Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fragments: The Bonds of Art and War

Eastward, across the Atlantic, the warlords were piling up weaponry and preparing for a conflict whose slaughter would make the little massacres of the plains and mountains seem as nothing. What are the eighty men killed in the Fetterman massacre, or the losses at the Alamo, the Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee compared to the tens of thousands killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme? In the American West the agony was sharp but short: twenty minutes for the Fetterman massacre, perhaps an hour for the Little Bighorn, only thirteen days for the siege of the Alamo. It was left to the military strategists of the older societies to devise conflicts that, in duration and detail, paralleled the long works of Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy. Think of Verdun, Gallipoli, the siege of Leningrad.

[Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen]


[Either Captain Myles Keogh] or Major Alfred Gibbs suggested that the Seventh have its own band. Whoever came up with the idea, Custer approved--personally contributing $50 toward the cost of instruments--and it was either Keogh or Custer who proposed "Garry Owen" as a marching tune.

"Garry Owen " is an old Irish quick-step that has been traced back to about 1800 and is known to have been used by several Irish regiments, including the Fifth Royal Lancers whose members regarded it as a suitable drinking song. . . .

The last tune played by the regimental band for Custer's benefit was "Garry Owen." Excepting the indispensable buglers, all Seventh Cavalry musicians stayed at the Powder River Depot. They were posted on a knoll and when their comrades marched off to destiny they struck up that inspiring tune, which brought a hearty cheer, said Pvt. Goldin: "its notes were still ringing in our ears as we left the river bottom and the band was lost to sight. . . . "

Keogh is remembered these days not because of a musical contribution, not for his gallantry, not for his sex appeal, but because of his horse Comanche, reputed to be the only survivor of Little Bighorn.

[Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn]


The war chief who rallied the Indians and turned back [Major Marcus] Reno's attack [at Little Bighorn] was a muscular, full-chested, thirty-six-year-old Hunkpapa named Pizi, or Gall. Gall had grown up in the tribe as an orphan. While still a young man he distinguished himself as a hunter and warrior, and Sitting Bull adopted him as a younger brother. Some years before, while the commissioners were attempting to persuade the Sioux to take up farming as a part of the treaty of 1868, Gall went to Fort Rice to speak for the Hunkpapas. "We were born naked," he said, "and have been taught to hunt and live on the game. You tell us that we must learn to farm, live in one house, and take on your ways. Suppose the people living beyond the great sea should come and tell you that you must stop farming and kill your cattle, and take your houses and lands, what would you do?" . . .

Reno's first onrush caught several women and children in the open, and the cavalry's flying bullets virtually wiped out Gall's family. "It made my heart bad," he told a newspaperman some years later. "After that I killed all my enemies with the hatchet."

[Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West]


The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command

Dawn Potter


At first light we saw our enemies
on the bluff
silver flashing in their hair

a glory of sun as they rode away laden
with tunics saddles boots arrows
still piercing the cracked boots

piercing our silent comrades
and just visible in the dawn
we saw wolves and coyotes

skulking along the verge
crows buzzards eagles circling
the sun-spattered meadow

but not one white body was disturbed
for we hear that salt permeates
the whole system of our race

which protects us from the wild
to some degree but it was strange
that nothing had eaten the horses either

except for flies which swarmed in thick
like the stench
all day we waited

till the doctor finished his report then
they told us to pack our friends
into the ammunition wagons

this was our job they said to retch
to stumble into the field to grasp
at wrists at ankles dissolving to pulp

under our grip to vomit to weep
to stare at masks pounded bloody with stones
bloated crawling with flies who were they

this was our job but we could not sort
cavalry from infantry all stripped
naked slashed skulls crushed

with war clubs ears noses legs
hacked off and some had
crosses cut on their breasts

faces to the sky
we walked on their hearts
but did not know it in the high grass

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]


According to the Custer Battlefield Museum, "University of Kansas naturalist Lewis Lindsay Dyche prepared Comanche for exhibition at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Following the fair, Comanche was returned to the KU Natural History Museum. Following a major restoration and conservation effort in 2004, the museum began exhibiting Comanche in a new exhibit, where the horse remains today as a popular attraction."


David (n of 49) said...

These are very fine quotes, and a very fine poem. Thank you.

Yes, Little Big Horn and the Fetterman Massacre would fail even to count as “an affair of outposts” compared to the carnage waiting half a century on in Europe. And yet they, especially Little Big Horn, continue to attract an enduring fascination.

It may be partly that there were no survivors, no “I alone am escaped to tell thee”. Or maybe part of it is also this: many of Custer’s men were central Europeans—Italians, Hungarians, etc., more than a few of whom could barely speak English—and their distance travelled, the distance between, say, a tiny Italian village and a terrible ending on a bleak Montana hilltop, remains inscrutable.

Dawn Potter said...

Truly, David, I was thinking of you as I transcribed these extracts. I knew you would comprehend the inscrutability (to borrow your word) of the way in which people, and time, and influence collide. Smallness and largeness become tremendously important and not important at all. Gall's measured argument collapses into "my heart went bad." Of course it did.

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.