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03 January 2006

it looks better on canvas when the artist is on the losing side

"Custer's Last Battle of the Little Bighorn" (1899)
by Edgar S. Paxson (1852 - 1919)

On display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.

The battle took place in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory on 25 June 1876, and the painting is usually called "Custer's Last Stand." Custer's cavalry had left larger and slower artillery and infantry units behind because Custer was in a hurry to bring a great victory to the USA Centennial celebration (July 4th, 1876) in Philadelphia. Custer encountered a large Indian encampment, but guessed very wrong about the number of Indian warriors there, and ordered his forces to split up and attack the village from different directions. Custer had the element of surprise, and expected the Sioux and Cheyenne to flee. Instead they fought and attacked ferociously.

It was one of the few great victories of aboriginal warriors over a modern, industrially-equipped army (1200 British soldiers were wiped out by Zulus at Isandlwana), and one of the few moments in North America when several warrior nations (Sioux and Cheyenne) united against European forces. George Armstrong Custer and his entire battalion of 231 soldiers were annihilated.

Until recently, most historians attributed Custer's defeat to his incompetence and megalomania, but even European military officers of the day described the Indian warriors of the American Plains as the world's finest and most effective light cavalry. In a pitched battle, bows and arrows are very effective weapons, because unlike rifle bullets, they can describe a high parabolic arc and hit enemy soldiers hiding behind rocks.

One of the finest accounts of Custer's career massacring and genociding Plains Indians is "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn" by Evan S. Connell. The novel "Little Big Man" by Thomas Berger also prominently features Custer.


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