Call Me A Hero?

During my travels, I make a point to visit as many historic sites, national parks, national monuments and museums as possible. My interests lie in many areas, with a particular focus on our Native American cultures and the remnants of the American Civil War. These topics have kept my interest and imagination alive since I was a young boy growing up in a faraway place, called Brooklyn, New York.

When I began to examine the Plains Indian culture and the culture and events of the Civil War, I started to realize that the Civil War and the tribes of the Plains people were tightly connected. The more I searched, read and visited places about this connection, it became clear to me that there is still a major disconnect as to how we view the participants in the interactions between the Plains people and that of the American Government and military.

Were the military participants in the Great Plains Indian Wars of the 1860’s – 1890’s heroes or villains? It depends on your point of view of course. Were they just following orders and performing their duties, or were they incensed that the native American tribes were in the way of US expansion? Was it just retaliation for the brutality the native Americans inflicted upon westbound white travelers? Did this justify the abuse and brutal destruction and annihilation that the US inflicted upon the native tribes, their culture and their people? So many questions and so many answers. Opinion of course is what prevails. I have mine.

Of the hundreds of major participants in these two conflicts, two stand out for me. Lt. Col. GA Custer and General George Crook. Both were West Point graduates. They both participated and lead in the Civil War and the Plains Indian War. One survived the conflicts and one did not. One was focused on Native American destruction and one was not. One had a reputation within the native tribes as one who did not listen. The other had a reputation as one who did! They both however, are known as heroes in our American History.

Custer fought and died fighting his battles. He was an aggressive, successful Calvary officer who sought fame and fortune. He had a job to do and he went at it with an enthusiasm that brought him much success, until it didn’t. To the native Americans he was a brutal, powerful member of the people who were stealing their land and their way of life. He attacked and killed women and children and the elderly as evident at the Battle of The Washita in present day Oklahoma. He continued this approach all the way to the Battle of The Little Bighorn in 1876 which lead to his death on that sunny hot hillside. To the American people and media at the time, he was a hero doing his duty and dying in the name of US expansion. The Plains Indians might have won that battle in June of 1876, but they lost the war that day. Public sentiment inspired and fueled the plan of total annihilation of the tribes. The US government almost succeeded in that.

Crook was also an Indian fighter at this time. He actually led the entire command during the battles of 1876. While he was not with Custer that hot, sunny day, he was the overall leader. Crook also was a commanding General during the Civil War at battles such as Antietam. While Crook was a commander during the Plains Indian Wars, he was by all accounts fair and open with the native tribes. The world famous Red Cloud, a war chief of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux), said of Crook, "He, at least, never lied to us. His words gave us hope." Crook felt that he was the best man to represent the Army at this time as he knew he would be fair as he could be. In his latter years, Crook spoke out against the unjust and cruel treatment inflicted upon our Native American brothers and sisters. He did so till his early death.

So, hero or villain? Or both? Historians and arm - chair history buffs like myself differ in our opinions. I see neither as a hero. I see them as men who were committed to their profession of being a career soldier in the US Army. They did their jobs. One with more compassion than the other, but it was their job just the same. It is the overall policy of the United States Government that I do not agree with in this case and the past 140+ years proves that out with the continued poor treatment.

If your travels take you out into the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, spend some time and explore this part of our country’s history. The history of the native Americans and of our country’s expansion are linked together forever.

Fascinating stuff this American History!!

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All photos are taken and owned by James C. Ryan

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