Custer and the Cheyenne

Upton and Sons Publishers, 1995

Rear dust jacket text

“Sand blew from the large wind-blown dunes, raking the cracked and dry earth. Top soil swirled, assaulting everything from the barren grassland to the hackberry and elm trees that lined Sweetwater Creek. The day of reckoning, March 19, 1869, arrived, and with it the dilemma that belonged to George Armstrong Custer and he alone—what to do if the Cheyenne[s} refused to free the white women they held prisoner. Early that morning a few of Stone Forehead’s Cheyenne warriors rode into the white camp. They refused to talk about the women, … or their release. After a short visit, the warriors left. No other Cheyennes appeared.

25feb13_C&Ccover300“The day dragged as everyone in the white camp waited for the signal to attack. Most of the troopers were skeletons; rags hung from their bones. They were not fit to fight, much less pursue a scattering foe. The command did not have 50 horses that could stand a forced march of 15 miles. It did not matter. Custer saw in his men’s faces that they were ready.

“Stone Forehead’s village [stood] peacefully before him. Would it still be there tomorrow? Would the Cheyenne[s] refuse to deal with him once again, … forcing him to hang the three Cheyenne captives, … forcing him to attack?

“Victory and redemption hovered just beyond his grasp. The warrior’s heart within him must have beat quickly.

“Surely he remembered Hancock’s order to capture the joint Cheyenne-Dakota village on the Pawnee Fork of the Arkansas River. He had been successful that dark night almost two years ago, but those lodges were empty. That disastrous April on the Pawnee Fork had set off a chain of events that led eventually to his court-martial and downfall.

“Was history about to repeat itself?

“He knew that when the time came one simple bugle call would set off a juggernaut of destruction that would butcher every living thing caught in the initial onslaught.

“Yes, the Cheyenne[s] before him rode the warpath. Surely many of them deserved death, but not all. He had been among them and had seen many starving wretches, mere shadows of a once proud race.

“Custer had reached the crossroads of his career. He should attack, now, before the village scattered.

“Still, he held back.”

Reviews

“This is a beautifully designed book, well written, grounded in deep research and thoughtful analysis, and presented with the novelist’s flair for the dramatic. It is a significant contribution to your Custer Trail Series.”
— Robert Utley letter to Upton and Sons Publishers (October 4, 1995)

“Louis Kraft describes in graphic, sometimes even hideous, detail every mile of the march over the endless, wind-scoured plains.

“The daily ritual of appeasing an endless hunger by all the troops, including the officers and Custer himself, the constant fear of a surprise attack by the Cheyenne[s], get minute attention from Kraft, who draws copiously from the most suspected eye-witness and official reports and journals on virtually page.

“Kraft leaves little to imagination, … bring[ing] the reality of the suffering, the seeming hopelessness, the feeling of abandonment, all into realistic reading.

“Intriguing to all readers, even those with extensive Custeriana in their backgrounds, is the detailed daily account of Custer’s dealing with the Indian chiefs when the Cheyenne[s] finally were encountered, and his ultimate success, without firing a shot into the Indian camp, where starvation and suffering were as rampant as in the cavalry units. He aptly describes Custer using threats and persuasion, and finally taking two chiefs as hostages, to bring the Cheyenne[s] into submission, to the utter disgust of the Kansas Cavalry, who yearned to revenge with bullets the many losses of friends and family to Cheyenne raiders. Custer and the Cheyenne is a real addition to any frontier library.”
— John Willard, editor, Hoofprints (vol. 26, no. 1, Spring-Summer 1996)

“In compelling and epic fashion, Kraft presents the dramatic confrontation that took place between Custer and the Cheyennes on the Southern Great Plains during the winter campaign of 1868–1869. In doing so, the author avoids the usual moral judgments that dominate many studies of the Indian Wars. Custer is portrayed not as the creator of an unjust and genocidal policy, but as an instrument of that policy. This is not to say that Kraft ignores the injustices perpetrated against the tribes of the southern plains. His portrayal of the Cheyennes’ struggle to retain their homeland from the persistent white invasion is both sympathetic and poignant.

“Kraft deftly takes the reader through the important events of General Sheridan’s famous winter campaign, such as the Battle of the Washita, the Seventh Cavalry’s trek into the Staked Plains, and the rescue of two white women held hostage by the Cheyennes. In each case, the author makes clear that Custer acted with prudence and good judgment. According to Kraft, Custer stopped the wanton murder of Indian women and children at the Washita. He also refrained from attacking another Cheyenne village that was surrounded by soldiers, thus avoiding needless bloodshed.

“While the author’s interpretation of events will be viewed with skepticism by some readers, few will challenge his scholarship. Kraft utilizes the finest primary sources available regarding Sheridan’s winter campaign and also makes good use of Cheyenne oral tradition.

“Perhaps the most compelling feature of this book is the author’s fluid and dramatic writing style. He incorporates a literary device called point-of-view dialogue, which injects life into the participants and enhances the intimacy and urgency of the narrative. It is interesting to note that all of the dialogue used in the text is authenticated by careful citation.”
— David Dixon, South Dakota History (vol. 26, no. 4, Winter 1996)

Comments
* Jay D. Smith Award (2011) for its contribution to the study of Custeriana over the years. Read the award acceptance
* Custer High Spot No. 14 in T. A. Swinford and Tal Luther, Custeriana: A Field Guide to Custer Literature (The Old Army Press, 1999).
* Recommended Reading: Southern Plains Wars (1867-1869) in Journal of the Indian Wars (Volume 2, Number 1).

 

 


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