Heather Cox Richardson teaches history at Boston College and writes a blog called “Letters From an American” that has become one of the most widely read newsletters in the U.S. Every day, she posts a new entry, often commenting on the latest news and always putting it in the context of her understanding of history. When she was profiled by Ben Smith in the New York Times more than a year ago, she had about 350,000 subscribers.
Smith described Richardson’s voice as “calm, at a slight distance from the moment. … She’s writing for people who want to leave an article feeling ‘smarter not dumber,’ she says, and who don’t want to learn about the events of the day through the panicked channels of cable news and Twitter, but calmly situated in the long sweep of American history and values.”
Last Saturday, badly in need of being calmly situated in the wake of Friday’s news from Washington, D.C., I turned to Richardson’s blog.
“Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876,” she wrote, “when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, who led the 7th Cavalry, lost his entire command to Lakota warriors after falling on them unexpectedly in their own territory.”
Richardson is a Civil War historian, and she deftly explains how that conflict shaped the Lakota War of the following decade, with its treaties and treacheries. Her writing style is factual, dry and clear-eyed. She betrays no partiality in summarizing the strategic thinking of the U.S. Army generals Sherman and Crook on one hand and the Lakota chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse on the other.
The unadorned, unemotional prose somehow makes the facts more affecting. The Lakota, uninterested at first in going to war against the whites, were mobilized by brutality: “Lakota nonchalance ended abruptly in November 1864, when Northern Cheyennes, their allies to the south, straggled into Lakota villages with … stories of the massacre of women and children at Colorado’s Sand Creek, where drunken soldiers first killed surrendering Cheyennes and then mutilated their bodies, taking human remains as trophies.”
The story builds to June 25, 1876, when Custer’s troops came upon the Indians’ camp. Again, women and children were killed, but this time the warriors quickly retaliated, and the famous massacre ensued.
Why does Prof. Richardson choose to tell this story the day after American women are stripped of their rights? I think it’s because she wants us to see that long sweep of history, the battles lost and won, and the price paid by the vulnerable at the mercy of men drunk with desire for domination.
She ends by quoting Sitting Bull: “I feel sorry that too many were killed on each side, but when Indians must fight, they must.”
I don’t take this as an argument for resorting to violence. But I see in it a suggestion that we can learn to use a weapon the Lakota did not have: a way to report the facts, simply and with courage, to a wide audience.