At what a dear rate an
army must sometimes purchase knowledge!–Ambrose Bierce, "A Son of the Gods"
is in Kentucky and, in June of 1872, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer is in
Elizabethtown. He is there to intimidate; the newly-organized "Ku Klux
Klan" refuses to recognize that the war was lost seven years ago.
President Grant has sent cavalry units to various trouble spots in the former
rebellious states. Kentucky stayed with the Union throughout the war, which
makes the Klan’s rise here worrisome.
is famous: the brash, bull-headed hero who distracted Jeb Stuart’s cavalry at
Gettysburg and who, when white men were no longer the primary belligerents,
killed Indians along the Washita River.
is bored by the duty, but he knows horses, and Kentucky is paradise for
horseflesh, so there is that. He buys
horses for the Army. His eye for good stock is so respected that some of his
junior officers and friends give him money to buy their personal mounts. The
'pinhookers' who buy horses for quick resale are happy to see him.
Except this pinhooker. A former Confederate
volunteer, he is fat and of medium height – in other words, another century
would consider him short and thin. He wants to sell his horses, oh yes. But for
his beloved Lost Cause, he tries to chisel the Yankee officer. So he makes the
amateur’s mistake of starting the haggle too high.
horse is from the bloodlines of Messenger himself!" the dealer says.
who has studied up on Kentucky thoroughbreds and attended his share of races,
cocks an eyebrow and a single corner of his mouth. "Wasn't Messenger from
back in colonial days? I suspect
every old nag pulling a rag man's cart has some of Messenger in them by
got the papers for this, though!" the pinhooker says, perhaps too
aggressively. "And if that is not enough, I got a grandson of Denmark! I saw Denmark gamboling in a
field when I was a boy, and anything that came from him—"
at these prices," Custer says. "Quit running your game, fellow. I'm
buying cavalry horses, not something to be shipped to England to run in the
am not playing no games. I resent that. I don't care who you are."
surely not a successful game,"
Custer says. He turns his back. "Not the only mounts in old Kentuck."
Loud enough for the dealer to hear him, he adds (in a mocking, nasal falsetto):
"I got papers on this horse."
pinhooker scowls at the departing figure. He could swallow his pride. He could
let the war continue to be over. Instead he says: "I figure you Ma didn't
have her marriage papers when she had
turns around, strides up quickly to the scowling pinhooker.
is not a fair fight; the dealer has gotten soft.
struts away, a grim smile on his face. The horse trader lies on the ground
outside his stable, trying to breathe.
man is a Grand Dragon in the local Ku Klux Klan.
Bacon Custer – "Libby" to her husband – fusses over him when he gets
back to their rented rooms in the Hill House inn. She tsk-tsks over his black eye,
which is his only visible wound. Even his thin beak of a nose, a tempting
target, had been out of reach of the pinhooker's incompetent fists. He laughs
Custers have enjoyed Elizabethtown, despite its lack of opportunities to
burnish the husband’s glory. They have made many acquaintances among the
burghers – some of whom acknowledge having fought for the rebel cause. Tonight
they will dine at the home of such people. The Campbells are part of the
Scotch-Irish who settled Kentucky and almost led it to rebellion. Libbie asks
her husband, her beloved "Autie," to not mention the fight at dinner.
if they ask about my black eye," George Armstrong Custer says with a
twinkle. Because he knows, of course, they will.
Campbell, the husband, is apologetic on behalf of all “right-thinking”
is magnanimous. “Probably a spy from Tennessee,” he says, and both couples roar
day, Custer writes part of an article for a men's sporting publication. Truly peacetime duty! he thinks to
himself. The subject is his triumph over a band of Cheyenne encamped along the
Washita River in 1868:
I decided to cross the
creek and bivouac on the right bank, opposite the lower end of the village and
within easy pistol range of the nearest lodge. This location may strike the
reader with some surprise, and may suggest the inquiry why we did not locate
ourselves at some point further removed from the village. It must be remembered
that in undertaking to penetrate the Indian country with so small a force, I
acted throughout upon the belief that if proper precautions were adopted, the
Indians would not molest us. Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive
or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from
feeling restless, he puts down his pen and lays aside the manuscript for Galaxy Magazine. He leaves his rented
home and walks over to the Eagle House on North Main Street, where part of
Company A lays its head.
has two companies of cavalry and a battalion of infantry at his disposal. Most
of the young men in the service never faced an armed Confederate – those
veterans left years ago, except for a few officers and sergeants. And then
there is one other who has been with the army since that time, a man named
Lee is not a soldier. He is not young. And, of course, he is not white. What
little is known of him in the twenty-first century is enough to make him an
was born Charles, no last name, on a Virginia tobacco plantation around 1820.
He may have had a wife and children who died of natural causes. He was alone
when he took his freedom in 1863, making his way to the Yankee lines. As a
plantation slave, he was handy with a machete; it is said he chopped up two old
Confederate patrollers to get his freedom. The rumor pleases modern ears, but
it is not sourced.
became "Bobby Lee" when he took to being a handyman for Union troops;
some rowdy young soldier started calling him that, and soon everyone was – and
he shrugged, and answered to it. He ground the coffee beans (which the
quartermaster could not purchase already ground, because the suppliers would
adulterate it with sawdust); he washed and mended clothes for young men who
wanted to sleep off a forced march, and so gave him some pennies to care for
their blue wool. He performed magic on beans and salt pork in a frying pan. As
Bobby Lee he was a fairly prosperous freeman.
the war ended, he stayed on to do chores for young soldiers trapped in a
garrison with no way to spend their money except to alleviate a bit of tedium.
Bobby Lee shined boots and mended uniforms. He took trips to bigger cities that
the soldiers couldn't get leave to go to with shopping lists of books,
magazines, and other items. The little coins he got added up to a better living
than he had ever seen. He followed two companies of the 7th Cavalry to
Elizabethtown in April of 1871, five months before Custer himself got there.
Lee is no soldier, but he lives in a time where the rules governing
soldier-civilian interactions are murky and inconstantly enforced. Civilian
mechanics, teamsters, friends, cooks, journalists, wives, girlfriends,
"girlfriends," and all-purpose sutlers selling food and tobacco move
in the orbit of the small regular Army, and except on certain parade occasions
they are not automatically shooed out of the barracks.
strides in through the kitchen at Eagle House. He sees Bobby Lee making small,
delicate slices into a sorry hunk of roast.
to the familiar presence, Custer says, “Shoe leather?”
could have been, if treated wrong, General Custer sir.” Bobby Lee is as careful
as any enlisted man to give Custer the brevet general title he only carried
during the war.
you doing there, then?” Custer asks.
bitty cuts, boil it in a good broth, and it will taste better than it ever has
a damn right to.”
laughs, slaps him on the back, and strides into the main quarters, and promptly
and happily bawls out a trooper lying on an unmade bed.
Lee listens and smiles slightly.
strides out of Eagle House after having put the fear of Himself into the few
off-duty men who are there playing cards or reading. Most of his men are on
duty now, which consists of little more than riding around and making their
presence known. Before the cavalry arrived, the KKK men had gone on midnight
rides in hoods, carrying torches. They had lynched blacks, whipped whites who
seemed to be reconciled to the Union victory, and generally bullied anyone they
felt like bullying. A few white women (who had at first thought them heroes)
had run into some of those riled-up men who were protected behind white masks,
and had been subjected to things none of them would ever talk about.
the day the 7th Cavalry rode into Elizabethtown until now, there has been not
one confrontation. Nor has anyone been seen in a white sheet and mask, nor has
a cross been burned. Without a legitimate government backing them, they have no
appetite for a stand-up battle.
Hope my ass grows back, Private Joshua
Whitaker thinks to himself (because General Custer had chewed it out). He has
remade his bunk tightly enough to bounce a coin off of it. He and a few others
who are off-duty for half a day have paid Bobby Lee to cook his famous tender
roast rather than have what tastes like roadside possum carcass at the regular
mess. He steps into the kitchen to wheedle a piece of it in advance of the
flintlock pistol that is put to his head is an obsolete one-shot affair. Lips
visible from a hole cut in a black sack-cloth mask are touched with a finger;
Lee has already been gagged, and two other masked men are binding his hands
together with a thick rope while a fourth man holds a more modern revolver on
one with the flintlock, whose clothes smell of a stable, and who Joshua
Whitaker will later describe as 'fat,' says to him: "Keep quiet, yank.
We're gonna use this nigger to teach you some respect for us. Tell your proud
peacock, old Custer, that we won't come after a Federal. We know what will
happen if we string up or shoot one of you precious cavalrymen. But let's see
you try to hire another coon to cook your meals for you when they see what we
do to this one!"
hustle both Bobby Lee and Joshua Whitaker out the door to a wagon and make them
lie facedown in back and cover them with burlap. The Klansmen then tug off
their masks. The pinhooker looks back at Eagle House, smiling at the
still-visible scars on the brick from Confederate general John Hunt Morgan's
1862 raid. First action in this town
since then, he thinks.
the team of horses has pulled them out of the town proper, they make Joshua get
out with his eyes closed.
what I told you!" one of them shouts at his back. "We won't touch a
cavalryman. We know what would come down on us. But each time you insult us, a
North-loving nigger dies!"
Whitaker stumbles down the dirt road without pause. Through the trees, he sees
the red brick tops of the two-story tobacco warehouses that dot Elizabethtown.
He runs toward them like a thirsty man running to a drink; he is afraid they
will change their minds about letting him go.
the wagon, under the burlap, Bobby Lee sighs. He knows they won't change their
minds about not letting him go.
descends on an Elizabethtown in chaos. Immediately after Private Whitaker
returned, Custer dispatched the sole battalion of unmounted infantrymen under
his command to search the town proper, in case the kidnappers doubled back to a
local hideout. He took some men to the pinhooker's barn, but a stableboy caring
for the horses claimed ignorance, even after Custer threatened to burn down the
stables with him inside it.
Hill House is his command headquarters. The hitching posts in front of the
two-story building run out of room, and a couple of privates simply stand on
South Main street holding reins of horses for the officers and messengers
coming in and out. Libby is lighting an oil lamp as the mayor of Elizabethtown
blusters in, with desperate words about how the kidnappers do not represent
Elizabethtown or, indeed, the great state of Kentucky. Custer nods, formally
accepts the words, and sends him on his way.
of Custer's search parties have a particular place to look. They run over the
map like a spilled pot of ink. Custer hates that, and he really hates staying in one place.
few reporters (normally Custer's oxygen) are turned away; there is no good news
knock comes at the door. It is Mr. Daniel Campbell, their neighbor and recent
dinner companion. Libby shows him into the study, where Custer and two
adjutants are looking over a map.
not a good time," Custer says gently, mindful of his wife's desire to move
in good society. "I appreciate your well-wishes—"
fixed to the floorboards, Campbell says, "I figure I know where they're
going to hang the nigger."
Campbell now has an audience so rapt a professional actor would envy it.
was with them, the first year they sprung up in these parts," Campbell
says. "Just a social club for a few old boys who had worn the gray. Then
they lynched some poor nigger they said had done something. They mutilated him
first. I was sick and some of the ruffians laughed at me. So I dropped out of
club," Custer finishes. His face is blank; he is thinking. His voice is
calm; he is planning. "Where's their hideout?"
None. There's no headquarters. You already know the leaders' names, I expect.
You know they're not home either. The only thing there is, is an excellent
place in the woods. A bunch of oaks, but with a large clearing, and at the edge
of it, perhaps the tallest, oldest oak tree in the county. You hang someone
from a branch on that tree, you can gather hundreds of men with all their horses
and traps so they can see it. That's where they did it the one time I went.
Must be where—"
nods. He doesn't want to make himself or his family a target by helping the
Federal cavalry. But he is a decent man for his time. He had killed twenty men
in the war. But in the Klan, he watched a local blacksmith use a knife to
separate genitals from a living human body, and he was too scared to intervene.
will take them to the clearing with the giant old oak tree. It is his penance.
Custer, there is relief at having a lead on the Ku Kluxers, but also a deeper
pleasure than he will admit to himself. He wasn't built for dinner parties.
has truly fallen. Custer, Campbell, and seventy men on horseback travel double
breast along an unnamed country road – its width will support no more than two
mounts. Daniel Campbell earns his penance, because the unnamed road is crossed
with another, which they branch left onto. This and the next road they take are
mere trails, which only the locals would know. Custer knows that none of his
patrols will have ventured out here.
the signs of heavy travel are unmistakable. Multiple threads of trails come
together. Fresh horse manure, recently trampled vegetation. Custer orders them
to widen from two-by-two into battle formation.
starts to say something in a normal tone, but at Custer's stern
"tzzt!" he drops to a whisper just loud enough to be heard from mount
to mount: "if they arrange things as they did last time, we should see
light soon. Several lanterns hung in surrounding trees. They don't roast the
negroes on a bonfire as I've heard some places do, least they didn't last
wouldn't be a bonfire anyway," Custer said. "Hasn't rained recently
thing they want is plenty of light so's they can all socialize with each other
and get a good view of the lynching."
nods, and his disciplined men continue their advance in "arrow"
formation, with only the light of the moon to guide them.
There is the promised light; a false dawn flickers among trees. The wind brings
a chorus of men raggedly singing the Kentucky Confederate anthem ("And
we'll march! March! March! To the music of the drum! We were driven forth in
exile from our old Kentucky home!"), as well as laughter and conversation.
will be glad to pay back the insult that was directed at him. For what was
grabbing Bobby Lee, but an insult to the commanding officer who had been in his
presence perhaps twenty minutes before?
does desire to save the black man for
the sake of saving him; he dislikes such brutality. Just after the Civil War,
he had encountered a former slave woman in Alexandria, Louisiana who had been
lashed five hundred times in a single instance; in a letter to his
father-in-law, he had written: If the War
has attained nothing else it has placed America under a debt of gratitude for
all time, for removal of this evil.
yes, he will be happy to save the man . . .
. . but Custer loves the fight. Loves
it. And this torturous quiet time in Elizabethtown has ended, finally.
frowns; the Klansmen posted no sentries on their perimeter. It will make his
job easier, but still…weren't most of these white-robed fellows in the
who says he wants things to go easy? It has been seven years since the end of
the war, and four years since the Battle of the Washita.
the Washita encampment in 1868, there had been plenty of squaws and little ones
among the Cheyenne braves. He had not allowed that to stop him; the ones that
hadn't been killed had made good hostages to keep old Black Kettle's warriors
from pressing a counterattack. Custer had done whatever was needed to win the
battle. If a lot of women and children had been killed that day, well, such
were the fortunes of war.
is not his desire.
Lee, once called Charles, stands in the back of a four-wheeled buckboard, his
arms and legs bound with rope. The noose, which had to be tossed by strong arms
to loop over the heavy branch some two stories overhead, sags down from his
is not even close to being hanged yet. This is a party, and he is an ornament
for the revelers' amusement. He will stand here until they are through
socializing and speechifying and passing flasks of whiskey and singing songs.
Only then will they pull the rope taut, and either hitch up a horse and drive
the cart away, or else a couple of stout men will simply pick up his legs and
chuck him over the side. With his bound legs, he will look like a giant inch
worm as he thrashes.
men are hanged by the courts, the executioners are skilled professionals; the
rope is given enough play to cause a sharp jerk that breaks one's neck, quickly
ending the guest of honor's suffering. Everyone knows that. This, though, will
not be the work of professionals. Bobby Lee will suffocate slowly.
ponders that. He has seen many troubles over the course of a life that began in
1820 or 1821 (whenever he was born – he is not sure, because by the time he was
old enough to ask, no other slave remembered with certainty); he cried,
privately, when his wife and two children died of yellow fever on the
plantation, all three in the space of five days. The overseer had made him get
up in the morning and chop his quota of tobacco on that Tuesday, that Friday,
and that Saturday.
went on, then. He has always gone on. Now, he will end. His main thought is
that he doesn't know how to be dead.
doesn't believe in the "sweet by 'n' by" or angels or the pearly
gates, because he first heard of these things from a white man's mouth.
he is dead, who will make his bed in his rented room? Who will— but his
thoughts are interrupted by a ruckus at the periphery.
leads his men into the clearing, from the front, as always. He holds the reins
in one hand and his pistol in the other.
Klansmen, most of them dismounted, look up at his approach. About half of them
are visibly armed, but none appear to draw a bead; they don't dare, not with
Federal cavalrymen in formation holding rifles.
So many, Custer thinks, and
his eyes brush across the assembled men in white robes; their costumes are a
riot of different styles, no doubt designed at the whims of their wives.
is the leader, here?" he yells. "Show yourself!" Anxious men
look at each other, some in the white sheets and masks, some with ridiculous
headgear and exposed faces, some wearing just their regular civilian work
go by. No one volunteers information. Custer leans back his head and laughs.
fought some brave Rebs in the war. I guess none of that fine material is
in the crowd growl at that; still, no one comes forward.
looks at Daniel Campbell, who is rigid in his nervousness. "It might be
best if you cut Bobby Lee
loose," he says. With just a tiny bit more foresight than he is usually
given credit for, he figures that a civilian taking the prize away from the
Klansmen will be less provocative than a Federal trooper in blue.
Campbell. Yankee lover.
mutter these words as Daniel Campbell dismounts. With a stone face, he climbs
up into the bed of the buckboard Bobby Lee stands on, and pulls out his pocket
Lee stands calmly as the white man who he knows by sight from town pulls off
the noose and cuts the ropes binding his hands and feet.
wonders if he will actually get a chance to make his own bed tomorrow morning.
fucking Lee!" The voice is from the edge of the crowd; its owner strides
forward, ripping off his own hood.
is the stable owner. His robes are more richly appointed in sashes and fancy
collars, suggesting a leader's uniform. "You yanks gave that nigger that
name! It's a damnable insult."
bruised face, courtesy of Custer's fists, is mottled with rage.
you're the leader," Custer says. "As if that was a surprise."
horse dealer ignores him. His eyes are fixed on the about-to-be-liberated
E. Lee has been in his grave less than two years, and this nigger prances
around with his name, making a mockery of a great man! Well, this ends now!"
a robe pocket, he pulls the flintlock pistol. He points it up at Bobby Lee.
then performs a series of actions: he rears back his head, buckles his knees,
drops the unused pistol, disgorges blood and brain matter all over his ornate
robes, lets loose his bowels and bladder, and collapses in a heap.
Armstrong Custer has just blown the man's brains out.
entire world freezes, for a moment, into a tableau:
. . Custer with his pistol extended, black powder smoke coming from the barrel
. . .
. . the cavalrymen, heavily armed but bunched too closely together in a
clearing . . .
. . Bobby Lee and Daniel Campbell standing up in the wagon with the giant oak
tree at their backs . . .
. . uncounted hundreds of Kentucky Klansmen, lightly armed with a variety of
shotguns, pistols and some modern rifles chambered for brass cartridges – they
are on all sides, most on foot, in a depth that surrounds the Federal cavalry
in multiple rings – their tethered horses, carriages, dog traps, and buckboards
forming even more of a barrier to the quick withdrawal of Custer's forces.
Ironically, if the Klansmen had been competent enough to keep a guarded
perimeter to protect their festivities, the Federal troops would not have been
able to trot into the center of the action; but now that they are here, getting
out will not be so easy . . .
. . the crumpled form of the stable owner, the Grand Dragon.
rest of the players, after that blessed moment of absolute silence and
motionlessness, move, and move quickly!
Federal troops fire at will into the crowd, without order. Rifle bullets go
through more than one row of white-sheeted figures; perhaps fifty of them fall
dead or dying.
the same moment, Klan shotguns and pistols throw lead into the vulnerable
mounted cavalry. Federal men topple from horses; some animals are shot out from
under troopers who scramble off their dying, falling beasts.
sergeant jumps off his grievously wounded mount. The sergeant is a Civil War
veteran; in an instant, he judges his beloved horse is through, and puts a
rifle bullet through her head so she will fall at his side. He crouches as she
thumps to the ground, and uses the bulk of her body as both a shield and a
rifle prop; the maneuver was fairly common in the war.
is infectious. Every veteran knows it. Shooting causes men to shoot.
Disciplined troops can be ordered to cease fire, but their officers are only
men themselves, and can't be counted on to give the order in the first place –
and here, they don't.
battle will not end with
negotiations. It started on impulse; besides, the Federals and the resentful
die-hards hate each other.
empties his pistol into the choicest targets at hand. Those white sheets are
wonderful to him, and he grins ferociously as his bullets connect with Reb
after Reb. His own horse absorbs a couple of wild, blind shots and falls. He
jumps away an instant before his left leg would have been trapped beneath. He
has had mounts shot out from under him before; just another day at the shop.
looks around him and sees (dimly, in the rising cloud of black smoke) that
perhaps ten or a dozen of his men have died. Gunfire is constant now, and
screaming men and horses, and he has to bellow his orders to be heard above it.
the line! Extend perimeter to tree line, north!"
a while, the advantage is to the Federal troops. They are current soldiers,
with clear lines of authority that have been reinforced through sadistic
discipline. Squads fight as squads, not as disorganized individuals.
Klansmen, by contrast, are free-firing amateurs who do as they please. Most
fought in the Rebellion, but they have had seven years to go to seed, and
besides, they cannot create agreed-upon lines of authority in mere moments.
bizarre tragedy that can happen in battle, happens:
. . A Klansman with an excellent Winchester rifle, jockeying for a good shot at
the Federal lines, creeps behind his own side's tethered horses; the continuing
fire spooks them, and before he can even draw a bead, one rears up and tramples
him to death . . .
. . A cavalryman peeks his head up to see beyond the ring of dead horses –
right into the path of a bullet fired from behind him by his best friend. . .
. . A 23-year-old Klansman whose cardiac system was weakened by rheumatic fever
as a child, simply dies of a heart attack . . .
and men scream as they die. Black powder smoke (at night!) turns the world into
gray shadows at best. It is the Hell which William Tecumseh Sherman accurately,
begins to slack off. The Federals, in their dark blue wool, are almost
impossible to see. The Klansmen have finally become sensible of what targets
their white robes make, and the living have mostly discarded them; too late for
more than one hundred and fifty motionless figures in crumpled red-and-white
heaps surrounding the Federal lines.
forces have lost half their own number. Most of the horses are gone, too.
knows they can't break out. He knows that he penetrated too far into the
enemy's territory. But he judges his force's superior firepower can hold off
the riff-raff until reinforcements arrive.
reinforcements have to be summoned.
silently curses himself for not leaving back a squad in the woods.
inquires if there are still horses, still riders. The men who bring messages
from one part of a battlefield to another are usually called
"runners," but on this night they are crawlers. The answer comes
back: Yes, two.
horses, held close to the bridle. The beasts are wild with fear; the men’s feet
leave the ground as the animals pull and thrash.
crawling messenger bring Custer's order to the lieutenant crouched closest to
the frightened mounts. The lieutenant listens to the relayed order, nods, and
looks around. Of the surviving men he can see, he picks the two he figures are
the best riders.
other lieutenant, given the same order, might have chosen two other men.
lucky young men have been given, not just permission, but orders to break out from this graveyard. The lieutenant pointed to
them, and they will live.
be put into this arbitrary gamble of who gets butchered – to have one's fate
decided by a harried junior officer possessing imperfect information and no
time to think – this is what young
boys wish to happen to them when they dream of going to war, whether they know
it or not.
Federals have little remaining ammunition. They use some of it on covering fire
to let the riders escape.
this goes well: the riders gallop off when the Klansmen are still sorting
themselves out. There are only a few wild shots that might as well have been
aimed at the moon.
Klansmen are finally cohering into a fighting force that can take advantage of
their far superior numbers. The veterans have agreed on leader-follower roles
within small bands. All available ammunition has been retrieved from satchels
and pockets. Rheumatic old men have relinquished fine hunting rifles to younger
men who can better use them.
all know who they are fighting.
that son of a bitch."
gonna be fighting Custer again."
time we're gonna win!"
Kentuck shall be for the South this time, boys! We'll rewrite history. We'll
teach that 'boy general' Custer!"
to Custer! And to the Yankees!"
South will rise again!"
he dead?" a private whispers to his friend.
took a round to the chest during the last exchange of fire. He lies on the
a wet cough, a shudder. Custer sits up, or tries to. At least he can speak.
defensive works?" he says, then coughs a sloshy cough, as if a can of
paint is jostling about within him.
sergeant bends close and says, "A line of dead men, theirs and ours, to
the south. Horses and bodies to the west, mostly our horses and their bodies,
about ten yards short of that hanging tree up there. North and east we have
snipers at the tree line and in the bushes, trying to keep – keeping them
coughing, a suppressed retch. "Effective strength?"
more than twenty."
made a good dent in 'em, sir. But now they're hanging back. Hard to estimate.
I'd say, and this is a pretty wild guess, I'd say in the hundreds. Under three
three hundred!" Despite the rip in his lung, Custer seems amused.
"Not like we've got to capture them all. Just… just hold the circle until
re, reinforce, forced." He draws a ragged breath. "Couple of
the heels of his words, a banshee wail breaks out in the dark forest.
looks at the pistol in his hand. Is it empty? If not, it soon will be.
Confederate battle cry!" Custer says. "Have you ever heard
sir. Just now."
share a laugh.
fire reigns down from the highest Klan-held positions, and the first wave of
attackers rush their lines.
Federals manage only this: they do not give their souls away for free.
and the Klansmen are gone, back to their various homes. They have left some two
hundred of their own behind on the battlefield. A few bodies were taken home by
friends or relatives, but most had to be left behind; there weren't enough
wagons or, especially, time; they knew they must escape quickly.
cavalrymen, supplemented by trusted state militia, arrive just after the sun.
The two escaped messengers, now on fresh horses, lead the way.
approach with caution, do flanking maneuvers, and send dismounted pickets to
creep in between the trees – everything Custer should have done the night
come upon a few outlying bodies first: Klansmen who fell to sniper fire. Dead
horses and men become more plentiful. Then the first scout reaches the main
battlefield, and shouts, "No!"
seventy men in blue, butchered beyond recognition. Custer is identified by his
long blond hair. His face was mutilated by vengeful Klansmen before they left.
few bodies in dark civilian wool clothes are among the Federals; these are the
Klansmen who shed their robes and participated in the final surge of battle.
new wave of mutilation occurs; white-robed bodies are kicked, slashed with
knives, urinated on. The cavalrymen vow vengeance. Their Northern-accented
voices, though filled with curses and bewailing, are music to the ears of two
men hiding behind the giant oak tree. Bobby Lee and Daniel Campbell stand up
and reveal themselves.
outside the fields of fire from both sides, forgotten, they had lain quietly,
then scrambled into the woods as the Klansmen had gone on their final charge.
first thing they do is ask for water. The next thing they do is to become
the news broke of the massacre of the Civil War hero Custer and his gallant
cavalrymen, the nation was shocked. Seven years after the end of the war,
something that could be called a battle had taken place between Federal troops
advance of the 1872 elections, every politician promised to avenge the martyr,
Klavern throughout the South disbanded as fast as it could, which sometimes
wasn't fast enough; with renewed Federal troop strength in the former
Confederate states, it was death to be seen wearing a white robe. The
Southerners crazy enough to celebrate the Klan's victory over Custer paid a
high price; a lot of necks were stretched with rope in the following months.
Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, only four years old, was given teeth
with enabling legislation. The already-existing Civil Rights Act of 1866, long
disputed, was enforced to the letter.
wealthier class of white Southerners had secret plans to disenfranchise people
who looked like Bobby Lee, with grandfather clauses and "literacy
tests" and exorbitant poll taxes; they were just waiting until
Reconstruction ended and they had political control again. Custer's death made
those plans impossible to carry out.
Last Stand Against the Klan became not just an iconic American story, but an
iconic image as well. Paintings, illustrations in magazines, cartoons.
played Cavalry and Klansmen.
prominent brewery distributed a frosted glass painting of the Last Stand (and
the beer's brand) to hang behind the bar in thousands of saloons across
modern naysayers scoff at the importance of the battle; it lasted possibly less
than an hour, with a few hundred dead. It had no real significance. (Others
concede half a point, calling it, "The smallest battle in history…that
ever shaped history.") The nation, they say, would have protected the
voting rights and equality of its black citizens even without the impetus of
punishing die-hard racists to avenge Custer.
others claim that A. Philip Randolph could not have become the nation's first
black president in 1940 if it had not been for seven decades of uninterrupted
progress on race relations from 1872 onward. And (despite the fact that she is
more often thought of as a feminist icon than a civil rights icon), some wonder
if Shirley Chisolm would have become the first black female president in 1976
without Custer's great sacrifice.
"Let me pay
all," says this gallant man--this military Christ! —Ambrose Bierce,
"A Son of the Gods"