Pehin Hanska ktepi
Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer
Michael A. Elliott
Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn
Evan S. Connell
Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer
Michael Elliott gives his new book Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer a title that is also a term: Custer has become the focal point of an entire branch of inquiry into the American past at its centennial point. The man himself has become a short-term for any number of simplifications – the dashing commander, the gallant soldier, the intrepid Indian-fighter, and, of course, the hero of the Last Stand. Custer the very fallible human being sits now at the center of an ever-growing legend.
He would have liked his legend.
He wouldn’t have liked the ultimate cause of it, the half-hour’s dying in agony under the searing badlands sunlight, body pierced a dozen times over, screams circling clockwise and counter-clockwise in the dust, suffering ending only in defeat, in massacre. But he’d have liked the very strange phenomenon that began almost immediately after.
You’d think most young men would disavow such an actual fate, want anything other than such a physical end. But the only thing Custer would have thought about was the immortality. Most men in the end don’t have the depravity to be willing to sacrifice so much for immortality, to suffer so much, even if briefly – they’ll take the tranquility of their own brief stretch, and they won’t ask for more.
George Armstrong Custer asked for more. This was not always so: growing up in semi-rural Michigan, George Custer was just another member of a large and loving combined family (his father remarried – although Custer would always maintain that he had trouble remembering which child came from which union). History will never know the precise turning-point, and legend being what it is, the speculations will always be outsized.
He was a provincial schoolteacher for a time – can the folklore of the American psyche bear even for a moment the picture of General George Armstrong Custer hunkered over a desk late at night, grading composition booklets by guttering candlelight? No, of course it cannot, and it’s surely no romantic stretch of the 21st century imagination to wonder if Custer didn’t feel exactly the same way while he was doing it. Some men and women feel the contours of their destiny inside them, feel it like a solid mass in their abdomen – they may lack the precise diagnostic tools to discern what it is, but they know it’s there, and they chafe when it’s being thwarted.
Or he may have been bored, just simply bored. In any event, he managed the near-impossible and got himself accepted to West Point.
From West Point, to war: he took part in the first battle of Bull Run, and always afterward, for the entire course of the American Civil War, if you were to hear gunfire coming from the Army of the Potomac, chances are George Armstrong Custer wouldn’t be far away. He sought war as other men seek sweet release, and from almost the first moment of his professional career, the amazements commence: fording streams alone, exposed to enemy fire; racing behind enemy lines to retrieve a mortally-wounded comrade; conducting audacious cavalry-charges against long odds. The weird rococo gallantry of the Civil War – the last flicker of that flame before it fled the world forever – suited this backwoods romantic perfectly, and everywhere in the records of the war you get the sense he knew it and took full advantage of it. Always the action finds him at the front of his men, splendidly mounted, charging headstrong forward. In later life he was an avid collector of swords, and in that one can perhaps sense a yearning for a simpler age of combat, when valor – and not long-distance calculations – routinely decided the day. If so, it’s another way in which his end would please him, regardless of outcome. He died fighting, as he must surely have always dreamt of doing.
His gallantry – it was a simple age, and the word could still be used non-ironically – brought him to the attention of his superiors. It was Winfield Scott who sent him charging into battle in the first place, carrying messages for General McDowell. McDowell was impressed, as was General George McClellan who noted Custer’s dash and cool competence under fire and promoted him to staff with the rank of captain. The Peninsular Campaign of 1862 may not have been McClellan’s greatest moment of glory, but it afforded young George Custer many chances to court death and then offer analysis of his efforts to his superiors.
One such superior was diminutive Union general Phil Sheridan, perpetrator of the holocaust of the Shenandoah Valley, who thought he saw in Custer’s dash something he could shape. It was he who promoted the 23-year-old to the rank of brigadier general and placed him in command of the Michigan Wolverines. The ‘Boy General’ was an unknown quantity to most of his men when he took command, but one thing became obvious early on: their dangers were his dangers; he wouldn’t stand behind rank. Time and again, in one reckless suicidal charge after the next, he was way out in front, calling on his men to follow.
They all did, and a pitiless proportion of them died. Custer himself was nicked by shrapnel once but never seriously hurt in the whole course of the war, despite having several horses shot out from under him. He had golden curly hair down to his shoulders, and he dressed like something out of a Cavalier painting, and he led from the front without getting killed or disabled. Is it any wonder a fable like the ‘Custer Luck’ started, given such circumstances?
Perhaps it’s no great wonder that Custer might have started to believe in this luck himself. Daring raids, individual sorties and river-crossings, and hardly so much as a scratch while so many under his command were shot dead? Young men far more intellectual (his West Point roommate, like everybody else, wrote a book about him and revealed that he wasn’t exactly a deep thinker) might irrationally conclude that some special providence was watching over them. Belief that a special providence is watching over you is endemic to particularly valorous young men, and from the beginning of time, they have paid dearly for it, but that would not have mattered to Custer. Show any such young men the career of Alexander the Great and they will risk sharing his end.
It was Custer who accepted Robert E. Lee’s flag of surrender at Appomattox Court House. It was Custer who bore away, as a keepsake, the very table on which the articles of surrender were signed. This was plummy stuff, and it doesn’t take an especially acute imagination to guess how the ‘Boy General’ would have reacted to having his wartime salary of $8,000 a year reduced to a peacetime captain’s mere $2,000. War had afforded George Custer a dark and uncanny outlet for his particular appetite for calamitous abandon. Despite all the men who died choking on dust in a thousand named battles, the American Civil War provided – for its officered class, anyway – something of a fantasyland conflict, a fight in which old friends and roommates from West Point could find themselves on opposing sides and send each other joshing notes about that fact.
Difficult for anyone to leave that world and enter the more sordid world of $2,000 a year, that much harder for someone like Custer, who had seen so much reckless action in the war’s front lines.
He cast around for some sort of civilian work, but even in historical hindsight it seems half-hearted; for all his flamboyant uniforms and maverick ways, Custer was pure Army – no other job (except perhaps the Presidency) could have satisfied him.
In any case, it was the Army that came through for him. Specifically Phil Sheridan, a little older, a little grayer, who’d been commissioned by an older and grayer General Sherman to help the Army deal with a new problem, something far uglier than a straight-up internecine civil war (even when such a war was fought under the shadow of slavery). The U.S. Army, under pressure from the financial and propertied interests of the Federal government, was now to deal with the Indian problem.
The American continent encountered by the various European powers had everything to recommend it: gentle harbors, unlimited natural resources, soil more fertile than anywhere on Earth, and prey animals of a staggering variety seen nowhere outside of the Serengeti. There were two drawbacks to the eager grabbing of this bounty.
The first was the weather – searing heat, soaking humidity, freezing cold, and fetid swampland, in addition to a host of more biblical phenomena: blizzards, rain, and lightning-storms that last for days, earthquakes, and hurricanes that made landfall with devastating regularity. Compared with south central England, it might as well have been equatorial Jupiter.
Colonizers ignored the weather – what other choice did they have? For every Louisiana bayou and hurricane-alley, there’s an equal lot of beautiful Kentucky farmland; for every forbidding, bear-haunted Maine, there’s an equal lot of patient New Hampshire cranberry bogs. But the second obstacle to possessing the vast lands of the North American continent was far more intractable: the lands already had occupants. Native American tribes from one end of the country to the other first welcomed then suspected then desperately resisted the incoming tide of white settlers, and the completion of the Civil War (to say nothing of the nearing completion of the Pacific Railroad) freed that tide to become a tsunami. The Native Americans of the Great Plains, most of whom lived in nomadic societies entirely dependant on the great migratory herds of buffalo, made treaty after treaty with the encroaching whites, most often seeking some sort of peaceful coexistence. None of these treaties was honored by the whites who wrote and signed them. The land was wanted for white settlement and exploitation; Native Americans and buffalo alike interfered with that. The so-called Indian Wars of the 1870s were in reality the largest and most protracted land-grab in the history of the world, and generals like Sherman and Sheridan were its instruments.
And Custer, as historical irony would have it. He had no experience in Plains combat when he was sent there; he had precious little experience at any kind of combat other than the headlong charge, and yet through General Sheridan he acquired the field command of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, an outfit he drove as relentlessly as he had his men during the war. Custer had a phenomenal amount of physical energy, and he could endure without difficulty hardships and long marches that exhausted the men under his command, not many of whom, consequently, liked him. Some awareness of this might have seeped through to him; perhaps that explains the presence of his brother-in-law and two of his brothers on his staff. Winning the affection of peers not related to him seems not to have been one of his talents – the captains under his command in that final 1876 campaign against Sitting Bull and the Sioux disliked him to a man, at a time and in an environment where such dislike could easily lead to disaster.
I questioned 120 well-educated people, and every single one of them was familiar with this particular disaster, although their accounts of its specifics varied wildly. And none of them knew anything at all about the man at the center of that disaster – a state they in all likelihood shared with the rank and file marching with Custer under the hot Montana sun. Who was this man who would etch his death into the American psyche so thoroughly that everyone knows the phrase ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ even if they know nothing, not even one little detail, about America in the 1870s?
In any case, he was what one might expect, given the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Boone, or Andrew Jackson: American mongrel, without pedigree or ready cash.
God only knows how he secured his appointment to West Point, but he did nothing at all to honor that institution once he got there. From the first moment, the demerits flowed as freely as water. For slovenly dress, for slovenly habit, for drunkenness and slovenly attitude. The nadir of this ill-omened tenure was a fistfight between two cadets while he was supposed to be supervising them. When others swarmed to break up the fight, Custer intervened, perhaps his personal sense of honor outraged, and abjured everybody to wait, to let the two settle it, to let them ‘fight it out.’ In any given six-month term at the Point, 100 demerits was cause for blanket expulsion; cadet Custer racked up close to 140 his first term and was saved only because some anonymous benefactor changed the total on the official record books, in favor of a (marginally) more acceptable number. Even so, in the Class of 1861 he graduated dead last – 34th out of 34. If General Scott hadn’t taken mysterious heed of him, if he hadn’t sent the young tyro to General McDonnell on the eve of a crucial battle – if, in other words, George Custer hadn’t been dropped abruptly into the cauldron of the American Civil War – it’s unlikely subsequent history would have heard his name. As it was, the myth of the ‘Custer Luck’ only grew.
The why comes forward here with profound singularity, and the list of possible answers is dispiritingly short. In fact, maybe Evan S. Connell (in his Custer book Son of the Morning Star) hits on the right one by thinking the most simply: Custer had never known defeat, perhaps couldn’t see it even when it was only one hilltop away.
He advanced, despite the vast sea of opposition that lay before him, and the immortal day unfolded.
He sent Major Reno forward, and he himself led five companies south into the valley. Before he moved into the valley of the Little Bighorn, he had refused both Gatling guns and four companies of additional soldiers, for fear both would slow his advance. Military historians have argued such points ever since that day, and they will continue to do so as long as military matters are debated. But such inquiries are born as much of hope as reason; the guns, the extra men, would have made no difference at all in changing the shape of that day. Custer faced upwards of 5,000 absolutely fearless and well-armed warriors, warriors who’d just recently faced down Federal troops better equipped and certainly better mounted than his own. He had no chance.
Custer had ordered Major Reno to advance into the village, and Reno had seen almost immediately that doing so would be suicide. Even making a mad dash of it for safety, he and his men had to fight hard to survive. Had he followed Custer’s orders, he’d have shared Custer’s fate.
That fate wasn’t long in coming, and it’s interesting that one of the things the vast majority of my 120 intelligent people agreed on was that Custer’s Last Stand went on for days. There’s almost a yearning, it seems, for this iconographic event to be epic in scale. In reality, almost all the Indian witnesses agree that Custer and his men fought for perhaps 20 minutes, perhaps 30 – the length of time it takes a man to hastily eat his lunch.
There are unanswered and unanswerable questions about those moments, none perhaps more piercing, more weirdly personal, than whether or not Custer’s men spent the last few minutes of their lives shooting each other in the head to avoid capture, mutilation, and torture. Indian witnesses report it with agog indifference, and it seems the kind of thing they would be culturally disinclined from even thinking to invent, but we can’t be sure. Sitting Bull’s Sioux maintained that they had no intention of taking any prisoners that day, but the prospect was hideous enough for the concept to be tenable, if not heroic.
Heroic, that would be Custer himself. George Custer, last in his class, avatar of outdated élan, the kind of heroic-charge hero whose heroic charges come on carpets of dead underlings. This man stubbornly, adamantly remains a mystery. Michael A. Elliott in Custerology draws a singular picture of the man:
Custer…drew upon a model of manliness that would become increasingly marginal after his death, a model of the soldier as the courtly cavalier, the inheritor of knightly virtue.
He was shot in the side – the soldiers who found his body saw the wounds – and that’s what probably would have killed him (witnesses describe him falling to his knees and coughing up blood). He had a bullet-wound to his head as well, probably just administered to insure his death.
Again, the myth seeks to protect Custer – but nevertheless, he was mutilated: digits amputated, groin pincushioned with arrows. It seems clear that most of Sitting Bull’s men didn’t know who he was, thought he was General Crook’s men giving things a second try. In the heat of the badlands, Custer had of course dispensed with his customary flowing golden locks, and the most galling fact about that day is that the Sioux and their allies might not have had any idea who was attacking them. It was only later that the Sioux’s annual event-tally, the winter count, referred to 1876 as Pehin Hanska ktepi – the Year They Killed Long Hair. On the day itself, all was dust and confusion.
“Even now,” Evan Connell writes in his book, “after a hundred years, his name alone will start an argument. More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past, but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope.”
We cannot deny that this is so; even people with no knowledge of history can usually spit out at least one accurate detail about Custer’s Last Stand. Ask them who was president in 1876 or how many states were in the Union, and they stare blankly; but they can tell you something about this commander who lost all his men on that one day.
Elliott’s book, and the world of battle-reenactments and battlefield monuments it chronicles, traces the viral tenacity of the Custer story, documenting many of the ways in which the man and the massacre have become woven into the fabric of the nation’s imagination. The specter of Custer hovers over John Ford’s great trilogy of westerns from half a century ago, and he is invoked consistently throughout the run of David Milch’s Deadwood TV series. In 1976, Douglas C. Jones’ novel The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer became a best-seller and spawned the sub-genre of ‘alternate-history’ fiction. In the book, Custer survives the battle at Little Bighorn and stands trial for his part in it. In the gripping courtroom climax, the prosecutor says:
Custer is guilty. He is guilty in fact and in spirit! I do not ask you to be vindictive. We are not accusing him of losing a battle. We are accusing him of being inept with the use of men’s lives. There are 14 officers and 233 men lying in their graves in Montana, and the Sioux and the Cheyenne did not kill them. Custer did. I ask you, find him guilty.
Needless to say, Custer is acquitted.
History has largely acquitted him too, by freezing him forever in a boy’s fantasy-tableau of doomed, heroic bravery. That picture has been trumping the facts for a century now and looks likely to continue doing so forever. The Lakota Sioux had a saying: you cannot kill a story. In the case of George Armstrong Custer and the Little Bighorn, though they may hate it, they were right.
Custer would have liked his legend. That the rest of us must perennially grapple with it, measuring and re-assessing it in the face of military opportunism and the near-genocide of the American Indian, would not have concerned him in the least.
Steve Donoghue went to Nevada as a silver prospector in 1859, made a fast fortune from the Comstock Lode, and promptly retired to remote mansion in Big Sur. When the Internet connection works from there, he hosts the literary blog Stevereads.