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Thursday, February 26, 2009

REWRITING HISTORY

I am surprised most people think the Seventh Cavalry was wiped out at Little Big Horn by the Sioux and Cheyenne. In truth, of the 650 officers and men, scouts and civilians engaged on June 25, 1876 (on the Army’s side) only some 286 were killed: a devastating 44%, but hardly the entire command. Most of the men under Major Marcus Reno made it out alive. And where Reno was able to hold his command together over three horrible days of combat, the 210 men directly under the command of “General” George Armstrong Custer were dead within three hours of the first shot being fired. The results for the U.S. Army were even worse in the Second Battle of the Little Big Horn, when, for fifty-seven years, they were mercilessly attacked by a five foot four inch Victorian widow with blue-gray eyes and chestnut hair. Her name was Elizabeth Bacon Custer. And in this engagement she wiped the U.S. Army out, leaving no survivors.
Immediately after the battle the military judgments were fairly unanimous. President Grant, who had been elevated to the White House based on his record as a military commander, told a reporter, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops brought on by Custer himself,…(which) was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.” General Philip Sheridan, the man who had lobbied for Custer’s inclusion on the expedition considered the disaster primarily Custer’s fault. “Had the Seventh Cavalry been held together, it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn."
And finally, General Samuel Davis Sturgis, overall commander of the seventh, whose son, James, had died on the Little Big Horn, reacted negatively to the suggestion that a monument be dedicated to the memory of “The American Murat”, Custer; “For God’s sake let them hide it in some dark valley, or veil it, or put it anywhere the bleeding hearts of the widows, orphans, fathers and mothers of the men so uselessly sacrificed to Custer’s ambition, can never be wrung at the sight of it.”Having dismissed Custer, the army also dismissed his 34 year old widow. Barely a month after her husband had died amid the Montana scrub brush, “Libby” Custer was forced to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln. As a widow Libby had no right to quarters on the post, and so lost the social support of her Army life and friends. Her income was immediately reduced to the widow’s pension of $30 a month; her total assets were worth barely $8,000, while the claims against Custer’s estate exceeded $13,000. And then, in her hour of need, Libby received support from an unexpected source.His name was Frederick Whittaker, and he scratched out a living as a writer of pulp fiction and non-fiction for magazines of the day, “…about the best of its kind”. He had met Custer during the Civil War, and the General’s death inspired him to write a dramatic eulogy praising the fallen hero in Galaxy Magazine. Whittaker also mentioned Custer’s “natural recklessness and vanity”, but Libby immediately contacted him. Libby provided Whittaker with the couple’s personal letters, access to family and friends, war department correspondence and permission to use large sections from Custer’s own book, “My Life on the Plains.”
What emerged, just six months after Little Big Horn, was “A Complete Life of General George A. Custer”. It was pulp as well, filled with inaccuracies and excessive praise for Custer, but it was also a best seller. “So fell the brave caviler, the Christian soldier, surrounded by foes, but dying in harness amid the men he loved.” This time there was no hint of faults in Custer. Instead the blame was laid elsewhere. Of Custer, Whittaker wrote; “He could have run like Reno had he wished...It is clear, in the light of Custer’s previous character, that he held on to the last, expecting to be supported, as he had a right to expect. It was only when he clearly saw he had been betrayed, that he resolved to die game, as it was too late to retreat.” http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/History.Whittaker (Sheldon and Company, New York, 1876).All but a few professional soldiers admitted that Whittaker had gotten it wrong. In fact one of the most serious charges laid against Custer was that at the Washita he had, in fact, deserted a junior commander and his men. But those same officers withheld their criticism of Whittaker to avoid being forced to also criticize Custer's widow. Reno (above) eventually was forced to ask for and received a Court of Inquiry (not a Court Martial) on his conduct at Little Big Horn, which cleared his name and revealed the character of the people Whittaker had relied on for his version of the battle, but it made little difference to the general public who declared the Inquiry a whitewash.Elizabeth Custer went on to support herself comfortably by writing three books; “Tenting on the Plains”,"Following the Guidon” and “Boots and Saddles”. In each her husband was idolized and lionized. In 1901 she managed to squeeze out one more, a children’s book, “The Boy General. Story of the Life of Major-General George A. Custer”: “The true soldier asks no questions; he obeys, and Custer was a true soldier. He gave his life in carrying out the orders of his commanding general… He had trained and exhorted his men and officers to loyalty, and with one exception they stood true to their trust, as was shown by the order in which they fell.” By the time Libby died, in 1933, at the age of ninety-one, her vision of Little Big Horn was set in the concrete of the printed page.The first who endorsed Libby's view was Edward S. Godfrey, who had been a junior officer at the Little Big Horn and a Custer “fan” from before the battle. His 1892 “Custer’s Last Battle” was unequivocal. “...had Reno made his charge as ordered,…the Hostiles would have been so engaged… that Custer’s approach…would have broken the moral of the warriors….(Reno’s) faltering ...his halting, his falling back to the defensive position in the woods...; his conduct up to and during the siege…was not such as to inspire confidence or even respect,…” .” These attacks on Reno continued for most of the 20th century. The 1941 movie staring Errol Flynn as Custer displays Libby's view of Reno as well as any tome, echoed even by respected historians such as Robert Utley who in the 1980’s described Reno as "… a besotted, socially inept mediocrity, (who) commanded little respect in the regiment and was the antithesis of the electric Custer in almost every way.”So for over a century Marcus Reno was reviled and despised as the coward who did not charge as ordered, instead pleading weasel-like that Custer had not supported him as promised. It would not be until Ronald Nichols biography of Reno, “In Custer’s Shadow” (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1999) that Reno received a fair hearing.About the same time the Indian accounts of the fight began to finally be given a serious consideration by white historians, including the story told to photographer Edward Curtis in 1907 by three of Custer’s Indian scouts. The three men said they watched amazed as Custer stood on the bluffs overlooking Reno’s fight in the valley, a story supported by some soldiers in the valley fight who reported seeing Custer on the bluffs. (Most historians had always assumed they were imagining things.)
One of the scouts, White Man Runs Him (above), claimed to have scolded Custer; “Why don’t you cross the river and fight too?” To which the scouts say Custer replied, “It is early yet and plenty of time. Let them fight. Our turn will come.”And it did. But sure was a long time coming.
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Monday, February 23, 2009

THE FIRST BATTLE

I might call Thutmose III a mummy’s boy. His official mother was his aunt, Hatshepsut (above). She had been the Great Royal God Wife of Thutmose II, Thutmose III’s father and Hatshepsut’s own half brother - Egyptian royal family trees tend to be a little "Byzantine". After Thutmose II died in 1479 B.C. Hatshepsut ran the two Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt successfully for twenty years as Pharaoh, while Thutmose III remained the Pharaoh-in-waiting, since his actual birth mother, Iset, had been a "lesser" wife. And living with Hatshepsut for all those years must have been a difficult.

Examination of her mummy in the Cairo museum reveals that besides menopause (she was in her mid-fifties) Hatshepsut suffered from arthritis, diabetes, liver and bone cancer, and really bad teeth. Of course everyone in ancient Egypt had bad teeth, a by-product of chewing sand in every mouth full of food, but what finally killed Hatshepsut, on March 10th, 1459 B.C., was blood poisoning caused by an abscess in her gums. And immediately after her death, Thutmose felt the need to invade somebody: a clear case of overcompensation.So within days of ascending to the Throne of Horus, Thutmose III (above) ordered the head of his army, Thanuny, to gather troops and supplies at the border fortress of Tjaru by the last week August, 1458 B.C. Clearly Thutmose intended to march into Canaan, and that meant trouble for the kingdom of Kadesh, a Canaaite kingdom in what is today western Syria, which had paid homage to Egypt for the last century. But while Hatshepsut was slowly dying the kings of Kadesh had taken the opportunity to realign themselves with Mittani, a kingdom to their north. And the Mittani kingdom paid homage to the powerful Hittites, centered in Turkey. So in reality this was a high stakes poker game between the Hittite and Egyptian super powers, using the client states of Canaan and Mittani as chips. And Thutmose intended to show the Hittites that he was not bluffing. There was a delay in gathering the army, and Thutmose did not leave Tjaru until February of 1457 B.C. His Egyptian army was mostly infantry, perhaps 10,000 men, divided into platoons of six to ten men each, consisting of bowmen and lancers. The mobile force of two-horse chariots were not built for long distance travel, and on the march the chariots had to be light enough for each to be carried by their shield men. On this march across the Sinai (the Red Deseret) skirmishers advanced to the front while raiding parties ranged along the flanks, gathering cattle, grain and water for each night’s camp. Behind came the baggage train of ox carts carrying supplies, repair tents and blacksmiths, soothsayers, priests and musicians.These people were used to walking, and never rode on horseback, so the army reached the Philistine fortress of Gaza (“The key to Syria”) by mid-March. After another 11 days marching up the coastal plain Thutmose’s army entered the port of Jamnia, near present day Tel Aviv. Here he rested his men and scouts brought word that the Canaanite armies were awaiting him on the Plain of Esdraelon, in front of the hill fortress of Megiddo. So in early May, with his communications back to Egypt secured by his navy, Thutmose swung inland, to the small village of Yaham.In front of him now rose a line of low hills, stretching from the northwest (Mt. Carmel at 1,740 feet) to the southeast (Mts Tabor & Gilboa, 1,929 feet). Megiddo and the Canaanite army were on the northern flank of these hills, and his generals told Thutmose there were only two roads. The most direct route headed due north from Yaham and then turned northwestward on the Via Maris (sea route) to the village of Taanakha, before reaching Megiddo. The longer path headed northwest from Yaham along the flank of the mountains before crossing the hills to reach the Via Maris at the village of Yokneam. From there it was an easy backtrack southeastward to Megiddo. The Canaanite army had divided their infantry, with almost half guarding Taanakha and the other half Yokneam. Stationed at Megiddo (in the center) were the Canaanite chariots with some infantry support, ready to fall upon either approach the Egyptians made.However there was also a third choice. On the road north toward Yokneam there was a cutoff, a path less traveled, that ran through the village of Aruna and then through a narrow defile, so narrow that the army could pass through only single file, before debauching onto the Plain directly in front of Megiddo. It was the most direct route, but Thutmose’s men would arrive piecemeal, where they could be destroyed “in detail”, one unit at a time. But this route also offered an opportunity.It seems that Thanuny feinted toward the two main roads, using perhaps two thirds of the army. But before dawn Thutmose sent his spearmen and shield men through the pass, single file; perhaps 3,000 men in all. When they stepped out of the pass it was about 1:00 p.m., May 9th , 1457 B.C. The Canaanite chariots, surprised at their enemies sudden appearance, hastily charged at the Egyptian spearmen, and let loose a barrage of arrows. But defended by their shield men, the Egyptian formations stood firm. And then, as the Canaanites withdrew to reform and attack again, the Egyptian ranks opened up and from the defile appeared Egyptian chariots, carried through the pass and reassembled. Now like a whirlwind they fell upon the Canaanite chariots.“Even when moving at a slow pace, …(the Egyptian war chariot) shook terribly, and when driven at full speed it was only by a miracle of skill that the occupants could maintain their equilibrium…the charioteer would stand astride the front panels, keeping his right foot only inside the vehicle…the reins tied around his body so he could by throwing his weight either to the right or left…pull up or start his horses by a simple movement of the loins…he went into battle with bent bow, the string drawn back to his ear…while the shield-bearer, clinging to the body of the chariot with one hand, held out his buckler with the other to shelter his comrade.” (History of Egypt Chakdea, etc. G. Maspero. Groilier Society)The Canaanites panicked at the sudden Egyptian charge, and their causalities tell the story; just 83 killed, but 240 taken prisoner and 924 chariots and 2,132 horses captured. The Canaanite infantry on the wings, now divided by the Egyptian army, abandoned Megiddo and scattered in retreat. And although the fortress held out for seven months before finally surrendering, from the moment Thutmose III reached the Plain of Esdraelon, he had ensured his capture of the hill fort of Megiddo, or, in the Canaanite language, Armageddon. And thus ended the first battle recorded in detail in history.


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