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Battle of the Little Big Horn

by Thomas Fleming

When the Muslim terrorists struck on September 11, uncounted numbers of reporters and television commentators rushed into print and sound comparing the awful consequences to Pearl Harbor. Never has so much verbiage been wasted on a comparison which makes no sense -- and is still leading people astray, building up false expectations of winning a war based on this non-resemblance.

Some reporters pointed out the difference between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The Japanese attacked military men, not civilians. Afterward, both sides issued declarations of war and began a three and a half year death grapple in the Pacific, in which sailors and soldiers in fleets and armies did the fighting and dying. But the Pearl Harbor comparison is still lurking in the national psyche and often muddles discussions of our campaign in Afghanistan.

Is there any comparison from the national past that fits 9/11 -- and perhaps illuminates our current dilemmas? Only one comes to this historian's mind: Colonel George Armstrong Custer's annihilation at Little Big Horn in 1876 by an army of angry Indians. This disaster stunned an America that was at peace and in the midst of celebrating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.

Battle of the Little Big Horn Trading Card
Battle of Little Big Horn trading card

The Americans responded with massive retaliation. Soon an army twenty times the size of Custer's puny force was marching into Indian territory to punish the marauders. They had melted away into scattered bands that were hard to bring to battle. But eventually the leading perpetrators, Chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, met their fatal comeuppances. Meanwhile, immigrants poured in and the United States continued on its course to becoming the industrial powerhouse of the 20th Century.

Americans of 1876 knew that Little Big Horn was only a chapter in a long war caused by the clash of two very different civilizations. The Dakota battle proved to be one of the final collisions.The American Indians had long used terror and surprise attacks as their chief weapons in their losing war with the white men and women who had come to America in the 17th and 18th Centuries in ever increasing and finally overwhelming numbers. The white men were farmers. That put them in mortal conflict with the Indians' hunter-gatherer way of life, which required vast areas of wilderness to sustain them.

The Indians attacked without warning and slaughtered men, women and children on isolated farms and in undefended settlements with the hope that terror would induce mass flight.

Instead, the Americans responded with punitive invasions of Indian territory, bringing the war home to them in ruthless fashion.

A classic example of this warfare was the American response to the Iroquois attack on the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania in 1778. The Indians, allied with the British, swept through the valley, burning over 1000 homes and killing every man woman and child in their path. A smaller raid wreaked similar havoc in Cherry Valley later the same year. In 1779, General George Washington sent a 4,000 man army into Iroquois country in upstate New York with the following orders: "I don't want this territory merely overrun. I want it destroyed."

Destroyed it was. The Iroquois lacked the numbers to fight the army and their British allies deserted them. Forty villages went up in flames; tons of corn and other foodstuffs were destroyed. It was the end of Iroquois power in North America. They became pathetic starving refugees in Canada.

Similarly, in the Civil War, an outbreak of Indian violence in Minnesota killed an estimated 10,000 white settlers. A large Union Army marched into the state, hunted down the killers and eventually hanged 39 of them in the largest mass execution in American history.

This is grim stuff. But it provides a far better comparison to how we can and must deal with the hostiles of Islam, who have chosen to attack us. We will not and must not fight a war of invasion and conquest. Instead, it should be a war of ferocious retaliation, of continuing surveillance and guarded vigilance, while we go about our way of life.

The fanatic mullahs of Islam are not so different from the Indian shamans who told their warriors divine magic made them immune to the white man's bullets. The warriors learned the hard way that their wise men were wrong. Eventually, the warriors of Islam will learn the mullahs are equally wrong. In the meantime, they may inflict considerable pain on us. But as long as we make it clear that every attack will draw massive retaliation, they will eventually grow weary of their pretensions to fighting a war. 

Reprinted from History News Network

Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty books including, most recently, The New Dealer's War. He is a member of the board of directors of History News Network.
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Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle
Where Custer Fell Photographs of the Little Bighorn Battlefield Then and Now 

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Uncovering History
Uncovering History
Archaeological Investigations at the Little Bighorn
by Douglas D. Scott

University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

"During the archaeological investigations the Little Bighorn battlefield was viewed much like a crime scene. By employing forensic techniques such as studies of firing pin marks on cartridge cases and rifling marks on bullets, it was possible to determine the variety of weapons used by the various participants."

This volume reviews 130 years of investigations at the battlefield, including recent studies using GPS and metal detection, to reconstruct the conflict.

Indian Views Of The Custer Fight: A Source Book
by Richard G. Hardorff
University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

For more than a century, the accounts and remembrances of Indians regarding the Battle of the Little Big Horn were often discounted, ignored or even forgotten. Most historians and military scholars dismissed the statements of native peoples regarding the conflict as unreliable, distorted, and maybe fanciful. Biased interviewers and poor translation added to the poor quality of their testimony.

Yet, as author Richard Hardorff points out in the introduction to this compilation of 35 interviews and statements from Native American eyewitnesses to the battle, there is still much to be gained from what they shared. "The details in these statements offer new perspectives on the movements of the cavalry and the Indian force on the battlefield... they reveal battle incidents which no other source could provide," he writes.

The 35 accounts collected here are complemented by explanatory notes by both Hardorff and the original authors. The prologue and epilogue contain reports by three surviving 7th Cavalry soldiers. Appendixes include General Terry's letter of instructions to Custer of June 22, 1876 and military scholar Walter M. Camp's analysis of that letter in a 1918 letter to General E.S. Godfrey. Camp, who interviewed nearly 200 individuals associated with the battle, told Godfrey that in his estimation Terry's order "left to Custer's discretion as to whether or not he should attack should he encounter the Indians. He did encounter them, and I think he did the logical thing, as well as obeying Terry's order, in attacking them without waiting for Terry and Gibbon to  come up. Whether Custer's plan, in detail, for attacking the village was the proper one is another question..."

This volume is the third in Hardorff's trilogy of Indian testimonies about the battle, the others being Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight: New Sources of Indian-Military History and Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight 

Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight: New Sources of Indian-Military History 

Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight


After Custer
After Custer
Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country
by Paul L. Hedren

University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. 

The Great Sioux War, which included the defeat of General Custer at the Little Big Horn, brought irreversible changes to the northern plains of the United States. In a few short years, Sioux Country and its buffalo herds was extinguished and replaced with railroads and prospectors and cattle and settlements  named after the war's white combatants.

"I have attempted to expose the interconnectedness of it all: a war, the generals who came west in 1877 to bask in the accomplishments of their army, the forts they built to lock up a countryside and people, a new transcontinental railroad, the demise of the massive northern buffalo herd, the saga of the dynamic Beef Bonanza, the tribulations of the Lakota and Northern Cheyennes, and the army's substantial effort at memorialization," writes Paul L. Hedren in the preface to this historical geography of the northern Great Plains.

Hedren's assessment begins with the concluding battles of the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 and follows its consequences through the next two decades as the northern Great Plains is opened to settlement, the buffalo herds are replaced with cattle drives, soldiers are converted to reservation watchdogs, battlefields become memorial graveyards and newly created towns are named after the conflict's military leaders.

Fort Robinson and the American West, 1874-1899 by Thomas R. Buecker. 
University of Oklahoma Press, 2003. 

Located on the high plains of Nebraska just south of the Black Hills, Fort Robinson was the setting for some of the most dramatic and tragic events of the Indian Wars, including the Cheyenne Outbreak, the death of Crazy Horse and the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The fort was located on the north side of the White River across from the Red Cloud Agency and "some distance away from the Indians but near enough to provide rapid assistance if the need arose," writes the author of this detailed and clearly written history, Thomas Buecker.

"Then as now, the area is typical of the high Plains, consisting largely of rolling hills, occasionally bisected by small, meandering streams and rivers."

Established as "Camp Robinson" in 1874 to protect the Red Cloud Agency, the outpost's soldiers also guarded trails to the Black Hills and the surrounding region. Designated a "fort" in 1878, Robinson became the most important military post in the region and was host to the first African American soldiers of the Ninth Cavalry -- the "buffalo soldiers" -- who kept watch on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Virtually abandoned during World War I, Fort Robinson was a major remount depot, pack mule and K-9 Corps training center during World War II and served as a prisoner of war camp during World War II before being abandoned.

"Much of the old fort survives today, not as a military post, but as a state park, a museum, and a national historic landmark," Tate explains. "Despite all the changes that came to the army and its world, Fort Robinson remained along the White River below the silent buttes, an outpost in the American West."

Lieutenant Levi Robinson, namesake of Fort Robinson, was killed in February 1874 by Indians from the Red Cloud Agency while on a wood gathering detail near Fort Laramie.

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