Sunday, January 12, 2020

Grant’s Indian Wars & the Little Bighorn

“We Could See They were Good People!”
A private’s orders leads to understanding Grant’s
role in the Little Bighorn Battle

By Monette Bebow-Reinhard

President Grant was in a peculiar place; he had been the hero of the Civil War, and felt the presidency was his reward. Having been given a lion’s share of credit for re-uniting North and South, he and the army were faced with the task of uniting East and West with the railroad, making the country truly united. Grant liked Lee, by the way, and refused to let his men cheer when Lee rode off after surrendering at Appomattox.

In today’s anti-racism climate Confederate statues have been torn down, and maybe rightly so, depending on the attitude that created them. Perhaps we shouldn't disparage southern men who fought for their state’s rights. Yes, they were racist (and many who live in the South still are). Today we know racism is wrong. But why hold the rebels of the past responsible for the prevalent attitude of their time? When he became president, Grant had to deal with attitudes toward the Indians as the country acquired land to build the railroad, much of which he helped accomplish under President Johnson.

A lot of historians use Grant’s own words to create their opinion of him, and most give him a pass for what happened in the Indian wars. Thomas S.W. Lewis noted back in 1985 in a Mosely Faculty Research Lecture that “By ending his narrative with the account of Appomattox, [Grant] avoids the grim task of telling about his many failures as President: the Whisky Ring and Secretary Babcock’s fraud, the Union Pacific Railroad’s Credit Mobilier scheme to bilk the government of twelve million acres of land in the West, among others.”

Those were likely the failures for which Grant apologized in 1876. However, he didn’t say much of anything about those eight years, at all. Grant wrote his memoirs while dying of throat cancer and did not have time to delve into his Presidential years. One might think he avoided the idea because he didn’t want to make himself, or his country, look bad.

Henry Bertrand, the private whose orders this author followed in this research, was a German who was pro-Indian. Grant, as a hero, was pro-US and used to butting his head against brick until he broke through for a win. Bertrand’s orders provide evidence that Grant was more involved in Custer’s death than has been revealed in past historiography. Could “the bloody butcher” have turned into a pansy president, letting everyone walk all over him? Or did he appoint relatives and allow or create scandals to get the results he needed?

The newer books on Grant get a little closer to the truth—or they avoid the topic altogether. Ronald White published a life of Grant in 2016, with one mention of Custer, nothing on the Black Hills or the Little Bighorn. Peter Cozzens had an article on Grant in the Smithsonian (2016’s “The Earth is Weeping”) where he argued that most historians had him wrong.

It’s time to update his presidency to find out the truth about what happened at the Little Bighorn.

Robert Wooster said Grant was less interested in Indian affairs because of scandals that plagued him beginning in 1872. A close look at Bertrand’s orders indicates that Grant created scandals to get people who would say yes to his plans to take the Black Hills. Francis Paul Prucha noted that the peace policy was an effort to conquer Indians with kindness, as long as they accepted civilization. However, Prucha made a huge leap from Custer’s expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 to Grant’s December 6th ultimatum, without recognizing all that happened in-between. Like many, he seemed to believe that Custer was the only one who seriously underestimated the size of the Indian camps. Let’s look at that supposed fact a little closer.

One of the events to happen between 1874 and 1876 was the offer to buy the Black Hills from the Indians. You see, the panic of 1873, caused by the railroad stock crash, meant that more and more people were clamoring to find gold in the Black Hills that still belonged to the natives because of the Fort Laramie Treaty.

As a whole, agency Indians rejected all offers and asked far more than the government could spend. Hostile Indians at the Allison Commission in 1875 threatened to attack any Indian who signed any treaty. General Alfred Terry was at this council in Nebraska, where one report noted there were 20,000 Indians attending, with no one willing to sell for less than what had been a few months earlier relayed to Grant. General Terry was later in charge of Custer’s orders at the Little Bighorn.

Terry should have known better. But Grant and Sheridan forced a report to demonstrate that not more than 500 hostile Indians would be willing to fight and the rest would run away. Those they expected to run were agency Sioux and Cheyenne, like Red Cloud's people. They told all generals that any one of the three columns could handle the Indians. No historian gave the Allison Commission of September 1875 the attention it deserves, where they observed how both agency and hostile Indians were opposed to selling the Black Hills.

Shortly after the Allison Commission failure, Grant held a secret meeting, with generals and other officials. Most all historians write about this. None have an additional fact that can be found in primary records on Henry’s orders. Robert Utley in Frontier Regulars wrote that the November 3rd secret meeting seemed to be about the withdrawal of troops from Black Hills duty. Bertrand received his orders to leave Fort Laramie before November 3rd, so at most, Grant simply informed his generals the reason for those orders—that they would no longer protect the miners, and if some were killed, they’d have their reason for war. You see, when Bertrand’s companies moved out, Fort Laramie was undermanned until the following spring.

Utley also noted a second reason, and that was to force the Indians back to their agencies. That demand was issued in the December 6th ultimatum in 1875, after the withdrawal of troops didn’t have the desired result. Utley also noted that Indian Commissioner E.P. Smith resigned, but it’s more likely that Grant forced the resignation because of a reluctance on Smith’s part to follow orders. The December 6th ultimatum was directed at the agency Indians, saying they must return to their agencies by the end of January or be considered hostile.

They all knew they had the right to hunt on their territory and politely declined to comply.

About the Little Bighorn loss Utley noted a second reason for the meeting: “Later the army, professing ignorance of the increase in [Indian] strength, blamed the failure of the campaign on Indian Bureau negligence.” This could be another reason for Smith’s resignation. Utley then related that this was not true because “on May 30, Sheridan telegraphed Sherman that information from Crook indicates that all the agency Indians capable of taking the field are now or soon will be on the warpath.” So they knew long before the Little Bighorn that there were large numbers of Indians in the field. But they still referred to their report, written after the secret meeting, saying only 500 of them would fight.

Grant and Sheridan both continued to lie about Indian strength. And of course, Custer believed them. And they believed he would be arrogant enough to think he could whip any number of Indians. They also knew he’d follow his normal procedure of dividing his forces.

So the three-column campaign to the Little Bighorn was not coordinated. Crook was stopped in his tracks on June 17th, sent word to Sheridan, and instead of sending word to Terry, Sheridan just told Crook to hit them again, and left for Philadelphia to take in the Centennial Fair with Grant.

Roger L. Di Silvestro wrote: “Bishop William Hare, who founded missions among Indians throughout the West, protested to President Grant that the expedition (in 1874) would infuriate the Lakota and drive them to war as well as stand out as a “violation of national honor.” Grant ignored him. Then Di Silvestro noted, regarding the demand to return to reservations by January 31st: “if ever a government policy was created purposefully to fail, this order was it.”

When Grant heard of the nearly 300 men killed at the Little Bighorn, he blamed Custer. McFeely in his book on Grant wrote: “Sheridan knew that Custer had badly misjudged his enemy.”

Historians seemed to understand what was going on, recognizing but unwilling to follow the whole trail of Grant’s culpability as president and military leader; no one wants to openly demonstrate that the Black Hills were, indeed, stolen.

Additionally, read Custer's Last Battle.
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About the Author
Monette Bebow-Reinhard is an established book author, specializing in historical accounts, issues, and events. She began writing movie scripts in 1975 and from 1992 to 1995, she co-wrote scripts for the Bonanza series. She has won several minor awards and Monette has several novels on the market. Her latest is entitled "Civil War & Bloody Peace: Following Orders, a historical works involving the American Civil War, now available through Amazon (click here). To connect with Monette Bebow-Reinhard, send an email.

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