Custer's peace with the Southern Cheyenne

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,808
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
#1
On Reddit ask Historians FlimFlamThe GlamGar asked:

Did George Armstrong Custer have any private reservations about breaking the peace pipe ritual that he had taken part in, previous to Little Bighorn?
https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/7mbp2q/did_george_armstrong_custer_have_any_private/

Presumably that refers to making a peace agreement with Southern Cheyenne leaders and smoking a peace pipe in 1869. According to legend a Southern Cheyenne medicine man knocked ashes from the peace pipe onto Custer's boots, or something, thus cursing Custer to defeat and death if he ever broke the peace.

In 1876 some Southern Cheyenne left their reservation in Indian Territory and traveled hundreds of miles to visit their relatives the Northern Cheyenne. They learned that the army was seeking to put the non reservation Sioux and Northern Cheyenne on the reservation, and that the non reservation Sioux and Northern Cheyenne were gathering together in a vast camp for defense. After learning this, they didn't turn around and head back to the safety of Indian Territory, and thus they were in the great Sioux and Cheyenne camp at the Little Bighorn when Custer attacked on June 25, 1876.

So what exactly are the ramifications of peace agreements?

Suppose that one of those Southern Cheyenne leaders was riding with some of his people when suddenly they were ambushed. Was he obligated by the terms of the peace with Custer to ask if any of the attackers were 7th Cavalry troopers, and if the answer was yes, was he obligated to tell his men not to shoot back at the attackers because of the peace he had made with Custer?

Suppose that Custer was riding with some 7th Cavalry soldiers when suddenly they were ambushed. Was Custer obligated by the terms of the peace with the Southern Cheyenne to ask if any of the attackers were Southern Cheyenne, and if the answer was yes, was he obligated to tell his men not to shoot back at the attackers because of the peace he had made with the Southern Cheyenne?

Suppose that one of the Southern Cheyenne leaders who made peace with Custer led an attack on a Mexican village or a Pawnee camp. Suppose that a white man there yelled out that he had been one of Custer's 7th Cavalry soldiers when the Southern Cheyenne made peace with Custer, and therefore the Southern Cheyenne were obligated to stop their attack on the Mexican village or Pawnee camp and go away. Would the Southern Cheyenne be obligated to call off their attack?

Suppose that Custer led an attack on a Blackfoot or Ute camp. Suppose that a Southern Cheyenne there yelled out that he had been one of the Southern Cheyenne when the Southern Cheyenne made peace with Custer, and therefore Custer and the 7th Cavalry were obligated to stop their attack on the Blackfoot or Ute camp and go away. Would Custer and the 7th Cavalry be obligated to call off their attack?

Suppose that one of the Southern Cheyenne leaders who made peace with Custer left the reservation and traveled to South Africa and became a chief in the Zulu kingdom. Suppose that Zulu King Cetshwayo ordered him to lead an impi in the Zulu War. Would he be obligated by the peace he made with Custer to refuse until and unless Cetshwayo could prove that there weren't any former members of the 7th Cavalry among the British forces?

Suppose that Custer resigned from the army and moved to South Africa. Suppose that when the Zulu War started Custer was asked to raise a volunteer cavalry unit to fight the Zulus. Would Custer be obligated by the peace he made with the Southern Cheyenne to refuse until and unless Lord Chelmsford could prove that there weren't any Southern Cheyenne living among the Zulus?

So what do you think?
 
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Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,934
Dispargum
#2
1. I doubt the veracity of the story of Custer smoking a peace pipe with the Southern Cheyenne. It sounds like the kind of story that would have been made up after Little Big Horn. But as an abstract theoretical argument:

2. Custer had no business entering into a peace treaty with the Southern Cheyenne or anyone else. He was subject to military orders. If later ordered to attack the Southern Cheyenne he had no right to claim, 'Uh, I have to refuse on the grounds that I smoked a peace pipe some years ago.' If Custer had smoked a pipe in 1869, he should have known he was making a promise he could not keep.

3. Neither the Cheyenne nor any other tribe had any such concept like a modern state where treaties have the force of law. Any Southern Cheyenne chief who smoked a pipe with Custer was entering into a personal relationship with Custer. The chief was not bound by any Cheyenne law. He was only bound by his personal sense of honor and his conscience. No chief had any authority to compell any other warrior to comply with this treaty. The best Custer could hope for was to smoke a pipe with every Cheyenne warrior and hope that every warrior would keep his word. That was impossible as well as unrealistic. If Custer smoked a pipe, he must have known that at some point in the future he would probably fight Southern Cheyenne again. At best, he had made and received a promise of peace only with those men he had actually smoked with, not the entire tribe.

4. Did Custer even know that there were Southern Cheyenne present at Little Big Horn? He was certainly under no obligation to sort out Southern Cheyenne from other, more hostile tribes. In the thick of battle, Custer was allowed and expected to shoot first and ask questions later.
 
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