Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#40: Archaeology, History and Custer's Last Battle by Richard Allen Fox Jr

University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. 411 pages

Ahhhhhh, George Armstrong Custer. As Al Swearingen said in Deadwood, "That arrogant cocksucker getting massacred just brought the Sioux one long term assfucking."

I have long been fascinated with Custer and his fight. My "uncle" (read: someone my folks pawned me off on when they did not want to deal with me) gave me books to read about him. Richard Fox's book is different than most of those, as he takes a different take on the Last Stand than many authors. His sources and methodology are authoritative, in some cases overwhelmingly so. Fox takes the first two sections of the book to lay out the archaeological evidence, then takes into account not only army accounts but also Indian accounts of the fight.

This runs him afoul of many Custerphiles. As Fox points out, it benefits the narrative of the 1870s and 1880s to believe in a Last Stand of white men before they were "overwhelmed." The only way the natives could win is through overwhelming numbers, which meshes with the white superiority idea of empire in the late 19th century. Of course, one person who indefatigably pushed the legend was Libby Custer, George's wife. Fox argues that the evidence does not support a "Last Stand" hypothesis. Having been to the field, I find this analysis correct. The command was strung out on a series of ridges overlooking the Little Bighorn River; the markers on the field are of questionable veracity.

Custer's bravery has never been questioned, nor should it be. He was a general who led from the front and was offensive minded. What makes this book fascinating is that many who read it think that Fox is questioning Custer's courage and that of his men. Well, if you are outnumbered some 3-1, in a defensive position that leaves much to be desired, in 90 degree heat, far from supplies, fighting an enemy that does not have the best reputation for treatment of prisoners or the dead, would you be scared? I would be crapping in my army issued pants. This is quite all right, and is a normal reaction. Custer was brave to a fault, but even he probably knew the command was in desperate straits.The evidence supplied by Fox more than proves this contention in this reporter's opinion.

This book is more about what Custer means. In the 1880s and 1890s the two things you could count on being in any tavern north of Tennessee were:
1. Drunks
2. The engraving of Custer's Last Stand by Anheuser Busch.

The Sioux, from Sitting Bull on down, were excited by the victory but knew that Swearingen's profane announcement would prove correct. Crazy Horse came into the reservation some 18 months later. It could be argued that the Custer Fight needed to happen; after all, it nearly happened to General Crook on the Rosebud the previous week in 1876. The Last Stand here was for the Sioux and their allies, not Custer.

In this text Fox painstakingly lays out his idea of the flow of battle based on the archaeological evidence. At times it is a difficult read, but it is never boring and will keep your attention. It is suggested that you read the endnotes while going through the text as they provide good info. If you are interested in Custer this book is quite a read; if you are not, you may be wondering "What the hell is this?"

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