Aside from being my birthday, last Saturday (June 25th) was the anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I finished a book about the man that afternoon. A 336 page volume written by Terry Mort, it’s called Thieves Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s Path to Little Bighorn (Prometheus Books, 2015). No, the book doesn’t cover the events at Little Bighorn. As the subtitle suggest, this book is about Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills, which is to say that this book is about the reconnaissance expedition that lead to the war that lead to Little Bighorn. Officially the expedition had been tasked with helping to establish a Fort in Sioux territory. Unofficially, they were looking for gold. The discovery of that gold would lead to the Great Sioux War of 1876 (and among other things the death of Custer and his men). This particular expedition is a subject I’ve wanted to know more about for sometime, so I was happy to pick this one up.
I’ve written about Custer before, minor tangents here and here, and of course he is the principle villain in the movie Little Big Man, which is an all-time favorite of mine. So, anyway, this isn’t the first time things-Custerly have made their way into my blog. All references to significance of the date aside, it probably won’t be the last either.
For me, the most interesting part of the book would have to be Mort’s efforts to connect this expedition to the larger political economies of the gilded age. All-too-often people (even historians who should know better) speak and write about the the events of western history as though their significance could be understood entirely within the confines of life out on the frontier. We may appreciate that immigration is pushing folks out there or that the civil war affected the availability of troops, and so on, but rarely does anyone make a serious effort to elaborate on the connection between events occurring out west and the larger patterns of U.S. and world history. Mort is definitely an exception to this pattern.
Mort links the effort to find gold in the Black Hills to the financing of the civil war (in particular the need to pay off war bonds in gold currency), to the failures of the Northern Pacific Railway (due in part to fears over Indian raids … fears ironically triggered by Custer’s own reports), and by a cascading series of bank failures stemming from post-war sales of Yankee wheat to Britain (a problem for Russian nobles). If all of that sounds interesting to you, then well, …you know what to do.
I am less impressed with Mort’s approach to activities of Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne during these events. He doesn’t embrace stereotypes, but his account of Native American lives never strays far from them. In fact, much of Mort’s approach to native culture and native actions in the days leading up to the Great Sioux War consists of a rather incomplete critique of the very stereotypes held by whites of the day (particularly those in western states). He gives us just enough to appreciate that those stereotypes are not accurate, but not enough to outgrow them altogether.
What makes this problem particularly interesting to me is Mort’s claim that the Lakota did not really want peace, at least not a lasting and general peace with everyone around them. This, according to Mort, would have left Lakota men without any means of proving themselves. In Lakota society, according to Mort, one became a man primarily through honors that had to be earned in warfare. Significantly, it is this incentive to raiding that provides the critical moment in history as far as Mort is concerned, because it was Sioux raids that provided the reason Custer’s expedition was authorized as a means of establishing a fort in Sioux territory (p.296). It was Custer, according to Mort that chose to combine this expedition with a search for gold, and it was of course the discovery of that very gold that lead to the Great Sioux War.
Don’t get me wrong. Mort’s treatment of the Sioux is very respectful, but respectful and a buck will buy you a beer. The question here is whether or not his treatment is actually fair to them, and frankly I don’t think it is. Mort places the ultimate responsibility for the coming war on their shoulders, and specifically on their interest in perpetuating war for its own sake. The critical moment in history, the moment when things could have gone some other way, is thus one determined by the Sioux themselves. To be sure, Mort has a lot to say about the decisions of any number of parties in events leading up to this war, but the foibles of non-natives are largely those of individuals in his treatment, and I at least cannot help but sense a kind of fatalism in the overall story. However Custer might stumble, his direction seems a foregone conclusion. This is not simply because we know the end of this particular story; it’s a sense that the U.S. would inevitably go after the Black Hills. It’s just what we do, apparently, at least when vast stretches of land lay in the hands of people like the Lakota and the Cheyenne.
The historical moment that settled everything was, as Mort understands it, the one in which young Indian men took to leaving the agencies in the summer and engaging in raids before coming back to those same agencies for the winter. For all we can say about the vagaries of finance, the consequences of greed, or the recklessness of Custer’s particular quest for fame and fortune, in the final analysis, the cause of the coming war at the close of the book is a feature of Lakota society.
To say that I am uncomfortable with this is putting it mildly. I suspect others might choose to pick apart the centrality of warfare among Sioux and Cheyenne. For myself, I am more concerned at the failure to find comparable incentive to warfare in other circles, particularly in those of American society itself. Lakota are not the only society that has struggled with the question of what to do with young and violent men, nor would they be the first (or last) to answer that question by sending such men off to visit their violence on someone else. The honors accorded to warriors can be seen all across popular U.S. media, both in Custer’s day and our own. If an eagle feather might be thought a cause of war to a Lakota, can a medal be any less for a U.S. soldier? If such honors may be thought the reason nations go to war, is this any less true of the U.S. army than it is for indigenous peoples?
Of course, we normally account for the warfare of nation-states by looking at the larger political and economic forces guiding hands of key decision-makers not the ambitions of particular warriors, and Mort does that very well for both the Indian and white side of this story. Yet, he sees in the actions of native warriors a sort of cultural pathology that seems absent in his treatment of U.S. soldiers.
It’s clear enough that Custer sought honors comparable to those of Sioux warriors, as Mort himself points out, but the cultural significance of those honors doesn’t seem as fatal in Mort’s treatment (except perhaps for Custer and his troops). Of course not every American male goes to war whereas such conduct would be far more normative in Lakota society, so perhaps there are some dissimilarities. Yet the same markets that provide for diversification of labor also create the need for resources that send particular troops to particular paces (like the Black Hills) even as others stay home. Mort himself does a great job of explaining exactly how that happened in this instance. So, if it is fair to say of the Sioux that they didn’t want a lasting or general peace, I think that is every bit as true of the U.S. (then and now). We may not all be warriors, but in a nation like the U.S. that simply isn’t how things work. We have the likes of Custer to secure needed resources for us.
As Vine Deloria might have reminded us, Custer died for our sins.