Lately I’ve been seeing strange headlines. “Man Swallows 100 -Year-Old Museum Exhibit.” “Woman Robbed by Clown While on Toilet.” “Man Forced to Eat His Own Beard.” And then “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General,” this last courtesy of Fox News. It all got me to thinking, (which, for me, is also unusual news).
This past August, after finishing a show in Branson, Mo., I had five days to kill before I was due at a racetrack in Topeka. So I decided to go to a place I had never visited, the place where George Custer died with his boots on.
After dropping Miss Alma off at the Springfield airport, I headed up the Missouri River, bound for Montana. I zipped through St. Joseph, where I had once made Alma go with me to the house where that “dirty little coward” Robert Ford shot Jesse James in the back. The bullet went through ol’ Jesse and the hole it made in the wall is still there for all to see.
(Alma is used to this sort of thing. Just after we met I took her to the grave of Stonewall Jackson’s arm, over by the Chancellorsville battlefield, where Jackson was wounded by friendly fire. The general is buried down in Lexington, but his arm is where he left it. The site is a shrine for unreconstructed types like me.)
I headed on up the Big Muddy, through Omaha, Sioux City, and then hung a left at Sioux Falls. It was a stunning summer day, and the seemingly endless Great Plains were more plain than ever. The signs for Wall Drug, one of America’s world-class tourist traps, began as soon as I crossed the South Dakota line. “Wall Drug, Only 285 Miles!!” I stopped off in Mitchell, S.D. to cruise the incredible Corn Palace and to get a Blizzard at the local DQ, before heading on to Murdo, home of the Murdo Diner, which is famous for being the only place still open when I got there.
The next morning I headed through the Badlands for the Black Hills, straight for Deadwood. I dropped into the Number 10 Saloon, where Wild Bill Hickok held Aces and Eights, and where Jack McCall proved himself to be a very sore loser. Bill is buried up on the hill there, next to Calamity Jane, who was indeed a walking, talking calamity.
From there I drove up to the Crazy Horse Monument, a private endeavor begun in 1947 by the eccentric sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to transform a mountain into a likeness of the Oglala war chief. I hadn’t been up there since 1980, when I had the opportunity to chat with Korscak about his vision. He passed away in ’82, but his family continues the work daily. When finished, in perhaps another 50 years, it will be the largest sculpture on the planet.
I went west from there, into Wyoming, on up through Sheridan to the Crow Reservation in Montana. And then I was there, at what the Lakota and the Cheyenne called “The Greasy Grass” but what America knows better as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
Over the years I have read and studied the American West a lot, and I’ve devoured just about everything I could about our Indian Wars. I have studied the Little Big Horn fight in depth, and so when the battle area appeared I felt as if I had been there before. If so, I hope I was on Sitting Bull’s side of the river.
When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in the early 1870s, the United States government simply negated the Treaty of 1868, which had given those lands to the Lakota Sioux for perpetuity. All Indians were now ordered onto reservations and those who refused were considered “hostiles.” The Lakota, under the visionary spiritual guidance of Sitting Bull, decided to stand and fight. Joined by the Cheyenne, they made camp on the Little Big Horn River.
On June 25, 1876, in one of American history’s biggest blunders, George Armstrong Custer divided the approximately 650 troopers of his 7th Cavalry into three battalions, and proceeded without any coordination to attack the largest Indian camp in modern memory, perhaps as many as 10,000 men, women and children. The “hostiles” were ready and approximately 3,000 revengeful warriors tore into the 7th with a fearless and relentless assault.
Sitting Bull, old at 45, watched the younger men fight. Besides Crazy Horse, the great war chief Gall was there, and Low Dog, and Spotted Eagle, and Rain in the Face, and Crow King. And several thousand more. That day Custer, along with all 210 men under his direct command died the most terrible kind of deaths.
The news reached Philadelphia on July 4, 1876, the very day of America’s centennial. There was shock, outrage, disbelief, and a great deal of blame being cast around. There were investigations and recriminations. How could this have happened?
Part of the answer lies in Rappahannock County.
George Custer graduated last in his class at West Point, but he led his class in demerits. He was popular at the Academy, a clever show-off, but a feckless student.
The War Between the States* began in March of 1861. Custer graduated three months later and began his active military duty on the very day of First Manassas. He retreated to Washington in the rainswept panic of the Union Army. Two years later, at the age of 23, he became the second youngest general in the history of the United States Army. He was brevetted brigadier general after several dramatic displays of courage and coolness under fire. He seemed to love combat. His bravado was an important contribution to the Union victory at Gettysburg on the third day of that bloody turning point.
But Custer was also his own best P.R. man, a relentless self-promoter with a penchant for the flamboyant flair and the dramatic gesture. He seemed to approach battle as if it were a piece of theater, starring himself.
On July 24, 1863, Confederate General A.P. Hill’s 2nd Corps wearily trudged the Richmond Road towards Culpeper after the devastating loss at Gettysburg. They came down through Chester Gap, through Flint Hill, and then through Ben Venue.
Custer, already famous as “The Boy General,” was following with his Michigan cavalry to the east, keeping track of Hill’s movements and occasionally harassing the march.
As Hill’s men approached what is now known as Battle Mountain, they came under artillery attack from the southern side of the hill. This was Custer, with a small detachment, making a very risky attack on a much larger force, and for no particular reason. The Yankee marksmanship was inept and there were no serious injuries. But the cannon assault provoked the already tired and angry Rebels to quickly go after their attackers. The “Boy General” and the other Union men fled for their lives and escaped capture by the proverbial skin of their teeth. Custer wrote up a glowing report of his nearly disastrous folly for his superior officers, praising himself and all involved. The Confederate Army continued on to the south of the Rappahannock River and prolonged the fight for another 21 months.**
Fourteen years later, on a rocky hillside above the banks of a rushing Montana River, George Armstrong Custer once again bit off more than he could chew.
I left the Little Big Horn and headed toward Yellowstone by way of the Beartooth Highway, the passage Charlie Kuralt called the “most beautiful stretch of road in America.”
Charlie had a good point, but he must have somehow missed the roads of Rappahannock County.
*A note about nomenclature. I refer to the American War of 1861-1865 as the “War Between the States” since it pitted one nation of American States against another nation of American States. A “Civil War” is a war within a nation, almost always in an attempt to take over control of that government. The Southern Confederacy wanted to be left alone, to co-exist as a separate nation, with no intention of invading the Northern states.
I think it was David Herbert Donald, the great biographer of Lincoln, who remarked that “historians tend to be camp followers of victorious armies.”
** Custer was back in this neck of woods in 1864, under the command of Gen. Philip “The only good Indian I ever saw was dead” Sheridan. Sheridan destroyed the Valley by terror and fire, saying “that there should be nothing left for a crow to pick.” Custer was his right-hand man.