George Armstrong Custer in the 21st century.
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Why hasn’t Washita River been remembered as well as Little Bighorn?
It’s not the kind of heroism that Americans want to remember. It’s a much less pleasant memory to think of the army going into a village to kill warriors and take women and children prisoner. That seems much less heroic and much less dangerous. And, in fact, it was less dangerous, even though American army officers and men did lose their lives at Washita.
It was especially problematic because the leader of the village at Washita was Black Kettle, a Cheyenne leader who was trying to promote peace between the Cheyenne and the U.S. army. When it happened there were some people who felt like the army had over-reached in going into this village and attacking it. The reason they did so was because they believed the village harbored Indians who had been raiding white settlements in Kansas. And that seems to have been true.
Meanwhile, Cheyenne Indians don’t particularly want to remember Washita, either—at least not publicly. That’s one of the reasons why Washita has only been re-enacted one time. The re-enactment was so horrible for the local Indians to watch that they vowed they would never do it again. In the late 20th century the Cheyenne became active in encouraging the National Park Service to develop the battlefield as a National Historic site, but there are some individual Cheyenne who are skeptical about that project and are worried about their painful memories beyond brought to the public.
It doesn’t help that Washita is in this very remote part of Oklahoma, whereas one of the advantages of the Little Bighorn is that it’s on the tourist circuit. You can stop there between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone.
Would Custer be as well remembered if he had won at the Little Bighorn?
Absolutely not. How many other generals from the Indian wars can you name? For most Americans, probably not any. Custer was very successful during the Civil War and would probably be primarily remembered as a Civil War general if he had been victorious or simply survived at the Little Bighorn.
Is it fair to say that Custer is bigger in death than in life?
I said before that people sometimes described Custer’s life as Custer’s Luck. In a way, for someone who was so invested in his reputation, Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn is the final chapter of Custer’s luck. If he hadn’t died in such spectacular fashion we wouldn’t be talking about him today.
Recommended Reading (courtesy of Michael A. Elliott)
“Touched By Fire” by Louise Barnett (Henry Holt)
“The Custer Reader” edited by Paul Hutton (University of Nebraska Press)
“Cavalier in Buckskin” by Robert Utley (University of Oklahoma Press)