Review: Centennial Campaign: The Sioux War of 1876

Review: Centennial Campaign: The Sioux War of 1876

A look at the classic work by John Stephens Gray

There are books about the Little Big Horn campaign … and then there are books about the Little Big Horn campaign.  This one –by the late John Stephens Gray- falls into the latter category.

The centennial year of 1876 dawned with another showdown between the Democrats and the Republicans over the White House, scandals in the Grant administration, a Centennial exhibition to be held in Philadelphia celebrating the first 100 years of the United States of America … and trouble swirling around a certain piece of land supposedly granted the Indians forever by the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868: Paha Sapa, the Black Hills.
The trouble was that gold had been found, and the US Army had been unable (or unwilling) to stem the tide of gold prospectors flooding into the sacred lands.   The offer to buy the Black Hills from the tribes was rejected, the US Government did some fancy paperwork that declared “hostile” all Indians not on the reservation by a certain date… and created yet another war; this war.   One destined to witness the violent end of one of America’s most famous soldiers: George Armstrong Custer.

Gray divides the book into two sections: a narrative and one devoted to facets of the campaign such as the medical service and just how many Indians were “off the reservation” in actuality.   All done in an even-handed, clear-eyed manner that at the same time mercifully does not blindly follow what Gray calls “The reams of melodramatic and partisan verbiage …” written about the Little Big Horn.  In fact, Gray found the very obsession over Custer’s fate at the Little Big Horn to be something of an obstacle: “Like the bicycle rider who concentrates so hard on avoiding an obstacle that he inevitably runs into it, I found that Custer battle constantly in my road.  So I tried to read around it in order to learn what happened before and after.”  He notes in his introduction.

Happily enough, as this book demonstrates, Gray found out just what happened before and after the Little Big Horn.  At the same time the book is a double-miracle in that Gray does not subscribe to the “Custer the Villain” approach so many partisan or sensation-seeking writers have done over the years, nor does he go out of his way to pander to the “Custer the Saint” crowd; here we see a view of “Custer the human being” when Gray must devote time to G.A.C.’s role in the trumped-up war that cost him –and many a family member and friend- his life.

Gray’s prose is lean but eloquent.  Here is a sample from the narrative section, in which we glimpse the 7th Cavalry on its advance into the valley of the Little Big Horn:

The sun beat down from a crystal sky at noon of the hot Sabbath of June 25th, 1876.  The 7th Cavalry squinted against the glare and men and animals sweated freely into the dry breeze as they topped the divide between the Rosebud and Little Big Horn and halted a third of a mile beyond, at 12:07 by Lt. Wallace’s official watch, set for Chicago time.

And another sample, this time from his section about the facets of the Centennial Campaign:

The Medical Department of that era was anything but a self-sufficient corps.  Its meager personnel consisted of surgeons, civilian as well as military, and a few non-commissioned officers.  The duties of nursing and feeding the sick and wounded fell upon enlisted men drawn from the regular company ranks.  And Medical Officers found themselves subject to orders from the Secretary of War and line officers, as well as the medical chain of command.

This book is not to be missed if you are like me and are insatiably curious about the Indian Wars of the American West as well as the life and death of George Armstrong Custer.