Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 144

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors," by Stephen E. Ambrose:

The horse gave the Sioux personal property and became the medium of exchange and the measure of wealth. In the nature of things, nomads have few material possessions. Property was for use, not for accumulation. Without the horse, there were almost no distinctions between individuals within a village; with the horse there was an easily recognizable distinction. Still, the Sioux did not succumb to the development of hereditary classes, nor did they divide themselves into the rich and powerful on one side, the poor and weak on the other. Rather, they brought an egalitarian philosophy onto the Plains with them. Societal pressure and economic necessity forced the temporarily rich man to give away his possessions—i.e., his extra ponies—in order to block the growth of a privileged class and to make certain that every able-bodied man had a horse for the communal hunt or for war. The sanctity of private property could go only so far in a society that required every man to have a horse for the buffalo hunt or to defend the village. Successful horse thieves, then, did not become rich in horses, though they did grow rich in prestige.

There has been much speculation about the origin of the American’s penchant for hard work, most of it starting with some reference to Calvinist doctrine. Undoubtedly Calvinism played a role, but few Virginians in Ohio were Calvinists, and yet they evidently worked as long and as hard as did their Yankee neighbors. No dry religious doctrine, not even a burning faith, could account for the way Americans labored. They worked so much that work became a psychic need with them; Americans were fidgety and nervous when they were not “doing something,” anything, as long as it was important enough to be called “work.” 

Americans worked because they believed it was godly to do so, because of the vastness of the task facing them, and because the work would be rewarded. They were filled with a feeling that there was much to do—as a western traveler in the 1850s put it, “the forest to be felled, the city to be built, the railroad surveyed, the swamp cleared, political, social, and religious systems to be organized …”

Americans saw the land different from what it was; looking to the future, they imagined bridges over the rivers, roads over the mountains, the forest replaced by the garden, towns springing up at every bend of every river, great cities growing wherever two rivers came together. They lived in a fantasy world, except that the fantasies were for the most part realistic and came true. With all that work around waiting to be done, Americans were always itchy to get at the job and transform dream into reality.

Ohioans knew that the work would pay off. Nowhere else on the globe, as Henry Steele Commager puts it, “had nature been at once so rich and so generous, and her riches were available to all who had the enterprise to take them and the good fortune to be white.” Ohioans realized, as did every American, the truth of Commager’s statement: “Nothing in all history had ever succeeded like America.”

The riches were there to be had, and everything in the society and the environment encouraged the citizen to think big and work hard. There was a sense of spaciousness, an invitation to mobility—physical, economic, and social—and an encouragement to enterprise that made Americans forever optimists. Progress was no mere philosophical notion or ideal; it was all around, visible everywhere, a commonplace. The American, Commager points out, “planned ambitiously and was used to seeing even his most visionary plans surpassed; he came at last to believe that nothing was beyond his power and to be impatient with any success that was less than triumph” or, one might add, with any success that took longer than immediately.

The political system protected a man’s right to possess exclusively whatever he had earned or built. Squatters were sometimes forced off the land by speculators and lawyers, to be sure, and often enough a frontiersman had to fight for what was his, but within the organized states a man’s property was secure both in law and custom. That security encouraged him to earn or build more, a process that could go on for a lifetime, for there was no limit on how much property or money a man could possess. 

Just as the system encouraged each man to work, so did it encourage him to look out for himself and to hell with others. Nearly every European visitor to the United States before the Civil War commented on the extreme individualism of Americans with regard to matters of money or property and wondered how such a dog-eat-dog society could function. To the American mind, the answer was simple: every individual’s economic advance redounded to the benefit of the whole. Every tree felled, every bridge built, every industry established strengthened the nation and made it richer, and the richer the nation was, the greater the opportunity for individuals to get rich. Both federal and state governments, meanwhile, would see to it—at least in theory—that the race for riches was fairly run and that to the victor belonged the spoils.

What Sherman realized was that the coming of the railroad to the Plains would eventually mean an end to the Indian’s way of life. The advancing railroad brought settlement with it, and the settlers would crowd the Indians out. More immediately important, the railroad opened the country to the buffalo hunters. Eastern tanners were developing methods of curing buffalo hides and making them into acceptable coats and robes. There was a huge potential market for the hides. As the railroad reached ever deeper into the buffalo country, hunters would reduce the herds, then ship the hides east. By that system, the herds could be eliminated in a decade or less, and without the herds the Indians would have to go to reservations or starve. It would be, in short, a campaign with the enemies’ resources, not the enemy himself, as the target. 

The white hunters, shooting a thousand and more buffalo a week per gun, were Crazy Horse’s and the Plains Indians’ real enemies, not the soldiers. The hunters’ vulnerability was the railroad line, for without it there could be no great buffalo hunt Had the Indians concentrated on cutting the railroad line they could have stopped the buffalo hunting and, as a bonus, immobilized much of the Army. But except for the one time the Cheyennes derailed a Union Pacific train, the Indians left the “iron horse” alone, so the hunters were able to get to the range, then ship the hides east. Sherman counted on the completion of the railroads to solve the Indian problem. He did not want to make peace with Red Cloud; rather, he very much wanted to punish the Oglalas and Cheyennes for humiliating the Army. But even more important to him than vengeance was the completion of the railroad, so he agreed to serve on the peace commission. As he told his brother, the commission would have “to concede [to the Indians] a right to hunt buffaloes as long as they last, and this may lead to collisions, but it will not be long before all the buffaloes are extinct …”

The program worked. In slightly more than ten years, a continental herd of buffalo numbering fifty million was reduced to a few thousand stragglers. By 1888 there were less than one thousand buffalo in the United States. So many buffalo robes were shipped east that the price quickly fell to $1.00 per hide. The buffalo hunters, not the Army, cleared the Indians off the Plains.

Crazy Horse spent the winter of 1867-68 on the Powder River, living the free life he loved best. Still unmarried, suffering the pangs of unrequited love, he felt satisfaction and happiness in providing for the helpless ones. Although there was plenty of dry buffalo meat in camp, the old folks and the widows and orphans appreciated it when Crazy Horse would drop by with some elk or other fresh meat. He came to be known as a reliable provider for those in need, a fact that enhanced his reputation. Sitting Bull once explained to a white reporter how reputations were made among the Sioux. The reporter had asked him why the tribe looked up to him. Sitting Bull replied with a question, “Your people look up to men because they are rich; because they have much land, many lodges, many squaws?” “Yes,” the newspaperman replied. “Well,” said Sitting Bull, “I suppose my people look up to me because I am poor.”50 Crazy Horse was repaid for his leadership and generosity, in other words, with prestige only, which was just the way he wanted it.

If his life flashed in front of him, as is sometimes said to happen on the verge of sudden death, no wonder Custer laughed. If he did flash back, he had many achievements to be proud of—his West Point appointment and graduation, his general officer’s commission, his string of successful charges in the Civil War, his key role at Appomattox, the Washita, opening the Black Hills—and much to recall of the good life in Washington, New York, on the frontier posts. And of course, most of all, Libbie. He had turned down numerous offers that would have made him a rich man, choosing instead to live the life he loved. He had lived big, thought big, had only big ambitions. He had nothing to regret. 

Not even on this last day. The attack had been a gamble, but so had all his attacks. It was a good plan. It could have worked. If only that damn Reno would have charged the camp when he first came upon it! Anyway, one doesn’t get to live in the White House without taking some risks. Custer had gambled all his life, and although he usually lost in card games or horse races, he always won on the battlefield. Like all confirmed gamblers, however, he knew that someday he would have to lose. At least, when he lost, all the chips were on the table. It was a winner-take-all game, and Custer would have played it again if given the chance. 

He laughed. Then he died.

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