Sitting Bull had the good sense to wipe out Custer and the Seventh Cavalry just off of I-90, so I stopped and took a few pictures.
Earlier this summer I spoke to a US Army Major and asked him what place the Indian Wars played in the self-understanding of the Army as an organization. He replied that the Army didn’t think very much about them at all. I wonder, why is that?
One reason, perhaps, is that the national perception of the Indian Wars has changed profoundly since the middle of he twentieth century. Most, it seems, tend to be more willing to identify Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse as the heroes of the engagement than Custer.
The rest of the Indian Wars have similarly lost a bit of gloss as they seem to have taken on something of a genocidal historical character. No organization, of course, wants to have a genocide in its history.
Another is that the Army made a decision, towards the end of the 19th century, to rebuild itself explicitly around th Prussian model of a continental military organization. Continental armies fight other continental armies in massive engagements allowing the concentration of firepower. They do not wander through the wilderness in search of guerillas. The Army of the Civil War, because it fits this mold, get remembered and the Indian Wars do not. The Philippine Insurrection seems similarly forgotten.
Nonetheless, I think that the Army probably should pay more attention to the Indian Wars than it currently does. First, the Army was able to pull off several very impressive doctrinal and organizational shifts in the second half of the nineteenth century. It tacked back and forth between being primarily a guerilla fighting organization to being the capable conventional continental force that won the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
This suggests a flexible organization with a strong capacity for learning and innovation, characteristics that any military force should find admirable. Second, it hardly needs to be noted that the kind of fighting the Army does now and the kind of fighting it can expect to do in the future bears much close resemblence to the Indian Wars or the Philippine Insurrection than to Patton’s exploitation across France.
A casual perusal of the course offerings at West Point seems to suggest that more attention is paid to Napoleon and to the warfare in the ancient world than to warfare in the American West. I wouldn’t be surprised if this changes in the future.