Before the Battle of Little Big Horn: Custer's Trials

Written by Donovin Sprague, university professor and scholar in American Indian studies

Stiles, T.J. - Custer's Trials.jpgA new biography on General George Armstrong Custer, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles, focuses on the life and events in Custer’s world, saving the famous battle, the Battle of Little Bighorn – or Greasy Grass, to the epilogue.

Stiles won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize in history for a book which he recognizes can’t give Custer the legacy Custer imagined for himself. This is Stiles' second Pulitzer. He won his first in biography in 2010 for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

In interviews with the author regarding the many books on the subject of Custer, Stiles has said he wanted to integrate the well-known aspects of Custer’s life, such as his role in the Indian wars, with lesser known elements of his career and private life. This research involved engagement with race on a personal level, a political level and a professional level. 

The biography focuses on Custer’s journey as an iconic American soldier, instead of his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The book becomes, now, primary source material not on how he died, but on how he lived. From this view, Custer then becomes more of an everyday human.

While reading about Custer’s days at West Point, the reader can grasp a picture of him as simply one of the soldiers involved in activities of everyday life. Custer was a prankster and ranked last in his West Point class. He was often at odds with the military, being court-martialed twice in six years. He was flamboyant and this added to people’s interest in him.  

Stiles quotes from a 24-page letter Custer wrote to a friend which describes his self-proclaimed personal bravery and the essential role he played in his first battle, which was a flop.  The claims ranged “from flatly untrue to greatly exaggerated,” Stiles writes. Still, Custer had a life many could only dream about – being a hero in the Civil War, a brigadier general at age 23 and a major general at age 24.

The chronology of his life traces how he ended up at the fateful battle in 1876, through the changes sweeping the country and how Custer fit into and reacted to those changes.

Compared to other Custer books, others seem to rush to get him to the Great Plains without knowing this part of Custer’s life. The Battle of the Little Bighorn will always be a central part of the Custer years, yet a better understanding of the man, as shown in Stiles’ book, is helpful.

From an American Indian tribal perspective, the topic of Custer can be viewed negatively. Specific tribes have mixed feelings on the subject of George Armstrong Custer.

From my experience, the simple mention of Custer in Lakota country is a hard sell. 

What was the experience of these tribes when he came into their tribal lives?

Throughout Custer’s military career in Indian country he would become a part of Southern Plains and Northern Plains tribal history. His legacy is recounted in oral histories of the tribes, including accounts which originated upon meeting him.

He had the unpopular job of carrying out orders to drive American Indians from their homeland or to kill as many as possible. He was a believer that the Plains Wars were justified, and Custer was motivated by his aggressive personality. 

Custer, like many other military officers, utilized American Indian scouts in their Indian campaigns.  Memories linger among the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho when Custer came through the Southern Plains. The Battle of the Washita still evokes thoughts of the hardships inflicted by Custer and the soldiers upon tribal people.

For the Northern Plains tribes there is also a difference in attitudes, especially among the Indian scouts he used and the tribal people they fought directly. By all testimony of the warriors, Custer was a gallant soldier and fought bravely at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Although the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a memorable victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne, and a few Arapaho, it also symbolized the end of a way of life and era for the tribes. Tribes would soon have to surrender. Custer’s name and images became, then, recognized and always associated with the negative changes American Indian people would face.

Further, Northern Plains tribal views differ on Custer, such as the Crow and Arikara compared to the Lakota and Cheyenne. The Crow and Arikara had scouts on Custer’s side and fought other tribes, including the Lakota and Cheyenne. Today, there is more involvement of the Crow Indians versus the Northern Cheyenne in telling the tribal histories and experiences in this battle.

Tribal location is also important. Tribes such as the Crow have a reservation in Montana next to the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. To the east sits the Northern Cheyenne Reservation who fought against Custer and the 7th cavalry.  Today, members of the Crow tribe interpret some of Custer’s history at the June 25-26 recognition of the Battle of the Little Bighorn as well as events leading up to the battle.

At and near the battlefield exists public and private operations, including privately-owned trading posts and museums and the U.S. National Park Service – Battle of the Little Bighorn. These each impact public knowledge and opinion on the historic events.

The National Park Service facility and museum focuses more on primary sources and documents of the battle. Each tour guide has a required amount of information they are asked to convey to the visitor.

If the tour guide is American Indian their personal tribal stories might be acceptable although the majority of the battle’s descendants are seldom or not heard.  This includes the Lakota side of the story – who were relocated to reservations in western South Dakota such as Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Lower Brule – and, to lesser numbers, Dakota, Nakota and Arapaho (Northern Arapaho are from Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and the Southern Arapaho are in Oklahoma).

Each year, I try to attend the anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana, a place I enjoy and a place where my ancestors lived and camped, on the Tongue River. Many Lakota and Cheyenne families are descendants of the brave warriors and women present at the battle. My family had several participants in the battle, as I have documented in a forthcoming book.

In addition to my Lakota and Cheyenne relatives with family at the battle, I have befriended many who had family on the military side – including descendants of Custer. I have met great, great nephews and cousins of Custer and, at the 125th anniversary in 2001, I met the granddaughter of Captain Benteen. 

Before returning to South Dakota, I end my visits to Little Bighorn country at the U.S. National Park Service - Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument Museum and bookstore. 

The store carries four of my books on their shelves, and every book in their large display has mention of my family at the battle. From the bookstore, the adjacent museum’s wall of photos divides images of Indian leaders in battle, to the left, and Custer and his officers, to the right. Among the Indian leaders, displayed side-by-side, are my family members Hump and Crazy Horse, who fought throughout the battle and on Last Stand Hill.

Custer never adapted from the movement of the country as a frontier to the changing new nation. 

Although his friends referred to “Custer Luck,” as Custer brashly gambled and used his instincts – it was inevitable that someday his luck would run out, which it did on June 25, 1876.  This year marked the 140th anniversary of the event which continues to fascinate people from all walks of life. 

The Custer’s adopted hometown of Monroe, Michigan, hosts a weeklong commemoration known as ‘Custer Week,’ and invited Donovin Sprague as the keynote speaker. Following his program, descendants of the Custer family presented him with a Plains Indian bow. The bow came with their women from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory to Monroe.

The bow is now on loan and displayed at the Timber Lake and Area Museum in Timber Lake, South Dakota, centrally located between the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation which extends into North Dakota.

Sprague2.jpgBorn and raised on Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Dupree, South Dakota, Donovin Sprague is Minnicoujou Lakota and a direct descendant of chiefs Hump and Crazy Horse. He is a graduate of the Black Hills State University, where he serves as an Instructor of American Indian Studies. Donovin is the former Director of Education for the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, is an established authority—and author of five books—on American Indians, and has been interviewed as an expert in the area by the History Channel, CNN, PBS, NPR, Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, among others. In addition, Donovin has been recognized by the State of South Dakota and Rapid City governments for over 10 years of work in the area of Indian/white relations.