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Book Review: After Custer, by Paul L. Hedren

By HistoryNet Staff 
Originally published on Published Online: May 03, 2012 
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After Custer: Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country, by Paul L. Hedren, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2011, $24.95

In a December 1877 report to Congress, General of the Army William T. Sherman put the total cost of acquiring the Black Hills and other territories declared sacred by the Sioux Nation at $2,312,531, plus the lives of 16 commissioned officers and 267 enlisted men. In After Custer Paul L. Hedren, retired National Park Service superintendent and author of Great Sioux War Orders of Battle, examines the equally costly aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the U.S. Army's role in the absorption of the Sioux country.

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The author opens with the explorations Sherman and Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan made of the newly conquered country in 1877. The latter's expedition was the most important, as Sheridan understood that the country was rich not only in terms of the gold reported in the Black Hills, but also for its valleys, its grasslands and its many rivers. Sheridan also inspected the Little Bighorn battle site and suggested that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer lost both the fight and his life because he had split his forces.

After two inspections the commanders concluded the Army's duty was clear: to see to it the Indians never returned to this fertile country. They convinced Congress to fund construction of forts that would secure the settlement of white pioneers and passage of the Northern Pacific Railroad. This new transcontinental railroad differed from predecessors in that the company that built it depended on both its own capital and government land, and for the first time in American history a private investment company and the Army forged a strong collaboration.

The railroad first brought hunters, who, with the Army's blessing, systematically killed the bison for their skins, meat and bones. Finally, when only 500 of the animals remained alive in the whole country (including 18 in Buffalo's Bill Wild West and 20 in Yellowstone National Park), Congress passed federal legislation outlawing the killing of Yellowstone's bison under penalty of a $1,000-dollar fine or imprisonment. Meanwhile, longhorn cattle took the buffalo's place on the plains. Wyoming Territory, Montana Territory and northern Dakota Territory flourished economically by selling their beef to the Eastern cities.

Another issue Hedren addresses is whether it is truly Custer's body inside his casket at the U.S. Military Academy cemetery, although some thought the point moot even at the time of his death. As Colonel Michael Sheridan, brother of the famed general, remarked cynically: "Nail the box up; it is all right as long as the people think so."

Hedren holds the reader's attention throughout, describing step by step the spiritual and cultural loss that victory on the Little Bighorn but eventual loss in the overall campaign brought to the Sioux nation. For its overarching perspective After Custer comes highly recommended.

—Thomas Zacharis


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