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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Preconceptions and History

This is Steven Petrick writing.

One of the things that affects the discovery of the past is preconceptions. It applies whether one is looking for a previous undiscovered civilization, or when one is simply dealing with the more recent past. Recent examples are the uncovering of the Maya civilization. Their lost cities in the Yucatan Peninsula were presented initially as the realm of great philosopher kings. A peaceful society. Only later were the signs of mass sacrifice and general blood letting found. But it does not stop the search for the mythical kingdoms of peace that waged war not, and students who will be the next archaeologists are being inculcated even now to continue the search for such kingdoms. Even though all we know and have learned of the nature of man says they will not exist.

Another more recent example is Custer. While I am not a fan of Custer, I often find the modern presentation of his final battle as being basically clouded by preconception. We know that Custer stopped for a while to watch Reno's engagement. This was learned by interviews with Indian scouts who accompanied Custer to that point in the early 1900s. The man who found this took the information to President Theodore Roosevelt, who apparently agreed that this was an indication that Custer had done something wrong and suggested it should not be discussed, resulting in its being buried for a century. (At least according to the History Channel.)

Let me put my own spin on it.

Custer stopping to observe Reno's engagement was exactly what a competent officer should have done. At that point he could make a decision of what to do with the balance of his forces (the five troops that were with him, and the two troops that were with Benteen). That Theodore Roosevelt might see something wrong is perfectly understandable. Roosevelt, while having served as the commanding officer of his own regiment of Cavalry, was a military Neophyte. He had no formal military education, and achieved command of his regiment by, in essence, buying the regiment. And his command never operated independently, and he never was in a situation where he divided his command and had to coordinate the different forces. His judgment that Custer was doing something wrong, used to strengthen that conclusion, is flawed and no better than that of those trying to draw the conclusion they wanted.

What Custer probably saw was that Reno's attack was doing what it was clearly intended to do: Draw the bulk of the Indian fighters onto him and leaving their camp open for an attack from the flank by the rest of Custer's command. And he did not see Reno "in trouble". Instead, he saw Reno accomplishing the mission. And while Reno himself indicated he was pressed, the pressure on his command was not to the breaking point. The History Channel merely states that Custer's men were poorly trained, and they can only make this claim by ignoring anything that contradicts their decision.

Consider the performance of Reno's command. His three troops advanced. When the advance was contested, Reno had them dismount and form a firing line. When that line was pressured, Reno had the men remount and fall back, and then dismount to again form a firing line. This while the mighty Plains Indians, the greatest warriors in history (according to the History channel) were continuously pressuring his three troops. When his second line was pressured, Reno again ordered his men to mount and fall back (this has been attributed to Reno himself being in shock due to the death of an Indian Scout right next to him which splattered him with blood and brains). This was again accomplished, the three troops falling back on and joining the two troops under Benteen, where they again made a stand.

Reno's men did not break. They did not panic and scatter to the winds trying to save themselves. They remained combat effective and under the control of their officers all through the fight. That is NOT something that untrained or ill-trained men do when under attack. But the fact that they did not collapse into a rabble fleeing for their lives would contradict the view that Custer's men were poorly trained.

If we return ourselves to Custer watching the fight Reno was undertaking, one can see Custer deciding that Reno could "hold what he had" while Custer executed the flank attack, and once the panic of his flank attack reached the Indians attacking Reno, they would break and flee (an attack on their rear). That was not an unreasonable conclusion for Custer to have come too. And, ultimately, Custer's judgment of Reno was born out. Reno's command survived.

Note again, I am not a fan of Custer, and I tend to agree that he was over-reaching and that was what got him and the men with him killed. But there is far more to the battle than historians seem willing to teach.