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'Killing Crazy Horse' captures the wild, violent American West

By Bob D'Angelo


The ninth book in Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series captures the rollicking, untamed and often violent American West.

You know the formula. O’Reilly, the former Fox News commentator, along with researcher Martin Dugard, take a panoramic look at a major event in world history, peppering the readers with anecdotes, nuggets of information and plenty of notes.

That continues in Killing Crazy Horse: The Merciless Indian Wars in America (Henry Holt and Company; hardback; $30; 305 pages). It does not reach the high level set by 2014’s Killing Patton, which is easily the best book in the series, but Killing Crazy Horse is still a fine read.

It does not matter that Crazy Horse does not appear until Page 142 of this book. There are plenty of other compelling characters. There is Cochise, the Chiricahua Apache chief who is “the most feared man in Mexico” because of his marauding raids. He also never surrendered and never lost a battle, the authors write. “Ever.” And Andrew Jackson, who battled Native Americans as a general and later as the seventh president of the United States, whose goal was “to exterminate the hostiles.”

William Weatherford, the Creek chief, eludes Jackson until he turns himself in by riding into the general’s camp at Fort Toulouse on April 18, 1814. Weatherford’s speech to Jackson causes the deeply impressed general to pardon him, as he notes that “Any man who would kill a man as brave as that would rob the dead.”

Gen. George Armstrong Custer, whose Seventh Cavalry would be soundly defeated and massacred at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, also is scrutinized. Custer is “fond of the limelight and is no stranger to self-aggrandizement.” His detailed report about a skirmish with Sioux warriors in August 1873 gets plenty of publicity, but also leads to the economic crisis called the Panic of 1873.

Capt. Frederick Benteen, who regards Custer as “reckless” and had a contentious relationship with the general. When he challenged Custer’s attacking strategy of splitting forces at Little Bighorn, Custer looked at him and replied, “You have your orders.”

Even with two sets of orders from Custer later in the battle to rush ammunition to the general’s troops, Benteen stands pat.

“Captain Frederick Benteen does not care,” the authors write. “He and his men will not go further. Custer and his troopers are on their own.”

Benteen would live until 1898. Historians are divided on how to assess his actions at Little Bighorn. Some, like Larry Skelnar (in his 2003 book To Hell With Honor), describe Benteen as jealous and at times unprofessional, “an angry bit player” in history. That is in alignment with O’Reilly and Dugard’s interpretation. Others, such as Charles K. Mills (in his 2011 work, Harvest of Barren Regrets), portray Benteen as misjudged by history.

Neither book is referenced in the authors’ bibliography.

But again, the Battle of Little Bighorn is merely one piece of the puzzle advanced by O’Reilly and Dugard. Interesting vignettes including William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Martha Jane “Calamity Jane” Cannary, “Wild Bill” Hickok and Ulysses S. Grant give the reader a more rounded vision of the American West.

This book should not be confused with Thomas Powers’ 2010 work, The Killing of Crazy Horse, which takes a deeper dive into the battles on the Great Plains during the late 19th century; or Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2010 book, The Last Stand, which deals with the Battle of the Little Bighorn in great detail.

The authors do use Philbrick as a source, as noted in their bibliography.

O’Reilly and Dugard take a broader look at the conflicts between U.S. pioneers and Native American tribes, beginning with the Creek tribe’s massacre of men, women and children at Fort Mims, Alabama, in 1813. That was preceded by the Battle of Tippecanoe two years earlier when Gen. William Henry Harrison defeated troops led by Tecumseh in the territory now known as Indiana.

The narrative takes the readers through the major clashes, ending with the surrender of Chief Joseph and the Nez Pence tribe in 1877. The afterword goes into some of the skirmishes that occurred until 1890, when the superintendent of the U.S. Census, Robert Percival Porter, declared the American frontier officially closed.

The authors show the tactical genius of Crazy Horse, who probed for weaknesses in the U.S. Army and then exploited them. Sioux warriors would almost taunt the American soldiers, galloping close to the line to draw fire. The “brave run” had two goals — to get the soldiers to waste their ammunition, and to lure them into a trap.

“Hoka-he! It’s a good day to die,” Crazy Horse would say.

“Crazy Horse was regarded in military circles as one of the most troublesome, calculating and dangerous Indians in the territories,” according to a Sept. 13, 1877, article from The Wood County Reporter in Grand Rapids, Wisconsin.

Once trapped, the Native American warriors were ruthless. No prisoners were taken, and bloody skirmishes resulted in scalped soldiers who were mutilated in horrible ways. This is a theme throughout the book, and women and children did not escape the wrath of the Native Americans. The American soldiers were equally brutal, killing women and children when attacking camps.

The detail O’Reilly and Dugard use is horrifying, but necessary to understand the scope of the carnage.

Inevitably, American forces were able to subdue the Native Americans, relegating them to reservations while taking their land. The incidents that led to the Battle of Little Bighorn were due to the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.

Crazy Horse would be killed with a bayonet while in custody and being led to a jail cell. In a Sept. 6, 1877, letter to the Chicago Tribune, a correspondent wrote about the death of Crazy Horse. The Anderson Intelligencer in South Carolina, which carried the dispatch, noted in its Sept. 27, 1877, headline about “The Route by Which He Reached the Happy Hunting Grounds.”

Killing Crazy Horse draws from a good sampling of sources, and there were plenty of illustrations. The maps showing battles are particularly interesting.

Because the central thesis of this book is about the struggle for land ownership between white settlers and Native Americans, O’Reilly and Dugard wrote that traveling to the sites of the battles and seeing the lay of the land was crucial in getting a sense of what occurred during those skirmishes. They recommend readers do the same, and it is good advice — once the pandemic has gone away, of course.

The only regret I have with this book is the audio version. I prefer when O’Reilly reads the narrative because his inflection and tone add deeper meaning to the book. Sadly, his audio duties in this project are limited to the prologue. That’s just personal taste. Since O’Reilly was once a history teacher, his presentation lends itself well to these projects.

For passionate students of history, Killing Crazy Horse may not be satisfactory. But for readers wanting to get a taste of 19th century America, O’Reilly and Dugard provide an excellent overview.


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