The aftermath of Custer's last stand

March 05, 2000|By Edwin O. Guthman | Edwin O. Guthman,Special to the Sun

"American By Blood," by Andrew Huebner. Simon and Schuster. 245 pages. $23.

The sun is already turning hot on the morning of July 26, 1876, when three U.S. Army scouts come in view of a hill overlooking the Little Big Horn River in Dakota Territory and discover the sickening, bloody remains of Lt. Col. George Custer, his 7th Cavalry troopers and their horses as wild dogs feed on the bodies and black crows hover overhead.

With that grim scene Andrew Huebner begins his first novel. It unfolds with a moving, detailed, descriptive account of the Army's reaction to Custer's defeat, its pursuit of the Sioux, led by their now legendary chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and the Army's vengeful attacks as well on other tribes -- the Cheyennes and the Nez Perce.

Woven throughout is realistic reporting of the reaction of the veterans and soldiers going into combat for the first time -- their courage, fear and despair as, enduring cold and hunger, they kill and are wounded or killed.

The book pivots around what happens to the three scouts -- Lt. James Bradley and Pvts. August Huebner and William Gentle -- but there's a problem. Andrew Huebner has written a captivating, fictictious account of a famous Western saga and then closes with the following author's note:

"All of the characters in this book were real people. Some will be recognized as historical figures and others are lost to time. All of the battles are real, as is the time scheme: June 1876 to September 1877. August Heubner was my great-great-grandfather. Family myth says that he went to fight with Custer but arrived a day late. This is the story that called to me. James Bradley is known as the first soldier to discover the Custer massacre, William Gentle as the killer of Crazy Horse."

Without that note, the novel is gripping and believable, but the note raises questions. Andrew Heubner should know what happened to his great-great grandfather. Is the account in the book history or fiction?

Did Gentle bayonet Crazy Horse after Oglala Sioux tribesmen freed their chief from chained captivity at the guardhouse at Fort Robinson, Nebraska Territory, as August Heubner wrote? Or was it during a struggle as Crazy Horse returned to Fort Robinson voluntarily, as Dr. Charles Eastman, whose Indian name was Ohiyesa, wrote in "Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains," a book published in 1918.

That aside, as the soldiers pursue the Indians through parts of the Dakotas and Montana, "American By Blood" brightens its graphic accounts of the running battles with expectionally detailed descriptions of the flowers, sagebrush and trees covering the hills, valleys and canyons. Sitting Bull escapes into Canada. In July 1877, with food scarce, Crazy Horse is prevailed to bring his people to Fort Robinson. Only one of the three scouts survives.

Andrew Huebner, an adjunct professor of English at City University of New York, has achieved a high writing standard with his first novel, leaving expectation that more will be forthcoming.

Edwin O. Guthman, a professor at the University of Southern California school of journalism, was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1977 to 1987, and before that served on the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Star. He was press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy when R.F.K. was U.S. attorney general and when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. He has edited and written several books, including "We Band of Brothers" in 1971. He was a U.S. Army officer who was in heavy combat in Africa and Italy in World War II.

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