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Subject: What is Victory? Rethinking Custer and the Little Bighorn rss

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Pete Belli
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The fight at the Little Bighorn is a magnificent example of asymmetric warfare. Two completely different cultures collide in a trial of strength which expresses the military and psychological divide between the opposing forces. Custer’s Last Stand is not an easy struggle to convert into a board game format.

I have been a student of the Little Bighorn battle and the Sioux War of 1876 for several years. My original goal was the development of an authentic simulation of the entire campaign including Crook’s battle at the Rosebud. I have a small library of books on the battle and consider myself to be a Custer buff. In recent weeks I have been tinkering with a Battle Cry scenario covering the Little Bighorn battle.



Battle Cry -- Little Bighorn Scenario


For The Honor Of The Regiment

While the 7th Cavalry developed a reputation as a regiment of bold Indian fighters this supposed elite status is simply another of the many Custer myths. Aside from a few minor skirmishes during various expeditions Custer had fought a single large battle against Native American warriors. The engagement became known as the Battle of the Washita River and occurred in the winter of 1868. This was Custer’s one and only victory against the Indians. It might serve as a yardstick by which to measure Custer’s (hypothetical) winning performance at the Little Bighorn in 1876.



Custer

When cavalry forces conducted operations against the Native American tribes on the Great Plains the primary objective was to find the Indians, not fight the Indians. Once a village was located the troops would attempt to gather as many prisoners as possible before the tribe could scatter to all points of the compass. Fighting a serious battle with the tribal warriors was not a major concern because the Indians would, in most cases, simply flow away from any approaching cavalry unit like a ripple moving across a pond.

This winter campaign on the Washita River caught the tribal warriors when they were the most vulnerable. By attacking through the November snows Custer forced the Native Americans to defend their villages when the Indians were practically immobilized. Custer rode in at dawn without performing a thorough reconnaissance but struck the Indian camp before the warriors had prepared any defense.

A number of Indians were killed including some women and children... accounts vary widely but the total was probably less than a hundred. Many animals were seized from the Indian pony herd and a large group of prisoners were escorted through the frozen terrain to a reservation. Although this tribal camp was demolished Custer’s victory was not complete; he had actually smashed into one end of a lengthy series of Indian villages. These warriors began pouring out of their tents and moved to attack Custer. The cavalry made a hasty retreat. Most of the army losses occurred when Major Elliott led 14 men in a charge against this surging mass of warriors. Custer did not move to aid Elliott’s detachment and they were all killed. This failure tarnished his "victory" at the Washita.



7th Cavalry

If the Washita counts as a victory for the 7th Cavalry then a similar performance at the Little Bighorn might have earned Custer the fresh laurels he so desperately sought on that blazing June afternoon. Capturing a portion of the tribal camp, scattering the pony herd, and rounding up a batch of "hostiles" could have been molded into a tale of triumph by any competent 19th century image consultant... and Custer was his own public relations genius. When the rest of the tribes took off for the hills that would just be considered standard procedure on the Plains and the expedition of 1876 could claim to be a huge success.

If the campaign had ended after a few skirmishes and no major battle occurred the expedition would probably have been chalked up as nothing worse than another in a long series of wasted rides across the prairie. In game terms even an inconclusive clash like Crook’s battle of the Rosebud might have provided a boost for Custer’s military fortunes. Anything but a humiliating defeat or lengthy, blundering, fruitless chase!


The Warrior Code

Victory for the Native Americans meant (from the larger perspective) preserving their families, homes, and property. Preventing the soldiers from taking control of the village or stampeding the pony herd would obviously count as a win but there were other factors involved.

The previously mentioned battle of the Rosebud was another Indian victory but the engagement is, naturally enough, overshadowed by the drama of Custer’s Last Stand. The fighting at the Rosebud is one of the few examples that show the tribal warriors clashing with the army in the open field. This remarkable battle was a tremendous strategic success for the Native American warriors because the defeat of Crook’s column smashed one arm of the army’s pincer movement against the Indians.



Battle of the Rosebud

A great victory... but what sort of triumph? The battle lasted for several hours. It featured fluid action with numerous charges and several firefights along the banks of the river. With all of that activity the army lost less than a dozen men killed out of over 1200 engaged. Indian losses were comparatively light among the approximately 1000 warriors on the battlefield.

Tribal combat doctrine stressed the reduction of casualties in the face of heavy opposition. Indians coming under heavy fire would withdraw or drop to the ground and seek cover as they crawled away instead of holding a position like soldiers trained in the European military tradition.

These casualty figures were quite typical of combat with the Indians when the white soldiers were able to maintain their formations. The tribal warriors considered the Rosebud to be a great victory because they suffered relatively few losses while performing bravely against the hostile interlopers. In fact, if Custer had not been crushed a week later the Rosebud battle might have gone down in history as the greatest Native American victory in the history of the West.



Battle of the Little Bighorn

Inflicting death upon the soldiers is secondary to performing the feats of bravery required by the warrior code. The typical warrior fighting at the Little Bighorn saw no martial glory in firing a rifle at long range against an enemy cavalry trooper. The warrior tradition rewarded a man who came to grips with an opponent and struck a "coup" or touch against the enemy. Simply shooting an enemy from 100 yards away offered less social advancement and status within the warrior culture... although any participation in a battle was certainly recognized as an act of courage.

In historical terms smashing Custer and his troopers was actually counterproductive for the Indians... the stinging defeat in the 1876 campaign spurred the government to devote more resources to subduing the tribes.


Conclusion

In any game depicting the Little Bighorn battle each player should have entirely different victory conditions.

The cavalry player must capture or destroy the Native American camps and scatter the tribal pony herds while perhaps inflicting heavy losses on the Indian warriors. If everything falls apart the cavalry player must maintain the honor of "the gallant Seventh" by avoiding a disaster and squeaking out a draw. Custer was not squeamish about casualties but cavalry losses should be a factor.

The tribal player gains a victory by protecting the Indian families and their property while attempting to "count coup" in close combat against the horse soldiers. Displays of bravery provide extra victory points but merely blasting away at the horse soldiers won't bring as much status to the tribe. Heavy losses among the warriors will reduce the level of success.





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Christopher
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Interesting article! Thanks Pete!
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Ian Borrows
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A very interesting and well written artcile. I do find the term 'subduing the tribes' a euphemism though when one considers the terrible fate of Native Americans; massacres, death by disease, loss of culture, forced onto often reservations far from their original home territories, children forced into schools to learn the ways of the whites, etc, etc.

my two cents worth.

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Quote:
The cavalry player must capture or destroy the Native American camps and scatter the tribal pony herds while perhaps inflicting heavy losses on the Indian warriors.


surely the word "indian warriors" should simply be replaced by "indians"?

it should be classed as a planned massacre by an invading force, trying to mask that point is a horrible distortion.
 
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Steve Trauth
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I read a book on the Washita, I think it was by either Dee Brown or Stan Hoig (can't remember which).

Interesting article -and interesting scope. I'd been to Little BigHorn (as well as by Sheridan and Buffalo Wyoming (near where the Fetterman fight was).

I don't really think that generalities (like one line ones) do much justice to the topic, however.
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Larz Welo
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Biosphere wrote:

A very interesting and well written artcile. I do find the term 'subduing the tribes' a euphemism though when one considers the terrible fate of Native Americans; massacres, death by disease, loss of culture, forced onto often reservations far from their original home territories, children forced into schools to learn the ways of the whites, etc, etc.

my two cents worth.



And I completely agree...not to be a Marxist, but the problem is that the Indian way of life was simply not competitive enough. For example, America and Indonesia both had native peoples ("orang pribumi" we call them), the Dutch landed here and the English eventually overwhelmed there.

The American Revolution was only realistic because of the problems of a dense population. Eventually white settlers--sedentary agriculturalists--began to expand. There were always millions more whites, but never enough Indians. The Indians are doomed to failure (on a strategic scale) because they're pastoral nomads.

In Indonesia the original people of Java and Sumatra had mastered the art of wet-rice cultivation. When the Dutch arrived here in the 1500s, they were able to set up a colonial system with little opposition, but were never able to overwhelm the original people because there were simply far too many of them. The Daiyaks and Papuans that didn't have wet-rice cultivation (their ground is wrong), were able to keep existing because they were far from the coasts, and the jungles of Southeast Asia are a little more problematic than the Great Plains of America.

It's a lifestyle problem. And it's continuing into the world today...just ask the Papuans.
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Pete Belli
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Thanks for the comments.

This promises to be an interesting discussion.

Quote:
it should be classed as a planned massacre by an invading force


The "invading force" description is certainly valid... the other portion is innaccurate. While this is a commonly held view I really must disagree with that statement.

I think we can all agree that "capturing the village" would involve the destruction of the tribe's homes, portable food supply, and personal possessions. This might be the equivalent of an invading army blowing up my house and the local grocery store. Like the Native Americans, I would have few options other than submitting to the will of the invader. Since "capturing the village" would smash the Indian's social structure that choice of words does mask a great amount of human suffering. War is human suffering incarnate and words like "casualties" or "eliminated units" are euphemisms that hide the horror.

However, the words "planned massacre" are inappropriate. The Washita River battle described in this article is sometimes called the Washita Massacre but even a quick scan of the facts proves otherwise. Certainly women and children were killed when their homes were attacked and this is part of war's cruelty. There is no denying that fact.

This doesn't make the tragedy a massacre and Custer wasn't planning to massacre the Native Americans at the Little Bighorn either. He certainly would have shattered their current lifestyle by forcing them to return to the reservation. It is almost certain that women and children would have been among those killed if the village had been attacked. The human suffering would have been enormous... but not a planned massacre.

The larger issue of the inundation of the Native American culture by the European social system is beyond the scope of this discussion.

As a point of interest the Indians had no intention of inflicting a "massacre" on Custer's command either. The Native American way of war did not encompass the kind of battlefield planning and leadership that would lead to the tactical dissection of an enemy force. Although the highly skilled tribal warriors were quick to take advantage of the situation the destruction of Custer's wing of the 7th Cavalry happened largely by accident.

Thank you again for the contributions.

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hwarang wrote:
Quote:
The cavalry player must capture or destroy the Native American camps and scatter the tribal pony herds while perhaps inflicting heavy losses on the Indian warriors.


surely the word "indian warriors" should simply be replaced by "indians"?

it should be classed as a planned massacre by an invading force, trying to mask that point is a horrible distortion.



Another anti-American European bit of misfact.

The American Indian certainly deserves more respect than to be considered a bunch of old men, women and children.

I wonder how much 'common knowledge' of Custer's Last Stand and the Indian fighting comes from 'Little Big Man'.

Truth is - it took nearly 400 years to subdue the Indians in your classic European conquest - certainly impressive for a nation of old men, women and children.

------------------

BTW Pete, great article.

Has anyone else seen the recent PBS Documentary 'America's First Nation'?

Good stuff.
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Michael Dorosh
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Biosphere wrote:

A very interesting and well written artcile. I do find the term 'subduing the tribes' a euphemism though when one considers the terrible fate of Native Americans; massacres, death by disease, loss of culture, forced onto often reservations far from their original home territories, children forced into schools to learn the ways of the whites, etc, etc.

my two cents worth.



Why do we feel that their culture was in any way worth preserving? This "white man's guilt" is unwarranted. Caucasians stopped living in caves and tents centuries ago and are arguably better for it. I see nothing noble about a subsistence economy. Despite movies like Avatar, in which aboriginals are depicted as homogenous tribes living in harmony with nature, my understanding is that at least some native Americans often waged war on each other, and had little perception of ecological preservation (hunting local buffalo herds to extinction, for example, or neglecting to leave fields fallow to preserve the soil). I am almost positive that few tribes had any advanced medical technology, means of communication, travel, or for that matter society. "Loss of culture"? More like joining the modern world.

It is unfortunate when youngsters are forced to grow up prematurely, as when a parent dies and a teenager is forced to take on more chores around the house instead of enjoying their youth playing in the sandlot. But one hopes it makes the person stronger and gives them a sense of responsibility. The case with natives in Canada and the United States has often been the opposite, unfortunately, where they were simply ceded land, treaty rights, and guilt money. Paid to do nothing but be Indians, many now sit on reserves in hovels, with brand new trucks and snowmobiles, and engage in alcoholism and gambling addiction. If that isn't being "subdued" I don't know what is. It isn't a euphemism, it's a modern reality.
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Roy Hasson
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Quote:
The fight at the Little Bighorn is a magnificent example of asymmetric warfare


I wonder, why do you find Little Bighorn to be asymmetric warfare?

Both sides had the same sort of weapons (rifles and hand-to-hand combat
weapons), the same mode of transportation (horses or on foot), and the
tactics were similar.
In contrast modern asymmetric warfare usually involves modern armies
using advanced weaponry such as APCs, tanks and jets against lightly
armed insurgents who also use a different tactic, often "hit and run"
rather than classic battles where one side tries to destroy the other and
occupy their territory.

Good examples of this are the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan vs. local
insurgents, or the Israeli army vs. Hizbulla in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza.


 
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Michael Dorosh
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mogli43 wrote:
Quote:
The fight at the Little Bighorn is a magnificent example of asymmetric warfare


I wonder, why do you find Little Bighorn to be asymmetric warfare?

Both sides had the same sort of weapons (rifles and hand-to-hand combat
weapons), the same mode of transportation (horses or on foot), and the
tactics were similar.



I suspect their training and expected roles in combat was different but that's only my impression; I defer to the fellows who have given it much more serious study.
 
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Indeed, Dorosh - the documentary I mentioned, which is narrated by an Indian, shows the tribes that were formed into the Iroquois Nation as your classic warrior society - and it was.

In mnay ways, no different than the Ancients of Europe.

The saga of the relationship with essentially stone age or bronze age societies against pre-Industrial and Industrial Europeans is recent and far better documented than the ancient past.

Everyone likes the underdog, and they certainly seemed to fit that role.

It is closer; we are close to those times - we just passed the era of survivors of it. It is recent historical nd cultural memory, no doubt fueled by cinema and TV.

The tribes were slaughtering each other in vengeance - they were murdering each other wholesale and practicing an often rosy painted form of slavery - the taking of prisoners to integrate them into tribes - marked by the victim being expected to surrender his own personality and heritage and assuming the spirit and roles of the person they replace.

They built nations, carved up Empires just like the rest of humanity.

They practiced brutality and compassion, just like the rest of history in other people.

The Noble Savage is a myth.

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An interesting, provocative discussion.

Perhaps surprisingly, I studied Little Big Horn while in highschool (surprising because I went to school in Australia). We were studying the history of white settlement here, and examined Little Big Horn as part of an attempt to compare and contrast the "European" (white) settlement of America with that of Australia. Wounded Knee was examined alongside Pinjarra. Amusingly, we watched Little Big Man as part of the course...

When discussing design of a game about the battle, it is difficult to find any fault with your comments about victory conditions. When simulating asymmetric warfare, there must be different objectives.

The suggestions you make are excellent, and seem to suggest there should be a "draw" possible, i.e. 7th Cav losses, few Indian losses, but no Indians manage to "score" coups. Perhaps this is a situation where neither player wins. This is in turn quite interesting: a wargame where both players lose unless one of them manages to achieve a victory... hmmm.

But a tangential point was raised which is important:
Biosphere wrote:
I do find the term 'subduing the tribes' a euphemism though...

It is not my intention to question the motives of anyone involved in the conflict between Indians and settlers. They were the products of their time and culture. Both sides comprised fighters who had seen an awful lot of war. I am not competent to make an ethical judgement about the actions of either side.

But "subduing the tribes" sounds like you are dodging consideration of the Indians treatment.

The game is just a game, but the events inspiring the game were real and should be considered in their context. That context has both an historical dimension and an evolving (modern) ethical dimension. You say:
pete belli wrote:
The larger issue of the inundation of the Native American culture by the European social system is beyond the scope of this discussion.

My question is: "Why not?".

By saying that such "larger questions" are outside the scope of discussion, isn't there some risk of devaluing the lives lost? One of the criticisms of wargames is that they seek to convert human tragedies into convoluted chessgames. I believe this is quite unfair, and the best way to answer such criticism is to acknowledge the issues, however briefly.

-R






 
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Victory at the Little Bighorn
pete belli wrote:
The fight at the Little Bighorn is a magnificent example of asymmetric warfare.
Not according to a documentary I saw some time in the last couple of years. (Sorry, I know it was a coop between a US and UK company and the US Parks Service, but can't remember more)
Archeologists have now established that the cavalry were destroyed by a vastly superior firepower, with numerous types of rounds recovered. They grossly outnumbered those recovered from cavalry carbines and pistols. They also concluded that the shock of this event caused panic in the cavalry (many of whom were green and recent European immigrants) who consequently fired wildly or simply routed and were hunted down elsewhere.
They drew on Native American contemporary accounts, which have previously never been allowed any credence. However the facts back their story, not the legend.
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Pushed 'backward'
Wilhammer wrote:
Indeed, Dorosh - the documentary I mentioned, which is narrated by an Indian, shows the tribes that were formed into the Iroquois Nation as your classic warrior society - and it was.

In mnay ways, no different than the Ancients of Europe.

The saga of the relationship with essentially stone age or bronze age societies against pre-Industrial and Industrial Europeans is recent and far better documented than the ancient past.
This is somewhat unfair to the locals who had just suffered a couple of hundred years' ravages from all the mass diseases contacted through the livestock introduced by the Spanish and later colonisers.
If you check out Jarred Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, he shows that the northern Native Americans had, like their southern cousins, established major city state empires by the European Remnaissance, but that plagues had caused the collapse of these and a reversion to the healthier lifestyle of hunter gathering. In political organisation therefore America was not very far behind Europe. Ironically what had held them back was the lack of the very kinds of working animals, horses, oxen, cattle etc whose diseases proved fatal to their societies. (Although one of the killers, flu, was largely carried by poultry).
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Wilhammer wrote:
Indeed, Dorosh - the documentary I mentioned, which is narrated by an Indian, shows the tribes that were formed into the Iroquois Nation as your classic warrior society - and it was.

In mnay ways, no different than the Ancients of Europe.

The saga of the relationship with essentially stone age or bronze age societies against pre-Industrial and Industrial Europeans is recent and far better documented than the ancient past.

Everyone likes the underdog, and they certainly seemed to fit that role.

It is closer; we are close to those times - we just passed the era of survivors of it. It is recent historical nd cultural memory, no doubt fueled by cinema and TV.

The tribes were slaughtering each other in vengeance - they were murdering each other wholesale and practicing an often rosy painted form of slavery - the taking of prisoners to integrate them into tribes - marked by the victim being expected to surrender his own personality and heritage and assuming the spirit and roles of the person they replace.

They built nations, carved up Empires just like the rest of humanity.

They practiced brutality and compassion, just like the rest of history in other people.

The Noble Savage is a myth.



Ok, some major issues here (don't worry, I still like you).

I don't know about the Iroquois, and I'm also not sure what you mean by "classic", so no arguments from me.

Indians were also radically different than the ancients of Europe in many ways. Just like every culture and every person in the whole world.

It's unjust to compare a different society on European standards like "bronze age". However, this does tie in to what I said earlier about development. Everyone does seem to love the underdog.

Avatar and other films do make the Indians more holy than they really are. You really want a great look at traditional societies, come here to Indonesia! We've still got lots of people living in traditional settings that are very similar to the way that they lived over 3000 years ago. But, be careful! The Daiyaks might kill you. The Noble Savage is a myth, and I've got less use for the 'white man's burden' then almost anyone.

Outside of some of the Central and South American groups, I'm not aware of any empires in America.

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misteralan wrote:
Wilhammer wrote:
Indeed, Dorosh - the documentary I mentioned, which is narrated by an Indian, shows the tribes that were formed into the Iroquois Nation as your classic warrior society - and it was.

In mnay ways, no different than the Ancients of Europe.

The saga of the relationship with essentially stone age or bronze age societies against pre-Industrial and Industrial Europeans is recent and far better documented than the ancient past.
This is somewhat unfair to the locals who had just suffered a couple of hundred years' ravages from all the mass diseases contacted through the livestock introduced by the Spanish and later colonisers.
If you check out Jarred Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, he shows that the northern Native Americans had, like their southern cousins, established major city state empires by the European Remnaissance, but that plagues had caused the collapse of these and a reversion to the healthier lifestyle of hunter gathering. In political organisation therefore America was not very far behind Europe. Ironically what had held them back was the lack of the very kinds of working animals, horses, oxen, cattle etc whose diseases proved fatal to their societies. (Although one of the killers, flu, was largely carried by poultry).


I read Jared's book - and my point stands - what happened to them happened to everyone - catastrophic pandemics are plentiful in the historic and archaeological record.

What Europeans had accomplished well before the Indian was sufficient slaughter of the fauna to help force domestication, thus building immunity. Not a plan, for sure, but an unexpected consequence.

-------------------------------

When the Europeans encountered them, they had been knocked back, hard by pandemics. It was not unlike the effect of the Black Plague or the Dark Ages, or thousands of years earlier when all of humanity was knocked to near extinction.

They also early on encountered some significant Empires - had they not been hit by pandemics or audacity they might have survived it all and even improved their condition.

Classic case - the Aztecs.

A cruel, abusive nation than even entrapped one culture to farm it for sacrifices, and fought wars for more sacrifice victims, would find itself at war with another group of ambitious empire and power builders.

---------------

Back to the Iroquois Confederation - it was seen as an inspiration for getting divergent peoples to get along and prosper, and was to used as areference to setup the United States.

---------------

Popular mythology is that the Indians were innocent, environmentally friendly, non violent peace loving people.

Europeans encountered others like them; ambitious empire builders who abused power and privileged over others, and employed force of arms where needed, and often, to get their own way.

Europeans at home had run into over population, and a saturated continent in the pre-Industrial ages that resulted in people busting out at the seems to move out and both escape persecution and seek their own fortunes.

The effects of environment and countless invasions within and from Asia all contributed to a hardened people seeking what all other people seek - a place on top.
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A plague on all your houses
greatredwarrior wrote:
Outside of some of the Central and South American groups, I'm not aware of any empires in America.
Mississippi City States. (Try saying that a few times!) They used mud brick to build with, so there wasn't much left to see when the Europeans pushed inland a couple of centuries later.
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greatredwarrior wrote:
Wilhammer wrote:
Indeed, Dorosh - the documentary I mentioned, which is narrated by an Indian, shows the tribes that were formed into the Iroquois Nation as your classic warrior society - and it was.

In mnay ways, no different than the Ancients of Europe.

The saga of the relationship with essentially stone age or bronze age societies against pre-Industrial and Industrial Europeans is recent and far better documented than the ancient past.

Everyone likes the underdog, and they certainly seemed to fit that role.

It is closer; we are close to those times - we just passed the era of survivors of it. It is recent historical nd cultural memory, no doubt fueled by cinema and TV.

The tribes were slaughtering each other in vengeance - they were murdering each other wholesale and practicing an often rosy painted form of slavery - the taking of prisoners to integrate them into tribes - marked by the victim being expected to surrender his own personality and heritage and assuming the spirit and roles of the person they replace.

They built nations, carved up Empires just like the rest of humanity.

They practiced brutality and compassion, just like the rest of history in other people.

The Noble Savage is a myth.



Ok, some major issues here (don't worry, I still like you).

I don't know about the Iroquois, and I'm also not sure what you mean by "classic", so no arguments from me.

Indians were also radically different than the ancients of Europe in many ways. Just like every culture and every person in the whole world.

It's unjust to compare a different society on European standards like "bronze age". However, this does tie in to what I said earlier about development. Everyone does seem to love the underdog.

Avatar and other films do make the Indians more holy than they really are. You really want a great look at traditional societies, come here to Indonesia! We've still got lots of people living in traditional settings that are very similar to the way that they lived over 3000 years ago. But, be careful! The Daiyaks might kill you. The Noble Savage is a myth, and I've got less use for the 'white man's burden' then almost anyone.

Outside of some of the Central and South American groups, I'm not aware of any empires in America.



I am not saying they were 'bronze age' to be disparaging - it is a fact.

It is also true that they developed some great technologies and systems every bit as advanced as European ones or better.

My point is that no one was mentally or or otherwise superior humans - might point is that we are all so much the same.

As to North American Empires of Indians - they formed regional ones, much like those European kingdoms and duchies, mini empires, that would eventually form larger ones, and eventually some of those would explode past the continent.

Their curse, if one can call it that, is that the lived on a continent that was large, abundant in natural foodstuffs and resources, an great climate, and a low density of population.

One might compare it to Europe, circa 500 BC. The Ancient Greeks, much like the Toltec or Mayans - the Aztecs much like the cruel emerging Romans. The tribes fractures and not quite organized into proto States, like the Gauls or the Germans.

Had guys with Firearms, ambition, and and drive shown up then, then Europeans would be considered the Nobel Savage.
 
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alan beaumont
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Wilhammer wrote:
I read Jared's book - and my point stands - what happened to them happened to everyone - catastrophic pandemics are plentiful in the historic and archaeological record.
What Europeans had accomplished well before the Indian was sufficient slaughter of the fauna to help force domestication, thus building immunity. Not a plan, for sure, but an unexpected consequence.
Not a plan at all, but a consequence of continental layout. Eurasia has a lateral shape and plenty of load bearing animals that aren't migratory because the seasonal changes haven't forced the animals to adapt to a migratory lifestyle. Also if you pick your food crop and walk 500 miles West (or East) you can plant it and expect it to grow, unlike a North/South layout. America only has the llama and several thousand years less plant and animal domestication time. European disasters were 'equal opportunity' plagues. All competitors were largely in the same boat and also sharing the disease pool and improving immunities over thousands of years.
Even so, it is conceivable that the Mongols could have extinguished a Christian Europe weakened by the Black Death, if not for the unexpected death of the Khan, and much earlier it was only due to internal politics that the Arabs didn't finish the conquest of the Frankish States. They recalled their Generals, because they were Berber (ie African), not Arab.
The american misfortune was a technology gap, plague and active interlopers arriving as a perfect storm. The counterfactual study Diamond presents is Africa. Here, armed with nothing more lethal than steel, europeans were kept pretty much at bay, until modern medicine and a step change in military technology finally tipped the balance against the locals. Even so there were survivors into the 20th century, like Ethiopia. Indeed African subjugation has been pretty short lived, since the bulk of their population remained intact.
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The comparison to Africa is hardly perfect - Asian and Europe had been interacting with them since ancient times...and often shared similar experiences - the Med comes to mind, ad well as the clash in the Indian Ocean/Red Sea zone.

The encounter with the New World was a real shock to everyone - though there was sporadic encounters, nothing was sustained until Europe emerged from its funk and started pushing back on Asia.

On the way, the New World was found.

Bad timing for the native population, superb timing for the Europeans.
 
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alan beaumont
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Wilhammer wrote:
The compariosn to Africa is hardly perfect - Asian and Europe had been interacting with them since ancient times...and often shared similar experiences - the Med comes to mind, ad well as the clash in the Indian Ocean/Red Sea zone.
Yes, Africa was colonised in most of the places with similar climes to Europe, but 'darkest Africa' was as inimical to european livestock as Europeans themselves, or else I would suppose they would have built their own cavalry armies through the centuries of trade. There is a series running on here on TV (BBC I think) outlining the 'lost' empires of Africa. It turns out they were not so much lost as hushed up, since Europeans have traditionally disliked believing that Africans could be cultured or sophisticated.
Diamond's central point is that notions of racial superiority are illusory and Europe 'wins' largely due to factors of geography and biodiversity. There is also the wonderfully intriguing point that, if the Chinese emperor hadn't panicked, we might all be recently independant of the Chinese world empire.
 
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misteralan wrote:

Diamond's central point is that notions of racial superiority are illusory and Europe 'wins' largely due to factors of geography and biodiversity.


Yep, that is the correct point, of which I wholeheartedly agree.

 
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pete belli wrote:
The fight at the Little Bighorn is a magnificent example of asymmetric warfare.
Not according to a documentary I saw some time in the last couple of years. (Sorry, I know it was a coop between a US and UK company and the US Parks Service, but can't remember more)
Archeologists have now established that the cavalry were destroyed by a vastly superior firepower, with numerous types of rounds recovered. They grossly outnumbered those recovered from cavalry carbines and pistols. They also concluded that the shock of this event caused panic in the cavalry (many of whom were green and recent European immigrants) who consequently fired wildly or simply routed and were hunted down elsewhere.
They drew on Native American contemporary accounts, which have previously never been allowed any credence. However the facts back their story, not the legend.


Good point, Alan. A prairie fire back in the '70s or '80s burned off the grass at the battle site, and archaelogists were permitted to conduct their research and discovery. Surprisingly, many brass casings and military paraphenalia were found -- sometimes without digging -- and triggered a major revision of the conduct of the battle.

Indian firing locations were distinguished from the Army positions by the mix of shell casings: the Indians had a variety of firearms, while the cavalry troopers had a standard issue carbine and revolver.

The popular image of mounted warriors circling the beleaguered members of Custer's party is erroneous. The Indians approached Custer's force at a crawl through the prairie grass, rising briefly to take shots while minmizing their exposure to counterfire. Their advance pushed Custer's group off the crest of the hill and downslope, where they ultimately met their demise.

Accounts by the Indians who participated in the battle are valuable, though -- like eyewitness accounts of any event -- they must be scrutinized throughly and, where pertinent,correlated to physical evidence. As I recall, more than one of the participants claims to have personally killed Custer.
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misteralan wrote:
pete belli wrote:
The fight at the Little Bighorn is a magnificent example of asymmetric warfare.
Not according to a documentary I saw some time in the last couple of years. (Sorry, I know it was a coop between a US and UK company and the US Parks Service, but can't remember more)
Archeologists have now established that the cavalry were destroyed by a vastly superior firepower, with numerous types of rounds recovered. They grossly outnumbered those recovered from cavalry carbines and pistols. They also concluded that the shock of this event caused panic in the cavalry (many of whom were green and recent European immigrants) who consequently fired wildly or simply routed and were hunted down elsewhere.
They drew on Native American contemporary accounts, which have previously never been allowed any credence. However the facts back their story, not the legend.


Although information on the troops' lack of experience has been widely reported, it is an oversimplification to call them "green/recent immigrants." Published studies of 7th Cavalry soldiers' remains from the LBH battlefield, in which those remains are examined alongside comparable male remains from Western civilian communities of the period, show comparable age, health, and physical attributes. According to Army records, most of the 7th Cavalry troops had been in service with the regiment for over a year. The NCOs averaged over seven years with the regiment.

The Springfield 45/55 carbine outranged the Henry repeating rifle. Although the Henry's rate of fire was obviously greater short-term, battlefield ballistic evidence shows that many of the rounds fired by such weapons were mismatched to the chamber (split brass casings proves this).

Analysis of Custer's battalions' (there were two under his direct command, one of two companies plus regimental HQ, the other, under Keogh, of three) movement clearly shows that they were operating according to the 1874 Manual of Cavalry Tactics and maneuvering with offensive action intended until Keogh's battalion came under rapid attack from multiple directions. Among other things, the 1874 Manual called for a main body to be kept out of line of sight, using terrain, and to secure itself with minimal deployment of skirmishers. Calhoun's company was in the screening role, with I and C in reserve behind Battle Ridge, until "L" was threatened by dismounted warriors infiltrating up a gully toward Calhoun's right rear. Keogh looks to have ordered a local counterattack, with limited goals, by "C" Company to drive the warriors back; an unexpected volley of warrior fire from Greasy Grass Ridge, to the front of "C," appears to have been the cause of their panicky retreat.

It is quite true that morale dissolved quickly, apparently beginning with a bungled local counterattack by "C" Company which was under an inexperienced junior officer (Tom Custer being with the HQ group that day). "C" Company's disorderly "bounce" was followed-up by Lame White Man's opportune countercharge which compromised Calhoun's (L Company) right and diminished "L" Co's holding fire. At this time a concentrated group of repeating-rifle-armed warriors opened rapid fire upon Keogh's "I" Co. and the panicked survivors of "C" and the whole battalion fell apart, individual soldiers and small groups fleeing away from the pressure north along Battle Ridge toward Custer's battalion (which apparently was in a position to see the collapse of "C" at the other end of Battle Ridge, downslope a bit from the current site of the National Cemetery).

I would argue that the "assymetrical warfare" label is accurate. Native Americans lacked the concept of prosecuting warfare to ultimate strategic success, and emphasized the individual warrior over the unit, army objective, or national goals. The concept of permanent "officers" was alient to the Indian way of war; warriors followed another warrior according to their own opinion of that warrior's prowess, record of success, and prospect for a positive outcome. The concept of "units" was unknown to them; the various "warrior societies" existed to provide tribal policing, not tactical maneuver units.

It is true that at LBH, the native village groups were both more numerous, and better armed, than expected. They also proved to be highly concentrated along a limited stretch of the river, rather than dispersed in village groups along tributaries as they had been at The Washita.

Those critical of the Army's "massacre mentality" are correct in noting a lack of discrimination between warriors and dependents, but incorrect in attributing genocidal intentions to the Army in 1876. By that time, strong political pressure existed, particularly in the east, to attain a solution to "the Indian problem" which satisfied the understanding of humanitarianism then extant. To apply an early-21st-century lens to that approach at that time is both smug and unjust.

The Army's goal in 1876 was to compel the "summer roamers" and "noncompliant bands" to accept life on reservation, not to exterminate them wholesale. After The Washita, Custer and the 7th Cavalry brought a number of native captives out with them. This was by no means an entirely humanitarian gesture: without these hostages, the numerous warriors spread up and down the Washita Valley in other villages might well have carved up the whole command as they did Maj. Elliott's detachment.

At the LBH, Custer no doubt remembered the pacifying influence native dependents in Army custody had on warriors of their families and tribes. There can be no doubt that Custer's goal at LBH was to cut out enough dependent hostages to compel the remaining natives to obey the government's orders to return or move to the reservations.

As odious as the reservation policy is--and was--it is also a far cry from genocide, and this strategic goal does shed considerable light on Custer's tactical and strategic objectives at LBH.

Custer's plan of attack was aggressive and optimistic--some would say wildly so--but "success" was not out of the question, particularly since the dependents fled in hundreds from Reno's initial attack to the north end of the village (a rivulet there is named "Fugitives' Creek")--precisely where Custer aimed to strike them after both his battalions could concentrate (his immediate command lacked sufficient numbers to contain and control a large band of dependents).

This could not occur until/unless at least Benteen's three companies reached the position held by Keogh with I, C and L Cos, freeing them to join Custer for the strike; a battalion in Keogh's position served to preserve communication between Custer's force and the pack train plus Reno (in fact Custer hoped Benteen would bring the pack train to that position, presumably with Reno as well).

Obviously this was a gamble that failed, but it was not beyond the realm of possibility and by no means either a totally irrational or bloodthirsty set of decisions.

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