Post by Diane Merkel on Dec 30, 2016 12:33:11 GMT -5
'Law at Little Big Horn: Due Process Denied' by Charles E. Wright.
The majority of the book is devoted to the military disaster portrayed in movies, art and literature as “Custer’s Last Stand.” As a former U.S.naval officer, Wright has analyzed the tactics used by Lt. Col. George A. Custer at the Little Big Horn and has no difficulty attributing loss of the 210 troopers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry to the incompetence of their leader. According to Wright, the Sioux and Cheyenne were legally hunting on their own land and only defended their families against a foolhardy attempt by Custer to attack a huge, but peaceful, encampment. . . .
There are better books describing the personalities of Custer and his officers and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and their warriors. Few of these books provide the straightforward analysis, including original maps, available in Wright’s book. It deserves a place on the bookshelves of the multitude of aficionados of the famous conflict.
I wrote a review of this book for Montana, The Magazine of Western History
It appears in the latest edition.
“Bang, bang… You Broke the Law.” A review of Law at Little Big Horn, by Charles E. Wright
Everyone interested in the history of American westward expansion needs to read this book. It will infuriate, it will embarrass… but it will do more: it will teach. Unfortunately, it will also bore. The book has its flaws—from errata (both editorial and factual: 26 examples, before I stopped counting); to a choppy, bullet-point writing style; to hoary assumptions and questionably proven commentary—but its importance in the realm of military and civil law transcends those flaws, and its initial, sharp, bang-bang presentation, along with the legal brilliance of its author, Charles Wright, makes it surprisingly fun to read, and it speeds by as the pins and needles it engenders force the reader to keep turning pages awaiting his next hero to be legally excoriated… initially.
Mr. Wright takes no prisoners and his inclusion of American icons in genocidal complicity is legion, from Thomas Jefferson to U. S. Grant, William Sherman to Phil Sheridan. One almost wonders how George Custer—a mere lieutenant colonel at the time of his death—made it into such an esteemed “rogue’s” gallery, though throughout the book Wright questions Custer’s ability and fitness for command, emphasizing his penchant for extemporaneous actions beyond the military acceptability for such, thereby placing him in the same gallery.
Legal terra cotta becomes military sand, however, and Mr. Wright is on less solid ground as he attempts to express his tactical acumen by criticizing General Alfred Terry’s division of forces prior to the Little Big Horn fight, while readily admitting the Indians’ whereabouts were unknown and their camp moved “every day.” Yet he seems to want to solve that problem by sending out small patrols to locate the recalcitrants, never considering the distances and terrain involved… or the risks: both to the patrols and the timeliness of their discoveries. While there is plenty of criticism to go around in the handling of the battle and its lead-up, pillorying Terry for dividing his command and thereby “violat[ing] cardinal military tactical rules” —anyway, not applicable at this stage of the event—and for allowing “Custer to dictate the terms of his deployment” , borders on the fatuous, especially considering the circumstances: experience, distance, terrain, time, intelligence.
When discussing Terry’s written orders to Custer, Mr. Wright focuses on the lack of proper military instructions, i.e., no strategic objective (none being required, as this was a tactical operation), all the while intimating Terry was positioning himself with a catholicon of innocence. Shortly thereafter, the author brushes off any notion of Custer disobeying orders, while never addressing the senior officer’s intent or its military efficacy. Wright’s bullet-point approach omits too much critical information for an important “legal” phase of the operation, and in what becomes an increasingly annoying habit, the author continually interjects personal suspicions, bombarding the reader with irrelevant questions, and throwing off one’s concentration on the focus of the book.
It is evident Mr. Wright has done little primary source research, choosing instead to echo the opinions of others as they fit his own preconceptions, and his constant, hammering use of historical examples, from Napoleon to Chester Nimitz—all used to condemn the actions/inactions of George Custer—makes one question his intent: a battlefield analysis or a legal review of American indigenous population treatment. His use of Carl von Clausewitz’ work, starting well, degenerates into a severe stretch of relevancy. I was also somewhat disappointed in his failure to cite—or at least reference—John Fabian Witt’s brilliant book, Lincoln’s Code, reviewed by Gary J. Bass in The New York Times, September 30, 2012.
Still, opinions can be justified and this does not negate the power of Wright’s elemental thesis. The passion and decency displayed in his beliefs make one wince at our historical legacy and despite a soldier’s and a historian’s eye-rolling at times, Charles Wright has filled a necessary gap in the history of America’s humiliation of a proud people.