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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Seventh Cavalry (p. 161)

From chapter "Redemption and Failure"

For a couple of months now I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the implications of the fact that the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, prior to going east to protect the civil rights of recently freed slaves, had been on the western frontier fighting Indians—hell, let’s be honest about it, they were committing genocide—and as soon as the troops wrapped things up in South Carolina, off they went again to the West, to continue where they left off. I am not sure whether this irony speaks more to our culture’s hatred of indigenous peoples or to the fact that soldiers are, in the end, little more than hired muscle, trained to follow orders, whether that order is to protect one person’s rights or to violate another’s. This training into a cult of obedience is of course a necessary precursor to the committing of any mass atrocities.

I’m not sure what the individual soldiers thought, or if they were at all struck by the irony of Indian-killing being one job and saving the lives of blacks another. I do, however, know what their leaders thought about the larger necessity of eradicating Indians. General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1868 to his subordinate, General Phil Sheridan (famous for his response to an Indian who claimed to be “good,” that, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead”): “I will say nothing and do nothing to restrain our troops from doing what they deem proper on the spot, and will allow no mere vague general charges of cruelty and inhumanity to tie their hands, but will use all the powers confided to me that these Indians, the enemies of our race and of our civilization, shall not be able to begin and carry on their barbarous warfare on any kind of pretext that they may choose to allege. . . . You may now go ahead in your own way and I will back you with my whole authority, and stand between you and any efforts that may be attempted in your rear to restrain your purpose or check your troops.”

The note from Sherman came not long before Sheridan’s troops, specifically the Seventh Cavalry, attacked a Cheyenne village on the banks of the Washita River, in what is now Oklahoma. The chief of this village was Black Kettle, who had also been the chief of the village destroyed by Colonel John Chivington and his “Bloody Thirdsters” (the Third Cavalry of the Colorado militia) during the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, after which more than a hundred Cheyenne scalps were displayed to rapturous applause in a performance by Chivington and the Thirdsters at Denver’s Apollo Theater. For years prior to Sand Creek, Black Kettle had been trying to make peace with the whites, and for four years afterward—until whites killed him—he continued, to no avail. He seemed to believe that white and Indian cultures could coexist. The events of 1868 (and of course before and since) deny the tenability of his belief.

In November 1868, as Black Kettle negotiated with one white general, Hazen, another, namely Sheridan, marched on his village. His negotiations were doomed, of course, nothing more than a show to pass the time until government troops were in place. As historian Robert Utley put it, “While Sheridan made final arrangements to thrust south with the sword, Hazen repaired to Fort Cobb to hold forth the olive branch.”

In the cold predawn of November 27, 1868, eight hundred soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, under the command of Phil Sheridan, approached fifty-one Cheyenne lodges. The Indians were asleep. The white soldiers halted not far from the village to quietly gather the dogs that normally followed their camp. Most of these dogs were muzzled with ropes, then strangled or stabbed to keep them from barking and awakening the Indians. The soldiers drove a picket pin through the head of one of the dogs, named Bob. This dog survived, returned to the troop, and later died jumping off a train to get away from a soldier who was tormenting him.

The soldiers had, as always, brought a band, and when they were ready to begin their assault, the band “put their cold lips to the still colder metal,” as Custer’s wife (safe at home at the time) later described it, “and struck up ‘Garryowen,’” Custer’s famous theme song. Lieutenant Francis Gibson, a participant in the battle, wrote, “At last the inspiring strains of this rollicking tune broke forth, filling the early morning air with joyous music. . . . On rushed these surging cavalcades from all directions, a mass of Uncle Sam’s cavalry thirsty for glory.”

Indian warriors dashed from their lodges and frantically searched for cover—trees, fallen logs, the stream bank—behind which they could sell their lives dearly to gain time for their families to flee. The battle, such as it was, was over in maybe ten minutes, not long enough even for the band to play much more than three or four refrains of their rollicking tune. It took the rest of the morning to wipe out pockets of resistance, take scalps (“I dismounted,” one Massachusetts private wrote, “turned the Indian over on his face, put my left foot on his neck and raised his scalp. I held it up . . . saying, ‘John, here is the first scalp for M troop’”), count the dead, and begin adding up the loot. Custer later reported “a loss to the savages of 103 warriors,” but he lied: only eleven could be categorized as combatants, with the other ninety-two being women, children, and old men. The soldiers captured a huge haul: according to Custer’s report, “875 horses and mules were captured, 241 saddles (some of fine and costly workmanship), 573 buffalo robes, 390 buffalo skins for lodges, 160 untanned robes, 210 axes, 140 hatchets, 35 revolvers, 47 rifles, 535 pounds of powder, 1050 pounds of lead, 4000 arrows and arrow heads, 75 spears, 90 bullet moulds, 35 bows and quivers, 12 shields, 300 pounds of bullets, 775 lariats, 940 buckskin saddle bags, 470 blankets, 93 coats, 700 pounds of tobacco; all the winter supply of dried buffalo meat, all the meal, flour, and other provisions; in fact, all they possessed was captured, as the warriors [«V] escaped with little or no clothing.” They burned all this, as well as, according to a Lieutenant Godfrey, who’d been assigned the job of demolition, at least one bridal gown: “a ‘one piece dress,’ adorned all over with bead work and elks’ teeth on antelope skins as soft as the finest broadcloth. I started to . . . ask to keep it, but as I passed a big fire, I thought, ‘What’s the use, “orders is orders” and threw it on the blaze.”

The soldiers then turned to the Cheyenne’s mules and ponies. Officers and scouts kept any they wanted, and the fifty-three captive women and children were instructed to choose mounts for their sixty- or seventy-mile ride to the soldiers’ base camp. Custer told Godfrey to kill the rest. Godfrey and other soldiers tried to cut their throats, but had a hard time approaching them, because the animals could not abide the smell of white men, and so struggled desperately whenever a soldier came near. Eventually the soldiers tired of their task and requested reinforcements, who promptly shot the animals dead. The snow was red with their blood. This process of killing horses was routine (historian Evan S. Connell commented, not disapprovingly, “The strategy was merciless and effective. Let nothing survive”) and, it seems, more traumatic for many soldiers than the killing of the Indians themselves: After another such slaughter of horses a soldier commented, “It was pathetic to hear the dismal trumpeting (I can find no other word to express my meaning) of the dying creatures, as the breath of life rushed through severed windpipes. The Indians in the bluffs recognized the cry, and were aware what we were doing.”

In all my reading, I’ve rarely encountered such pathos in descriptions of the whites’ killings of Indians, even women and children. Far more common are descriptions of “soldiers hearts . . . bursting with enthusiasm and joy at the glory that awaited them.” I don’t know what to make of this enthusiasm, or of a mythology that would lead to believing that killing noncombatants is glorious. Or maybe I do. Maybe we all comprehend the implications of this enthusiasm, and this definition of glory, but are afraid to speak of them.