've been to the Little Bighorn Battlefield and it's very sobering to realize the struggle of life and death that took place on that hallowed ground.

Custer's arrogance got himself and his men killed along with the fact he was fighting against men who were defending their families, land, and freedom.

Posted by: BobF at February 18, 2008 10:12 AM

I think we saw this same underestimation of the enemy right after we captured Baghdad in 2003. We relaxed thinking it was a short war and an easy victory we had just won. Rumsfield and Company never planned on an insurgency. When the insurgency blossomed, we had neither the number of troops needed nor the aggressive mindset to quash it.

Like the Battle of Little Big Horn and George Custer, we underestimated the enemy and did not have an immediate contingency plan. We have learned and adapted, an American tradition. Custer did not survive to learn. The Indians did well because the used the Rules of Warfare better than Custer. THE American Indian was and is a great warrior.

Posted by: TomR at February 18, 2008 11:30 AM

Excellent Rhod.

I lived south of the Little Big Horn for a while and have been to the site, one can only imagine the sheer terror of being overwhelmed by such an massive onslaught. The Marquess of Queensberry rules do not apply in battle.

The most striking comparison for me was way the first gulf war was conducted by Bush the Elder, the punitive push to remove Saddam's forces from Kuwait then the abrupt withdrawal leaving the UN in charge of affairs let the problem grow and fester. Clinton did nothing in the interim but take kickbacks, ravish the nation and any ladies within his reach. Then Jorge Jr. gets the reins and Dad's legacy came back and bit him. He like his father thought another steam roller invasion would quiet the hordes, not disarming the revolutionary guards and the population was one of his first mistakes, arrogance was the other, the old axiom of holding something after taking it requires the troops to do the job. Shock troops or occupation troops? Tough but vastly differing roles, our troops are the best but we can't expect a handfull to do it all. The need for overwhelming ground troops was evident from the beginning with the reserves being in battle, a clear indication to our enemies that we are understrength, not sealing the borders, his pusillanimous handling of Shiite rebel mullah Muqtada Al-Sadr and his selection of the weasel Nouri al-Maliki belies his ignorance of his enemies. Then there is the fickleness of the coalition whether NATO or UN affilliated, fairweather friends, that are always there for a handout but never around to reciprocate. Bush like all the presidents since WWII has relied on the UN and the Democrats for support and aid in war, getting neither, winning none. IMO that would be like George Armstrong Custer asking Sitting Bull for coalition troops against the Lakota.

Posted by: Jack at February 18, 2008 02:46 PM

An excellent read. Thanks Rhod for penning it and Miss Thing for posting.

Underestimation and arrogance are the folly of all leaders. Never, Ever underestimate the Warrior who has already decided that today is as good a day as any to die.

Posted by: Howlsatmoon at February 18, 2008 03:04 PM

Custer's problem, I think, stems from The Gettysburg Campaign where after a series of reckless charges, at Cress Ridge, Custer beat back J.E.B.Stuart's cavalry. Reckless, because of the 250 Union casualties 219 were Custers own men.

Of note, on South Cavalry Field another Cavalry Brigade got its ass kicked by three Alabama Infantry Regiments. One lesson Custer never learned was the Cavalry was no match for a well trained Infantry Regiment. From that time on he had an air of Invincibility.

Fast forward to the Little Big Horn, and the fact that the Cavalry was still using 'rolling block' type rifles from the Civil War, the Army in all of its wisdom didn't want the troops to waste Ammunition and no Gattling Guns, because, they would slow the old General down, and the fact that the Indians had the new 'Repeaters'. They would wait for the first volley and then charge, took about 5 to 7 seconds to reload one of those rifles, and if they had brass casings they would swell and the spent casing would have to be pryed out with a knife, hence losing more time.

Not all the Stars in their courses could change what was going to happen that day.

Posted by: Mark at February 18, 2008 06:29 PM

Thank you to everyone,and to WT for the use of the hall.

I don't remember being taught that Custer was a hero, even back in the un-PC days of my youth. In later years, he was portrayed in film as a posturing fool, but who knows if that's true either?

He followed the Cavalier culture of the horse soldier, and might have been more at home on the side of the Confederacy.

It's surprising to me, after Mark's account, that Custer didn't have more sense. As I recall, without researching it, there was a military counsel that investigated the debacle at the Little Big Horn, seeking to place blame on officers who didn't come to Custer's aid on the high ground.

Evidence given seems to show that Custer rode across the river into the Lakota camp, was forced into retreat and then cut off by the advancing warriors from the other two units who might have helped him.

This was definitely an underestimation of enemy capability and strength, We do this over and over, all the time.

Posted by: Rhod at February 18, 2008 07:24 PM

Rhod, Custer was boistrous and brash and also very bull headed, and not a quick lerner.

But the Commander who didn't get any credit for the Norths supreme position on Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, was another Cavalry Commander, Brig, General John Buford. He fought a brilliant delaying action with his Cavalry all morning of the 1st of July, he broke his troopers up into smaller groups of 4 men each, one held the horses and three fired at Henry Heths advancing division, when Heth got too close the would fall back 50 yards and start the whole thing all over again.

Ironically Buford learned his tactics out west before the war, fighting indians. Custer figured he could outwit the Indians, Ha, didn't work.

On the 2nd day Meade, who personally didn't like Buford sent him South and left only remnants of Buford Cavalry behind, under the auspices of General Pleasanton, who was not the brightest bulb in the box. But Pleasanton was a Meade favorite.

After Gettysburg, Meade was eventually relieved and so was Pleasanton and replaced by Grant and Sheridan.

Unfortunately for the Union, General Buford died that Christmas in 1863, from what they said was exposure. Buford took his command very seriously, he once hanged a spy, and put a sign on him that anyone that cut him down until a week was up would suffer the same fate. ...It was also said that, 'Buford was not a man to be trifled with.'

But Custer listened to no one. And as I recall ther was a huge investigation afterward. The History channel did a three part series on it. And when all was said and done, Custer got the blame he deserved.

Posted by: Mark at February 18, 2008 10:29 PM

"And when all was said and done, Custer got the blame he deserved."

Also and arrow in the neck. Would that sometimes fate would give the same reward to Politicians of similar Arrogance, eh?

Excellent information Mark. Rhod, I heard this evening from a very special Lady that you have three sons in the Sandbox.

Prayers are with them for a safe return.

Posted by: howlsatmoon at February 18, 2008 11:34 PM

Rhod I love your writings, it is a real honor that I can post them here. Thank you so much.

Posted by: Wild Thing at February 19, 2008 01:43 AM