If you have the chance take one of Dr. Carson's classes, do it. I've taken at least 3 of them. Each one was better than the last.
This book covers old ground in the retelling of the Battle of Little Bighorn. The previous review, Month of the Freezing Moon by Duane Schultz was also about conflict with natives as settlers moved westward. Michno is cut from a completely different cloth than Schultz. The two men use data to interpret historical events. Where Schultz attempted to insert the thoughts of the natives into his work by vignettes (Schultz), Michno takes a different tact. Michno uses the standard historical narrative and inserts information gathered from the survivors, meaning only the Lakota, to clarify. Michno laments that previous authors on this subject discounted native testimony as they were an “alien race” (Michno, p. ix-xiv). He quotes William A. Graham as saying the native witnesses, “contradicted each other so much to an extent that I found them irreconcilable” (Michno, p. x). Michno rejects that attitude, writing “we must use both white and Indian sources; further, we must realize that the Indian sources are more important and should take precedence whenever any apparent conflict arises between the two.” (Michno, p. ix-xiv). Theoretically, pragmatic, because the voices of the winners and those who held the field at the end was the only primary source besides forensic details.
Michno statement of intent was that he was not interested in the study of warfare, morality, or cause. He wrote from a discontent of the framework and structure of descriptions of the Battle of Little Bighorn by others. He wished to build his own study of the Battle and from there, reassess his own thoughts and preconceptions. Michno desired an educational outcome, one that he found satisfying. Michno found the prior work on this topic short on details about the native defenders. In case studies from their perspective, their testimony to events watered down with secondary sources not of native hands. To address this concern in his work, he breaks the battle down into 10 minute segments to present the historical account of the soldiers, plus the discounted statements by Indians and follows both with a detailed analysis of events to correlate or highlight discrepancy between accounts. In this way he shapes an excellent description of the chain of events in the battle. Time studies and motion studies have long been a practice when reviewing this segment of history as these were the only source of information not derived from the Indians. While many of these works are spectacularly clear and clean cut, there is a certain amount of fear when history loses it’s fog of time. Michno takes advantage of both the fog of the past and the rational tradition of time studies to reframe the events of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
“A Word to the Wise” was the introductory chapter from William A. Graham’s book and is quoted by Michno. It is useful regarding this title, also. Michno and artist Jennifer Hamelman, have created a curious, almost avant-garde book to recount Custer’s last days. The word “book” instead of “title” is used purposefully here. Physically, the book is like no other. The table of contents are broken down by timestamp and page, 13 figures a presented on a table followed by 25 “time-segment” maps. The author wrote a one paragraph acknowledgements page before a two page centerfold map, with key features superimposed on the current site of modern day I-90 for reference. The next page holds a legend labeled “Individual and Tribal Symbol Key”. Cheyenne, Oglala, Minneconjou, Hunkpapa, Brulé, Arapaho and Two Kettle tribes appear on the key, each with their own characteristic shape. Divided by tribe, 58 names of Indians appear, each individual shares the symbol of his tribe but also has a unique two letter identifier. What these symbols are for is not explained until page xiii. Each entry of the narrative has a timestamp, a name and an sequence indicator. For example: “5:50-6:00, White Bull [last 5:40, next 6:10]”. The author explains that this indicates the reader has reached 5:50 to 6:00 in time, in the narrative of White Bull, his prior entry was at 5:40 and the next is at 6. Ingenious, but Michno takes this approach a step further. On page 315 begins a tribe by tribe breakdown of historical personages and at what time they appear in the narrative. Because the author has assigned a symbol to each tribe and person, it is possible to flip through the book and read a single tribe or person’s role in the book sequentially. While this style of reading is always possible using an index, Michno includes none and the endeavour is a visual experience as opposed to a test of hand-eye dexterity. This level of creativity in presentation may be off-putting, but the structure works very well.
In Michno’s first chapter, he addresses two historical conundrums: the vast array of tipis (or teepees) reconnoitered by Reno and Custer’s desire to attack such a large force. The author abandons historical arguments as illogical. Custer was an able commander and very aware his enemy, if confronted by a vast superior force as the history maintains, any logical person would withdraw. What Michno did was a spacial analysis of how the tipis could have filled the valley in a tight arrangement (Michno, p.3-20). Using Wooden Leg’s description of the camp, it hugged the river and was entirely east of the I-90 (Michno, p.17). Comparing that statement to Captain Moylan’s description of only being 200-300 yards wide, 1,900 lodges would have fit within the space of a quarter square mile (Michno, p.18). This 1,900 lodge number was on the high side of estimates. Some are as low as 1000 lodges, which require far less space or a more sparse arrangement. What this meant for Custer was he was not using Reno’s force as an anvil to his hammer, his movements were meant to draw Indians away from Reno’s force, reducing the threat, not riding headlong into it (Michno, p.19). Strangely, adding the Indian side of the story established Custer as well reasoned as opposed to someone suffering from either myopia or delusions. The first chapter is a solid work of puzzling and reasoning which was of great importance to the following chapters.
There is the idea that Custer walked into an ambush, a terrible end for a well regarded tactician. From the details of the various defenders, it was Custer who was ambushing them. Ill prepared for combat, forces drew out for battle with Custer’s men on the north side of the village (Michno, p.33). In one hour, by 4 in the afternoon, the Battle was not going well for Major Reno’s men (Michno, p.87). They had taken refuge in a wood and in an attempt to withdraw, suffered horrible casualties. One Bull, having seen the men retreat, ordered his men to let them go to tell the tale (Michno, p.84). Citation is designed for order and comprehension, Michno’s work does a fair bit to disorder this as Reno’s part appears after One Bull’s in the narrative. However, the effect of this style was very effective.
In the last three chapters, Michno returns the tradition of style of discussion and analysis. His analysis pushes away the idea of a single last stand. While Custer’s forces held the hill, some men fled into the gully. Michno notes dryly that “dead men don’t run”. Historical accounts must give way to reason. Beard, a Minneconjou, recounts that he desired to capture Custer but ultimately found him dead, still holding the reins of his horse. The battle was over.
Why had it ended with Custer dead and his enemies victorious? Custer had done the unthinkable by dividing his forces. Well, yes. But there is one set of rules for strategy and one for tactics. Strategy dictates one should never divide one’s strength. However, as a purely practical matter, tactics are dictated by the environment. Separation was a requirement of the engagement (Michno, p. 294). Custer lead a cavalry regiment, not a phalanx.
Michno’s account of the battle ranges from mathematical to bone chilling in its details. This title was an offbeat, yet wonderfully readable recount of the battle with a strong focus on all of the voices from the various tribes and companies. This book was designed for study, reading and rereading. The wonderful documentation in the form of footnotes, the photographs, charts, maps and symbols make this title an excellent addition for any history bookshelf.
Gregory F. Michno. Lakota Noon. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing. 1997. Print.
Schultz, Duane. Month of the Freezing Moon: The Sand Creek Massacre, November 1864. New
York: Published by St. Martin’s Press. 1990. Print.