Happy Custer Massacre Day!

UPDATECounterpunch reposted this essay on June 26 and LewRockwell.com posted it on the 28th. Reason.com’s J.D. Tuccille discussed the piece in an article on the Hit & Run blog,  and a couple folks at LewRockwell.com blog kindly gave it a plug. EconomicPolicyJournal also posted a big chunk of it.   I appreciate all the comments and the bevy of links coming in from Facebook, Twitter,  and elsewhere. *********

On this day in 1876, Gen.custer2 George 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 11% 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.

Hooligan revised cover 320 size 8615328506_c53c4847a9_n

On Twitter @jimbovard

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39 Responses to Happy Custer Massacre Day!

  1. Godfrey June 25, 2014 at 6:09 pm #

    Well said. Today I shall rejoice! I think I’ll enjoy a glass of wine tonight.

    • Z June 25, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

      Agreed. I know we’re not supposed to revel in death, but I will do so anyway.

  2. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit June 25, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

    See email re: spelling issues. Heh.

    • Jim June 25, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      Thanks, Lawhobbit!

      My only defense is that I spent too many years in Presbyterian Sunday School. A spelling got burned into my psyche that is impossible to extricate.

  3. Dale Fitz June 26, 2014 at 12:22 am #

    Oh how I mourn those dead, man, woman or child, at the hands of their own brothers due to the evil and corrupt nature of centralized government.

  4. Otto Maddox June 26, 2014 at 3:35 am #

    I highly recommend Evan Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star” a wonderful treatment of the Custer “legend.”

  5. Ric June 26, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    Interesting read, but rather revisionist as Conservative history often is. First, Lincoln’s policies against the South were during a time of war and the man’s true ideals were revealed in his speech of reconciliation following Lee’s surrender. The atrocities that occurred after the war were the policies of his successor, acting on revenge after a group of Southern Conservatives assassinated the President and attempted to murder several others leaders in Washington because they were afraid their defeat meant “N***** Equality” (Booth’s own words!)

    As for Custer, while white man history protrays him as a hero, Native American historians paint a very different picture… one that forsenic evidence supports… that Custer was a coward who had no problem slaughtering innocent women, children and elders, but took his own life at Little Big Horn the moment he knew karma had finally turned the tide against him. Personally, I find honoring his demise, (well deserved or not), almost as distasteful as honoring his life!

    • cc June 26, 2014 at 11:15 am #

      Ric, do the words of Lincoln outweigh his actions? Since when is waging war against civilians ok, time of war or not? Did you understand that this article is critical of Custer?

      • Tomx July 14, 2014 at 11:56 pm #

        COL Mosby himself became a republican after the war and served in the Grant administration. He also explicitly stated that the war had been fought over the Southerner’s desire to preserve slavery. This is well known.

    • ScopasBrune June 26, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

      If you find yourself distatstefull — end it, now.

    • Revel June 27, 2014 at 6:35 am #

      Notice how the author said he subscribed to the “patriotic version of American history” and not factual history… How clever

      • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit June 27, 2014 at 10:12 am #

        Yeah, 12 year old children are not terribly insightful about things like that.

        • Jim June 27, 2014 at 10:15 am #

          Perhaps I should have said that my BS radar was barely nascent that season. 🙂

    • Valerie Protopapas June 30, 2014 at 9:50 am #

      I am working with a friend and a professional producer of documentaries on Lincoln including a segment on total war. Lincoln intended to absolutely destroy the South and its culture FROM THE BEGINNING and those who believe that the ill treatment of that section after the war was the result of Lincoln’s “untimely” death, are wrong. He intended to do just what WAS done, disenfranchise Southern whites and give the vote to blacks who, with carpetbaggers and scalawags – using the sword of the federal government’s own KKK, the Union League – would make the South into a radical Republican stronghold virtually forever. No, Lincoln’s total war was waged from the beginning (see the Anaconda Plan, something that the laws of war forbade in a so-called “civil war”) and was directed at a culture and a people, not an army.

      • Jim June 30, 2014 at 9:53 am #

        That sounds like a fascinating documentary. Is there an estimate when it will be finished and ready for public viewing?

        I am reading Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind – A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. I had not realized how deep the anti-Southern sentiment was in New England prior to the war;

  6. Nathan June 26, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    At least one, if not all five of the modern Lakota nations in North and South Dakota, celebrate today as a national holiday, usually called “Little Big Horn Day,” although the exact English translation of the Lakota name (Peji Sluta) of the river is “Greasy Grass.”

  7. Peter Rickard June 26, 2014 at 10:45 am #

    I am greatful for this information as a boy we grew up with films about the ‘ heroic Custer ‘ His role in the wars I and that of his fellow military officers . Even at a tender age of 64 there are still many educationalists truths to be read. Once again thank for the article I hope to read more.

  8. Denise Williams June 26, 2014 at 5:29 pm #

    It is history, we should learn something from it – well written

  9. Michael June 26, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

    He had it coming. He liked killing Indians, women and children. He lived by the decree, the only good Indian is a dead Indian. He was not massacred. He got his ass kicked!

  10. Michael June 26, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

    ( I had to resubmit my comment~used a ‘bad’ word. He did not get massacred, he got his ‘rear-end’ kicked!

    • Jim June 26, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

      My definition of “bad word” is narrower than yours. “Ass” passes muster as the Queen’s English around this blog.

      • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit June 27, 2014 at 10:16 am #

        Looks like another Epic Blog Commentary may be in the works! Hasn’t been one of those here for …. well, since you moved over to the new format, if I recall correctly.

        Gotta say, too, that the broad coverage is interesting!

        • Jim June 27, 2014 at 10:18 am #

          I have been pleasantly surprised how this posting propagated around the Internet. Maybe I should have kicked Custer sooner?

          • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit June 27, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

            Do ya know what this thread needs, though, for Complete Cosmic Alignment?

            Moar Brian Wilson!

          • Jim June 27, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

            Well, he was raised in New Jersey. At least partly.

            On the other hand, he does appreciate Virginia far more than most Yankees.

  11. Valerie Protopapas June 30, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    Comments: Mr. Bovard,

    As a devotee of Col. John S. Mosby, you may imagine that I have no great love (or admiration) for George Armstrong Custer! However, to be fair, Custer was not an Indian hater as were Sheridan and Sherman. Indeed, Custer was despised by Ulysses S. Grant because he had testified in Congress that Grant’s brother (Orville?) was stealing from the Indians. History seems to show that Custer was held in considerable esteem by the Plains Indians (who named him Son of the Morning Star for his gold hair) because of his courage and that is why though all the other bodies on Custer’s Hill were horribly mutilated, Custer himself was stripped naked but not defiled. I believe that was a sign of respect from his enemies.

    Interestingly enough, a young author during the Roosevelt administration went to the scene to write an accurate record of the battle. He had as assistants some of Custer’s remaining Crow scouts from whom he learned that Custer saw Reno getting cut to pieces and dashing to make a defensive stand on the bluff over the river. The scout asked Custer if he was going to take his men and go to Reno’s aid but Custer simply said that he had his own fight to wage, leaving Reno to his fate which turned out to be better than his own. However, when this appeared in the author’s book, TR asked him TO REMOVE IT as it might lessen Custer’s reputation. For had Custer gone to succor Reno, the battle probably would have ended differently. Even the Indians said that had there been a push-back at that time and place in any force, they would have retreated! Today many historians blame Reno for not going to Custer’s aid when the fact is, Custer should have gone to RENO’s aid. Had he done so, perhaps this “anniversary” would not exist.

    Another interesting note about Custer: men who served under him said that all of the suffering they endured through the “Civil War” (sic) from the enemy was nothing compared to serving under Custer in Texas AFTER the war. He was not a nice man.

    • Jim June 30, 2014 at 9:55 am #

      Thanks for the comment – that’s a fascinating detail about TR and the history of covering up the Custer debacle.

      I was unaware of those details of the Little Big Horn battle. Not surprising that the historical consensus was misinformed…

      I think I read that Custer was booted out of the army at one point for severely abusing his own troops.

  12. Valerie Protopapas June 30, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    Lincoln Documentary:

    No, but we’re pretty far along. Among those to be interviewed are Dr. Thomas DiLorenzo and northern (where he comes from!) historian Jay Hoar. The gentlemen in charge is Tim Estep, a well known persona in these matters. The documentary is in three parts:
    1. Lincoln Race and Slavery
    2. Lincoln and the Constitution
    3. Lincoln and Total War

    I was involved in the last two and my friend Eugene McGowan did the first. We’ve gone through several drafts already and the work progresses, but it is slow obviously. As you know, people presenting anything but the “official version,” ESPECIALLY with regard to Lincoln and the “civil war” are not well received and one must be, as Cesar’s wife, as careful as possible not to include anything remotely questionable. Of course, I have discovered that even information arising from NORTHERN sources are questioned if they don’t toe the party line. Lincolln’s own words are dismissed as being “taken out of context” or with the comment that “he GREW” after he made those statements. However, we do know that he was involved with Benjamin Butler to send free blacks to Panama to dig a canal right up until his death, so….

    I will inform all when the documentary is ready for release. I doubt it will get much play in the “mainstream” media, so we shall have to look for other avenues of support.

  13. Ryan June 30, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

    Good read, Jim.

    I didn’t know that about the repeating rifles. That sounds like the US Army.

    Mosby wasn’t the only one who had to resort to stern measures when dealing with bad behavior. Joe Wheeler hanged a few of Sherman’s men during the infamous march to the sea to get him to stop certain practices he disapproved of.

    • Jim June 30, 2014 at 11:18 pm #

      Ryan, thanks for the information about Wheeler & Sherman. I did not know that the Confederate Cavalry had been a factor on the March to the Sea.

    • Tomx July 14, 2014 at 11:59 pm #

      Wheeler also massacred freed slaves.

  14. Lady Val July 15, 2014 at 9:38 am #

    Some facts about Mosby (especially post-war):

    1. He did NOT accept any office from Grant. He was OFFERED a very lucrative office but refused it as it might make it appear that he supported Grant out of self-interest.

    2. Mosby felt obligated to Grant who had “raised his shield over me” when Mosby had been declared an outlaw at war’s end. After his parole, the authorities kept arresting the little lawyer until Mosby’s wife, Pauline, went to see Grant. He wrote a “pass” that stopped this constant harassment. Between Grant’s kindness to his wife and himself an his noble treatment of Lee and his soldiers (remember, Lee would hear NOTHING ill said of Grant!) Mosby felt inclined to do Grant a service IF POSSIBLE! That service came when the Democrats ran “fusion candidate” Horace Greeley in 1872. Greeley had always despised the South and much of what Grant was forced to do by Congress was the result of Greeley’s viewpoint. However, Mosby had made it known to Grant that he would support a true Democrat if one were nominated and he would NOT support the Republican party locally in Virginia.

    3. Mosby didn’t “become” a Republican. He had been a Henry Clay Whig prior to the war and the Republican party was the natural successor to that party. Indeed, Mosby had more in common politically with Lincoln than with Davis.

    4. Yes, Mosby believed that slavery was the “cause” of the war which is understandable if one reads the rhetoric of the day. In a way, the problems of the South can be said to stem from slavery in that its political impotence was the result of the Southern culture being confined to the original slave states. Because slavery could not go into the territories (and this had more to do with blacks than with slavery) the South found itself in a permanent minority within the federal government where it became an economic cash cow of the rest of the Union. Mosby also had no use for the “planter aristocracy.” He saw the sons of wealthy planters as indolent while the sons of overseers were industrious. He despised the institution of slavery though he owned slaves. His father hired a New England abolitionist woman to tutor his daughters (!) and young Mosby spent a lot of time with her which tended to make his views on that subject even more defined. Finally, Mosby was for the Union but, like Lee, when Virginia went out, he did too holding Virginia as his State.

    I don’t know if Mosby ever learned of the Corwin Amendment (which puts to rest the idea that the war was about freeing the slaves), but he certainly fought for the Confederacy with everything he had – and that was considerable. Also, I am convinced that at the end of his life, Mosby felt a great deal differently regarding the federal government of the United States. The last sentence in his memoirs, published posthumously, indicates that he would have “saved” the CSA had he been able to do so. There is nothing there about the results of the war being “for the best.”

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    […] On this day in 1876, Gen. George 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 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.http://jimbovard.com/blog/2014/06/25/happy-custer-massacre-day/ […]

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