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My Life on the Plains: Personal Experiences with Indians (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

"Your articles on the Plains are by far the best I have ever read," - William T. Sherman to George Armstrong Custer

Two years before he became a legend at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, George Armstrong Custer penned his fascinating memoir, My Life on the Plains. Written when he was just thirty-four years old, it tells of his early years as a cavalry commander on America's military frontier and his part in the grim business of Indian warfare against the formidable tribes still resisting white encroachment. My...
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My Life on the Plains: Personal Experiences with Indians (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

"Your articles on the Plains are by far the best I have ever read," - William T. Sherman to George Armstrong Custer

Two years before he became a legend at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, George Armstrong Custer penned his fascinating memoir, My Life on the Plains. Written when he was just thirty-four years old, it tells of his early years as a cavalry commander on America's military frontier and his part in the grim business of Indian warfare against the formidable tribes still resisting white encroachment. My Life on the Plains not only remains an important source for historians by a leading participant in the Indian Wars, but a red-blooded tale that can still evoke a vanishing frontier, the thrill of the buffalo chase, and the warlike panoply of Indian horsemen.
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Introduction

"I served through the Civil War and saw many hard sights on the battlefield," recalled cavalry veteran John Ryan, "but never saw such a sight as I saw there." On that hot June day in 1876, scattered over a sprawling Montana battleground, lay the stripped, mutilated bodies of over two hundred American soldiers-five companies of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, wiped out by a vastly superior force of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Out of this horrific slaughter would spring almost instantly a grim yet heroic legend, and a lasting mystery. Custer was only thirty-six years old when the Battle of the Little Bighorn provided the climax to his dramatic life. But at thirty-four he had already completed My Life on the Plains, a fascinating memoir of the young soldier's early years as a cavalry commander on America's military frontier-and his part in the grim business of Indian warfare against the formidable tribes still resisting white encroachment.

Born in Ohio in 1839 and raised in Michigan, George Custer secured an appointment in 1857 to West Point, where he pursued an academic career he could later recommend only as an example to be avoided. But Custer applied himself when necessary to stave off expulsion, and survived-to graduate last in a class of thirty-four in June 1861 after the secession crisis inspired many Southern cadets to resign. As a newly minted second lieutenant assigned to the Second U.S. Cavalry, Custer joined his regiment in time to see action at Bull Run. It was to be the first of many battles for Custer over the next four years of civil war.

Custer soon proved a bold and energetic staff officer, serving for a time as an aide to Army of the Potomac commander George B. McClellan. But in the summer of 1863 General Alfred Pleasanton, hoping to revitalize his cavalry corps, selected three promising young officers for promotion. A surprised Captain Custer-who had vainly petitioned Michigan's governor for the colonelcy of a cavalry regiment-now accepted command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade with his brigadier's star, making him, at twenty-three, the Union Army's youngest general. A few days later, at the great cavalry fight east of Gettysburg, Custer charged at the head of his badly outnumbered "Wolverines" to defeat Confederate horsemen under Wade Hampton.

This hot spur with long reddish-blonde hair and gleaming saber, cool under fire and quick to seize the fleeting chances offered by battle's shifting tides, won his men's admiration through repeated successes-and by his disdain for danger. The age still treasured knightly gestures amidst battle's horrors-and the "Boy General," with his gold-trimmed black velvet jacket and red cravat, became the Union Army's most colorful hero. At the head of the Third Cavalry Division, he helped cut off Lee's final retreat, and after the surrender at Appomattox, General Philip H. Sheridan purchased as a gift for Custer's wife, Elizabeth, the table on which General Grant had drafted its terms-informing "Libbie" that "there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband."

Peace brought a professional anti-climax to the young major general of volunteers. The great Union volunteer hosts dissolved, and in 1866 Custer reverted to his rank of captain in the tiny Regular Army. But promotion followed, and Custer, with "brevet" (i.e., chiefly honorary) ranks up to major general for wartime service, arrived at Fort Riley, Kansas, as lieutenant-colonel of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry-one of four new mounted regiments authorized with an eye to frontier service.

On the Kansas plains, a powerful expedition under General Winfield Scott Hancock gave Custer his introduction to Indian warfare. Hancock hoped by a show of force to overawe such warlike tribes as the Cheyennes and Arapahoes into passivity. But he could neither address the Indians' grievances, nor ease their fears that he might attack them. When, after a council, a village of Sioux and Cheyennes simply fled, leaving their lodges standing, Hancock interpreted their flight as a sign of hostility, and ultimately burned the camp. Custer found the Plains Indians a frustratingly elusive foe, even as he privately wrote that raids by "irresponsible young men, eager for war" did not yet justify a full-scale military response. That year, under the byline "Nomad," Custer publicly criticized General Hancock through his initial venture into periodical literature-letters published in Turf, Field, and Farm, a sportsman's journal to which the eager hunter and outdoorsman would contribute sporadically until 1875.

For Custer, "Hancock's War" ended in failure and rebuke. His usual energy and optimism yielded to irritation and lassitude in pursuing the foe, while a Seventh Cavalry captain complained that Custer had proved himself, through ill-treatment of soldiers and rudeness to officers, "unworthy of the respect of all right-minded men." After a forced march ended in an unauthorized ride to Fort Riley to visit his wife, a court-martial found Custer guilty of various offenses, which included having ordered soldiers shot down (one fatally) as they attempted to desert. Receiving a year's suspension without pay, Custer endured a restive exile in Michigan even as horrific raids against Kansas settlers sparked a new Indian war in the summer of 1868. But his wartime patron, Phil Sheridan, requested that Custer's sentence be cut short, and the prodigal eagerly sped westward to play a key role in a winter campaign. On November 27, trailing a war party, Custer struck a snowbound village on the Washita River in what would later become Oklahoma. The soldiers burned the village, killed its chief, bore off women and children, and slaughtered hundreds of ponies-a blow that seemed to vindicate Sheridan's risky strategy of using winter to immobilize the Indians. But the victory was costly-with eighteen of the Seventh Cavalry's twenty-two deaths suffered after Major Joel Elliott impulsively galloped in pursuit of Cheyenne fugitives, only to find his small group surrounded by warriors from other Indian camps located downstream. Elliott was still missing when Custer withdrew.

The village proved to be that of the peace-minded Black Kettle-whose band had been slaughtered at Sand Creek by Colorado volunteers almost exactly four years before. Custer, finding himself accused not only of attacking a peaceful camp, but of perpetrating a massacre, argued that he had ordered noncombatants spared, and that the camp's warriors had raided into Kansas. Some critics also charged Custer with having made no adequate search for Elliott's party, and one of his own officers, Captain Frederick Benteen, suggested in an unsigned newspaper account that Elliott had been left to die-though he admitted privately that had the missing men been found after the battle, "they would simply have been found dead, as they were two weeks later."

Following the Washita, Custer sought to coax free-roaming Indians onto the reservation-at times attempting to reassure them by traveling with a dangerously small escort. Custer's crowning success came when, leading a large force of regulars and vengeful Kansas volunteers on a starvation march, he recovered two white women from their Cheyenne captors without bloodshed. Custer would not fight Indians again until 1873, clashing twice with the Sioux in Montana while escorting railroad surveyors.

In the meantime, during an uneventful interlude in Kentucky, he had resumed writing. A relieved Libbie Custer saw her husband's efforts as an antidote to the tedium of garrison life-and a profitable one, since The Galaxy, an upper-middle-class fortnightly conceived as New York's rival to The Atlantic (which would absorb it in 1878), offered a stout fee of $100 for each of a series of articles. Joining such past contributors as Custer favorite Mark Twain "opened to him a world of interest," and helped occupy the long Dakota winters at Fort Abraham Lincoln. The first article appeared in the January 1872 number. "Many times afterwards we enjoyed immensely the little pleasures and luxuries given us by what his pen added to the family exchequer." Custer mingled comfortably with wealthy sophisticates and intellectuals during his Manhattan sojourns, and he clearly has The Galaxy's urbane readership in mind when he compares the limit of visibility during a Plains snowstorm to the width of Broadway-on which street the magazine's publisher, Sheldon & Company, had its offices. The last of Custer's articles appeared in October 1874, and that same year Sheldon & Company published the collected pieces in book form.

My Life on the Plains reveals a well-read man of broad interests, capable of producing a compelling narrative with little or no editorial assistance and, judging from Mrs. Custer's account, little or no revision of an initial draft. (Custer was flattered to find his writing talent so highly esteemed as to inspire rumors that his wife-destined to win acclaim herself as a memoirist following her husband's death-was the actual author.) Custer has a broader story to tell than his book's title would suggest, and he even delays reciting his own Plains experiences to present several chapters on matters historical, geographical, and ethnological.

Some passages have, with time, acquired darkly prophetic overtones. Viewing the bodies of the slaughtered Kidder party, and later those of Elliott's men, Custer is moved to speculate on the soldiers' desperate resistance-as those examining the remains of his own command were to do. Here as elsewhere, Custer spares his refined readers few of Indian warfare's grisly horrors, and he discourages faith in Native Americans as a noble James Fenimore Cooper character. Yet even while insisting that the Indians are savages, the romantic Custer celebrates their horsemanship and warlike skills, laments that white civilization deprives them of their identity, and even famously admits that if he were an Indian, he too would choose resistance over the reservation-though Custer the progressive Victorian adds that the natives could not be given this option.

As Custer himself would later concede, "marked and sometimes apparently irreconcilable discrepancies" occur in testimony regarding the same event. But what of the striking discrepancies found within Custer's own writings? If some of his book's anecdotes vary from the same stories recounted in his "Nomad" letters, one can recognize that Custer was producing "literary works, meant to entertain," which would naturally employ devices such as hyperbole and embroidered conversations. But Custer sometimes has a goal beyond mere entertainment. As "Nomad," he had told of an unnamed young officer's embarrassing error in mistaking an army camp for an Indian village. Now, with his friend Captain Louis Hamilton a fatality of the Washita, Custer protects him further by transforming him into a gray-haired veteran.

Other discrepancies support a noted historian's characterization of Custer as "adept at self-delusion, at reshaping facts and observations to produce pleasing results." The "Nomad" letters, unlike My Life on the Plains, had omitted any mention of the ravished child found in the abandoned village-perhaps because knowledge of the crime might infuriate Custer's readers into sympathy with Hancock's decision to burn it. The book's less resentful, more experienced author not only avoids criticizing Hancock, but actually condemns (unnamed) critics for having waged an "extensive pen and ink war" against him. Destined to become one of American history's most controversial figures, Custer is less likely to address controversial points than to glide over them, and he mentions his 1867 arrest only in the most cryptic fashion. Optimism prevails, and with his concluding chapter, written in the midst of preparations for his 1874 Black Hills expedition-destined, because of the discovery of gold on Sioux lands, to bring on the war in which he himself would die-Custer offers a prediction of lasting peace on the Kansas frontier.

Custer found response to My Life on the Plains gratifying. "Your articles on the Plains are by far the best I have ever read," wrote commanding general William T. Sherman, who encouraged Custer to complete his Civil War memoirs (which he had begun only to put aside years before) and noted that every member of his family had read the book with deep interest: "Somehow these personal observations have a freshness, lifelike, lacking in more sober history.…" The combination of buckskin-clad Indian fighter and man of letters proved appealing, and one Chicago reporter-describing the General's study at Fort Abraham Lincoln as a place "where Ruskin lay beside a revolver" -asserted that "Custer lived illustrating in himself the anomaly of a hunter and literateur; an associate of savages and a patron of art." The most serious criticism came from Colonel William Hazen, provoked by the contention that he had erred in attempting to dissuade Custer and Sheridan from attacking certain Kiowa and Comanche Indians; Hazen fired off a protest to The Galaxy (the magazine's summary of which, printed in the July 1874 issue, is included as an appendix in this volume) and published a pamphlet entitled Some Corrections to "Life on the Plains." Privately, the irascible Captain Benteen, a brevet lieutenant colonel at the time of the Washita, later expressed bewildered resentment over the book's references (in otherwise complimentary passages) to a "Major Benteen," and suggested that the "f" be left out of Life on the Plains. The book was, he acknowledged, "readable enough, but . . . the falsity of much of it is as glaring as the sun at noonday."

An encouraged Custer resumed work on his Civil War memoirs, even completing a chapter for The Galaxy while in the field during his last campaign. (The last four chapters completed, and an article on battling the Sioux in 1873, would appear posthumously.) Separated from General Alfred Terry's column, his every action and decision destined to inspire debate, Custer encountered his Sioux and Cheyenne foes in Montana's Little Bighorn valley on June 25, 1876. Preparing to attack the Indians' large village, Custer separated the Seventh Cavalry into three detachments and a reinforced pack train. Seven of the regiment's companies ultimately coalesced on a hilltop defensive position, where the Indians besieged them throughout most of the next day. Not until June 27, upon the arrival of Terry's command, did the Seventh's survivors learn that Custer's five companies had been surrounded-and destroyed.

The public imagination was gripped by shocking tales of annihilation-and visions of a Thermopylae-like fight against the odds. If his memoirs had helped establish Custer's image as a frontier soldier, "Custer's Last Stand" would forever seal his fate as symbol of the Indian-fighting army. But while My Life on the Plains would not be reprinted until 1881, Custer's first (and for many years only) biographer, Frederick Whittaker, introduced the memoir in excerpted or indirect form to countless new readers. He plundered Custer's book ruthlessly, at times reproducing page after page as well as illustrations, enabling Sheldon & Company to publish A Complete Life of General George A. Custer less than six months after its hero's death. Whittaker's hagiographic masterpiece was the sole source of information for many writers to follow, and in an age of frequent literary piracy some copied passages without bothering to give credit. As an astute chronicler of the legend notes, "To examine the popular Custer literature of the 1880s and 1890s is to read Whittaker again and again."

Thus Custer's own writings, as well as Elizabeth Custer's three books on her life with the General, would continue to shape his popular image, which remained overwhelmingly heroic until his protective (and long-lived) widow died in 1933, and Frederic F. Van de Water's debunking 1934 biography Glory-Hunter launched a reversal of Custer's reputation "unique in heroic legend." But Custer's metamorphosis from slain national hero to self-serving, incompetent, and even genocidal villain-still the symbolic frontier soldier, recast as a handy scapegoat for America's sins against the Indian-has failed to dim interest in his memoirs. My Life on the Plains not only remains an important source for historians by a leading participant in the Indian Wars, but a red-blooded tale that can still evoke a vanishing frontier, the thrill of the buffalo chase, and the warlike panoply of Indian horsemen.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 10 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2013

    Interesting and addictive.

    Tough group of men back in them days...an interesting account done well...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2009

    My Life On The Plains

    Anyone interested in the West during the mid 1800's will enjoy this book. Personally, I like the first person feel of Custer's style. He tells the reader what problems were encountered and how they were dealt with. Curiously, the political situation of his time, concerning Washington, DC is not very different from today.
    He relates day to day activity of troop movements, consideration for animal forage, dealing with Indians that are not happy with the invasion of the white men, problems of troop retention,their morale, and how to deal with deserters, difficulty protecting isolated ranches.
    You and I deal with possible traffic tie ups. He deals with the possibility of supply trains being looted and settlers being killed or "outraged".
    I found it an interesting read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2008

    clear victory with vision

    this is a great book by a great american. custer knew his enemy and didn't flinch. he dealt with a double timing government beauracy while facing off with a passive,aggressive, savage enemy. revisionist historians will have us believe the poor american indian was exploited by careless america and pushed off their land. perhaps this book will help clear up the facts. also, this a good read for foreign policy employees.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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