On June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Unlike D-Day, it’s not the kind of historical event that generates lots of anniversary coverage. (Though I suspect it will garner some attention on its 150th anniversary in 2026.) And up until a couple of hours ago I had no intention of re-running this post from 2016. But I’ve spent several hours struggling with a new blog post that just isn’t working–a losing skirmish of a different sort. Sometimes it makes more sense to make a graceful retreat than to fight to the deal.
And so I offer you a few thoughts on Custer’s defeat and how we report on historical events. I think they hold up three years after I first wrote them.
* * *
Sometimes I think that no matter how much we may know about history as individuals, collectively we know nothing at all.
Case in point: Custer’s Last Stand.
I am currently working on an article that is about a painting about the event that you and I have always known as Custer’s Last Stand.(1) I went into the piece with only the vaguest sense of the historical event, something I felt no shame about because American history is not my field. Here is what I had going in:
- Custer was a Civil War hero, and as problematic after the war as that other Civil War hero, Ulysses S. Grant. Though not the same way.
- A small group of soldiers under his command died fighting a large group of Native Americans at the Battle of Little Big Horn
- A vague sense that Custer was at fault(2)
- A certainty that it must have been a critical battle, because otherwise why would I have heard about it?
- It occurred after the American Civil War, during the period when the west was “opened”.(3)
None of that is completely wrong. Except for the part about it being a critical battle. It wasn’t. Whether you think the death of the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 was a military blunder or an act of heroism–or both(4)– the battle changed nothing. It was barely a battle, even by nineteenth century standards. It had no lasting effect on the so-called Indian Wars, or on the drawn-out dreary campaign of which it was a part. The Sioux won the battle, but gained nothing by their victory.
The battle/fight/skirmish is historical fact, but it turns out that the popular image of that skirmish as a “last stand” is an artist’s creation, reinforced by other artists’ creations over the last 140 years. And the power of that largely mythical image is one reason an otherwise meaningless military encounter became, and remains, an important emblem of a ugly struggle that stands at the root of America’s westward expansion.
When it comes to the the Battle of Little Bighorn, we don’t actually know what happened and the question of whether Custer showed poor judgment continues to be hotly debated among those who care. The Seventh Cavalry, under Custer’s leadership, was intended to be one prong of a three-pronged campaign to encircle the Sioux and drive them from their treaty territory. When Custer’s scouts reported the discovery of a Sioux village, Custer divided his forces into three parts, keeping only five companies with him to face what turned out to be a much larger force than the US Army had originally estimated. Companies under the leadership of Captain Benteen and Major Reno retreated to a defensive position on the bluffs rather than attacking an overwhelming force. As for Custer, the last thing we know of him is his often-quoted final message: “Benteen. Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. W.E. Cooke. P.S. Bring packs.” According to Trumpeter John Martin, who carried the message, Custer was about to charge the village as Martin left.
This is the point at which traditional histories often say that no one survived the battle. In fact, hundreds of people survived the battle–all of them members of the Sioux and Cheyenne nations. Some of them left their own accounts of the battle, but those accounts disagree about the actions taken by Custer’s troops. (This should come as a surprise to no one. Soldiers in the front line of battle seldom have a sense of the big picture.)
Maybe the battle, from the perspective of the 7th Cavalry, was a heroic last stand.(5) Maybe it was a rout. The one thing we can say for certain is that whatever happened, it probably didn’t look like this:
(1) If you’re interested, it appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of American History
(2) Almost a reflex for me. I was twelve in 1970, when Little Big Man hit the screen and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was released, The ironic Western and revisionist examinations of Native American history are deeply rooted in my brain. Possibly the first step in a career based on trying to walk in someone else’s historical shoes.
(3) A phrase that ranges from problematic to horrific. Once you start looking at a period of history with an awareness that there are two sides to every historical event you find linguistic pitfalls everywhere. I have no good answer for how to cope with this other than to type with my eyes wide open and carry a large bag of quotation marks.
(4) The two are not mutually exclusive. Think the Charge of the Light Brigade.
(5) According to the OED, a last stand is “an act of determinedly holding or defending a position against a (more powerful) opposing force; a final show of resistance or protest”. Wikipedia adds a few critical elements from the popular definition: the defensive force usually takes very heavy casualties or is completely destroyed and (most important for the rest of this discussion) the last stand is a tactical choice taken because the defending forced recognizes the benefits of fighting outweigh the benefits of retreat or surrender.
Christopher Klein’s When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom tells one of those overlooked stories from history that make your jaw drop.
Here’s the short version: A year after the end of the American Civil War, veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies went to war again. Their goal? To seize the British colony of Canada and hold it hostage for until Ireland was given it’s independence.
Klein does a masterful job of first untangling and then weaving together the complex histories of Irish nationalism, Irish immigration to the United States, America’s expansion westward, Canadian unification, and post-Civil War American politics. The resulting story is alternately heartbreaking and hysterical,—and always fascinating.
And now, please welcome Christopher Klein.
When did you first learn about the Fenian Raids, and what about the story captured your imagination?
When researching my last book, a biography of the Irish-American heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan, I came across a description of one of Sullivan’s ring opponents as a veteran of the attack on Canada and immediately did a double-take. Like most Americans, I had never heard of the Fenian Raids. The more I delved into this passing message in a book, the more I found that there was an incredible adventure story to be told about a band of revolutionaries who fled Ireland’s Great Hunger after the potato crop failed, fought on both sides of the Civil War, and then united to attack Canada not just once, but five times between 1866 and 1871. It sounds like a bunch of blarney, but it’s one of those stories that only history could concoct. What also drew me into the story of the Fenian Raids was the opportunity to write a prequel of sorts to my Sullivan biography, which chronicled the generation of Irish-Americans born to Great Hunger refugees who rose to political and cultural power during the Gilded Age. When the Irish Invaded Canada tells the story of the previous Great Hunger generation, which encountered the nativist hostility of the Know-Nothings, struggled mightily to assimilate into American culture, and never forgot the plight of their homeland, which had been under British rule for seven centuries.
Were there special challenges in researching what was effectively a series of covert actions?
Luckily for me as a writer—but unfortunately for the Fenian Brotherhood, the organization that carried out the series of attacks—the Irish-Americans who invaded Canada were not particularly adept at keeping their covert operations secret. British and Canadian spies easily infiltrated the Fenian Brotherhood, although, in all honesty, a newspaper subscription was all that was required to stay up-to-date on the comings and goings of the Fenians since they freely exercised their gift of gab. “No news travels so freely or so fast as the ‘secret’ doings of the Fenian Brotherhood,” quipped Mark Twain. “In solemn whisperings at dead of night they secretly plan a Canadian raid, and publish it in the ‘World’ next morning.” Letters, telegrams, and internal communications sent among the Fenians have been preserved in a number of archives in the United States and Canada, which were very valuable in researching the story.
What impact did the failed Fenian Raids have on the broader history of Canada, the United States, Britain, and Ireland?
The Fenian Brotherhood succeeded in bringing self-government to one part of the British Empire—just not the one they intended. In the wake of the 1866 Fenian Raids, Canadians questioned the ability of the British government to defend their southern border from foreign invaders. This spurred on a burgeoning confederation movement that led to the establishment of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa in July 1867.
As for Ireland itself, the Fenian Brotherhood was the first to organize the Irish diaspora into financial and material support that flowed from America to Ireland. It made the United States a player in Anglo-Irish relations—a role that continues to this day in Northern Ireland—and demonstrated that America could provide Irish republicans with a base of operations beyond the legal reach of the British government. The transatlantic revolutionary framework first established by the Fenian Brotherhood, by which money and arms were raised in America and shipped to Ireland, would prove vital to the 1916 Easter Rising and the eventual establishment of the Irish Free State.
After the Civil War, Anglo-American relations were at their lowest ebb since the Redcoats torched the White House. However, the Fenian Raids saw the dawn of the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain as diplomats from the two countries invested considerable time and effort to defuse the tensions between the Fenians and Canadians.
You keep the balance between farce and tragedy beautifully throughout the book. Is there an event that you found particularly heartbreaking, or alternatively, hysterically funny?
The final Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871 is a farce of the highest order. It was led by John O’Neill, who is the thread that stitches together When the Irish Invaded Canada as he had a hand in all of the principal attacks. As a boy growing up in Ireland, O’Neill witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Great Hunger, and at his grandfather’s knee he heard the tales of famous members of the O’Neill clan who dared to stand up and fight the British. O’Neill carried both that inspiration and that trauma with him to America and became one of the most famous Irish-Americans of his age by scoring the first victory by an Irish army over British Empire forces since 1745 at the Battle of Ridgeway. O’Neill would never let go of the idea of invading Canada, no matter how great the odds facing him, even after giving President Ulysses S. Grant his promise to never attack Canada again in return for a pardon. In spite of his pledge, O’Neill led three dozen men on an attack from North Dakota in which he seized a Canadian customs house and an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company. However, O’Neill was unaware that the international border had recently been resurveyed and rather than being a quarter mile north inside Canadian territory as he believed, the Fenians were actually three-quarters of a mile south of the border, on American soil. Not only had O’Neill failed to conquer Canada, he failed to even enter it. I still can’t decide whether O’Neill is a character out of a comic opera or a Shakespearean tragedy because he is so blinded by his hatred of the British.
What would you like readers to take away from the book?
I’d like readers to be entertained but also perhaps gain a greater understanding that the assimilation of the Irish into American life was nowhere near as smooth as many people might imagine. I think it’s well known that Irish Catholics who fled to America after the Great Hunger encountered nativist scorn, but the Fenians who attacked Canada were so “radicalized” by their experiences under British rule that even after fighting in the Civil War they viewed themselves as Irish first, American second. Even after being in the country for two decades, these immigrants were still willing to take up arms for their homeland in these spasms of violence.
The Fenians also teach us that you don’t always have a Hollywood ending when facing overwhelming odds, but just because a win is unlikely doesn’t mean that you don’t put up a fight. Fighting a losing battle is still better than putting up no fight at all. Whether it’s the fight for civil rights or against cancer, even if you don’t find success in your lifetime, one of your descendants just might because you kept the cause alive. That was the case with these Fenians. They didn’t see a free Ireland in their lifetimes, but by keeping the revolutionary fire from being extinguished, they passed the torch of freedom onto a subsequent generation that was successful.
What are you working on now?
I’m keeping up my contributions to History.com, the website of the History Channel, and still searching for the right story for the next book I’d like to write.
Christopher Klein is the author of four books, including Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero. A frequent contributor to History.com, Klein has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Harvard Magazine, Smithsonian.com and AmericanHeritage.com . If you want to know more about his work, check out his website: https://christopherklein.com/
At this time last year, My Own True Love and I took a D-Day tour put on by the fabulous National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it seemed like a good time to re-run the blog posts I wrote about the trip. I’m ending this series with the first post I wrote on the subject. Thanks for traveling with me.
As I’ve mentioned before, My Own True Love and I are traveling to Normandy in May on a tour led by the National World War II Museum. The focus of the trip is D-Day–something I know about in only the broadest of terms. Which means I decided to read up, because that is what I do. The museum helpfully included a list of suggested reading: ten serious works of military history written by respected historians and journalists, ranging in scope from a comprehensive history of the war from the American and British perspective drawing largely on first hand accounts to the story of a group of men from one small town in Virginia who died at Omaha Beach.(1) Overwhelmed by the choices, I identified the ones we already owned (and by we, I mean My Own True Love) and then picked one at random.
The book gods smiled on me. Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day proved to be just the kind of military history I like. In the foreword Ryan claims the book is “not a military history. It is the story of people: the men of the Allied forces, the enemy they fought, and the civilians who were caught up in the bloody confusion of D Day.” Ryan manages the paradoxical task of portraying the sense of confusion with utter clarity. Instead of telling the story from the viewpoint of a omniscient narrator who can see the invasion as a whole, he moves from one powerful vignette to another, replicating the isolation of each unit on the battlefield. He moves from tragedy to comedy and back. His enlisted men are as vivid as his generals. He not only made me care about members of the invading force, he made me feel sympathy for lower-level German officers unable to respond to the invasion because of bad decisions made higher up the chair of command. (Quite a hat trick.) My only complaint with the book is that it made me cry on public transportation.
Will The Longest Day help me follow the course of the invasion as we walk the beaches in Normandy? Maybe not. But it certainly helped me understand the battle in human terms. And that is, after all, one of the reasons I read history.
(1)Here’s the list for anyone looking to add to your To-Be-Read shelf:
Stephen Ambrose. Band of Brothers.
Stephen Ambrose. D-Day: June 6, 1944
Stephen Ambrose. Pegasus Bridge**
Rick Atkinson. The Guns at Last Light: the War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
Tom Brokaw. The Greatest Generation
Robert M. Citino. The German Way of War
John Keegan. Six Armies in Normandy
Alex Kershaw. The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice.
Donald L. Miller. The Story of World War II
Cornelius Ryan. The Longest Day
It’s an impressive list, but I must admit it made me wonder if there are any books about D-Day written by women. A quick Google search gave me an impressive number of hits, all with notation “missing:
women“–which sums things up on many levels. If anyone knows of an example, please let me know.
(2) In case you hadn’t caught on, Dr. Ambrose was one of the founders of the museum.