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Henry asks: Was Custer's Death Stupidity or Deliberate Defeat?

My  name is Henry Bertrand. I come to this county in 1862 to fight in your Civil War.  I enlisted as regular army in provost guard.  That is a story for another time. I am here to tell you about my later enlistments.  I re-enlisted in 1865 to go west and help open land for the railroad.  The government had to make treaties and we had to protect the settlers and the Indians from each other.  Everyone was going west now, because there was so much open and cheap land. But you know what they didn’t have a lot of? Water And the rail lines that were head west out Omaha and east out of Sacramento to join up, they all wanted to build stations near the water.  That’s where the Indians were.

So it made for some pretty wild times, let me tell you. But let me tell you this, too.  We, the army, did not try hard to catch the Indians. We could see they were good people.  I want you to remember that about this story I am going to tell, about Custer and the Little Bighorn. You see, I know things that didn’t get told in any of your books.  Now I was an infantry soldier, and I could not chase Indians on foot.  But I only tell you what I saw.

For the Custer battle I was with Crook.  Not Custer.  But what led to Custer’s death tells me one of two things. Either government was stupid, or they deliberately wanted the Indians to attack so they could take the Black Hills away.  You hear the story and you decide.

The government and army sent many explorers into the Black Hills and other unceded Indian lands to look for gold between 1873 and 1875. Now those hills were very rich in land and timber and water, but in gold, no, not so much.  But the country had a financial panic in 1873 so everybody spread rumors and people wanted to believe.  And many thought that the Sioux and Cheyenne and Arapaho would attack the miners who trespassed, but even the wild ones like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse kept the peace.  They knew they could have the hills taken away, even if they never signed the treaty.

So the government decides to buy the Black Hills and during the Indian’s visit to Washington in summer of 1875 made an offer.  When there was no agreement in Washington, they send a commission to the agencies in Nebraska in September. These 11 men met up with 20,000 Indians, and so many Indians wanting so much money or refused to sell at all.

Government gets tired of waiting for Indians to break treaty; all us soldiers knew they never expected the Indians to keep the treaty terms. But they do. So then the government starts to think about war.  One official wrote a report that said, oh, they be lucky if they can find 500 Indians to fight. You take a 1,000 out there, you can defeat them easy.  Became official because General Sheridan believed it. 

On November 3rd Grant holds a secret meeting with his generals. No notes are kept at this meeting. Most believe that at this meeting Grant and his generals decide to stop trying to protect Indian land, and let the miners take over. They were going to let whatever happens happen.  But Grant decided this before the meeting, because on that same day, my company and another company of 4th marched away from Fort Laramie, which was the closest protection of the Black Hills, sent to far away forts Fetterman and Bridger.  Here’s the thing, no soldiers were sent to Laramie to replace us until the following spring.

Now, after Laramie is undermanned, what happens?  Nothing.  No attacks. Oh, some say yeah, there were attacks, but nothing was proven.  So finally on December 6, Grant gives the ultimatum – all Indians away from agencies must return by January 31, 1876 or be declared hostile.

The government thought it would make the Indians fight back. The government was trying everything to get them to fight.  The problem was the people in the east thought the army was a bunch of bullies already, and they should just leave the Indians alone.

General George Crook was sent into the field in March to chase Indians back to agencies, but all he could do in the cold and snow was make them madder. They knew they had the right to be out there hunting, and the government was holding up annuities because it was out of money. 

So then the government decides to send the three columns to the Little Bighorn area, where they heard most of the Indians were, and sent one from the west, one from east, that was Custer and one from the South, that was Crook.  Three columns.  Crook’s column had almost 1000 infantry and cavalry soldiers and 200 supply wagons!  How were we going to corral anything with that?  We could barely move!  And we were supposed to be coordinated with two other armies moving from different directions at different speeds over different landscapes?

Now you tell me – if the government knew that there was 20,000 Indians against having the Black Hills taken, how they were only going to see 500 who would fight to keep it?

Crook found out the hard way. The first time he saw Indians in June while we were marching he got worried.  He took 200 of his wagon mules and he mounted 200 of his infantry soldiers on them so we could move faster. These mules had never been ridden and the soldiers had never even ride a tame horse before.  Oh, it was funny to watch.  Men shooting off the bucking mule into the sky.  But this shows you that Crook sees how much trouble the army was in by now.

And then there was the attack at the Rosebud on June 17. But I cannot tell you who fired first.  Our scouts were out there ahead of us, and they came running back saying the Indians were coming.  But Crook was a smarter Indian fighter than Custer.  Crook was careful not to let his army get too divided.  Everyone knew that Custer’s success against Indians was in dividing his army to surround them.

Oh, Crook took some criticism for not chasing these Indians but how could he?  He had infantry soldiers and a lot of wagons, and he was run out of bullets.  When Sheridan yelled at him for staying put he says “I would like to see Sheridan surround three Indians with one soldier.”

So we were still waiting on the Rosebud for help and reinforcements when we heard that Custer and his men died. And we heard too, that now everyone even in the east wanted the Indians to be killed – all destroyed for this. 

But the army knew better. We knew that Custer did what he was expected to do – he divided his army. But why didn’t he know how many Indians were out there? Because Sheridan said there would only be 500 to fight.  Maybe a thousand.  Custer met as many as three thousand that day.

The government got its war, and by that September forced a few Indians to take the deal they were offered a year ago, while we chased the rest and if they did not surrender they were killed.  No, we did not try hard to kill them. We knew they would have to give up.  Once we got the Black Hills, it was over for them.

The whole country became united after Custer’s death.  Custer became the hero he always wanted to be. And the Indians won the battle, but lost everything. And to this day, they have not taken the money they were given for the Black Hills.

Why were they given money if the government believed they broke the treaty?  Because they didn’t.  They were protecting themselves, and all of us soldiers knew it.  We knew they were good people. That’s why we never tried hard to catch them, or kill them.

So what do you think? Was the government stupid?  Or was this a deliberate defeat to take the Black Hills?

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