Custer's Last Stand is among the most enduring events in American history--more than one hundred years after the fact, books continue to be written and people continue to argue about even the most basic details surrounding the Little Bighorn. Evan S. Connell, whom Joyce Carol Oates has described as "one of our most interesting and intelligent American writers," wrote what continues to be the most reliable--and compulsively readable--account of the subject. Connell makes good use of his meticulous research and novelist's eye for the story and detail to re-vreate the heroism, foolishness, and savagery of this crucial chapter in the history of the West.
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About the Author
Evan S. Connell has received numerous prizes and awards for his writing and is the author of sixteen books of fiction, poetry, essays, and history, including Mr. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge, The Diary of a Rapist, The Alchymist's Journal, and The Collected Stories. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Evan S. Connell has received numerous prizes and awards for his writing and is the author of sixteen books of fiction, poetry, essays, and history, including Son of the Morning Star, Mr. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge, The Diary of a Rapist, The Alchymist's Journal, and The Collected Stories. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Read an Excerpt
Son of the Morning Star
By Evan S. Connell
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1984 Evan S. Connell
All rights reserved.
Lt. James Bradley led a detachment of Crow Indian scouts up the Bighorn Valley during the summer of 1876. In his journal he records that early Monday morning, June 26, they saw the tracks of four ponies. Assuming the riders must be Sioux, they followed these tracks to the river and came upon one of the ponies, along with some equipment which evidently had been thrown away. An examination of the equipment disclosed, much to his surprise, that it belonged to some Crows from his own command who had been assigned to General Custer's regiment a few days earlier.
While puzzling over this circumstance, Bradley discovered three men on the opposite side of the river. They were about two miles away and appeared to be watching. He instructed his scouts to signal with blankets that he was friendly, which they did, but for a long time there was no response. Then the distant men built a fire, messages were exchanged by smoke signal, and they were persuaded to come closer.
They were indeed Crow scouts: Hairy Moccasin, Goes Ahead, White Man Runs Him. They would not cross the river, but they were willing to talk.
Bradley did not want to believe the story they told, yet he had a feeling it was true. In his journal he states that he could only hope they were exaggerating, "that in the terror of the three fugitives from the fatal field their account of the disaster was somewhat overdrawn."
The news deeply affected his own scouts. One by one they went aside and sat down, rocking to and fro, weeping and chanting. Apart from relatives and friends of the slain soldiers, he later wrote, "there were none in this whole horrified nation of forty millions of people to whom the tidings brought greater grief."
Bradley at once rode back to his commandant, General Alfred Terry, and repeated what the Crows had said. Terry, accompanied by Colonel John Gibbon and surrounded by aides, did not join in the chorus of disbelief but sat on his horse with a thoughtful expression, "biting his lower lip and looking at me as though he by no means shared in the wholesale skepticism of the flippant members of his staff."
The column then resumed its march and shortly after noon crossed into the valley of the Little Bighorn.
A white scout named "Muggins" Taylor—described as a gambler and professional hunter—was directed to look around. When he came back he reported the smoke of a large fire up ahead. Col. Gibbon thought this was good news because it meant one of two things: Custer had taken the Indian village or the Indians themselves were burning it.
General Terry offered $200 to anybody who could reach Custer. Taylor and another scout named Bostwick decided to try. Both returned in a little while saying nobody could get through.
Horsemen materialized on a ridge and through field glasses it could be seen that several of them wore blue uniforms, meaning they must belong to Custer's regiment—possibly his Arikara scouts. Lt. Charles Roe led a troop of cavalry forward. Roe advanced cautiously, uncertain whether he was approaching Arikaras or Sioux. He dispatched a sergeant to find out. Advance, tie a handkerchief to your gun, wave it, and we will see what happens, said Roe. But just then a party of at least sixty United States cavalrymen—or what resembled cavalry, proceeding by twos, with a guidon flying—rode into view. A second cavalry unit then merged with the first and Lt. Roe understood that they were hostile Indians dressed in Army clothing. With this frightful masque to contemplate it seems odd that he did not rescind his order to wave a handkerchief at them, but he did not: "I immediately ordered the sergeant to move forward, saying that we would support him. ..."
The obedient sergeant commandeered two enlisted men and these guinea pigs galloped ahead while Roe and the others followed. Very soon a familiar noise could be heard: Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
Neither the intrepid sergeant nor his companions were hit, but the plateau was by now carpeted with Indians and Lt. Roe thought it wise to retreat.
Until this withdrawal, most of the troops with Gibbon and Terry thought the disciplined blue-clad riders must belong to Custer. Only a few remained suspicious. Although the riders maintained cavalry formation, Lt. John McBlain noted, "there was an indefinable something in their movements that did not appear altogether natural." Capt. Henry Freeman bet a cigar they were hostile, despite rumors that two of them had been seen shaking hands with Roe, and in his journal Freeman commented somewhat dryly that he had won a cigar.
While discussing the day's events around a campfire most infantrymen predicted more unpleasant news, whereas the cavalrymen—emotionally related to Custer's Seventh—argued that if indeed there had been a fight Custer must have been victorious. "So obstinate is human nature," Bradley wrote, "that there were actually men in the command who lay down to sleep that night in the firm conviction, notwithstanding all the disclosures of the day, that there was not an Indian in our front. ... They could explain ingeniously every circumstance that had a contrary look, and to argue with them was worse than useless."
Tuesday morning not an Indian could be seen.
Farther up the valley, on a hillside east of the river, lay a number of pale unidentifiable objects which were assumed to be dead buffalo. Several dark objects among these carcasses were thought to be buffalo skins left behind when the Indians fled. Bradley crossed the river to investigate.
Not long after his departure the column reached the site of an Indian encampment so recently deserted that the fire beds had not cooled. A few skulking dogs loped away when the army approached. Debris littered the ground: shotguns, axes, blankets, soup bowls, horn spoons, brass kettles, hammers, coffee mills, chunks of meat, antique pistols, a grindstone, tin cups, a small bellows, saddles and buffalo robes, along with such incongruous items as photographs, letters, and china dishes. Wounded horses from Custer's regiment and various pieces of army equipment also were discovered in the village, and from an upright pole dangled three human heads bound together with wires—all three so badly burned they could not be identified.
Gibbon's surgeon, Dr. Holmes Paulding, noticed Lt. James Porter's buckskin shirt. "Poor fellow," Dr. Paulding wrote in his diary, "there was a hole under the right shoulder & blood over the rest—Found 'Yates, 7th Cav' marked on a pair of gloves—under-clothing of Jack Sturgis, with his spurs, and traces of other old friends of that gallant regiment. There were immense fresh trails of lodge poles leading toward the ravines & bluffs and along all of them packs, travoises, lodge poles & utensils dropped or hastily cut loose. ..."
Several lodges had not been dismantled. Terry's soldiers at first thought this was because the hostiles had been in a hurry to escape; but inside each of these lodges lay one or more dead warriors, each handsomely dressed and—as was the burial custom—wearing moccasins with ceremonially beaded soles.
About this time Lt. Bradley returned from the other side of the river to say that the dark objects on the hillside thought to be buffalo skins were, in fact, dead horses. What had been mistaken for skinned buffalo carcasses were the naked bodies of Custer's men. Bradley had counted 197 dead soldiers. This news paralyzed the advancing army. A mule packer in Roe's company, Pvt. William H. White, said that for a quarter of an hour there was very little talking.
The column then proceeded through the valley in an attempt to learn what had happened.
As the troops marched south they noticed occasional clusters of arrows standing up like cactus. Before long they understood that each cluster would mean another dead cavalryman.
Moving figures could be discerned on a hilltop some distance ahead—rushing around in such excitement that they were assumed to be Indians—and with them a herd of ponies. A detachment of soldiers guided by Muggins Taylor went forward.
After a while Terry's army caught up with this unit and found the officer in charge talking with emissaries from the hill, who turned out to be Lts. Luther Hare and George Wallace of a Seventh Cavalry battalion commanded by Major Marcus Reno. It developed that Reno's battalion had been surrounded by Sioux and Cheyennes for two days, Sunday and Monday, until late Monday afternoon when the Indians dismantled their portable village and moved south toward the Bighorn mountains. What had appeared from the distance to be a pony herd was the Seventh Cavalry mule train.
Reno's messengers were thankful that Terry and Gibbon had arrived, but they were puzzled because they thought this column was led by General Custer. They said there had been no word from him since he divided the command and rode off with five companies early Sunday afternoon. They were stunned to hear that everybody who went with Custer was dead, and they had trouble realizing that their two-day ordeal was a peripheral fight.
Fifty-two of Reno's men were wounded, which gave Dr. Paulding plenty of work. In a letter to his mother some time afterward he sounds bemused by the resilience of the survivors. Although Custer's death shocked them, he wrote, they got over it quickly and became rather cheerful.
Captain Walter Clifford of the Seventh Infantry rode up into the hills for an elevated view of Reno's defensive position and there he happened to see an Indian pony with a shattered leg—the leg swinging hideously each time the little animal moved. Flies swarmed on the wound. The pony came hobbling over and rested its head against the flank of Clifford's horse. Clifford pulled away because nothing could be done, but when he looked around he saw the pony trying to follow. He rode back and again the pony approached, "this time laying his head on my horse's rump, looking straight at me, as if pleading for help." Clifford held his pistol against the pony's head and fired. "Lightning could not have finished him sooner."
On his way down Capt. Clifford studied the west bank of the Little Bighorn. Reno's men had fled to the hilltop after losing a skirmish at the upper end of the valley and had plunged from this embankment into the river. He estimated its height at about ten feet. They landed in water four or five feet deep and after crossing the stream they climbed hills that were too steep for a direct ascent. "The marvel is that with such a multitude of Indians around them so many escaped. The retreat was a mad race to a place of safety."
Preparations were begun to carry Reno's wounded troopers to the mouth of the Little Bighorn where the steamer Far West was waiting, moored to a cottonwood tree. Pvt. White was one of the men assigned to collect material for litters and he reports that at first they cut saplings, but then realized it would be easier to obtain poles by tearing apart Sioux burial lodges. Besides, this would give them a chance to hunt for souvenirs. White and others in this detail were fascinated by what they saw. Dr. Paulding wanted a pair of beaded moccasins laced on the feet of a dead warrior. He tugged at them, "but they were a tight fit, since his flesh was swollen, and the skin slipped when he took hold of a leg. Notwithstanding he was a doctor, the offensive odor and the repugnant situation in general caused him to quit his undertaking. Those bodies had been lying there through two days and nights of the warm weather of the 25th, 26th, and 27th of June."
The journal of Dr. Paulding fails to mention this incident.
White himself picked up half a dozen pairs of moccasins and a mirror studded with brass tacks. He also found a gunnysack full of letters which must have been taken from a stagecoach or a post office, and somebody's account book containing a list of about twenty names together with amounts charged against them. On several pages of this book were Indian drawings presumably made by whoever had stolen it, but these drawings did not interest him. He gave the letters and the account book to a Chicago journalist who was traveling with the army. The book has now disappeared. A number of journalists accompanied the army, but just two from Chicago: Charles Diehl of the Times and "Phocion" Howard of the Tribune. One of them must have carried it off.
Except for the tack-studded mirror—which, in photographs, suggests a medieval Viking artifact—White lost his Sioux memorabilia when some person or persons unknown ran away with a bag containing the moccasins. He told an interviewer many years afterward that he suspected a cavalryman from the Seventh.
The day after his excursion to the village White spent a while wandering through the valley where Reno's men started the fight. All of the bodies he saw had been horribly gashed. Entrails protruded. Heads, feet, arms, legs, and hands were chopped off. He noted just one exception—a trooper lying almost hidden beneath the belly of a horse. This man had not been found by the Indians and before dying of his wounds he must have gone mad with thirst because he had thrust his head between the animal's hind legs and opened a haunch with his knife. The knife lay on the ground beside his right hand. His left hand clutched a tin cup in which there were a few ounces of clotted blood.
In 1920 ex-Private William Slaper described what he saw in the valley to historian E. A. Brininstool: "Corporal Henry Scollen of M Troop was found badly mutilated, with his right leg severed from his body. Jim Turley's body was found with his hunting knife driven to the hilt in one eye. ..."
Scollen felt some deep apprehension. On June 24 his bunkmate, Pvt. Daniel Newell, went for a dip in Rosebud Creek and when he returned to camp he noticed Scollen writing in a diary. "If anything happens to me," Scollen said, "notify my sister Mary, who lives in Gardiner, Massachusetts. My name is Henry Cody. ..." This was the second time within a few days that he had told Newell his true name.
He was killed during the retreat from the valley. Newell saw him go down and heard him say "Good-bye, boys!"
His horse got away and later was caught by a soldier from another company. In a saddlebag was his prayerbook, The Key of Heaven, which Newell mailed to his sister. She wrote back wanting to know if her brother had been disfigured. Newell lied, assuring her that he was not. "I would have given most anything if I could have recovered his diary," Newell remarked in 1930, "but I suppose the squaws got that when they stripped his body. Poor boy."
An engineering officer of Gibbon's command, Lt. Edward McClernand, jotted down a few reflections while passing through the valley. He noted that this region had been scouted the previous April, at which time some Crow guides—well aware of Sioux nearby—had left an ideograph for their enemies to find: an empty breadbox decorated with charcoal drawings. These pictures informed the Sioux that they were going to be wiped out, and the Crows stuffed grass in the cracks of the box to indicate that this would happen in summer. Considering the great amount of territory scouted by Gibbon's patrols, McClernand wrote, it was strange that this breadbox should have been left just a short distance from the actual site of the battle.
Here on the valley floor, at the south end of the Sioux-Cheyenne encampment, the battle may have been resolved before Custer himself fired a shot. In 1883 an Unkpapa Sioux woman told of being here when Reno charged. She thought the man who led the attacking troops must have been drunk or insane: "He had the camp at his mercy, and could have killed us all or driven us away. ..."
Instead, Reno's men dismounted and formed a skirmish line. Then they began to retreat. They ran very fast, she said, dropping guns and cartridges. She was disgusted by the conduct of these whites, saying they must have been seized with panic worse than that which seized her own people.
Things looked different from the troopers' point of view. They saw hundreds of Sioux galloping from the Unkpapa village—stretched out flat on their ponies or clinging to the far side. Bullets began pattering into the earth. Pvt. William Morris said so many bullets hit the ground that he got dust in his eyes. Sgt. John Ryan remembered that when the order to dismount was given they were in a prairie dog town and the men employed these little cones of earth as breastworks. Ryan says nothing else about such a defensive posture, but he and every other soldier knew that a prairie dog mound would not deflect a bullet or an arrow.
Most of the warriors rode back and forth yelping and firing at the prone troopers, but some turned the west end of the line intending to surround them, and when this happened Reno's battalion withdrew toward a stand of cottonwoods beside the river.
Excerpted from Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell. Copyright © 1984 Evan S. Connell. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ALSO BY EVAN S. CONNELL,
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Shocked out of my cowboy boots to see a review calling this book "disorganized". The reason why I love it is that the author circles and circles around the main event, talking about everything from frontier laundresses to dance hall recreastion and never loses sight of the main event. It works for me.
Connell has written fiction, history, poetry, and essays. Son of the Morning Star is non-fiction though some of the other genres he writes in leak through. It is history with a definite flavor of its own. He starts on a subject, then digresses, then digresses from the digression. Sometimes there are several levels of this digressing. Instead of being maddening, something wonderful starts to happen. He is filling in all the blank spots on the canvas of the era and a full detailed picture emerges. Connell will quote from a diary or journal from a source of the day and follow with a one word sentence from himself like- Really. These sources conflict one another so often it's hard to divine the truth from wild imaginations. The end result is not formal buttoned-down history.At times, Son of the Morning Star out Blood Meridians Blood Meridian. There is violence of every imaginable sort. It was a bloody rough and tumble world on the Plains and Mountain West in the latter half of the nineteenth century. White on white violence. Native American on native violence. White on Red violence. Red on White violence. It was perpetrated against animals, women, children, and even the grasses of the prairie. Slaughter-fests would not be an inappropriate term. The writing doesn't glory in the violence but does record it in some detail. General Armstrong Custer. What a bundle of contradictions contained in human form. Many soldiers who went through much of the Civil War claimed they never knew hardship until they served under him. He was known as Hard-Ass or Iron Butt. Some years the desertion rate of his unit was more than fifty percent. He made enemies by the hundreds. He also had his supporters. He needed them after being court-martialed. President Grant didn't want him on the frontier but he begged his way back onto the field. He took his wife to several posts with him and pampered her endlessly but also had mistresses. He loved animals. He caught a field mouse and kept it in a inkpot on his desk. It would run up his arm then nest in his hair. He let a porcupine sleep on his bed. He wrote poems about some of his dogs when they died. Once, he had his column march around a meadowlark's nest because he didn't want it disturbed. It wasn't all consistency though, even when it came to animals. He saw a white pelican flying and shot it to measure its wingspan. When he visited his parents he would be sobbing like a baby when it was time to part ways. He was flawed to the bone but probably wasn't evil incarnate. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of those American events that just won't fade into oblivion. Each generation keeps the interest and myths and legends of the battle alive. There have been hundreds of books, paintings, and historical interpretations of that battle in 1876. Custer's intentions and performance at Little Bighorn will always be a contentious subject. This book is a good one covering many angles of the battle, the era, and the man.
Once in a while you find a book that is so well written that beyond the days of reading, long after you have finished it, the book continues to haunt you. Son of the Morning Star is one of those books. The beauty of Evan Connell's prose and the excellence of his history make this book a minor masterpiece. Perhaps the larger-than-life presence of the central character, who the Indians named "son of the morning star", General George Armstrong Custer, is partly the reason for the magnificence of the book.¿Even now,¿ Evan Connell writes in his book, ¿after a hundred years, his name alone will start an argument. More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past, but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope.¿Who knows the mind of Custer and the reasons that led to his demise at Little Big Horn. Maybe Evan S. Connell hits on the right one by thinking the most simply: Custer had never known defeat, perhaps couldn¿t see it even when it was only one hilltop away. Few non-academic histories have been so well-written as this and have such compelling central themes that you can't put them down. Near-masterpiece is the best thing I can say when recommending this to anyone who enjoys reading a great book. It was simply a delight to read.
Wonderful, beautifully written biography of George A. Custer and his tragic adventure as an "Indian fighter."
A marvel of a book. Using Custer's life, and the subsequent myth of his life as a focal point, Connel weaves a hypnotic history of White/Indian relations in the settling of the west. I often give this book as a gift and everyone has loved it.
Og 3 Stars bye see ya ptn .. n