Few battles in American history have been more extensively analyzed and described than the tragic engagement on the Little Big Horn River in Montana, where George Armstrong Custer and five troops of the 7th Cavalry were killed. All of the evidence is in, apparently; the archives have been combed with painstaking thoroughness, and seemingly every human being who was within miles of the place at the time has told and retold his story, often enough in several versions. There is full agreement about practically nothing connected with this affair—except, of course, that it was one whale of a fight.
Yet there is room, it would seem, for one more book on the subject, and Professor Stewart has written it—a good one, assembled with vast thoroughness and attention to detail, which attempts to get the whole business into focus by centering its attention neither on Custer himself nor on the actual battle but on the campaign as a whole and what led up to it.
So Custer’s Luck is an unexpected find: a new account of the famous story which seems fresh and which is worth reading despite the enormous body of literature on the subject which already exists.
Mr. Stewart reviews the whole sorry tale of the United States government’s attempt to cope with the problem presented by the Sioux Indians, beginning in the 1860’s and going down to the date of the battle, in 1876—an attempt so full of contradictions that many of the warriors who fought at the Little Big Horn were men who had been fed, sheltered and armed by the government itself during the preceding winter. He makes one point very clear: that the real difficulty which led to the disaster was neither Custer’s well-known rashness nor the failure of the supporting columns to arrive on time, but simply a complete misconception by all of the military authorities regarding the Indians’ basic attitude in the 1876 campaign.
The army was instructed to round up the Sioux, get them on reservations, and make “good Indians” out of them, and the army supposed that the Sioux would flee incontinently to the most remote mountain fastnesses they could find. In actual fact, says Mr. Stewart, the Sioux were out to make a finish fight. Instead of trying to run away from the encircling columns they were on the warpath, and they had assembled what was probably the largest fighting force of Indians ever brought together in the United States. When Custer finally came up with them, he—and all of his superiors—believed that it was up to him to attack forthwith lest they get away; what nobody thought of was the possibility that instead of wanting to get away the Sioux might want to stay and fight.
This, says Mr. Stewart, was the chief factor leading up to the tragedy. Another, of course, was Custer himself. He was in very bad with President Grant just then, and he had to perform some great feat of arms that would reinstate him. Also, he was a soldier who liked to plow into a fight, head-down, and slug until something broke; he had the delusion that with the 7th Cavalry he could whip any imaginable body of red men, and caution was a word he did not understand. Lastly, like every other military man in the vicinity, he had no idea that there were as many Indians in his front as was the case.
Of the battle itself Mr. Stewart gives a fine, detailed account. Understandably, he is working against great difficulties; no one really knows, or ever will know, precisely what happened at the “last stand,” and from the troops that did survive (under Benteen and Reno) there are about as many stories as there are survivors. But Mr. Stewart weighs all of the evidence carefully, sifts probabilities from improbabilities as well as any man could, and comes up with an excellent account of a battle which will fascinate Americans as long as they continue to read their own military history.
Custer’s Luck , by Edgar I. Stewart. 522 pp. The University of Oklahoma Press. $5.95.