Happy Custer Massacre Day!

On this day in 1876, Gen.custer2 George S. Custer led his 7th Cavalry regiment to their demise in Montana.  The Battle of Little Big Horn was one of the biggest defeats suffered by the U.S. Army in the war against the Indians.   It is only in recent years that proper attention has been paid to the role of atrocities by Custer and other military leaders in stirring up the wrath of oppressed Indians.

I visited the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument 45 years ago during a cross-country trip as a 12-year-old boy to a Boy Scout Jamboree in Idaho. Like most Scouts, I subscribed to the Patriotic Version of American History. After visiting the battlefield, I scribbled (or copied) a note that the Seventh Cavalry’s “heroic defense made the nation yearn for details that no white man lived to tell.” Many years later, I learned that Custer’s men were wiped out in part because the Army Quartermaster refused to permit them to carry repeating rifles – which supposedly wasted ammo. The Indians didn’t have a quartermaster, so they had repeating rifles, and the rest is history.

custer burning down shenandoah valley 1864 tlc0065

 Custer also played a leading role in the 1864 desolation of the Shenandoah Valley, where I was raised a century later. After failing to decisively vanquish southern armies in the battlefield, Lincoln and his generals decided to win the war by brutalizing civilians. In August  1864, Gen. U.S. Grant  ordered  the destruction of all the barns, crops, and livestock in the Shenandoah Valley.  The etching to the left shows his troops after torching much of the town of Mt. Jackson, Virginia.  The population of Warren County, my home county, fell by 20% during the 1860s. Did anyone who refused to submit to Washington automatically forfeit his right to live?  The desolation from the war and the systemic looting in its aftermath (ironically labeled “Reconstruction”) helped keep the South economically prostrate for generations.

During the 1864 campaign, Custer was under the command of Gen. Phil Sheridan.  Sheridan later became notorious for slaughtering Indians as a top commander out west.  He is best known for telling an Indian chief in 1869: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  He apparently felt the same way about Southerners – or at least “secessionists” and their wives and children.

Sheridan’s campaign to starve Shenandoah Valley residents into submission evoked fierce opposition from the  guerillas led by Col. John S. Mosby, the “Grey Ghost of the Confederacy.” Late in the war, when Confederate armies were being trounced or pinned down everywhere, a few hundred Mosby partisans tied up ten thousand Yankees. Mosby suffered none of the Sir Walter Scott-style sentimentality that debilitated many Southern commanders. Instead of glimmering sabers, his men carried a pair of .44 caliber revolvers. There was so much fear of Mosby that the planks on the bridge across the Potomac were removed each night, for fear that he would raid the capital. Reading about him as a boy,  I was impressed how a few well-placed attacks could throw the entire government into a panic. (Herman Melville captured the dread that northern troops had of Mosby in his epic poem, A Scout to Aldie.)

Mosby’s men were vastly outnumbered but they fought valiantly to try to stop Sheridan’s torching of the valley.   Sheridan responded by labeling Mosby’s men war criminals and announcing that they would be executed if captured.  The North stretched the definition of illegal enemy combatant at the same time it redefined its own war crimes out of existence.  Six of Mosby’s men were hung in Front Royal, Virginia in September 1864.

In the weeks after the hanging of his men, Mosby’s men captured 700 northern troops.  In early November, his troops hanged several captured Yankees in retaliation.  A sign was attached to one of the corpses: “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men, hung by order of General Custer at Front Royal.  Measure for measure.”  Recognizing the perils to his own troops, Sheridan ceased executing captured Mosby’s guerillas.

Unfortunately, most of the war crimes of the Civil War have been forgotten in the rush to sanctify a pointless vast loss of lives.  Recasting the war as a triumph of good over evil was an easy way to make atrocities vanish.  And failing to recognize the true nature of that war lowered Americans’ resistance to politicians commencing new wars that promised to vanquish evil once and for all.

For more discussion of my two cents on the Civil War, check the memoir essays in Public Policy Hooligan.

On Twitter @jimbovard

28 thoughts on “Happy Custer Massacre Day!”

    1. I have read his men carried at least 2 revolvers, sometimes 4. Some rebel calvery also carried double barreled shotguns. Their horses had to be trained to not suddenly stop when the shotgun was fired. When first fired the horse would stop suddenly and throw off the rider.

  1. Actually, "economically prostate" seems like a pretty good spot for the Yankees to have had 'em. Then, the Rebels had but to prostrate themselves before Commander-In-Chief Abe & the Army of the Potomac.

    1. The actions of the terrorist and mass murder Abraham Lincoln were totally unconstitutional. The defense of the principles of the Constitution by the Confederacy was the high point of the American experience, even until today. One should open their eyes. The consequences of the former triumph over the latter are with us until today, with stunning and breathtaking government evil and support for the culture of death that Abraham Lincoln inaugurated/.

    2. I don't know what part of the old south you're talking about, but it seems like here in the Capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, the economy bounced back in no time, and in decades following the war my hometown became a world-class city. Hope that's not the cause of too much cognitive dissonance for the true believers.

      As for the tyrant Lincoln and the nobility of the Confederacy and its institutions, well, I'm not so sure, left to its own devices, that the new nation wouldn't have ended up as riven with divisions as the Union; and the potential for a down-home tyranny certainly seems part of the makeup of ideological zealots, wherever one finds them. Had the Confederacy prevailed, I'm by no means convinced we'd approve of the results.

      As for the Little Big Horn, when I visited in the mid-80s, I found myself wondering what the fook these crazy white guys thought they were doing playing shoot-'em-ups with the natives so far from home… but then, that good 'ol, god-ordained nationalistic streak that predated the Mexican war has been a constant part of the American experience… Hell, I doubt even the Confederates would've been immune, in the US cavalry's place! As for Custer and his boys, all I could say is good riddance! Mosby's raiders, on the other hand, get all due respect!

  2. Sometimes the bowdlerized and propagandized history taught at teacher’s knee to unformed minds of children in the public schools, needs drastic revision to understand the truth. It’s not so much what we don’t know, but only think we do. History written by victors performs a primarily political service for them. As Churchill put it, he would be treted kindly by history, for he intended to write it.

  3. Yeah, Custer and his boys got their asses whipped good and proper.

    The most senior Union commanders–Grant, Sherman, Sheridan et al.–ordered and/or condoned atrocities against Southern civilians. This must be clearly understood–and piss on the court historians.

  4. Custer and his men got what they deserved. They were just like Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. They stole land from the Native Americans. The Israeli settlers steal land from the Palestinians. The US media show Israelis crying because members of their family were killed. They put themselves in that position by taking land away from the Palestinians. If there were television in Custer's time, the media would show the families of the soldiers crying.

  5. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Cavalr… :
    The Cavalry branch was absorbed into the Armor branch in 1950, but the term "Cavalry" remains in use in the U.S. Army for certain armor and aviation units historically derived from cavalry units.
    [. . .]
    The U.S. Cavalry played a prominent role in the American Indian Wars, particularly in the American Old West.

    Unrepentant, still in formation genocidaires.

    1. Yep, there's a huge push now in conservative circles to cast the civil war in terms of empire, which is ridiculous at multiple levels. There was an armed insurrection in favor of keeping Americans in literal slavery, yet somehow the federal effort to end that is anti-"libertarian?" A person has to completely discount the fortunes & lives of slaves to revise things.

      Sorry. Nathan B Forrest apologists, fighting slavers at Gettysburg at the same thing as bombing Laos.

        1. The North was the aggressor, not the South. I guess you've bought the prevailing narrative that the purpose of the war was to end slavery. Read some stuff from Thomas DeLorenzo. Lincoln's goal, as he said many times, was to save the Union no matter the cost. Lincoln did not care about freeing the slaves. His fantasy was to send them back to Africa after the war. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free as single slave, as it dealt only with slavery in the Confederacy, which was not part of the Union at that time, and it did not affect the border slave states not in rebellion. It's quite ironic that the US's worst mass murderer is now revered by millions as our greatest president.

  6. I have been waiting for someone to share this post. This has actually made me think and I hope to read more. Thanks a lot for sharing with us.

  7. None of the comments above have bothered to point out that the states that joined the union did so of their own free will, and fully understood that , having joined freely, were also free to secede. Lincoln was a brilliant, but backward Midwesterner, apparently without any knowledge of how the Union was formed. Only a few years before the start of the Civil War, certain New England states, led by; you guessed it; Massachusetts; threatened to secede, understanding that they joined freely, and were free to secede. Was secession worth it? Hardly, but to the slaves the answer is yes, however, 100 years later, Martin Luther King lamented that "one day, we could all say in the words of that old Negro spiritual; Free at last, Free at last, thank God Almighty, we are Free at last".

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