Two men – two ways of life – one defining battle

I don’t know a huge amount about American history although I have heard of both Crazy Horse and Custer. This book by Stephen Ambrose is easy to read popular history at its best and was very good at putting the events of the story into a wider historical context for readers like myself.

The book is about the clash between the native peoples of the plains of North America and the settlers in the nineteenth century. The story is told by looking at the lives of the two main leaders at the battle of Little Big Horn. The author shows how similar they were in many ways and how they both became leaders of men in the conflicts. He then shows how different they were and how different the way of life was for the two groups. It then becomes evident why they failed to understand each other and how conflict was inevitable.

I enjoyed reading about the way of life for both the indigenous people and the colonists and also about the lives of Crazy Horse and Custer. It was also interesting to look at what leadership and success looked like for each of them and what their ambitions were. The author shows how the two groups could not co-exist in the same spaces because the settlers wanted the land for themselves and also because they failed to understand why the native peoples wouldn’t work for them – the contempt and lack of understanding which the colonists had for the indigenous people is breath-taking (although not surprising if you’ve read any books about slavery).

The battle of Little Big Horn concludes the book. The author doesn’t spend too much time concentrating on the military tactics except to show how the American Army got it very wrong. He does, however, show clearly the consequences of the battle both on the individuals involved and on the relationships between the two groups.

This is a fascinating book and very well told – I felt that I really understood the issues and that the author represented both sides fairly although, of course, I don’t have enough knowledge of the period to guarantee this. The book was first published in the 1970s and I expect that the author’s portrayal of the native people and his support for their cause may have been controversial at the time (he really doesn’t think a lot of Custer). What has dated, however, are the words that he uses about the indigenous people – he frequently describes them as “Red Indians” and talks about the two sides as “red” and “white”. This jars with the modern reader, or with me at least, and I did find myself wincing on a few occasions but I thought that the actual narrative was very good and I enjoyed the book.

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