A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Battle of the American West

A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Battle of the American West

3.8 44
by James Donovan

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In June of 1876, on a desolate hill above a winding river called "the Little Bighorn," George Armstrong Custer and all 210 men under his direct command were annihilated by almost 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne. The news of this devastating loss caused a public uproar, and those in positions of power promptly began to point fingers in order to avoid responsibility. Custer,… See more details below


In June of 1876, on a desolate hill above a winding river called "the Little Bighorn," George Armstrong Custer and all 210 men under his direct command were annihilated by almost 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne. The news of this devastating loss caused a public uproar, and those in positions of power promptly began to point fingers in order to avoid responsibility. Custer, who was conveniently dead, took the brunt of the blame.

The truth, however, was far more complex. A TERRIBLE GLORY is the first book to relate the entire story of this endlessly fascinating battle, and the first to call upon all the significant research and findings of the past twenty-five years--which have changed significantly how this controversial event is perceived. Furthermore, it is the first book to bring to light the details of the U.S. Army cover-up--and unravel one of the greatest mysteries in U.S. military history.

Scrupulously researched, A TERRIBLE GLORY will stand as ta landmark work. Brimming with authentic detail and an unforgettable cast of characters--from Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to Ulysses Grant and Custer himself--this is history with the sweep of a great novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this labor of love, Donovan collects the multiple threads that led to the 1876 massacre at Little Big Horn. By the 1870s various American Indian tribes ignored the American government's edict to relocate to reservations. Growth in pioneer settlements had produced so many clashes that western commander Philip Sheridan ordered three army columns to converge on an immense Indian encampment in southern Montana Territory. Donovan's eye-opening description of these cavalrymen contradicts the Hollywood image. These troops were untrained, inexperienced in individual combat and poorly equipped. Custer, the first to encounter the enemy encampment, split his forces before attacking. This tactical error ensured that some units would survive the fighting, here described in vivid detail. Custer's last stand became the Indians', too. Though the army was happy to blame the debacle on the dead Custer, the battle's survivors banded together to ensure no reputation went tarnished in public hearings. The author makes a good case for Custer as scapegoat by portraying him as a likable Civil War hero, flamboyant publicity hound and more experienced Indian fighter than most of his men and all of his commanders,. Exhaustive research, lively prose and fresh interpretation make for a valuable addition to literature on this otherwise well-trodden historical event. (Mar. 24)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Recent decades have seen important new findings regarding the Battle of the Little Bighorn. What has been needed next is a clear narrative for scholars and lay readers alike embracing all of the recent research; literary agent Donovan has written just that. First he provides the context of the campaign of 1876 from both the Native American and the U.S. Army perspectives, with the essential background on the major players. Then he presents what he considers the most likely sequence of events of the battle itself, based on archaeological and other research findings, along with the many Native American accounts that have become available and a careful review of the traditional sources. Rather than interrupting his fast-paced narrative with asides on his sources, Donovan wisely places such discussion in the notes, making them available to scholars and serious Custer students. The final quarter of the book is devoted to the aftermath of the battle, particularly the court of inquiry. Donovan shows the extent to which the army and surviving members of the Seventh Cavalry went to put all of the blame on Custer in what today would be called a cover-up. This book is an excellent starting point for those seeking an understanding of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Stephen H. Peters

Kirkus Reviews
Comprehensive account of George Custer's career. Dallas-based literary agent Donovan does much kind service to Custer, who has long been without champions. We think of Custer as vainglorious and foolhardy, thanks in great measure to Arthur Penn's 1970 film Little Big Man; only a vain man would have dressed like a longhaired gypsy dandy and gone galloping off to fight every Indian in the West, right? Donovan finds the upside: Custer dressed colorfully and wore his hair long in the interest of conspicuousness, reasoning that "if his men saw their commanding officer share the danger, they would fight even harder." He always made a point to be at the head of the action, golden locks and bright red scarf gleaming. There was a reason that Custer was the youngest general in the Union Army. At places such as Gettysburg, he distinguished himself by brave action against heavy odds, and his Michigan horsemen "quickly earned a reputation as the best brigade in the cavalry corps." Yet something seems to have happened to Custer out West. He shared the general disdain of the white soldiers for their Indian opponents, hubris that cost a young captain named William Fetterman and his men their lives and set in motion the events that would culminate in Little Bighorn-and later, Wounded Knee. But Donovan is no agenda-laden, blind defender of Custer; he carefully notes the results of the inquiry that followed the famed slaughter, when Custer's commanding general damned him for "negligence and outright insubordination." His thoroughgoing account lends considerable humanity to all involved, from the Hunkpapa warrior Rain-in-the-Face to the ordinary privates who died with Custer on that hot June day in Montana.A worthy companion to Jay Monahan's Custer, Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star and other standard studies of the famed cavalryman. Agent: BJ Robbins/BJ Robbins Literary Agency

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A Terrible Glory

By James Donovan Little, Brown and Company
Copyright © 2008
James Donovan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-15578-6

Chapter One The Divine Injunction

Again, we come to the great law of right. The white race stood upon this undeveloped continent ready and willing to execute the Divine injunction, to replenish the earth and subdue it.... The Indian races were in the wrongful possession of a continent required by the superior right of the white man. Charles Bryant, HISTORY OF THE GREAT MASSACRE BY THE SIOUX INDIANS (1864)

Philip Henry Sheridan, tough, fearless, and tenacious, like the bulldog he resembled, faced a thorny problem in the fall of 1875-several thousand of them, actually. A small contingent of Plains Indians, roaming the same lands they had occupied for generations, refused to bow to the manifest destiny of the nation he had so devoutly served for more than twenty years.

Sheridan's dilemma was a multifaceted one. From his headquarters in Chicago, he commanded the Division of the Missouri, by far the largest and most problematic military region in the country. It comprised the Great Plains and more-indeed, almost half the nation's territory, from the Canadian border to the tip of Texas, from Chicago to the Rockies. That expanse included most of the western states, five territories, a growing number of whites, and approximately 175,000 Indians of many different tribes. Over the past half century, most of those Indians had been herded onto reservations set aside for their use, both to keep them away from the westering whites and to facilitate the effort to make them, as much as possible, white people. The problems stemming from these relocations were monumental, though they were perceived by most whites as more humane, and considerably less expensive, than the alternative: war.

The U.S. government soon found out that it was one thing to assign tribes to reservations and quite another to keep them there-especially when the food rations and supplies promised them by treaty were delayed, stolen, inedible, or simply never delivered. What had been presented as a policy designed to prevent bloodshed soon became yet another rationale for it.

Sheridan's dilemma was shared by his immediate superior, General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman, President Ulysses S. Grant, and several high-ranking members of Grant's administration. For years the two Generals had advocated all-out war on the Indians, with Sheridan, who had branded the uncooperative elements of the Plains tribes "hostiles," especially single-minded on the subject. But certain legal and moral niceties, which Sheridan found supremely irritating, precluded such belligerence. Grant's infernal "Peace Policy," which stressed humanitarian reforms before military intervention, was one. Treaties made with various Indian tribes were another. A third (and particularly galling) obstacle was that weakkneed portion of the eastern intelligentsia whose naive, romantic view of "Lo the poor Indian" (a phrase from a poem by Alexander Pope, which led to the use of "Lo," with heavy frontier wit, as the generic name for the Indian) was formed by such unrealistic sources as the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

But that November, at a high-level meeting at the White House, a bold solution to the Indian problem would be revealed.

Until a few years previous, the Plains tribes had roamed at will. During the warmer months, they followed the buffalo, or bison, their source of food, clothing, shelter, and virtually every other material (and spiritual) need. Before the unforgiving winter swept down, they gathered up their stores of meat and then holed up in sheltered valleys along moving water to wait out the weather, as close to hibernation as a people could get. Until the new grass appeared in the spring, their ponies grew considerably thinner, surviving on the bark of riparian cottonwoods. The Indians, too, were vulnerable in winter, but they knew the wasichus (whites) were reluctant to launch any extended large-scale campaign then. A plains winter could turn deadly in a matter of hours, and heavy supply trains to feed men and mounts slowed a column even in the best of weather. The white soldiers had waged winter war once or twice, but that kind of campaign was difficult to muster and coordinate.

As emigrant travel through the heart of Sioux country increased, the monumental job of protecting incoming miners, farmers, ranchers, tradesmen, stockmen, railroad surveyors, lawmen, barbers, saloon owners, and others in an area of more than a million square miles fell to Sheridan, who commanded almost a third of the shrunken remnants of the victorious Federal army. More than two million men had served the Union during the Civil War, but more than half had mustered out a year after its end, and the regular army had gradually been trimmed to 25,000 enlisted men by the early 1870s. The nation was understandably tired of war, and a southern- controlled Congress found the idea of a large standing army distasteful. Undermanned, underpaid, undersupplied, undertrained, and underfed (a decade after Appomattox, Civil War-era hardtack was still being issued to frontier troops), the army Sheridan served faced a warrior culture that trained males from early childhood to fight, ride, and survive better than anyone else in the world. These people knew every hill and valley and water source in their wide land and eluded their pursuers with ease.

The job, Sheridan knew, had been easier, or at least simpler, a half century earlier. All that was necessary then was to push the Indians west, beyond "The Line"-wherever it was at the time.

The Line, which had existed almost since the white man had begun to penetrate the vastness to the west, was the result of more than three centuries of clashes between Europeans and the native population. Spanish conquistadors had clashed constantly with the native inhabitants of Florida during their many expeditions in search of gold and other treasures. In the epic Battle of Mabila in 1540, in the area later known as Alabama, Hernando de Soto and several hundred Spaniards had destroyed an entire army of thousands of Indians to the last man. To the north, in the swampy Tidewater region of Virginia, the two-hundred-village-strong Powhatan Confederacy had aided the ill-prepared English settlers at Jamestown since their arrival in 1607. The generous Indians had brought food to the starving colonists, given freely of their considerable agricultural knowledge, and generally made it possible for the English to survive the first few years of the settlement's existence. (They also taught the whites how to cultivate a cash crop called tobacco, which would enable the foundation and rapid rise of several more southern colonies.) Their generosity was not repaid in kind. The settlers were soon told by their superiors-who were, after all, directors of a for-profit joint-stock company-to do whatever it took to acquire all the land they could. Indian tempers grew short after a series of humiliations and attacks (no doubt aided and abetted by the Spaniards to the south), and fifteen years later they mounted a large-scale surprise assault on the colony that resulted in 347 English deaths in a matter of a few hours. The surviving colonists vowed revenge, and fifty years of almost constant eye-for-an-eye warfare followed. By 1671 the Virginia governor could report to London that "the Indians, our neighbours, are absolutely subjected, so that there is no fear in them"-in no small part because there were only a few thousand of them left in the face of 40,000 Englishmen.

Over the next century, until the American Revolution, white men wrested North American territory from the Indians by treaty, sale, or sheer force-sometimes, truth be told, in concert with tribes seeking an advantage in Indian vs. Indian warfare. From the very beginning, the Europeans, with few exceptions, had perceived America's native inhabitants as no more than savages-romantic, perhaps, in their primitiveness, and occasionally charming, or worthy of pity, but savages nonetheless. Whites had little respect for Indian cultures, their ways of life, or their concepts of government and landownership-the latter being particularly antithetical to white views. Indians did not develop the land, nor did they measure and mark what they owned; they simply did not understand land as private property. One could no more own the earth than the sky, the Indians reasoned. Rather, their land was commonly owned and used. To the ceaselessly toiling New World colonists, whose way of life was rooted in property ownership, this outlook was positively sacrilegious. This difference, more than anything else, would lead to the struggles between the two peoples.

For the British, the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 resulted in huge additions of contested western territories ceded by the defeated French. But the excitement on the part of the colonials-who felt somewhat justifiably that they, not their distant British landlords, had "won" the new lands and should have the right to develop them-was dampened by George III's Royal Proclamation of 1763. The new law forbade settlement on "any Lands beyond the Heads or Sources of any of the Rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the West and Northwest," including the verdant Ohio Valley and all of the territory from the Ohio to the Mississippi rivers-roughly anything west of the Appalachians, from the southern limits of the province of Quebec in the north to Florida in the south. This area was referred to as "Indian territory," and all Englishmen were directed to abandon it immediately, regardless of title changes ("great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians ... to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians"). All Indian peoples were declared to be under the protection of the King, and provisions for royal posts along the boundary were made.

The motivations behind the King's proclamation were more practical than humanitarian. Relations between the Indians and the colonists were already poor. Most of the Indian tribes had sided with the French during the war, and by placating the natives, the proclamation would, it was hoped, reduce the costs of defending the frontier. The boundary and the Indian preserve it established were meant to be temporary, the first step in a controlled, deliberate settlement plan. Five years later, after considerable colonist lobbying, the Indian Boundary Line was established farther to the west and formally agreed to in treaties with the Indians. But later that same year, due to a change in the British ministry, the Crown discontinued maintenance of the plan. The increasingly restive colonists believed that the edict had another purpose: to keep them close to the eastern seaboard and easier to control-and away from the lucrative fur trade farther west.

The Proclamation of 1763 represented the last time that Indian sovereignty in the interior of the new land was considered important to the causes of peace and trade. Settlers and land speculators alike ignored the decree and worked to open the western frontier and claim the Indian lands. Thirteen years later, two of the many grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence addressed the Crown's protection of "the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions" and royal resistance to "new Appropriations of Lands." (A year earlier, at the dawn of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress had instituted an Indian policy, largely to maintain peaceful relations during the ensuing war, though most eastern Indian tribes predictably sided with the British.) Once independence was established, however, the young Republic's first President, George Washington, sought to apply solid moral precepts to all dealings with the Indians: "The basis of our proceedings with the Indian nations," he said, "has been, and shall be justice." The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 pledged goodwill and respect for the Indians' property, rights, and liberty. One of Washington's first acts as president was to issue the Proclamation of 1790, which forbade state or private-sector encroachments on all Indian lands guaranteed by treaty with the new country. But while Washington believed in the sovereignty of Indian nations and tried hard to prevent outright confiscation, states and individuals alike ignored the federal law in order to satisfy the enormous demand for land dictated by an everincreasing number of immigrants. As the new nation set to work exploring and settling beyond that short-lived Proclamation Line, land was acquired through bloodshed, treaty, crooked deals, or a mix of all three, and the absence of European powers meant that the Indians could not play one colonial interest against another.

The new century saw The Line move west quite a distance. After the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, when General Anthony Wayne crushed Little Turtle's previously invincible Miami Indians, the Ohio Valley was opened to settlers. Around 1803 President Thomas Jefferson decided to relocate all eastern tribes beyond a Permanent Indian Frontier, extending from Minnesota to Louisiana west of the ninety-fifth meridian-a scheme made viable with the Louisiana Purchase that year-to an "Indian Country" of their own, far away from civilization. Reports from the explorations of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806) and Zebulon Pike (1806-1807) portrayed the lands beyond the Mississippi as mostly desert and "incapable of cultivation," unfit for white people. The idea of the "Great American Desert" was reinforced by Major Stephen H. Long's 1823 report, which first used that phrase and characterized the Great Plains as "almost wholly unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." Just two years later, in 1825, President James Monroe began forcing tribes west of the Mississippi to this designated Permanent Indian Country.

The movement picked up full steam after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, passed soon after Andrew Jackson became President. The War of 1812 hero had caused an international incident when he had pursued Seminole Indians into Spanish Florida in 1818, and he still thought little of Indian sovereignty, referring to "the farce of treating with Indian tribes." Jackson envisioned a confederacy of formerly southern Indians in the West that would one day take its place in the Union-after they became fully civilized, of course. Some tribes went quietly, but others, chiefly the Seminoles in Florida and the Sauks and Foxes of Illinois, resisted mightily but futilely against the relentless whites. The pressure came from all directions. It mattered not a whit, for example, that the U.S. Supreme Court found the acts of the State of Georgia against the Cherokee nation unconstitutional and in violation of legally binding treaties; Jackson simply refused to support the decision. The forced eviction of the Cherokees from their native Georgia and their march west to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma)-which reduced their population by more than 30 percent-came to be known as the Trail of Tears. They and the rest of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles) lost all their land throughout the South and ended up on reservations in Indian Territory, as did many other vanquished tribes.

"Indian Country" had been officially defined by the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834 as "all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi; and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas." Congress decreed that white men were forbidden to travel beyond The Line without a license (though this and similar provisions in subsequent treaties were rarely, if ever, enforced), and a line of forts was constructed to prevent whites from passing to the west and Indians from attacking to the east. In 1835 Jackson promised the Indians that their new lands would be forever "secured and guaranteed to them." By 1840 Indian removal was largely complete.

Shortly thereafter, several nearly simultaneous events combined dramatically to change the situation. The first wagon train carrying white emigrants reached the Platte River in modern-day Nebraska in 1841, along what later became known as the Oregon Trail. Many more followed, straight through the heart of the Lakotas' favorite hunting grounds. These first migrants over the Great Plains were greeted with more curiosity than hostility. The Indians allowed them through and traded with them for goods that the tribes quickly became dependent on; the Indians sometimes even guided and aided the migrants. Until the mid-1840s, there was only one reported death involving the overland migrants, and that was an Indian. But the number of annual emigrants rapidly increased more than tenfold, from 5,000 in 1845 to 55,000 in 1850. The wagon trains, and the settlers and miners they carried, drove away the buffalo and depleted the wood and grass along the way. The constant stream of invading whites also spread epidemic diseases such as cholera, smallpox, measles, and venereal diseases to the Indians, who had developed no immunity to these illnesses. Some tribes, particularly the Cheyennes and the friendly Mandans and Arikaras along the Missouri River, were decimated. The epidemics were viewed by some Plains Indians as the white man's black magic, and in response, depredations against the invaders began to occur more frequently


Excerpted from A Terrible Glory by James Donovan Copyright © 2008 by James Donovan. Excerpted by permission.
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