Duane's Reviews > Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors

Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen E. Ambrose
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May 04, 2012

really liked it
Read from April 25 to May 04, 2012 — I own a copy

On July 4th 1876, the United States of America was celebrating its centenary while at the heights of influence and power. In the first one hundred years since its independence, the United States had fended off two British invasions, survived a brutal Civil War, and joined both its oceanic shorelines with a transcontinental railroad. Settlers were pushing westward and taming the vast wilderness in increasing numbers. Such expansion and the fulfillment of America’s Manifest Destiny seemed almost unstoppable like a rising water table. Yet on July 6th, the optimism and bonhomie of the recent days were soon crushed as word spread that George A. Custer and soldiers of the 7th Infantry were slaughtered by a league of Indian tribes in the northern Great Plains. The impact was concussive and shocked the nation. The illusion of their superiority and invincibility of American expansion was now shattered. If those same 19th century citizens were alive today, I am sure they would liken their visceral response to the massacre as their very own “9/11” despite the fact that at the Little Bighorn the United States were on the offensive.

The noted historian and prolific writer Stephen Ambrose (author of Band of Brothers and consultant for the film Saving Private Ryan) has written a well researched book on Crazy Horse and Custer. Though his books are wildly popular, Ambrose often leaves the literary world with a trail of controversy as some question the veracity of his writing. One wonders how much of the details especially in describing certain events in Sioux history and battle details were embellished. If there were any embellishments, it is nothing Plutarch would have done to get the point across which Ambrose does as effectively as always in his easily flowing narrative.

Yale history professor Dr. Donald Kagan remarked that great civilizations are defined by their military firepower, and both Crazy Horse and Custer were indicative of two cultures that had “war on the brain” even in peacetime. Crazy Horse and Custer both lived similar yet different lives. Both were tenacious, daring, and brave. While one man studied military strategy through observation and dogged practice, the other almost flunked out of West Point though fought bravely in the Civil War. One man shunned attention and the narcotic of self-promotion (Crazy Horse refused to have his photo taken), while the other embraced fame and through an enduring marriage union became a social climber of Himalayan capabilities. Stephen Ambrose demonstrates how Custer and Crazy Horse’s strong similarities as well as strong differences would ultimately propel them toward the infamous battle at the Little Bighorn.

One strong impression from this book is that Custer and Crazy Horse were both creatures of two very sophisticated cultures that were imbued with a sense of order, peace, and unity. Despite what we think we know of the Lakhota Sioux, they were in many ways similar to the standard American culture. Like many other Indian tribes, the Sioux had a rich culture and a highly sophisticated social structure that would dictate almost every aspect of their life. Ambrose gives interesting details on the dominance of the Lakhota Sioux that had stretched as far as Wyoming and Montana in its heyday. Custer’s experiences at West Point were equally compelling. Custer lived on the edge. His pranks and escapades often rewarded him with demerits that threatened his prospects for graduation. But like many other officers of that prestigious military academy, Custer forged strong friendships that continued even after his friends joined either side of the Civil War. This book not only tells the story of these two men and their differences but also of their uncanny similarities that ultimately led them to the Little Bighorn battlefield in 1876. Both men were highly skilled fighters at the top of their game. Both were able to lead men into battle and juggle the manifold aspects of warfare. Like their own culture and civilization, they also had warfare in their blood.

The survival of the Sioux people was dependent on protecting the northern Great Plains and most of all the sacred Black Hills. On the other hand, the survival of America as a nation was dependent on fulfilling their Manifest Destiny by extending their influence from the eastern seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. Over several decades, both the plains Indians and the U.S. government sought to settle these differences through a series of wars and broken treaties. By the mid 1870s, they had reached an impasse until gold was discovered in the Black Hills in the midst of a terrible economic depression. The white man’s want for gold and its discovery on land owned by the Sioux (promised to them by the Fort Laramie Treaty) became the unintended but necessary (for the U.S. government) moment critique to end the stalemate. The U.S. Army were eager to wage the last battle with the plains Indians even if their justification for war was flimsy. It therefore became inevitable that both cultures were on a deadly collision course toward one final battle.

Forcing the Indians to the reservations to make way for the railroad was not only a physical relocation but a cultural one. Indians on the northern plains were traditionally nomadic. Acutely aware of their environment as well as its topographical contours, wildlife, and weather patterns, the plains Indians moved in search of food and resources primarily gleaned from the buffalo. By extricating them away from the buffalo herds, the U.S. government had essentially extricated the Indians from their core traditions and traditional way of life. On the reservation they were no longer on the move. Instead they were stationary both physically and culturally. On the reservation they now relied on the U.S. government for food and resources that were insufficient to support the growing population. Instead, the Lakhota Sioux who were genetically coded to chase buffalo on the open plains were now expected to remain on the reservation to raise crops and cattle. As the culture stagnated, it slowly lost its vibrancy and potency.

Even as the Indians moved to the reservations, some Americans still did not think it was fast enough once gold was discovered in the Black Hills. America wanted the Indians to relocate faster into the reservations and away from the plains and the Black Hills. In a last ditch effort to finally secure the Black Hills and send the Sioux to the reservations, Custer set off to crush the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians who were encamped along the Little Bighorn tributary in present day Montana. The expedition seemed simple enough but fresh off Civil War victories, Custer like many other soldiers in the U.S. army made the classic military blunder by underestimating their enemy even though the enemy was on their own turf. But even though the Sioux were victorious at the Little Bighorn, it also brought about the end of resistance by the Great Plains Indians.

This book emphasizes Custer’s defeat was the result of hubris which had stalked him throughout his life. He was proud of his skills as a battlefield tactician and had envisioned that this one last victory would propel him towards the White House. Even on the eve of his last battle at the Little Bighorn, Custer glibly predicted that he would not only win but his battle “tactics would be studied in West Point classrooms.” After Custer was killed, his body was re-interred at the military cemetery at West Point. While Custer may have been correct in assuming that his battle would be studied at West Point, it was probably not with the end result he may have wanted.
Crazy Horse’s life also has its share of cruel irony. Though he survived the battle, he resisted moving to the reservation. Eventually, he surrendered and was stabbed to death in the open doorway of the Fort Robinson jail.

This book does more than describe a battle or the warriors and soldiers who fought at the Little Bighorn. The battle had national implications. After all, it was not the only battle fought by Crazy Horse and Custer. Nor was it the only battle that Crazy Horse led against the U.S. Army that resulted in victory. But it was a battle that would forever tip the scales against the Indian way of life. The book also exposes the faulty underpinnings of the American expansionist policy that was sanitized as their Manifest Destiny. It showed that unchecked feelings of entitlement to precious metals in the Black Hills were enough to ignore former promises made in peace treaties. It showed contempt for a culture that the other barely understood or deemed irrelevant in the face of progress. It showed unfettered ambition at the expense of those who wanted to continue to live in peace. When two distinctive cultures clash, expansionism becomes a zero-sum game. And at the Little Bighorn, there was exactly one winner and one loser where the victors in battle would ultimately lose the entire war.
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