Clash of Cultures


I have a small collection of books by historian Stephen E. Ambrose, and my aim is to finish reading them and write some reviews. I previously reviewed Band of Brothers, the story of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment during World War Two. Ambrose was a noted historian of war and the military, and his tale of Crazy Horse and George Custer is especially enlightening.

Crazy Horse of the Sioux and George Custer of the United States Army grew up and lived in parallel universes. It’s worthwhile to trace the history of the plains tribes—the Sioux and others. A casual reading of United States history gives the impression of European settlers from the eastern states advancing into the land of the plains Indians and uprooting an ancient culture. While there was this advance of settlers into Indian lands, their culture was not all that ancient:

Most of the famous Plains tribes were pushed out onto the prairie by military defeats, the Crow, Arapaho, Black-foot, and Cheyenne among them. The last major tribe to arrive on the Plains was the Sioux; trekking out of the woods of Minnesota, their ancient enemy the Chippewa at their heels, the Sioux did not cross the Missouri River or acquire the horse in any great numbers until 1776, the year of American Independence.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2011-10-31). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (Kindle Edition) (Kindle Locations 262-265). PREMIER DIGITAL PUBLISHING. Kindle Edition.

It was during this period that the Indian culture on the plains underwent a significant tranformation. Prior to the reintroduction of the horse on the North American Continent, the great American Midwest held little attraction. Distances were vast and featureless. Settlement was viable only along river beds and other places where a supply of water and shelter from the relentless wind afforded the promise of survival into the following year. With the horse, tribes could move long distances and quickly. Although the Sioux and others were proficient—a good hunter could drive an arrow clean through a grown bison—the gun promised greater range. The horse made it possible to pursue and ride into a herd. The gun made it unnecessary.

The plains tribes had little use for personal property. Material goods had to be transported and cared for, making them a liability. The horse, more properly the pinto pony, became the Indians’ first major physical asset and their medium of exchange. European settlers viewed the plains Indians as lazy, unwilling to work. There was much truth to this. Without the need to obtain a horde of physical assets, work for the sake of obtaining wealth was a foreign concept. All that changed when eastern merchants introduced Indians to the benefits of coffee, metal tools, guns, and whiskey.

Crazy Horse was born into this culture in 1840, about the same time as Custer. He was an unusual Indian. His hair was not dark and straight, but light and curly. His original name was Curly. His father’s name was Crazy Horse. When he came of age he adopted his father’s name, and his father changed his own name to Worm.

In the movie, We Were Soldiers, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) says, “When Crazy Horse was a baby, he nursed from the breasts from every woman in the tribe.” This is a true statement. Tribal women shared the nursing of babies, many of them continuing to lactate for years and many children continuing to nurse up to the age of six. Moore’s message was meant to send the message that tribal cohesion was instilled in this manner.

Society of the plains tribes would closely resemble modern political and economic socialism. With very little personal wealth involved, members of a tribe shared freely. While the English settlers in the New World early adopted the mantra that only those who worked would be able to eat, spoils from a hunt were shared regardless of whether an individual participated in the hunt. Comparisons with two notable motion picture themes stand out.

First, there really was a Little Big Man. But he was an Indian warrior and one of Crazy Horse’s closest associates. As in the movie, individualism in tribal society was well tolerated. In the movie there is one member of the Cheyenne tribe (that adopts the Dustin Hoffman character) who is a contrarian. He paints himself in opposing colors and rides his horse facing backwards. Another male tribal member is obviously effeminate, disdaining the manly chores of hunting and fighting.

Dances With Wolves features Kevin Costner as another European adopted by a plains tribe. It also depicts features of tribal society that are borne out by the historical account.

This book sorely puts to rest the myth of the peaceful plains Indian. When Crazy Horse and his tribe were unable to find white men to attack, they made war again and again on their enemies of choice, the Crows, Shoshonis, and Pawnees.

In parallel, George Armstrong Custer was born in 1839 and raised in the European culture of Ohio, USA, not all that far from Crazy Horse’s place of birth, but a universe apart. Ohio was a land of enormous natural wealth during this time, and European settlers saw this as a gift from God, a gift that came with a mandate to be exploited. And the settlers did just that. A carpet of forest that had existed for thousands of years disappeared under the ax and the saw in barely more than a decade. Tree stumps were removed, and the land was planted with food crops. Investment flowed from the East Coast, which investment was required to be returned to the East Coast by the people working the region. Ohio became a seat of American manufacturing prowess.

In the first decade of Custer’s life, Ohio enjoyed an economic boom. Population increased from 1.5 million to 2 million. Most of the growth was non-agricultural, which meant that Ohio was becoming more complex, specialized, and richer. While there were still settlers trying to scratch out a living on newly cleared land, there were thousands of solid, well-established commercial farmers, artisans of all kinds, lawyers, ministers, doctors and other professional men, and industrialists. In 1840, 272,000 Ohio men were involved in farming; by 1850 that number had dropped to 270,000. The number of men engaged in commerce, trade, manufacturing, or the mechanical arts had grown from 76,000 in 1840 to more than 140,000 in 1850. The number of professional men had grown from 5,600 to 9,000.3 Almost everyone worked. The “whole number of Paupers supported in whole or part,” as the census taker put it in 1850, was 1,250.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2011-10-31). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (Kindle Edition) (Kindle Locations 500-507). PREMIER DIGITAL PUBLISHING. Kindle Edition.

It would have been apparent to any who studied it at the time that this culture must soon spread into the open plains to the west. A clash with the plains culture had a certain future. Only the Civil War set the date back for five years.

Custer and Crazy Horse were both mavericks, growing up as independent spirits. Custer’s childhood name was Autie. Early on he showed the independence and courage that were to mark his short life.

Autie was impulsive and somewhat precocious. Emmanuel later described a childhood incident: “When Autie was about 4 years old he had to have a tooth drawn, and he was very much afraid of blood. When I took him to the Doctor to have the tooth pulled it was in the night & I told him if it bled well it would get well right away, and he must be a good soldier. When we got to the Doctor he took his seat, and the pulling began. The forceps slipped off, and Doc had to make a second trial. He pulled it out, and Autie never even scrunched. Going home, I led him by the arm. He jumped & skipped, and said, ‘Pop, you & me can whip all the Whigs in Ohio!’ I thought that was saying a good deal, but I didn’t contradict him!” In fact, Emmanuel quoted him to everyone he met for weeks afterward.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2011-10-31). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (Kindle Edition) (Kindle Locations 1608-1614). PREMIER DIGITAL PUBLISHING. Kindle Edition.

The white man’s society attached social standing to birth and property. Custer’s family had neither. He attended West Point Military Academy, his only shot at being able to afford a college education and to lift himself socially. At that, Custer’s rambunctious style marked the course of his future and simultaneously threatened it. Infractions of the rules earned demerits, and accumulating a fatal total within a counting period earned a cadet expulsion with no hope for redemption. Custer was a prankster, always pushing the limits, and during one counting period he came up against the deadly limit. He went the next few months without acquiring another demerit, a feat unknown in the history of the institution.

The Civil War marked the end of his schooling. As Custer’s final year (the term was five years in those days) approached, the looming conflict tore the institution apart. Many cadets were from Southern states, and their loyalties lay in the direction of the Confederacy. Custer, though an anti-abolitionist and a Democrat, felt the tug of national pride over politics. While his southern schoolmates resigned from the academy and accepted commissions in the Confederate army following the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Custer stayed true to the Union. Other, northern, cadets resigned from the academy and accepted lucrative commissions in northern state militias. Custer and the remainder of his class were graduated a year early in 1861 and received commissions in the Union Army. Out of a diminished graduating class of 24, Custer ranked 24.

In battle, Custer’s audacious, some would say foolhardy, actions earned him recognition and eventually the stars of a major general. Particularly notable, though not elaborated in the book, is his charge to break up a Confederate cavalry attack during what has come to be called Pickett’s Charge, the final action of the Battle of Gettysburg. Pickett’s frontal attack was supposed to be supported by a calvary charge from the rear, led by  Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Custer recognized the intent and ran his column head on into Stuart’s, breaking up the formation and causing it to lose all momentum.

The years following the war saw Custer’s rank reduced to peacetime levels. He was posted to a variety of western locations, including once in Texas. Newly married, he was excessively devoted to his wife throughout the remainder of his life. He took her to all his western postings, even to frontier forts threatened by Indians. His devotion often superseded his commitment to his military duties, and he was court martialed multiple times.

In the mean time the war of the plains ramped up to its inevitable conclusion and drew Custer toward with a fatal attraction. Following the Civil War, the government promoted the extension of rail lines to the West Coast, typically following established pioneer routes. As railroad surveyors advanced west the plains Indians recognized what was going on and attempted to thwart railroad construction by harassing (killing) survey parties. The Army was assigned the task of protecting these parties. Results bordered on the bizarre.

Western postings were the most undesirable. The Army recruited from the dregs of Eastern society, and those recruited were poorly trained, if at all. Many recruits saw their postings only as an opportunity to get free transportation to the gold exploration regions in the West, and they deserted at the earliest opportunity. Officers were of equally low grade. Drunkenness was rampant. Leadership was almost non-existent. Disasters were inevitable.

In an early, garish incident, a troop of soldiers was completely wiped out when they attempted to raid an Indian village to apprehend a man who had taken refuge:

Grattan lost what little patience he had. He snapped out an order, then jumped aside. His men fired two volleys into the encampment. The howitzer had been laid too high and the grapeshot tore through the tops of the tipis without doing any real harm, but Conquering Bear—standing right in the middle, directly in front of the line of infantry—had nine bullet wounds and lay in a pool of blood in the dust. The Brulés poured out of their lodges; the Oglalas rode down on the Grattan party from the bluffs. One quick volley of arrows and it was over. Grattan and all his men were dead.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2011-10-31). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (Kindle Edition) (Kindle Locations 1202-1207). PREMIER DIGITAL PUBLISHING. Kindle Edition.

In another notorious defeat later, Indians decoyed a detachment of troops into an ambush just out of sight of their fort:

Fetterman glanced in the direction he had come, but the bulk of the warriors were on his rear and he had no chance to retreat to the safety of the fort. He ordered his command to move to the right, up the slopes of a nearby hill—a difficult task at best because snow and ice made the going slippery. Arrows were flying everywhere—in the forty-minute battle the Indians fired forty thousand arrows—and the soldiers were looking for any shelter they could find. There were some boulders scattered about on the ground, and the infantrymen began to duck behind them. At this point Fetterman made his second major error—he allowed the cavalrymen to break loose from the infantry and lead their horses up the hill, where abundant rocks provided more protection. As a result, the cavalry watched while the infantrymen fought for their lives.

No one directed the Indian assault—it was every man for himself. First one, then two or three warriors rode through the infantry, counting coup and yelling at the top of their lungs. Eats Meat, a Miniconjou, tried it and fell. Then a Cheyenne rode into the infantry, only to be cut down. A young Oglala warrior charged through the smoke on foot toward a soldier who had just fallen with an arrow in his head. Grabbing the soldier’s rifle, the warrior came dashing back, waving the weapon and shouting like a crazy man, “I have a gun! I have a gun!” All the while arrows flew through the air, so thick that the Oglalas were hitting Miniconjous, Cheyennes were wounding Arapahoes. The Indians’ heaviest losses that day came from their own fire.

But in less than twenty minutes the white infantry was wiped out. The Indians began to crawl up the hill in pursuit of the cavalry. The horse soldiers let their mounts loose, hoping that the Indians would chase the loose stock and leave them alone. Some of the warriors took the bait, but most stuck to the business at hand. A few warriors remained mounted, but the majority were on foot, sneaking forward, using rocks for protection, talking to each other, shouting warnings to keep down. Occasionally an Indian would pop up and take careful aim; soldiers’ heads appeared from behind the rocks as the white men tried to bring down the brave individual; the Indians would then fill the air with arrows. There was no need to save ammunition that day, as there were arrows lying all around, so the warriors only had to pick them up and keep firing. In a short time, less than fifteen minutes, the mass of warriors was close enough to the cavalry position to rush it.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2011-10-31). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (Kindle Edition) (Kindle Locations 4160-4162). PREMIER DIGITAL PUBLISHING. Kindle Edition.

This approach to developing an ambush had been attempted before, but always without success. Historically the Indians had fought as individuals, and one of Crazy Horse’s achievements, as in this case, was to compel his fighters to resist the impulse to charge into the attack before the ambush had been completely developed. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn he was to achieve this success once more.

In 1873 Custer and Crazy Horse likely saw each other for the first time. Crazy Horse attempted to set up an ambush, similar to the one he had used against Fetterman, along the banks of the Yellowstone River. Crazy Horse exposed himself and several other warriors as bait to Custer, who was leading a small detachment. Custer’s luck held out this time as Indians recognized him as the hated killer of their families. The impatience for revenge exposed the trap, and Custer took his detachment back to his base, where the soldiers were successful in beating off the ensuing attack.

Custer’s bravado caught up with him along the Little Bighorn River in June of 1876, when he attempted to attack a Sioux settlement without fully assessing its size. This time Crazy Horse was able to hold his warriors in check, and Custer’s contingent of approximately 210 was trapped and annihilated.

Crazy Horse lived little more than a year following the battle. First taking refuge in Canada, he was ultimately coaxed into returning and surrendering to a life of domestication. A rivalry between the free Indian population and the “Hang-Around-the-Forts” escalated to the murder of Crazy Horse. Red Cloud, an Oglala Sioux leader, had visited Washington and New York City and had become convinced of the inevitability of the extinction of the plains Indians’ way of life. Back at the frontier he engaged neck-deep in the politics of Indian domestication to the extent of fomenting rumors of Crazy Horse’s duplicity. When Crazy Horse resisted too strenuously to these mechanizations he was murdered.

Both warriors died childless. Though happily married to the end of his life, Custer and his wife never had any children. Crazy Horse and Black Buffalo Woman were strongly attracted to each other. She was the niece of Red Cloud and the wife of No Water. The matter came to a head when the two went off together. No Water pursued them and shot Crazy Horse in the face with a pistol. Subsequently friends of Crazy Horse arranged a marriage with a woman named Black Shawl, and they had one daughter, who died of cholera at an early age.

George Custer’s brother Tom, who was a holder of the Medal of Honor from a previous campaign, was killed along with George at Little Bighorn.

The American government set as a goal to eliminate the threat of the plains Indians and to settle the Midwest. They initially attempted to buy the tribes off with goods, but the Indians had enough number sense to see they were being low-balled. Eradication of the Indians by military action was the recourse, using as an excuse Indian attacks on caravans and survey parties. This proved to be more costly than the initial attempt at bribery. The Army spent $1 million per Indian killed. Disease took the heaviest toll, but the tribes could have survived despite that. Their fatal weakness was their dependency on the herds of American Bison, and the near extinction of the herds by white and Indian hunters with rifles brought the tribes to near starvation and into the agencies. Other atrocities against the tribes followed up through the end of the 19th century, and the remnants now exist on various reservations.

I could make only a couple of problems with transcription. This happens when a book for which no electronic copy is available is converted to Kindle or some other computer-based form by manual or mechanical means. The following two words  were likely broken over line endings in the original form and not put back together correctly.

  • Breck-inridge
  • Leaven-worth

4 thoughts on “Clash of Cultures

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