WASHINGTON — Washington.-- George Armstrong Custer has been dead these 115 years, but his bellicose spirit marches on. On July 25 a Senate subcommittee will hear witnesses for and against a bill to honor the Indians who killed him and his men in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Such bills ordinarily get a free ride. This one won't.
It figures. Custer was born in Ohio in 1839 and reared in Michigan. Every biographer agrees on this much: He was born to fight. Following his graduation from West Point in 1861, Custer fought as a second lieutenant in the Battle of Bull Run. At the tender age of 23 he was a major general in command of Union volunteers. In 1865 he pursued Lee to Appomattox and accepted the Confederates' flag of truce.
In the history of the U.S. Army, few officers have aroused such passions. After the Civil War, briefly reduced to his permanent rank of captain, he began a legendary career as an Indian fighter. In 1867 he was court-martialed for disobeying orders, found guilty and suspended from the Army for 10 months. Later he got in trouble with President Grant over charges brought by Custer of corruption in the Indian Bureau.
Writing in the Encyclopedia of American Biography, Richard A. Bartlett describes Custer as ''the epitome of the military personality that looks upon war as a game.'' He possessed ''raw humor, power to make quick decisions, lust for battle, impetuosity, a massive ego, romanticism, driving ambition and determination.''
More to the immediate point: In the spring of 1876, as a lieutenant colonel of cavalry, Custer received orders to herd various tribes of hostile Sioux and Cheyennes back to their reservations. Gold fever was in the Western air. Settlers and prospectors wanted the Indians cleared out.
The big-sky country of Montana was then Indian country. The Indians had been terribly victimized by graft and corruption. They had heard the forked tongues of white men who breached the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Through the brutal winter of 1875-76 they faced starvation. They loved their land and their heritage.
Custer did his duty, but he did it his way. He took his regiment of 700 men into what is now Montana, divided them into five companies and reconnoitered an Indian settlement on the south bank of the Little Bighorn River. His intelligence served him poorly. Instead of finding a few hundred warriors, Custer found an estimated 2,500 to 3,000, armed not only with bows and arrows but with repeating rifles also. Other thousands of Indians led by Chief Sitting Bull and Chief Crazy Horse were in the area.
Every schoolboy knows the rest of the story. On the morning of June 25, Custer deployed one body of men under Maj. Marcus Reno and another under command of Capt. Frederick Benteen. Then Custer attacked, only to be overwhelmed. In barely an hour of fighting, Indians massacred Custer and his entire command. Reno panicked. Benteen dallied. It was the last major engagement of the Indian wars.
In 1879 Congress designated the site as a national cemetery. In 1881 a monument was erected on Last Stand Hill to honor the troops who died there. Eventually the cemetery was redesignated as the ''Custer Battlefield National Monument.'' Every other battlefield site within the park system is named for the scene of the fighting. Only the Custer National Monument is named for an officer. Indians have resented the snub for many years.
Under the bill now pending in the Senate, the monument would be named anew as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. An advisory committee would conduct a design competition for a memorial to the Indians who ''gave their lives defending their families and their traditional lifestyle.''
The bill passed in the House on June 25, over a vigorous protest from Rep. John Dingell of Michigan. His Monroe County constituents want the name unchanged. Montana's two senators, Max Baucus and Conrad Burns, support the bill, but there are indications that opposition will develop. A similar bill went back and forth last year between House and Senate, and died in the rush to adjournment.
I say, let's hear it for the Indians. Custer was only doing his duty. Absolve him. But no contemporary bills, resolutions or memorials ever can rewrite the shameful history of our treatment of the Indian people. The bill is a small gesture of atonement. God knows we have much to atone for.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.