Custer rides again -- and again

Two new books place the "General" in memory and myth


Milo Miles
September 9, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

Four events in American history float outside of time, especially immune to factual accounting: two presidential assassinations, those of Lincoln and JFK, and two war calamities, Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Little Bighorn -- often called the Custer Massacre. Every citizen has highly personalized opinions about at least one of these events, and the impossibility of resolving them is the engine of their survival. For about a decade or so, the Custer Myth has been undergoing one of its periodic swings. Curlylocks is back, and he's proud again.

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, invariably called "General," bounded onto the public stage, never to leave, on July 6, 1876, when it became international news that on June 25, he and more than 200 of his men had been wiped out by hostile Indians. With no white survivors to contradict it, the legend of Custer's Last Stand took hold, and he became the final cavalryman to fall, waving his saber. (There's no evidence he was the final fatality, and he hadn't carried a sword in ages.) Custer was already the most renowned Indian fighter in the West, but this was fame to die for.

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Those who are not Custer buffs can rarely name anyone else killed that day, and the singular focus on the fallen charismatic leader is sadly telling. Many folks were there and lived, after all. A surprising number of Indians, as well as whites who fought simultaneously with other commanders nearby, have left memoirs of the Little Bighorn, though the publication of a new first-person account is particularly sensational after all these years. Plus, everything about William O. Taylor's "With Custer on the Little Bighorn" suggests he was a stouthearted and clear-eyed soldier as well as a vigorous writer.

Private Taylor was not exactly with Custer on the Little Bighorn, of course, but part of the battalion Custer sent off to attack the huge encampment of Cheyenne and Sioux from a different direction. Taylor's commander was Major Marcus Reno, a besotted window-peeper who inspired little confidence from his men or Custer. Taylor's narrative shows a genteel, 19th-century restraint that takes some getting used to. He conveys his disgust with Reno simply by noting that he did see the Major drink some amber fluid from a bottle right before the initial charge, and well, it certainly wasn't water, anyway.

Writing about 40 years after the incident, Taylor does some simple scene-setting and gives a brief background on the accelerating Indian Wars. What counts here, though, is that his narrative of the battle itself crackles. He sees the confusion and terror of the day not through an ideological lens but through memory. He vividly conveys the confused moment of Reno's most reviled decision -- to have the badly outnumbered soldiers stop charging and fight on foot, which required a fourth of them to hold the horses. The situation decayed into a desperate rout that ended with Reno's forces pinned down at the top of a high bluff. The Indians could then concentrate on nearby Custer and hit him with eight-to-one odds.

Captain Frederick Benteen, who had been sent to wander around looking for Indians by Custer, soon joined Reno's command but made no move to find out what had happened to the General. Because Benteen was a sullen sort who actively despised Custer, his motives in staying put have been questioned, and Taylor confirms that many men wondered why no search took place. There is a strong chance, however, that Custer's battalion was annihilated already.

The Little Bighorn burned in Taylor's memory, and those who want to go beyond the basic Custer texts should get to his story. He includes many examples of light verse -- and has composed some -- written about Custer and the Indian Wars, much as one today might include rock lyrics from the Vietnam era. And I don't know any contemporary who has summed up the mutually uncomprehending encounters on the plains any better than this: "a howling mass of red warriors, naked to the waist, who, maddened and desperate by the terrified cries of the wives and children whose lives were put in jeopardy for the third time within a few weeks, rushed from their camps and, caring nothing for their own lives, were determined to save their families, or die. They seemed to us, in all their hideousness of paint and feathers, and wild fierce cries, like fiends incarnate, but were they?"

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Even when Indians are not present in Taylor's tale, they loom in the background. "With Custer on the Little Bighorn" also includes a single, comely picture of Custer's beloved wife, Libbie. The proportions of Indians and Libbie are almost reversed in Michael Blake's novel, "Marching to Valhalla," which consists of a journal Custer supposedly writes at night in his tent for about five weeks before his final clash. Because Blake is currently the supernova Western fictionalizer who wrote "Dances with Wolves" (the new book is to be filmed with Brad Pitt as Custer), he will command a vast readership. And Custer will automatically be out of the doghouse.

Or rather, the madhouse. The nadir of Custer's rep came in 1970 with the film "Little Big Man," in which director Arthur Penn made the wayward commander into a repulsively racist psychopath, a portrait as skewed as the idealizations of previous decades. Dee Brown's 1971 book "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" put the final bitter nail in the Custer coffin -- for a while.

Few deny that General Custer was a braggart who craved adulation and drove his men mercilessly even as he attacked his foes impulsively. That he had an army's worth of style and a charmed success rate is also not in doubt. Much beyond that, however, rests on how one feels about a particular war of conquest, and military heroes overall. Custer's embodiment of the American fighter who does what he wants under his own code of honor can still dazzle through any debunking. His stock started up with Evan S. Connell's "Son of the Morning Star" in 1984, and "Marching to Valhalla" makes him blue-chip history once more.

Custer supporters believe in heroes and argue that he fits their definition. Blake does an astounding job capturing the rolling cadence and breathless tone of Custer's prose, despite a few glaring anachronisms like "the schizophrenic nature of government policy." It's Custer's voice all right, but his soul's been smoothed and sanitized. In this narrative, if Custer graduates last in his class at West Point, well, he finished, didn't he? If an Indian woman is killed at the controversial battle of Washita, she has to disembowel a white boy captive first. If Custer's syphilis flares up, it only happens after he commits adultery with a Cheyenne beauty. If he slaughters his horse in a humiliating screw-up while hunting buffalo, the details are deleted. If Custer had racist thoughts about Indians (and he did -- less than many, more than a few), he rarely shows them here.

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And invariably he's too noble, even in moments of excess. George Custer was brash, fearless, a born warrior and a dynamo -- kinda scary, even -- but never blandly noble. Here, he's too similar to those virtuous pagans in "Dances with Wolves." The Civil War triumphs are delivered with the unfettered joy Custer took in them. The narrative wiggles with life when Custer relishes moments with Libbie in their storybook romance: Blake knows that restrained language is no enemy of lust. And as the story falls into a staccato pace as the fateful day nears, the uneven career of the boyish, blonde general achieves a shiver of tragedy. But the book is just modern Edgar Rice Burroughs for adults: Tarzan at the Little Bighorn.

The immortal battle can never get all the way back up on its pedestal, anyway. In the memory of the Cheyenne and Sioux, the victory over Custer lingers less than the anguish of Wounded Knee, the grim ends of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

Those four big American events that stand outside of time are all losses -- painful voids that cry for sacred answers to fill them. In the Chinese yin-yang symbol, the dark swirl always contains a speck of white, the white a speck of dark. In the overwhelmingly one-sided defeat of the Plains Indians, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is a most intense spot of the opposite shade. In the course of things, it had to happen, and there was no one more ready for it to happen to than General Custer.

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Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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