My Beautiful Wickedness

Greasy Grass
June 28, 2008, 9:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


This week was the anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, a battle that the victors of that battle call the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Gerald and I began this conversation over at his place, about the American cultus of the ass-kicking (remember the Maine! remember the Alamo! remember the Lost Cause!). Anyhow, I ran across this oral account by Red Horse (the chief shown above and also the person who drew the ledger drawing at the top) that I doubt many people have read:

The Battle of Little Bighorn
An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

Five springs ago I, with many Sioux Indians, took down and packed up our tipis and moved from Cheyenne river to the Rosebud river, where we camped a few days; then took down and packed up our lodges and moved to the Little Bighorn river and pitched our lodges with the large camp of Sioux.

The Sioux were camped on the Little Bighorn river as follows: The lodges of the Uncpapas were pitched highest up the river under a bluff. The Santee lodges were pitched next. The Oglala’s lodges were pitched next. The Brule lodges were pitched next. The Minneconjou lodges were pitched next. The Sans Arcs’ lodges were pitched next. The Blackfeet lodges were pitched next. The Cheyenne lodges were pitched next. A few Arikara Indians were among the Sioux (being without lodges of their own). Two-Kettles, among the other Sioux (without lodges).

I was a Sioux chief in the council lodge. My lodge was pitched in the center of the camp. The day of the attack I and four women were a short distance from the camp digging wild turnips. Suddenly one of the women attracted my attention to a cloud of dust rising a short distance from camp. I soon saw that the soldiers were charging the camp. To the camp I and the women ran. When I arrived a person told me to hurry to the council lodge. The soldiers charged so quickly we could not talk (council). We came out of the council lodge and talked in all directions. The Sioux mount horses, take guns, and go fight the soldiers. Women and children mount horses and go, meaning to get out of the way.

Among the soldiers was an officer who rode a horse with four white feet. [This officer was evidently Capt. French, Seventh Cavalry.] The Sioux have for a long time fought many brave men of different people, but the Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought. I don’t know whether this was Gen. Custer or not. Many of the Sioux men that I hear talking tell me it was. I saw this officer in the fight many times, but did not see his body. It has been told me that he was killed by a Santee Indian, who took his horse. This officer wore a large-brimmed hat and a deerskin coat. This officer saved the lives of many soldiers by turning his horse and covering the retreat. Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they ever fought. I saw two officers looking alike, both having long yellowish hair.

Before the attack the Sioux were camped on the Rosebud river. Sioux moved down a river running into the Little Bighorn river, crossed the Little Bighorn river, and camped on its west bank.

This day [day of attack] a Sioux man started to go to Red Cloud agency, but when he had gone a short distance from camp he saw a cloud of dust rising and turned back and said he thought a herd of buffalo was coming near the village.

The day was hot. In a short time the soldiers charged the camp. [This was Maj. Reno’s battalion of the Seventh Cavalry.] The soldiers came on the trail made by the Sioux camp in moving, and crossed the Little Bighorn river above where the Sioux crossed, and attacked the lodges of the Uncpapas, farthest up the river. The women and children ran down the Little Bighorn river a short distance into a ravine. The soldiers set fire to the lodges. All the Sioux now charged the soldiers and drove them in confusion across the Little Bighorn river, which was very rapid, and several soldiers were drowned in it. On a hill the soldiers stopped and the Sioux surrounded them. A Sioux man came and said that a different party of Soldiers had all the women and children prisoners. Like a whirlwind the word went around, and the Sioux all heard it and left the soldiers on the hill and went quickly to save the women and children.

From the hill that the soldiers were on to the place where the different soldiers [by this term Red-Horse always means the battalion immediately commanded by General Custer, his mode of distinction being that they were a different body from that first encountered] were seen was level ground with the exception of a creek. Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill [i.e., Reno’s battalion] would charge them in rear, but when they did not the Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill were out of cartridges. As soon as we had killed all the different soldiers the Sioux all went back to kill the soldiers on the hill. All the Sioux watched around the hill on which were the soldiers until a Sioux man came and said many walking soldiers were coming near. The coming of the walking soldiers was the saving of the soldiers on the hill. Sioux can not fight the walking soldiers [infantry], being afraid of them, so the Sioux hurriedly left.

The soldiers charged the Sioux camp about noon. The soldiers were divided, one party charging right into the camp. After driving these soldiers across the river, the Sioux charged the different soldiers [i.e., Custer’s] below, and drive them in confusion; these soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands, saying, “Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners.” The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner, but killed all of them; none were left alive for even a few minutes. These different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt two cartridges were gone, out of the other five.

The Sioux took the guns and cartridges off the dead soldiers and went to the hill on which the soldiers were, surrounded and fought them with the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers. Had the soldiers not divided I think they would have killed many Sioux. The different soldiers [i.e., Custer’s battalion] that the Sioux killed made five brave stands. Once the Sioux charged right in the midst of the different soldiers and scattered them all, fighting among the soldiers hand to hand.

One band of soldiers was in rear of the Sioux. When this band of soldiers charged, the Sioux fell back, and the Sioux and the soldiers stood facing each other. Then all the Sioux became brave and charged the soldiers. The Sioux went but a short distance before they separated and surrounded the soldiers. I could see the officers riding in front of the soldiers and hear them shooting. Now the Sioux had many killed. The soldiers killed 136 and wounded 160 Sioux. The Sioux killed all these different soldiers in the ravine.

The soldiers charged the Sioux camp farthest up the river. A short time after the different soldiers charged the village below. While the different soldiers and Sioux were fighting together the Sioux chief said, “Sioux men, go watch soldiers on the hill and prevent their joining the different soldiers.” The Sioux men took the clothing off the dead and dressed themselves in it. Among the soldiers were white men who were not soldiers. The Sioux dressed in the soldiers’ and white men’s clothing fought the soldiers on the hill.

The banks of the Little Bighorn river were high, and the Sioux killed many of the soldiers while crossing. The soldiers on the hill dug up the ground [i.e., made earth-works], and the soldiers and Sioux fought at long range, sometimes the Sioux charging close up. The fight continued at long range until a Sioux man saw the walking soldiers coming. When the walking soldiers came near the Sioux became afraid and ran away.

Surviving American troops recalled hearing a victory dance, describing the sharp whooping of a victory dance. Sioux eyewitnesses dispute that there was any celebration. They had lost a substantial number of men for a single-day engagement and the US soldiers that had raced through their camp had killed non-combatants. There was keening, but it was women crying in grief.

I like the ledger drawing a lot, but the more typical American version is this.  Not Custer the shameless self-promoting hustler who was eager to survey so that he could make a fortune in speculation, or the Custer who was hated by his men as a self-involved bastard who marched them to death on low rations and no water, or the Custer who graduated pretty much at the bottom of his West Point class…no, we have the Custer created nearly whole-cloth in a partnership between a desperate wife crazed with grief and selling the only thing she had of value and a death-stained nation emerging from Reconstruction and seeking to unify politically over the white corpses of the heroic fallen.



8 Comments so far
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I see that Anheuser Busch’s support of ML sports teams is rooted in a long tradition, “General Custer, this Bud’s for you!”.

I saw a Gunnut magazine at the supermarket recently that talked about how Custer really was a brave, thoughtful, kind, clean and reverent man who was only trying to carry out the orders of his hopelessly ill informed superiors and yada, yada, yada. George Armstrong Custer was a myth of his own making.

Comment by democommie

I bet they thought he was courteous, cheerful, loyal, and thrifty too. Definitely he was into self-promotion. He was the Civil War protege of General Pleasanton, who filled his useless head with how to manuever politically and dress showily for “boosting morale.” (His men hated that shit.) During down time on his expeditions, he’d fire off press releases in the third person talking about how great he was. He also was one of the first to use journalistic “inbeds” (means what it says, don’t it?) to cover troop activities and drum up interest in the Dakota Territory. So, yeah, he was a huckster on the order of P.T. Barnum.

I have to hand Elizabeth Custer and Wild Bill Cody the laurels for transforming him from a golden boy into a national martyr figure. She had been wealthy and he had been dirt poor when they married; she was really deeply in debt when Custer died. Custer loved her desperately and was determined he was going to prove her daddy wrong and amount to something financially. Unfortunately, he was also a foolish bon vivant who aspired to a highroller NYC lifestyle on Army wages. He took out loans from everybody and part of why he needed the “big score” of gold or land speculation or preferably both is that he was on the edge of bankruptcy) and so she made him (and particularly his death) into a cottage industry that made her a very wealthy widow. She wrote three books, went on speaking tours…pretty much spent the fifty years after his death making sure that he was remembered as a hero rather than the waste of powder and shot that he was. Cody killed Custer every night and twice on Sundays, all for 5 cents a ticket.

Comment by bridgett

I spoke about Custer to a friend’s film class after they watched “Little Big Man” last fall. There is so much concentrated myth-making about this guy – Custer the Hero and then Custer the Madman. Both of them are more useful than Custer the None-Too-Bright Self-Promoter.

I read Red Horse’s account awhile back (maybe in Connell’s book?). That and the Mexican diaries of the Alamo really need prominent placement in freshman textbooks.

Comment by Gerald


What are you saying? Do you mean to insinuate that Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie din’t kill them 4,000 Mexican troops by themselves? Hey, I been to the Alamo and it still surprises me that they didn’t just bring some troops over from the Texas ANG to fly ground support for the Texicans. I’m sure it’s Bill Clinton’s fault.

Comment by democommie

Boys, boys…the honor of the Texians is beyond repair…I mean, reproach. Maybe the members of the ANG were altered chemically at the time. I’ve heard that happened back in the doowah days of the 1970s and you know how into tradition those fellers are.

Comment by bridgett

In the area of Texican, and American western, myth-making, have you seen this political ad for John Cornyn?

I thought this had to be a joke to begin with but it is real.

Comment by Gerald

yea you are right

Comment by latisha halstead

I thought it wasn’t real but it is and it cool 2 learn about the Indians

Comment by latisha halstead

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