From far Montana’s cañons,
Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lone-
some stretch, the silence,
Haply, to-day, a mournful wail—haply, a trumpet
note for heroes.
When a Mighty Pen
Crossed a Bold Saber
Reading Walt Whitman describe
then trumpet the Battle
of the Little Big Horn—
I wonder if he felt
empathy for the dead Indians
or just for the dead cavalry.
Within days of the encounter,
the poet pens, “A Death-Sonnet For Custer.”(1)
Here he extols the brave Americans,
refers to the Native Americans
as dark and shady, hiding in ambush,
prepared for a slaughter.
Did Whitman know it was Custer
who pursued the Indians?
Shakespeare would have lauded
Whitman’s heroic description:
“… desperate and glorious—aye,
in defeat, most desperate, most glorious.”
“… leaving behind thee a memory sweet
to soldiers. Thou yieldest up thyself.”
Two years after the battle
the tableau spread before Whitman’s eyes—
gifted by way of John Mulvany’s
life-sized painting titled,
“Custer’s Last Rally.”(2)
The poet wrote again.
He describes: “swarms upon swarms
of savage Sioux … like a hurricane of demons.”
It was Kill Eagle, a Blackfoot Sioux chief
who first observed that the Indians
went at Custer’s column, “like a hurricane
… like bees swarming out of a hive.”
Once again, I ponder how Whitman
might have felt. Had new understanding
altered his sentiments?
Then a hint from Whitman’s essay,
“… nothing in Homer, nothing in Shakespeare;
more grim and sublime than either,
all native, all our own …”
Whitman witnessed war’s scars up close at field hospitals
during the War Between the States—
did this painting ignite tortured memories?
Did he grieve only for the North’s wounded and dead?
Whitman stroked his lengthy whiteness,
furrowed his brow and sat in silence
for over an hour staring at the painting.
How did he feel recalling all the young lives
of opposing sides, cut so short
at Manassas, Gettysburg, Antietam,
and now, The Little Big Horn?
A 1970’s book by Dee Brown, (a titled borrowed from Stephen Vincent Benet) Burry My Heart At Wounded Knee, describes the famous battle from the victor’s vantage. Brown was candid about his intention to present the history of the settlement of the West from the point of view of the Indians, "its victims," as he wrote. He noted, "Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward." Inspired by Brown, Michael Blake penned Dances with Wolves, a most sympathetic view of the plight familiar to all Native Americans since the first Europeans landed in “India.” In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
1. “A Death Sonnet for Custer,” New York Daily Tribune, 10 July 1876, reprinted as “From Far Dakota Grass” (1881-82).
2. “Custer’s Last Rally, “Whitman’s essay on painting of same name by John Mulvany.
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