Prelude to an Ending

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Sometimes in the most unexpected places, life just thumps us – “Dude! Pay attention! Be amazed!” It is true enough that if taking the time to look, any piece or part of this place we spend our allotted days is a wondrous creation. Most times and places, we don’t see the miraculous or the marvelous. The ordinary hides the extraordinary extraordinarily well. But sometimes – the extraordinary jumps up, slaps us and we are awestruck.

One slap still stings, an experience vivid in memory. Near the end of my career as a working engineer, I now remember that magical moment as a fond farewell, a retirement gift from the Spirit of Dirty Hands, an affectionate and sentimental adios from my career’s old and respected adversary – Mother Nature.

Scoping the feasibility of a pipeline route, one among the great multitude never built, I was in a helicopter flying over endless prairie, mile after mile of grassed swales stretching to the horizon. After a day of this, hundreds of miles of prairie grass interspersed with occasional ravines, canyons and bluffs, broken only by a brief touchdown in Moab’s airport for gas and sandwiches. And then – the unexpected, the extraordinary wonder of what God hath wrought.

Coming over one more grassed ridge in a seemingly endless series of them, perhaps a hundred feet off the ground, we surprised a herd of wild horses. Startled, the horses ran, perhaps a dozen mustangs stretched out in a line galloping over the prairie, manes and tails flowing with the wind of their passage. I will always remember that moment, grateful for God’s smile.

The high plains, the great stretches of empty land in the Red States of cowboy county. They call to me, they always have. If I had grown up on a ranch rather than a farm, I might well have stayed, going broke raising cattle rather than prospering in the Land of the Adorables. The wind a constant irritation, but horizons promising endless frontier, a space to dream, an opportunity to become.

The high plains of cowboy country once captured America’s imagination, the masculine exuberance of a growing nation. From Zane Grey to Louis Lamour, from Lewis & Clark to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, there was a reality infused mythos of The West shaping our culture and us as a people. Remember that quaint piece of the original Disneyland, now forgotten – FrontierLand?

But over the years of my lifetime our nation has grown up, exchanging masculine exuberance for the settled rhythms of feminine domesticity. Without even noticing their passage, we traded in the freedom of the frontier for the narcissistic manners of hipster culture, Matt Dillon and Kitty have given way to Friends, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood supplanted by Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker. It was bound to happen, the empty spaces of the high plains and their virtues are alien to the urban canyons and ordered suburbs of Adorable America.

I miss the America I grew up in. I find myself sometimes in what can only be called mourning. I know that unique sensibility given birth and nurtured by the open spaces is gone and never coming back. Can you imagine Rooster Cogburn or Wyatt Earp dealing with the neighborhood HOA?

Let’s not kid ourselves either, the Covid Pandemic has most decidedly put a mirror to who we are as a people today, including myself I am sad to say.  It would be foolish to pretend we are something other than what we are. But sometimes in my shop, I play Tina Turner’s “On Silent Wings” and mourn what was.

Back before the epic saga of our westward expansion became a dark and haunted forest patrolled by witch hunters, there were signposts, past events assuming mythic status, touchstones of memory connecting us in a common understanding of our history. One such milestone was Custer’s Last Stand, or as I like to think of it, The Little Bighorn Debacle.

In the 1850’s, the northern reaches of the high plains experienced the aggressive wave of America’s expansion, once known as Manifest Destiny in a more optimistic future oriented era. At the same time these same plains experienced another wave of aggressive expansion, the manifest destiny of the Sioux peoples.

Over the next generation, the marches along the shifting borders saw numerous skirmishes, the Minnesota Massacres, Red Cloud’s War, the First Sioux War among many other unnamed unremembered incidents. For the most part, the Sioux won the battles but lost the wars. They had no real chance against the sheer weight of numbers and the power of a great people’s vision.

The endgame of this decades long cultural collision began in 1876. In that year, three powerful men hardened in the crucible of civil war put into action the final chapter of their long campaign to pacify the high plains. These three men, US Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, had won the Civil War’s Union victory by taking war’s horrors to the civilian population of the Rebels. The three had commanded armies that burned and destroyed infrastructure, fighting only when they had to. They carried this proven strategy and tactics with them to the Indian Wars.

In that year of 1876 a regiment of US cavalry, the 7th, commanded by a charismatic and controversial commander, Lt. Col. George Custer, traveled some 700-800 miles through a rough wilderness in search of the Sioux. On June 25th of that year after surprising the main Indian encampment followed by a series of hard fought engagements, the 7th Cavalry was severely mauled with George Custer and half of the regiment killed, the rest rendered hors de combat.

Virtually every male in the United States of my youth was at least dimly aware of the “plan”, courtesy of a vanished popular culture now acutely embarrassing to “modern sensibilities”. The “plan” had been for Custer’s command to rendezvous with two other converging forces, trapping the Sioux and bringing them to battle against overwhelming force. Legend had it that in his well publicized quest for glory, Custer had ignored this agreed upon “plan” and instead of waiting for the rendezvous, had attacked on his own. A clear case of the foolish glory hunter, George Custer, riding to his doom.

As with all legends, they should never be examined too closely. Of course, this scenario fails to meet even a simple sniff test, but it was the legend, the myth in the common imagination. To be sure, the legend, even grounded in a deliberate misreading of events, became a cultural truth because it so admirably suited the purposes of so many actors, principally the US Army, the media, i.e. newspapers.

The reality of myth making in human culture was put into words by a newspaper editor in John Ford’s, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One wonders whether John Ford smiled as he directed that scene in the movie, being very aware of its truth as one of the greatest of Western myth makers.

Lost in myth making and face saving after the Custer disaster, not to mention the Widow Custer’s stirring of the pot was the story surrounding those other two “converging columns”. They simply disappeared, an unseen Greek chorus pronouncing justice on the proud and foolish Gen. Custer. If only he had waited for the “plan” to work.  Where were the two other “converging columns”? What happened to them? If they were there, certainly two columns of fresh cavalry could follow the easily visible trail of a large Indian village and wreak vengeance on them.

Whereas Custer and the 7th Cavalry had left Ft. Abraham Lincoln just outside Bismark, ND on May 17, the largest of the three converging columns left Ft. Fetterman, located just northwest of present day Douglas, WY, on May 29. Under the command of Gen. George Crook, was a force twice the size of Custer’s 7th moving up the eastern flank of the Bighorn Mountains, a route once known as the Bozeman Trail and now traveled by cars and trucks on I-25. Whereas Custer’s column was a single regiment, 660 troopers accompanied by some 40 Arikara scouts, Crook’s force was a mixed force of cavalry and mule mounted infantry, as well as nearly 200 Crow/Shoshoni scouts and around 100 mule skinners.

This was General Crook’s second expedition against the Sioux out of Ft. Fetterman that year. On March 1 of that year, General Crook had marched north from Ft. Fetterman seeking the wintering encampments of the hard core Sioux, those refusing to winter in the shelter of Camp Robinson in NW Nebraska.

A winter campaign was the preferred tactic of the Indian Wars by the Army’s triumvirate, Grant, Sherman & Sheridan. A flying column of cavalry penetrating deep into Indian territory during winter’s hardship, a surprise attack against snow blanketed Indian villages to destroy their capital stock – most especially the pony herds as well as food, clothing and tepees. Taking the women and children of the village back with the cavalry column ensured the safety of the column’s return as well as saved the captured women and children from starvation after the destruction of their homes. The captured non-combatants would be returned to the arms of their people on the reservation.

Eight years previously in 1868, Lt. Col. George Custer and the 7th Cavalry had conducted a model campaign against the Kiowa & Arapaho in Oklahoma. Considering the difficulties inherent in such tactics, it was virtually a textbook operation. Striking hundreds of miles from their base in Ft. Hayes, Kansas, the 7th had fallen on a substantial village of the Arapaho along Western Oklahoma’s Washita River in November of that year. Over 800 Indian ponies had been destroyed with an entire village and its contents burned. Though heavily outnumbered, the 7th had returned to their base of operation unchallenged due to the captive women and children entrained with them.

The Washita demonstrated to the Indian peoples of the south central plains that the army could reach their homes anywhere, anytime. No longer could the men spend the summer months raiding at will, knowing their own homes, women and children were secure. The sudden impoverishment and homelessness visited on hundreds of people in the winter beggared even more hundreds who must now share their provisions and lodging.

While the fog of war and the fickle finger of fate work their will on the battlefield, it must be said that George Crook and George Custer were two very different Georges. In common, they had a West Point education with meritorious service and promotion in the Civil War. It was equally true that both of their careers bore out the old dictum, “A” students wind up working for “C” students. Though it seems the two George’s earned their “C” averages in different ways.

George Crook seemingly pursued his education with a diligence that was to be the mark of his career, his “C” seemingly earned through honest effort. Custer eschewed a diligent approach to anything except hi-jinks. Custer’s graduation, at the bottom of his class, was delayed because at the time of his graduation ceremony, he was under arrest and in the guardhouse. While acting as Officer of the Day, overseeing summer camp for new incoming cadets, Custer had failed to discipline two of the incoming 1st year cadets for fighting. Instead, Custer had provided the circumstances and means for the two antagonists to fight it out “in a fair manner”. The Commandant of Cadets, John Reynolds, was not amused, particularly when Custer’s previous four years were considered.

Fate brought these same two men, John Reynolds and George Custer, together again two years later in Gettysburg, PA. John Reynolds was now Major General John Reynolds commanding three Corps of the Union Army, one of the very few Union generals with a reputation for fighting rather than political posturing.

On the 1st day at Gettysburg, perhaps the Civil War’s day of decision, Reynolds cavalry arm, John Buford’s brigade, prevented defeat with a heroic holding action against Lee’s army, 750 dismounted cavalry against 8,000 infantry. John Reynolds rushed his own infantry divisions forward to form a defensive line before the cavalry could be overrun. As Reynolds was bringing those units into line, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet. But for John Reynold’s prompt action, Gettysburg might well have had a very different ending.

Two days later on the climactic 3rd day at Gettysburg, George Custer was no longer the West Point screw-up but the youngest general in the army. He led his brigade of Michigan volunteers, outnumbered 2 to 1, in an afternoon of brilliant and desperate cavalry charges against the cavalry of the incomparable JEB Stuart. His reckless courage at the head of his men both made Custer’s reputation as well as ensuring the failure of Pickett’s Charge on Cemetery Ridge, finishing the job begun by John Reynolds two days before.

Some eleven years older than Custer, George Crook also served meritoriously during the Civil War, ending in command of a division, but with none of Custer’s high drama on the battlefield. Between the end of the Civil War and 1876, Crook continued in the Army, earning a national reputation as an Indian fighter in Oregon against the Paiutes and in Arizona against the Apache.

Now Gen. Crook was in Wyoming to bring his experience and savvy against the Sioux. It did not begin well. Crook’s first expedition against the Sioux was an inglorious mess, a long march of starving soldiers through temperatures so low their thermometers were useless, ending in an engagement against the Indians in Powder River Country where the bumbling was matched only by the fumbling.

On March 1st of 1876, George Crook left Ft. Fetterman on the Powder River Expedition, a force of nearly 1100, soldiers, Indian scouts and teamsters. Of particular note was a cattle herd of some 60 animals that accompanied the column, meat on the hoof for the soldiers. Logistics appeared to be the passion of General Crooke. On campaign, he seemed most comfortable in the company of his muleteers and within army circles he was known as the “Father of the Army Mule Train”.

While the logistics had been well planned, two days out – on the night of March 3 and less than 30 miles from the Ft. Fetterman – Indian raiders staged a raid on the cattle herd, stealing them all. The next two weeks on the trail north were marked by intense cold and snow, but even worse was hunger. The cattle were gone with the men reduced to coffee, hard biscuits and bacon.

I have some personal experience of hard winters in this area. I remember especially an evening flight into Casper one early March. Looking out the airplane window, the sky was crystal clear with a magical view of stars and moon. Looking down was the almost peaceful scene of a featureless white blanket lit by the moon. Landing proceeded uneventfully until we were about one hundred feet off the ground. The plane was rocked by a gale wind and the windows were white. It took a couple of hours to drive the two miles from the airport into town through a raging ground blizzard.

This was a hard hard time for these men on horseback, sleeping in tents and with little to eat. In spite of the setback, the hardship, the deprivation and the ever present wind, the Powder River Expedition continued. The men persevered and on March 17 a detached column of Crook’s expeditionary force came upon an Indian village just north of the Wyoming border on the main channel of the Powder River. In a mid-morning action that began as a near duplicate of Custer’s success on the Washita, Crook’s men fell upon the village burning it and capturing 700 ponies. At the time it was believed to be the village of the famous Cheyenne warrior, Crazy Horse.

But auspicious beginning turned into ignominious fiasco. While the Washita action, despite its personality clashes, seemed to be the action of a disciplined command, this Powder River affair seemed out of control from the beginning. Crucially, Crook’s force failed to capture any women and children, allowing virtually everyone including the warriors to escape. At the Washita, the 7th Cavalry had spent the day engaged in the methodical destruction of the village and slaughter of the pony herd even though surrounded by large contingents of warriors seeking revenge.

In contrast to the Washita, the contemporaneous reports of the Powder River fight talk of famished soldiers grabing food and looting indiscriminately. As the day wore on, the men of the village trickled back, sniping and gathering for a full scale assault. At this time, understandably, there is a sense of panic beginning to fall on Crook’s men.

As the day wore on, there were increasingly serious clashes between the soldiers and the Indian warriors. In the afternoon, the soldiers made a fighting retreat or a rush for the exit, depending on the opinion. Dead troopers were either left behind or hastily buried in the river. As the burial rites were delicately described by Private C. C. Pollock, Company M 3rd Cavalry:

“A hole was cut in the ice, which was two feet thick, and they were given a cold bath, head on.”

Even worse, that most feared of fates occurred, a wounded soldier was abandoned and left to the tender mercies of the Indians. The days following saw a hasty return to Ft. Fetterman, shadowed by Indian warriors. In a final humiliation, the unaccountably still living 700 Indian ponies were recaptured one night by these shadowing warriors. Instead of a Washita success, Crook’s Powder River expedition was a disaster.

However a cynic like myself might note that often times, in a bureaucracy, nothing succeeds like failure. In the aftermath of finger pointing and court martials following the Powder River Expedition’s return, Gen. George Crook was Teflon, particularly in view of his many questionable actions. After all, Gen. Crook had not participated in the attack. He had remained with a headquarters company a day’s ride away from the action at the Indian village. (Really!!) The commander of the attacking force, the unhappy Lt. Col. Joseph Reynolds, took the blame, being court martialed for his trouble.

As pointed out earlier, sometimes nothing succeeds quite like failure. Gen. George Crook was given even more men for a second try at the Sioux, the expedition that was to rendezvous with that of George Custer.

Everything went much better for George Crook on his second expedition. Perhaps he had learned some tricks, as the cattle remained at the fort and George Crooke remained with the column. In common with George Custer, he spent much of his time on this expedition against the Sioux, hunting and sightseeing. Though from surviving photographs George Crook did not present the picture of sartorial elegance exhibited by the dashing George Custer.

It is hard to escape a sense of carnival atmosphere as the expedition moves north. Parties of gold miners travel in its wake, a veritable stream of couriers both official and unofficial connect it to Fetterman, Cheyenne and Laramie, the officers engage in extended hunting trips and panning for gold up in the nearby Big Horn mountains. In early June, the expedition reached northern Wyoming, establishing a base camp on Goose Creek (between present day Buffalo and Sheridan, WY).

One of the courier riders carrying mail for soldiers as well as dispatches for accompanying newspaper reporters and Gen. Crook, was Ben Arnold. Arnold was a civilian contractor – shades of Blackwater! Back in Cheyenne, Mr. Arnold had made the acquaintance, intimate or otherwise, with a young woman described as a “hard drinker and occasional brothel worker at Cuny & Ecoffey’s Three-Mile Ranch”. This young lady all of twenty (twenty-four?) years old was well known in Cheyenne for her “unquenchable thirst for adventure, soldiers and drink”.

She had been incarcerated in the Cheyenne jail for grand larceny, before acquittal by a jury on June 8. Whereupon she promptly “went on a several-day drinking spree” before renting a horse and disappearing. It seems, she had joined Ben Arnold and was now at Goose Creek disguised as one of the teamsters. Flirting with one of the officers, Gen. Crook accosted her, had her arrested and returned to Ft. Fetterman. This young woman was to gain fame in later years with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, appearing as Calamity Jane.

Calamity Jane aside, everything was going well for George Crook until the morning of June 17. The expedition had left Goose Creek camp the previous day. It was 8:30 AM on a brisk June morning in the northern plains. Gen. Crook had called a halt. Horses were picketed with the men relaxing in the shade.

The column was following the increasingly common signs of traveling Indian bands heading toward the large Indian encampment reported by scouts to number some thousands of warriors. The force was moving north, following the course of Rosebud Creek and was nearing the confluence of Kollmar and Rosebud Creeks.

There was a sense of confidence in the Expedition. Even though the Indian encampment was large, Crook was confident that the Indians would stick close to their camp in a defensive posture with offensive action his to take. Gen. George Crook would choose when and where to engage. Perhaps this time, the Sioux would stand and fight.

Suddenly gunfire was heard just over the hill. There was little interest or alarm shown as the men continued their enjoyment of the morning sunshine. Many of the men, including Gen. Crook, commented that the gunfire came from some of their scouts shooting buffalo for fresh meat. But then scouts came racing over the ridge yelling “Heap Sioux! Heap Sioux!”

Looking to the north of the column’s rest stop, there is a treed ridge with a broad gap, now known to historians of the West as “The Gap”. Those whimsical historians have poetry in their soul.  At 8:35 AM on the morning of June 17, 1876, this gap was seen to be rapidly filling up with hundreds of warriors racing on their ponies toward the lounging soldiers, along the ridge tops can be seen hundreds more.

Needless to say, the soldiers reacted but they were caught flat footed, sitting around relaxing, horses tethered to iron stakes pounded into the ground, perhaps saddles loosened or even removed. Caught napping on a battlefield is never a good place to be for a soldier, or anyone else for that matter.

Robert Strahorn, a reporter for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, one of the many traveling with Crook’s column described the moment:

“At this moment the eye could not cover a single mountain . . . without resting upon a band of approaching savages. Right, left, front and rear alike were faced by the incoming braves, and it seemed as though the whole surface of the country for miles around was one vast skirmish line. It was a general uprising.”

But the Crow/Shoshoni scouts had not joined in the general carnival atmosphere. Given their intimate acquaintance with the Sioux, they were neither confident nor napping. Jumping on their ponies, led/accompanied by Captain George Randall, Crook’s Chief of Scouts, the scouts rode out to engage in the finest tradition of light cavalry tactics.

It was reported by many that the Sioux repeatedly warned Crow warriors to back off. In the opening melee, a Sioux warrior reportedly yelled, “You go home! We want to kill only white men!” But the Crow scouts were loyal and, in addition, hated the Sioux who had butchered their people and stolen their land.

It has been generally forgotten that the northern plains were home to neither the Sioux nor the white man. The actual natives of the northern plains, the Crow/Shoshone scouts with Crooke and the Arikara scouts with Custer, had seen their people ravaged by the rapacious Sioux. If only they had “white privilege”, the Sioux could rightly have been accused of genocide.

It must be noted that the civilians with the column, the muleteers and teamsters, were quicker off the mark than the soldiers as well. These “roadies” of the plains, the men charged with packing the mules, were a rough and ready bunch. As the Crow warriors rode out, chanting their death songs, the packers were digging into covered positions, engaging in a steady defensive fire giving the assembling soldiers time to fit their horses and organize.

The plain in front of the swarming ant hill that was Crook’s command saw the two groups of Indians merge into a swirling mass of riders, the fighting quickly turning into hand to hand combat. Watching all this, Frank Grouard, a confidant of Gen. Crook and standing near him at the time had this to say:

“The troops were not ready to meet the attack and had it not been for the Crows, the Sioux would have killed half our command.”

Eventually the soldiers were ready, allowing Gen. Crook to begin regaining command of the battlefield. Crooke set up his headquarters on a ridge now known as “Crook’s Hill”. The mule packers assumed responsibility for defense of their friend George Crook and his headquarters on a nearby ridge. Wouldn’t you know, this ridge also was given a memorable name – “Packer’s Hill”.

Like many regular army generals before and since, irregular tactics confounded him. The day saw glorious cavalry charges, sabers bared with pistols firing. Crooke ordered his units around the battlefield, but to little effect. The Sioux retreated before advancing soldiers, reappearing elsewhere.

There was one moment when Lt. Col. William Royall and several companies of the 3rd Cavalry advanced too far becoming cut off and in danger of being wiped out. They escaped their dangerous cul-de-sac but suffered for it, the heaviest casualties of the day. Feelings were mixed as to the blame for this near disaster, Crooke or Royall. The incident fueled long running and heated feuds, lasting until all the participants had been interred at Arlington Cemetery decades later.

The day ended with Crooke holding the field as the Sioux faded away.  In Crooke’s eyes, this was victory. In the aftermath of the day, he considered his options. What should he do, continue to advance against this large gathering of the Sioux or retreat to Goose Creek base camp? One senses a certain caution brought about by the sheer ferocity and numbers of the Sioux.

In any case, he decided to return to his base camp at Goose Creek, resupply and await developments. And it was there that Gen. George Crooke remained for the next three weeks. Based on his correspondence of the time, growing more than a little self-satisfied himself. Perhaps it is mean of me to add that George Crooke spent that time hunting and fishing in the nearby Big Horn Mountains.

On July 10, twenty-three days after his “victory” on Rosebud Creek, a courier from Ft. Fetterman arrived with news. Gen. Crooke was on a hunting expedition at the time and commanding the camp in his absence was that same Lt. Col. Royall who had narrowly escaped ugly death on the Rosebud. Upon reading the dispatch, Royall ordered out a company of cavalry to find Crooke.

And so it was that Captain Anson Mills, perhaps the only officer in George Crooke’s command who had distinguished himself in action at both Powder River and Rosebud, found Gen. Crooke 18 miles away “descending from the Big Horn Mountains, pack mules loaded heavy with elk, deer and bighorn sheep”. It was then that Gen. George Crooke learned that George Custer and 261 men of the 7th Cavalry had died some eight days after and a day’s ride away from the site of Crooke’s “victory”.

There is in me the black stain of ambition, the desire almost the compulsion to lead. It has always been there, though the fire is but a flicker now, damped by age and the accumulated weight of ashes left by that fire. But that ambition to lead has fueled my life long study of leaders, of the many varied paths through organizational mazes and how to read them. I have always found the story of Custer a fertile field, returning to it again and again. As my own career and responsibilities changed, the story renews itself, allowing me to see it afresh with new eyes each time I return.

Over the 150 years since the Great Sioux War of 1876, there has been a cottage industry devoted to the legend of George Custer, the 7th Cavalry Regiment and the infamous Last Stand. George Custer himself outshines everyone and everything else. The story revolves around him as if the sun of a miniature solar system. He is a hero or scoundrel, sterling leader or glory hunting narcissist, betrayed paladin or foolish egotist.

One can make an accurate approximation of America’s political fashions from the popular conception of Custer at the time. One believes this true even today. His relative obscurity today owes to the fact that Custer was neither a left-handed trans woman of color “first” nor oppressed pioneer of a progressive cause. In some future day of renewed pride in the American journey, Custer will once again resume his role as a funhouse mirror reflecting our past.

As I have matured in experience, though the wisdom supposedly accrued from experience increasingly in question, the story’s background gains sharper focus. The shadowy figures in the background threaten to outshine the cartoon cutouts in the foreground. The Army’s triumvirate draws more and more of my attention.These three men – US Grant, W.T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan – were the hands moving the pieces on the chessboard of the northern plains in 1876’s campaign against the Sioux. All three of these men knew George Custer well, even intimately. There were rumors at the time that one of them, Phil Sheridan, knew the intriguing and mercurial Mrs. George Custer “very well”.

Surely none of these men were surprised by George Custer’s actions on June 26th, 1876 at the confluence of Reno Creek and the Little Big Horn River. I suspect they would have been surprised if he did anything else. The triumvirate did not anticipate or want the near destruction of a cavalry regiment. But no one familiar with Grant’s Overland Campaign, Sherman’s March to the Sea or Sheridan’s Shenandoah Campaign would doubt the cold eyed willingness of these men to take casualties in pursuit of necessity.

These three men knew Custer well. They knew he was a vain glorious peacock, brave to the point of foolhardiness, always straddling a tightrope over disaster. But they wanted him anyway. In fact, they needed Custer. That became very clear in the spring of 1876.

Never one to avoid the spotlight, George Custer made himself a cause celebre in April of that year, a scant six weeks before he was to lead out the 7th Cavalry from Ft. Abraham Lincoln.

The year 1876 was a Presidential election year and Grant, a Republican, was in the last year of his 2nd term as President with a resurgent Democratic Party poised to sweep the fall elections. “Reconstruction”, the military occupation of the defeated South to insure the peace and protect the new found freedom of the former slaves, was a lightning rod generating controversy, consuming the “news feeds” of the day.

The Republicans wanted to continue that military occupation. The relative hiatus in the Indian wars on the northern plains during the Grant Administration owed to the fact that much of the army was garrisoned in the defeated South. Nearly all the officers, non-coms and men riding out to engage the Sioux in 1876 had spent time between 1868 and 1876 on occupation duty in Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans and points in between.

As the decade of the 1870’s wore on, the defeated white southerners began to grow restive. This was the era of the “carpetbaggers”, a mix of scoundrels, opportunists and entrepreneurs from the prosperous North scooping up anything of value in the devastated and destitute South, at best for pennies on the dollar, often a simple “expropriation”. The “carpetbaggers” were joined by the “scalawags”, white southerners who had avoided the earlier unpleasantness by a variety of means.

The black slaves, recently freed but just as poverty stricken as their former masters served as a focus for a bitter and growing anger. It did not help that “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” often used freed blacks as their front men, a fig leaf to placate northern audiences. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan came into existence as the resentful defeated began to shake off their humiliation.

The Republican Party campaigned on a platform of continuing the policy of “Reconstruction”. Important constituencies in the party, the strongly Abolitionist New England, rightly feared for the fate of the freed slaves if the military occupation was ended. On the practical side, most of the interests profiting from the “carpetbagger/scalawag” phenomenon were in the Republican fold as well. The fact that the “Reconstruction” South was also a Republican South helped to focus the attention of the Party.

The Democratic Party campaigned on a platform of ending “Reconstruction” for obvious reasons, including turning the near certainty that doing so would turn a Republican South into a Democratic South. As the fervor of the North for “social justice” receded, the stink of corruption, favoritism and dishonesty in the high places advocating that “social justice” grew increasingly harder to contain. Weighing heavily on the minds of many was the cost of “Reconstruction”, as maintaining a military occupation of the South was expensive.

“Reconstruction” was increasingly unpopular. Immigrants were pouring into the US in search of a better life. The Midwest was becoming the industrial giant of the 20th Century. Families were moving west in search of free land, the 160 acres promised by the Homestead Act. The benefits of of “Reconstruction” were of little interest to them while the costs were immediate and obvious. Low taxes and Army protection on the frontier was the name of their game.

In this era before the invention of dollar printing presses, there was another more hidden need, but one even more important. Gold was desperately needed to finance all this expansion but the world had little liquidity. The Financial Panic of 1873 had almost cratered Europe’s and America’s economy.

Before the invention of deficit financing in the 1930’s, deflation, not inflation, was the threat. Gold in abundance had been discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, enough gold to greatly relieve the liquidity crises threatening an expanding Industrial Revolution. There was gold in the Black Hills, but the Sioux were there and the Army wasn’t. The Army was playing at policeman in the cities of the South. Instead of protecting homesteaders & gold miners on the frontier, it appeared to many that the Army was instead guarding the increasingly venal and corrupt “carpetbaggers & scalawags”.

All this was on the mind of voters in 1876. U.S. Grant was the man in white, the symbol of the Union’s victory, but his halo was slipping badly. For all his many virtues, Grant suffered from a blind eye for the peccadilloes of those close to him, both family and political. Grant would not be the first public servant to misinterpret the biblical admonition in Deuteronomy – “Thou shalt not bind the mouth of the oxen treading out the grain on the threshing floor”.

While US Grant was himself an honest and self-sacrificing individual, above reproach, whispers of corruption had dogged his entire administration. The policy of “Reconstruction” provided a rich field to plow for those seeking enrichment. In his 2nd term, the woes of other lame duck Presidencies, i.e. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, bedeviled Grant.

In recent times, only the sainted Barack Obama has been spared the public calumny common to lame duck Presidents. The public grows tired, the administration grows arrogant or stupid with power, the Deep State jockeys for advantage in the new administration and the opposition party sharpens its knives. The press, hungry for circulation or clicks, senses opportunity and pours gasoline on brushfires.

Of particular interest in 1876 was William Belknap, Grant’s Secretary of War. Mr. Belknap was a precursor of the Clinton family in our own time. Perhaps Bill/Hillary Clinton were taking notes during their American History class and they decided to take a page from Bill Belknap. In any case, Mr. Belknap used his position as a Cabinet Secretary to auction government patronage.

Starting in 1870, Mr. Belknap began providing monopolies, supervised by his wives, to the trading syndicates servicing government posts/Indian trading posts on the plains. This influence peddling scheme, the “Belknap Foundation” we might call it, was run by Belknap’s wife Carita until her death in late 1870 – from childbirth complicated by tuberculosis. It appears that shortly after Carita’s death, Mr. Belknap married her sister, Amanda, with Amanda taking up her deceased sister’s wifely duties as well as the reins of the “Belknap Foundation”.

Democratic support for a negotiated peace in the Civil War had reduced them to a minority party in the 1860’s. But they were regaining their strength by opposing “Reconstruction”, taking back control of Congress in the 1874 election, Sensing opportunity in 1876, congressional Democrats launched an investigation into the open cesspool of the “Belknap Foundation”. Lt. Col. George Custer, a national celebrity and serving cavalry officer with first hand knowledge of events on the ground, testified before Congress on March 29 and April 4 of 1876. His testimony on the “Belknap Foundation”  fit comfortably into the Democrat’s election narrative of “Reconstruction” corruption.

Of course Custer could have taken the prudent route, taking his cue from Jack Webb of “Dragnet” fame, giving an austere “just the facts” testimony. But that was not George Custer. I suspect the Chairman of the investigating committee, Democratic Rep. Heister Clymer, knew that full well. Custer loved the spotlight.  It was an open secret that Custer had been writing “anonymous” pieces for the New York Herald newspaper on the scandal for some time and it was predictable that he would play to the audience.

Custer did not disappoint Rep. Clymer or newspaper publishers eager to generate headlines. Custer testified before Congress, giving not only his personal knowledge of the facts, but venturing confidently onto the thin ice of rumor and innuendo. Custer testified on “hearsay” evidence that President US Grant’s brother, Orvil, was involved in the Belknap Foundation. To anyone with even a nodding acquaintance of Orvil Grant, this was very believable “hearsay”. But Orvil’s brother, President US Grant never more than lukewarm toward Custer, went ballistic. Grant’s family was definitely off limits.

Imagine the US ambassador to China being interviewed on 60 Minutes, speculating on the nature of Hunter Biden’s work with Chinese and Ukrainian energy companies. After Custer’s testimony, the Democratic Party and grateful newspaper publishers did not fail to reward him. Custer preened as his name began appearing as a possible dark horse Democratic Presidential candidate in the fall election, possibly someone more charismatic and electable than the expected nominee, Samuel Tilden – the sober and straightlaced Governor of New York.

Custer sought out the spotlight but angering powerful men in a public way is a dangerous thing to do. President Grant promptly took his revenge, giving vent to his anger. Lt. Col. George Custer was relieved from duty and put on “indefinite” administrative leave. He would not lead the 7th Cavalry against the Sioux. His military career was over, at least for now, and his regiment was moving out. His chance for the public acclaim of another Washita moment, a boost to the dazzling prospect of a Presidential run, was now gone.

But after the heat of the moment passed, the triumvirate had to reconsider. If not George Custer, then who? These three men were not fools, nor were they contemptuous of their foe. They had been engaged in fighting the Indian Wars for a decade. They remembered very well that it was these same Sioux warriors who had sent the US Army home in disgrace just eight years before in Red Cloud’s War. The Fetterman Massacre, the smoke on the horizon from a burning Ft. Phil Kearney as the army retreated – these moments are not forgotten.

But who? The obvious answer was Col. Samuel Sturgis. Army regiments are commanded by full colonels, while George Custer for all his notoriety was only a Lt. Colonel. It was Col. Samuel Sturgis who commanded the 7th Cavalry. But evidently at this time he was never considered. Seemingly he could not be spared from his duties in St. Louis as Superintendent of the Mounted Recruiting Service. In any event, it is doubtful if Col. Sturgis had ever actually mounted a horse with the 7th.

That would change after June 26th. In the aftermath of Custer’s demise, the brown stuff hit the fan and Col. Samuel Sturgis took the field with the remnant of the regiment. Exactly why he took the field is unknown. His service record was rather pedestrian other than as a convenient foil for Nathan Bedford Forest during the Civil War.

I would suspect the optics required it. A budget cutting Congress ever eager to make points would question the reason for Col. Sturgis to be in St. Louis while his regiment campaigned on the flaming frontier. But Col. Sturgis did have personal reasons as well. His son, 2nd Lieutenant James Sturgis had served with Company E, 7th Cavalry, dying with Custer on Last Stand Hill.

In any case, he was in the field commanding the 7th during the following year, 1877. In common with most other senior officers fighting in the northern plains, Col. Sturgis was ineffective. However, he is remembered in the name of a small town in South Dakota, briefly notorious each August.

Well, if not Col. Sturgis, then how about Custer’s second-in-command – Major Marcus Reno? There seems to have been a decided lack of enthusiasm for this option. One suspects that within the small family of the post-war Army, Marcus Reno was known only too well by his superior officers. Though Major Reno actively campaigned for the command he was refused. The reasons given by his superior officers for his rejection are familiar to those gently broken up with un champ lamour.

We are often loath to admit it, but the boss sometimes has good reasons for turning us down. It may be our boss knows us better than we know ourselves. When actually put to the test on June 26th, Major Reno was a thin reed snapping under pressure. A Court of Inquiry would be called in 1879 to investigate charges of cowardice and drunkenness against Major Reno during the infamous Last Stand.

Of course there was always Gen. Alfred Terry, Gen. Crooke’s opposite number and overall commander of northern half of the campaign. One imagines Gen. Sheridan et. al. smirking as this possibility was put forward. Gen. Terry was a confirmed bachelor living with his spinster sisters in Minneapolis, a Yale trained lawyer more suited to a negotiating table rather than a combat officer leading men against the Sioux.

Actually in the immediate aftermath of Custer’s disgrace, Gen. Terry was tasked with taking Custer’s place – in the saddle at the head of the 7th. One suspects this was a deliberate ruse by Gen. Phil Sheridan, the junior member of the triumvirate, to put pressure on President Grant. It was all very well for the President to indulge his personal pique, but Sheridan needed Custer.

Whether a ruse or simply Grant’s acceptance of the situation’s logic, it got results. Upon learning that the wheel of fortune’s spinner had landed on him, Gen. Terry immediately petitioned President Grant, as well as anyone else in a position to return Custer to favor. It helped that the proud George Custer promptly humbled himself, fawning, groveling and apologizing with the best of them. One imagines the distaff half of the power couple, Libby Custer, was in there pitching as well.

The month of April was no doubt a time of tense communications among the triumvirate. But after a suitable penance, considering the timeline, Custer was redeemed from purgatory. He returned to Ft. Lincoln on May 11th and assumed command. One imagines that Gen. Terry breathed a deep sigh of relief, while Major Reno cursed under his breath – or maybe not. On May 27th, George Custer rode out at the head of the 7th Cavalry, but only after a full dress parade of the regiment before friends, family and reporters at Ft. Abraham Lincoln.

But why such a fuss over Lt. Col. George Custer? His was not even the largest or closest of the three columns converging on the Sioux. Surely Gen. Crook’s command, nearly twice the size with half the distance to travel was the big punch. The third force, some 450 men known as the Montana Column was commanded by Col. John Gibbons.

Custer was the lowest ranking officer with the furthest distance to travel. But the triumvirate knew their people. The right leader makes a difference, particularly when the moment of decision is at hand. George Custer could be counted on to lead his men into the valley of death if that’s what it took. He would force the Sioux to fight.

Unless threatened with survival, a bureaucracy deliberately ignores the individual. A vice president is a vice president, one general replaces another. But when threatened with survival, the fire burns the straw away, the true nature of the individual is laid bare and routine and hierarchy are laid aside to bring the right man to the right job.

The recent history of the Army on the great plains was one of missed opportunities, phantom Indian encampments, meaningless indecisive skirmishes. Something needed to be done. Officers were needed that would bring destruction to the Indian encampments, not simply return with weary men, broken horses and tales of deserted Indian encampments.

Despite their positions of power in the bureaucracy, the triumvirate had to play the game by the rules, but their experience in purifying fire of the Civil War had taught them to take care in the selection of their players. George Crook was a general. He was an experienced soldier, with a competent record in the Civil War. He had a reputation as an Indian fighter, though his experience was in wearing down small bands of the Apache and Paiute. It must be said that George Crooke was a competent general, with a reputation as a good manager capable of running an orderly command where the trains run on time.

In a bureaucracy like the Army, good management is essential and Gen. Crook was a good manager. But unlike other good managers such as Gen. Terry and Col. Sturgis, Gen. Crooke wanted to lead troops in the field, against a large force of the finest light cavalry in the world. And because the frontier Army was a bureaucracy and George Crook was a general, he would do so.

On the other hand, Gen. Phil Sheridan and President US Grant knew George Crook well, most particularly from his service under Sheridan during the Shenandoah Campaign in 1864. Crooke had been a competent commander, kept his men in order, drilled and fed, as well as put them into action in a timely manner.

In that Shenandoah Campaign, Gen. George Crook had fought one independent action, Cloyd’s Mountain. Heavily outnumbering the Rebels, Crooke had fought a competent action, overwhelmed the outnumbered Rebels, but had failed to achieve a meaningful victory. At the moment for the decisive blow to be struck, it seems that “Gen. Crook was unable to provide leadership as the excitement and exertion had sent him into a faint.”

Crook had made a reputation as an Indian fighter by the relentless pursuit of small bands with greatly superior forces. Crook’s men, well supplied by his mastery of the mule train, were able to simply outlast the Indians, forcing them to surrender when finally cornered. But on the northern plains, the Sioux numbered in the thousands and would fight at times and places of the own choosing.

Logistics were important, but at the point of contact, leadership not management was critical. While purchasing agents are critical, they are out of place when it is time to start up the plant. A combat commander facing the Sioux on the northern plains prone to fainting from “excitement and exertion” was worrisome.

As the Army bureaucracy’s survival was not threatened, the hand must be played as dealt. Perhaps the triumvirate hoped for the best. Sometimes people surprised you. But the Powder River Expedition in March was a very bad omen to anyone hoping for Gen. Crook’s personal growth. While the unfortunate Col. Reynolds took the blame for the fiasco, George Cook was very clearly not up to the task. There was very little reason to believe that he would find “the magic” on his second try.

The third of the converging forces was led by Col. John Gibbons, another somewhat “elderly” colonel and an infantry officer to boot. While Gen. Crook was known as the “Father of the Army Mule Train”, Col. John Gibbons was known as the author of “The Artillerist’s Manual”, a well regraded scientific treatise on gunnery.

Col. Gibbons was leading a mixed force of infantry and calvary out of Ft. Ellis, near present day Bozeman. Col Gibbons had been camped at the confluence of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Rivers since April 20. Both on the march and encamped, the Montana Colum had been in position to engage large parties of the Sioux several times, but had not done so.

The triumvirate was stuck with both Gen. Crook and Col. Gibbons. They would lead their soldiers into Powder River country, but there was very little evidence to suggest that they would accomplish anything. In all probability they would wander about in the trackless prairie, meandering treks exhausting men and horses to no purpose.

And in fact, that is what happened. The Battle of the Rosebud only happened because the Sioux attacked, completely surprising Gen. Crook and his soldiers. Disaster was averted by the actions of the Indian scouts and civilian mule packers. Once Crook took control, the battle turned into irrelevance. The Indians left the battlefield undefeated. Despite his fresh soldiers Crook did not pursue further contact even though the presence of a large nearby Indian encampment was obvious.  Instead Crook returned to camp, adopting a passive stance.

While Mark Twain noted that “there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics”, statistics sometimes draw a useful picture. At the Battle of the Rosebud, there were 2,500 – 3,000 men engaged in fairly close proximity for most of a day. Gen. Crook’s forces expended between 10,000 and 25,000 bullets, different reports citing different numbers. Army casualties totaled 9 dead, 21 wounded with about the same number reported by the Crow scouts. Sioux losses numbered somewhat more.

Col. John Gibbons Montana Column left Ft. Ellis on March 30, laboring under the watchful eyes of Sioux scouts for most of April, through the month of May and first half of June. They reached the confluence of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers on April 20, where they remained for the next two months. During that time, the Sioux stole their horses and picked off stragglers. The Montana Column finally arrived at the site of the Last Stand two days after it happened, reinforcing the survivors and burying the mutilated and decomposing bodies.

When Gen. Crook finally arrived on the scene, Gibbon’s Montana Column joined them under the command of the General. The combined two columns moved in pursuit of the Sioux. But as the triumvirate no doubt feared and expected, they meandered through the trackless prairie and October found them back at Ft. Fetterman and Ft. Ellis, weary and exhausted.

How did the triumvirate look at the events of June 26th? Of course I don’t know but while George Custer along with 261 of his men lay buried in fresh graves in the Montana prairie, the Sioux were a broken force. Never again were the Sioux a force to be feared on the northern plains. They broke into fragments, pursued until starved into surrender.

Failure often is the seedbed of success. As men like George Crook, Samuel Sturgis and John Gibbon faded back into roles more suited to their talents, other men were given the opportunity to succeed. There was Nelson Miles, a clone of George Custer in courage, ego and “star” quality who closed out the Sioux, finally stopped Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce and put an end to Geronimo’s Apache raiders.

A Medal of Honor winner at Chancellorsville, Nelson Miles’ career was a series of successes ending with his appointment as Commanding General of the Army. Dubbed a “brave peacock” by Theodore Roosevelt, Nelson Miles’ career ambitions were no doubt helped by his advantageous marriage to a niece of William T. Sherman, a member of the triumvirate.

While Nelson Miles had that “star” quality, another officer emerging from the background (a personal fave of mine) was the man finding greatest success in action against the Indians of the plains. Col. Ranald MacKenzie, commanding the 4th Cavalry, had pacified the Commanche of the southern plains in a series of sharp engagements in the early 1870’s, Blanco Canyon, North Fork, Palo Duro Canyon. Called on after the Last Stand, he took a command from Camp Robinson. While Crook and Gibbon wandered in vain in the fall of 1876, MacKenzie found a large camp of the Northern Cheyenne, allies of the Sioux at the Rosebud and Last Stand. His victory in the ensuing Dull Knife Fight was the final battle of any significance in the Great Sioux War.




One Response to “Prelude to an Ending”

  1. jeff esbenshade says:

    Fort Robinson was used as Army post until after World War 2. It was German
    POW post and all dogs used in WW2 were trained there. The State of Nebraska
    receive the post as gift from US Army and it is a Nebraska State Park.

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