Opinions of Custer? Take Your Choice
By Margaret Coel
"There aren't enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry." So said General George Armstrong Custer before leading his troops to their deaths at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. Even in death, the boy general who, according to his fans, practically won the Battle of Gettysburg single-handedly, remains as outrageous, controversial, impetuous, and divisive as he was in life. There are countless opinions on Custer, and since Killing Custer, the latest mystery novel in my Wind River series came out in September, I must have heard them all. Readers have called him a true, brave American hero, a megalomaniacal, self-serving fool and everything in between.
My purpose in writing Killing Custer was not to settle any historical controversies. My ambitions were more modest. I wanted to write an entertaining mystery about the way the past—in this case, Custer's actions on the plains—continues to influence the present. What interested me were the opinions about Custer that I had heard over the years from Arapaho friends on the Wind River Reservation. Only a few Arapahos fought at the Little Bighorn, but Custer's actions had impacted all of the Plains Indians. Like the other tribes, Arapahos have never forgotten him.
Eight years before the battle, the Seventh Cavalry had attacked a village of Cheyennes on the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma. The village was under Chief Black Kettle, a noted peace chief. Not far away was a camp of hostile Cheyennes with armed warriors. Had Custer attacked that camp, he most likely would have gotten the fight of his life and might not have survived to go on to the Little Bighorn. Instead he waded into a peaceful village. Afterward, he gathered up the surviving women and allowed his men to take their choice. He chose the most beautiful woman, Monahsetah, for himself. When she became pregnant, he sent her back to the Cheyennes. Did he give her a horse? Send her out onto the plains by herself? Hope she would stumble upon a village? Not care whether she did? No one knows. But the Indians say that she bore a son, called Yellow Hair, and that today, Custer's descendants are among the Cheyennes.
After Washita, the opinion of the Plains Indians hardened against Custer as he continued to lead expeditions and attack villages across the plains. The story I heard is that the Cheyennes "put their pipes out on Custer's heels." I have read different accounts of this story in history books, but my Arapaho friends say it meant that, from Washita on, the Cheyennes followed Custer across the plains. Waiting. Waiting.
The waiting ended on a wind-swept hill above the Little Bighorn river. Custer was under orders to meet up with other troops before launching an attack against the Indians, orders he chose to ignore. The Indian camp in the river valley was, said one scout, "the biggest bunch of Indians he had ever seen," sure to have a couple of thousand warriors. After dividing his command, Custer had only 210 men under his immediate command. He attacked.
What followed was mayhem, disaster, death and finally, no doubt, the same eerie sound of the wind swishing the tall grass that suffuses the site today. Custer and his men lay dead. The Indian women swarmed over the hillside. All the pent up fury, anger and sorrow over the lost relatives at Washita, the lost lands, the lost ways of the ancestors, the women released on the bodies of the dead cavalry troops.
There was no victory celebration that night. Only the pitiful keening of the women as they packed up what was left of the camp and moved off. The keening could be heard over a great distance, the Indians say. All the tribes—Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho— knew they had won a victory, but they had lost a war.
© Margaret Coel