Our Centennial Indian War
and the Life of General Custer
By Frances Fuller Victor
Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011 (Vol. 68 of the Frontier Library Series) PP. xix, 195, contents, introduction, editorial note, index, hardcover, $29.95
Our Summer issue observed that, for some, John Ford’s romantic portrait of the U.S. cavalry in film captured the aura of the times. For others, the “politically correct” notions of the brutality and ineptitude of the Frontier Army seem to dominate.
Both images are wrong and certainly inadequate. In addition to the impressive recent scholarship reviewed, a contemporary perspective equally demonstrates such inadequacies and shatters misconceptions by offering a new understanding of the “Great Sioux War” of 1876-1877.
Frances Fuller Victor was a prolific author who wrote primarily on the Northwest. In 1877 she published The River of the West that was reprinted and retitled Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains and Life on the Frontier. This work included a unique appendix: “Our Centennial Indian War and the Life of General Custer.” Unfortunately this volume was not widely distributed and we are, indeed, fortunate that this section is now in print.
Fuller saw what we call the “Great Sioux War” as a natural extension of her own study of the fur trapper and settler Frontier. Published before this Centennial conflict had ended, her book used many contemporary dispatches, letters and government reports (many printed in Army & Navy Journal) to describe the war against the Sioux and Cheyenne.
The author claimed that the causes of this and other Indians wars were broken treaties, land settlement and dishonest government agents. “The Indian,” she observed, “has never lifted his hand against us until provoked to it by misconduct on our part, compared with which, any misconduct of us is but dust in the balance.” Modern critics could easily echo such words.
However, as the concise introduction by historian Jerome A. Greene notes, one critical element that Victor failed to mention was the expansion of the railroads.
The author adequately traces the various fights from Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds’s attack on the Northern Cheyenne village on Powder River in March 1876 to Crazy Horse’s surrender at Red Cloud Agency in May 1877. At the latest date,” her sweeping war chronicle concludes, “Sitting Bull and his band were reported moving to Canada.”
Victor’s account of the Battle of the Little Big Horn battle is limited. However, she did consult and quote the official reports of Major Marcus A. Reno and Capt. Frederick W. Benteen to describe their participation but was not shy to address controversy and criticism about them. She also includes the 1876 account of the Blackfoot Lakota Kill Eagle that was analyzed in Greasy Grass 2011. Her account of Sioux War events in the Summer and Fall of 1876 is limited but generally accurate.
Of special interest is Victor’s generally positive yet balanced biographical sketch of George Armstrong Custer. What added clear value to this early assessment were the opinions of several of Custer’s contemporaries whose judgments of the man were as valid as any informed, judicious scholarship today. Above all, the recollections of former New York Tribune correspondent Samuel J. Barrows were as accurate as they were pertinent:
“Gen. Custer was a born cavalryman. He was the personification of bravery and dash. If he had only added discretion to his valor he would have been a perfect soldier. His impetuosity often ran away with his judgment. He was impatient of control. He liked to act independently of others, and take all the risk and all the glory to himself. He frequently got himself into trouble by assuming more authority than really belonged to his rank.”
Barrows certainly knew his subject well, having observed him first hand as a participant in the Yellowstone and Black Hills expeditions in 1873 and 1874.
Other astute observers included Gen. A.B. Nettleton, who recalled that Custer’s forte was the first and foremost requirement in a cavalry fight: “instantaneous quickness of eye, that is, the lightening–like formation and execution of successive correct judgments on a rapidly changing situation.” This quality had served him well.
Considering the fact that Frederick Whittaker’s hero-worshipping Popular Life of Gen. George A. Custer was the only other biography available, Victor’s profile was certainly far more significant.
This little book was the first real account of the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. Notwithstanding some inaccuracies and limitations, this volume is well worth reading.
Reviewed by Rev. Vincent A. Heier