Indian Scouts By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
March 14, 2014
According to General George Custer, the best way to beat the plains warrior was to “fight the devil with fire”. By that he meant using Indians to scout for other Indians the cavalry could then destroy. The idea was not to divide and conquer; the plains people were never unified. The army then merely capitalized on long-standing animosities between tribes. Most scouts came from reservation Indians, mainly of the smaller pacified nations such as the Osage and the Kansa, who had long been pushed around by their more powerful neighbors. These men were serious to get off the reservation, earn their $13 a month, and get a little safe revenge on their old blood enemies. Although Indian scouts formally enlisted in the Army, the white soldier did the actual fighting. All the scouts had to do was apply their intimate knowledge of the plains to trail the enemy and locate his camps. Once a battle erupted, the scout’s only further duty was to cripple the enemy by stampeding his horses. In his war with the Sioux, Custer used Crow and Arikara scouts. If he had taken their advice he never would have rushed after the Indian forces at the Little Bighorn. Days before the famous battle, his scouts knew they were on the trail of the bulk of the Teton Nation. Bloody Knife, an Anikara chief and Custer’s most trusted scout, repeatedly warned him that there were too many Sioux. Bloody Knife had been with Custer for some time, their first campaign together was in 873, three years before the battle of the Little Big Horn. But Long Hair, as Custer was called by his scouts, pushed on, fearing only that the Sioux would escape. That was the one thing he need not have feared. By noon of June 25, 1876, Custer was advancing on an Indian encampment, but his small force had been split three ways. Custer, with only 215 men, raced north along a route until he ran into the warriors led b Gall and Crazy Horse. By charging ahead so impetuously, Custer disobeyed all instruction, and also the warning of his friend Colonel John Gibbon, who had called out as Custer first started off “Now don’t be greedy, Custer, as there are Indians enough for all of us”. Custer’s last message was this plea “Bring packs”, meaning bullets. His men only had 124 rounds apiece, leaving more than 24,000 in the pack train. The battle was over Perhaps the clearest meaning of the battle was that the Plains Indians still had the dignity and would fight for freedom. Ultimately they would lose the war, but still win a battle, especially this one. The white commander’s biggest mistake was not in understanding this. He had the option of bringing along Gatling guns and additional cavalry, but did not. He could have waited a day for other troops to come, but did not. On that fateful day, June 25, 1876, Custer renounced the advantages of his white background, and in doing so he meant to leave the Indians nothing. In the end, Crazy Horse might well have said in quite exaltation “Today, white soldiers, you were mistaken. But it was a good day to die”.
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