Behind the battle: Historian tells little-known anecdotes of Little Bighorn

2014-08-09T19:00:00Z 2014-08-11T08:05:15Z Behind the battle: Historian tells little-known anecdotes of Little BighornBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

PRYOR — On Friday evening, Tim Lehman gave voice to some of the lesser-known combatants in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Speaking before a crowd of about 20 people at Chief Plenty Coups State Park, Lehman told the story of Moving Robe Woman, sometimes called She Walks with a Shawl, a 23-year-old Hunkpapa Sioux who was digging wild turnips when she saw Army troops approaching that fateful June day in 1876.

Her brother killed by the army, Moving Robe Woman “sang a death song for my brother. My heart was bad — revenge, revenge for my brother’s death!” Lehman read, quoting her account to the crowd. “I got a black horse, painted my face crimson and braided my black hair. I was mourning, I was a woman, but I was not afraid.”

The next Hollywood film about Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn — two famous ones are “They Died with their Boots On” and “Little Big Man” — should be told from Moving Robe Woman’s perspective, Lehman said.

“Some of you have connections with Hollywood producers,” the Rocky Mountain College history professor joked. “I hope you will make it so.”

Lehman, author of the book “Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer and the Destinies of Nations,” also told the stories of the more well-known Little Bighorn combatants, too. George Armstrong Custer’s narrative went back at least eight years earlier, to the Battle of the Washita — also known as the Washita Massacre — when Custer attacked the village of Black Kettle, a Cheyenne peace chief, and took 53 prisoners, including one named Monahsetah, who may or may not have become his mistress.

“He hired her as his interpreter, even though she didn’t speak English,” Lehman said, eliciting chuckles from his audience. “According to some, she became his mistress. This is controversial, but a lot of mainstream historians tend to think there is some truth to this.”

While Custer may have been “fulfilling his carnal desire,” she was “engaging in diplomacy by uniting people in kinship relationship,” Lehman said.

Eight years later, Custer tried the same tactic of taking women and children prisoner again at Little Bighorn, with a mind to keep the prisoners between his troops and his opponent as he had at Washita. But the women and children and the older men had earlier been safely ensconced by Sitting Bull, who by 1876 was in his 40s and past his fighting prime.

But Sitting Bull was still a respected spiritual leader, and the vision he had performing the Sun Dance a week earlier — of soldiers falling upside-down into camp — served to encourage his people during the Little Bighorn battle.

“At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Sioux thought that God was on their side,” Lehman said. “They were right, and they behaved differently in part because of that.”

According to Lehman, one reason Custer elected to engage what his scouts told him was a superior opponent — they’d spotted 20,000 Cheyenne horses grazing in the distance — was that “during the 19th century, the army had more trouble finding Indians than fighting them, and Custer himself had this experience.”

Custer didn’t want his opponents escaping as they had so often in the past. But his forces were completely overrun.

“When it became a defensive contest for Custer, he was easily defeated,” Lehman said. “He had no experience, and he was very bad at it. Had he been able to control the women and children, I think he would have been successful.”

Custer, Lehman said, believed “not in Sitting Bull’s medicine, but in Custer’s luck,” a reputation made as early as the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War and cemented with the American public after news reports the next decade at the Washita, a river that extends from southern Kansas into Oklahoma.

After Washita, Custer took to writing magazine articles, becoming what Lehman called “a self-styled expert on the Indian question.” He made a point of having his photograph taken in buckskin, and “took full advantage of the officer’s prerogative to dress up as you damn well please.” During the Civil War, Custer wore a bright velveteen jacket, a big red sash and a wide-brimmed velvet hat over his flowing locks.

“You couldn’t miss him,” Lehman chuckled. “The amazing thing was that all the Confederate soldiers shooting at him did.”

When he died, some newspaper accounts compared Custer to Jesus Christ. The New York Tribune noted that “he died on a hilltop just like Golgotha.”

“The tributes flowed from the press who loved him so much,” Lehman said.

They also recounted some of the stories that helped to create the legend. One of Lehman’s favorites involved Custer’s years at West Point, where young Custer may have graduated last in his class, but had a good time earning his commission. According to Lehman, Custer once asked his French professor how one said, “class dismissed” in French. The professor dutifully told him, and the entire class got up and left.

“His colleagues loved him,” Lehman said, “but in a different time and place, he might not have amounted to much.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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