Colonel Custer's Restraint

Was Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer sympathetic towards Indians, or was he simply cold and calculating? It's possible to make an argument for either line of thought. However, perhaps in reality, Custer combined the two. He always had a childlike curiosity to see what was beyond the next hill, to experience anything that was foreign and new.

At the same time, as an officer of the post-Civil War Army where advancement was painfully slow, he doubtless yearned for the adulation and high rank that had been heaped upon him at an early age. Joining these two elements, he busily worked at creating an image he wanted to present of himself to the world. Times had changed--there wouldn't be any meteoric jumps in rank. But there was something almost as good. By using the pen--and Custer was always literate--he made himself the foremost soldier-authority on the frontier--thus bridging the gap between the publicly perceived image of himself that had to be bolstered and that which he actually enjoyed.

Although opinions of the snowy-morning attack on the Washita differ, one thing is certain: Custer accomplished what he set out to do during the remainder of the winter campaign. He had insufficient rations and they would be reduced by half, only to be cut yet again. The campaign would end with men eating livestock that died of starvation. As the chase continued, blankets and tents would be jettisoned. All this in severe winter weather.

During this time, he demonstrated an ability to improvise, persevere, and act with restraint. These months may be the highlight of his entire tenure on the plains--not for the number of Indians he killed, but for the number he could have killed, but didn't. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn't the end of his less-than-hateful disposition toward the Indian, but the beginning.

Custer in the West

Like many lovers of Western history, when I hear the name George Armstrong Custer, my mind automatically takes me to the Little Bighorn River. I see Sitting Bull sitting in his lodge and Crazy Horse riding his pony like mad. Next, I see soldiers circled up to die. Then I usually picture Libbie Custer back at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, waiting for news about her husband. After that, in a flash, my mind transports me back to Virginia, where I see a younger Custer--"the Boy General"--charging to Civil War fame. It's almost as if old George had done nothing memorable in the West besides die on a Montana hill in June 1876.

I know better, really I do. It's just that my other thoughts of Custer in the West have stayed as buried through the years as the 28 E Troop bodies in Deep Ravine (yes, that's another Little Bighorn reference). But, lately, that's been changing. These days, when Custer is mentioned, my mind tends to take me to the Washita River in Oklahoma (formerly Indian Territory) or even to Sweetwater Creek in the Texas Panhandle. I see Black Kettle in front of his tepee (can't tell if that's an American flag next to him or not) or Stone Forehead inside the Sacred Arrows lodge. Next, I see Indians dying while trying to escape (at the Washita) or Indians not dying at all because there is no attack (at the Sweetwater). Then, I picture Custer's alleged Cheyenne girlfriend, Monahsetah, traveling along with him on his Washita campaign of 1868-69 (sorry, Libbie). Only then does my mind carry me up to the Little Bighorn, and I usually don't even make it back to that Boy General in Virginia.

This change in my "Custer in the West" thinking was brought about by a memorable first trip to the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site last March, by reading a couple of good books--Stan Hoig's The Battle of the Washita and Louis Kraft's Custer and the Cheyenne: George Armstrong Custer's Winter Campaign on the Southern Plains--and by editing two intriguing articles found in this issue. At dawn on a snowy, cold November 27, 1868, Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his 7th Cavalry attacked Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's village on the Washita River and achieved what was hailed by some as a significant military victory. Others called it a massacre, along the lines of what happened on November 29, 1864, at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory. Black Kettle survived Sand Creek, but he was not so lucky at the Washita, where he and his wife were killed along with anywhere from 30 to 110 other men, women and children. Controversy over what Custer did or did not do soon arose, but unlike the situation after the Little Bighorn eight years later, Custer was around to hear all the talk. At the Washita, Custer's luck held up. His attack, most experts agree, could easily have led to a military disaster similar to the Little Bighorn.

In both instances, Custer divided his command and attacked from several directions without really knowing the size of the Indian encampment, but without really caring. (Before the Washita fight, he reportedly said, "There are not Indians enough in the country to whip the 7th Cavalry.") There were, in fact, many Cheyennes, Arapahos and Kiowas--perhaps 1,000 warriors--several miles downriver from Black Kettle's village. While only four soldiers, at most, were killed or mortally wounded at the village, Custer's second-in-command, Major Joel Elliott, and 17 troopers were killed after they rode off in pursuit of fleeing villagers. Before long, Custer and his men found themselves surrounded by mounted warriors. "If not for the 53 captured women and children, I think the other Indians would have attacked," said Bob Duke, the site attendant at the Black Kettle Museum in Cheyenne, Okla. A combined attack by the other bands was indeed a possibility Custer could not ignore. He had the 7th Cavalry execute a feinting movement toward the other villages and then countermarch at night away from danger. "The stratagem worked like a charm," writes Kraft.

And because it did and because Custer was able to escape with his victory, the Little Bighorn has overshadowed the Washita all these years. It wasn't until November 12, 1996, that the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site was created. The site has a long way to go to catch up with the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (formerly the Custer Battlefield) when it comes to controversy, but Steve Black--the Washita Battlefield's recently appointed chief of interpretation historian--says that some Indians in the area insist that the Washita not be labeled a "battle." Custer, though, had orders to attack, and when he learned that some women and children were being killed that wintry morning, he put a stop to it. Certainly, if Custer and most of his men had gone the way of Elliott's party, then the Washita would have gone down in history as the most famous Indian-Army battle of them all.

The Washita fight in November 1868 was only the beginning of the Washita campaign. But the rest of the campaign was bloodless, even though Custer remained in the field and did find other Indian villages. Less than four months later, in March 1869, Custer arrived at the Sweetwater village of Stone Forehead (also known as Medicine Arrows) with a strong force eager to draw Indian blood. Another Washita seemed likely, possibly another Sand Creek. Instead, Custer risked his own life while seeking a peaceful solution. Could it be true, as Kraft suggests, that after the Battle of the Washita, "a humanity surged through [Custer's] veins" that tempered all his dealings with Indians right up until his death at the Little Bighorn?


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