Tag Archives: Custer

Custer’s Luck

Progressives, Liberals, and American Indian activists hail this day… as a cathartic moment in North American history.  It is the day the United States received its comeuppance, and the golden boy of American expansion and jingoism was cut down and exposed for the fraud he truly was.  Despite the best efforts of historians to contextualize it, the emotional and irrational interpretations of Little Bighorn prevail.

Yet Custer endures… A generation of revisionist history, bad analogies to Vietnam, worse movies, and even accusations of genocide have only had minimal effect on our fascination with the son of the morning star.  Custeriana is as strong as ever in American remembrance.  Something about him; his Civil War heroics and meteoric rise, contrasted with his frontier exploits and catastrophic demise, Americans hold a place in our story for him.

The mystery of his final battle… is responsible for much of the enduring memory.  His wife’s Herculean efforts to memorializing the bravery of her husband also played a role.  But there is more to the Custer attraction that speaks to the history of the American mind.  We were a people struggling to settle a vast and dangerous frontier, Custer was the heroic image and protector of American ideals.  We are drawn to military service and martial pageantry, Custer struck the perfect image of dashing cavalier on horseback.  We push aside the inglorious reality of the  defeat of Custer and his men and focus our remembrance on the hours leading to it- the dashing cavalry leader at the head of his column, face hardened by the prairie winds and dust, eyes sharp as a hawk.  Much of it is attributable to the Custer mythology, but what historical figures are immune from such myth-making?

He lives on

Was Custer a villain? Does he represent the evils of American expansion?… Such histrionics sell books, inspire ambitious filmmakers, and rouse the irritable activists; but little understanding is actually achieved.  Custer was an ambitious military officer who saw the Plains Wars as an avenue to personal advancement.  But, he was also a frontiersman who sympathized with the plight of a complex foe.  He was a soldier fighting a complex war few people adequately understood, himself included.  Yet, Custer lives on.  He lives on in our memory, exactly where we can imagine him; trotting at head of the 7th Cavalry, wind whipping through his long hair,  the airs of “Garry Owen” whistling over the plains.   Remembrance is not history, but the American mind needs both.

 

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Book Review

Schultz, Duane, Custer; Lessons in Leadership, London, Palgrave

Publishing, 2010, ISBN 978-0-230-61708-7

Custerbook

 

Plenty of ink has been spilled over George Armstrong Custer in the last 30 years.  Recent archeology has provided new insight to Custer’s most famous battle, but studies of the great General’s life have reached an impasse.  Duane Schultz contributes a slender volume on Custer to the Great Generals series from Palgrave Publishing, and does his best to distinguish his work from the well worn Custer biographies.

“We built a foundation of thoughtful preparation, teamwork, and mutual understanding which has made our forces the most effective and agile in the world…We probably owe it all to Custer.”   Such insight would have provided much needed depth to Schultz’s biography, unfortunately this passage is found in General Wesley Clark’s introduction.  Clark contributes an interesting premise, Custer’s perceived recklessness provided valuable lessons to the American military.  Schultz’s biography doesn’t stray from the usual Custer fare- boy general, personally brave, heroic during war, always ambitious, chivalric soldier caught in the wrong type of struggle where he pays the  ultimate price.

In a surprising move, Schultz attempts to revive the story of Custer’s Indian love-child.  A rumor first promulgated by Custer’s enemy, Frederick Benteen, scholars discarded it long ago- most effectively in 1984 by Evan Connell’s  Son of the Morning Star.   Schultz relies upon questionable sources and unreliable claims in oral history to support a rumor that contributes little to our understanding of Custer’s character.  The revisionism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s has been effectively refuted by more disciplined studies of the last 20 years.  Custer provided New Left historians with a suitable villain to the image of the noble savage- the exploitation of an Indian woman added to his disreputable resume.  Strange that Schultz would imply that the rumor could be true when well received studies from Connell, Jeffrey Wert, and Robert Utley have all relegated it to history’s ash heap.

An analytical study of Custer’s leadership and its effects on the evolution of the American military would be a valuable contribution to Custerology.  Duane Schultz’s brief biography does not fill that need, but it does provide a fast read on one of America’s more controversial figures.

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Ranking the Movie Custers

Hollywood has attempted to tell the Custer story…in no fewer than 25 films, and dozens of portrayals in television programs.  In the eyes of the movie industry, Custer must be portrayed as either a hero or villain.  Custer’s death at Little Big Horn is such a considerable part of the American story, his true character has been lost in competing cultural and political debates about the plight of American Indians.  With little concern for accuracy, filmmakers have used these two-dimensional images of Custer to help shape cultural opinions.  Here are the best (and worst) portrayals of Custer on film:

More Mel Brooks than history….

5. Richard Mulligan, Little Big Man- 1970:  The worst portrayal of Custer in cinematic history.  The first of the big-budget revisionist westerns, Arthur Penn’s film shows all soldiers as villains and Indians as noble freedom fighters.  Mulligan’s Custer is the epitome of American wickedness; racist, homicidal, inept – the actor smirks and mugs his way through what amounts to a libelous piece of character assassination.

4. Robert Shaw, Custer of the West- 1967:  The typically reliable Shaw is badly miscast in a poorly made movie.  The lanky red-head from history appears as a pudgy blonde in faux buckskin.  The battle scenes bear almost no resemblance to historical accounts and Shaw’s Custer looks like a bad Halloween costume.

Dashing Errol in buckskin

3. Errol Flynn, They Died with Their Boots On- 1941:  Flynn is a dashing yet rowdy Custer in full heroic form.  The film is not historically accurate, but like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, many envision this film as “the way it should have been.”  The film is ridiculed today for being culturally insensitive because of the negative portrayal of Crazy Horse(Anthony Quinn) and other Indians.

2. Henry Fonda, Fort Apache- 1948:  John Ford’s film is loosely based on Custer and Little Big Horn.  Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a stern disciplinarian whose ambition becomes his downfall.  This common interpretation of Custer’s character is captured perfectly by Fonda’s dour performance.  Custer’s Last Stand is replaced with Thursday’s Charge, but the rich detail and fair depiction of the Indian wars makes this film a classic.

Heads up to Gary Cole Archives

1. Gary Cole, Son of the Morning Star- 1991:  Cole seemed an unlikely choice, but he brilliantly rises to the occasion.  He gives a performance that captures all the facets of the complex man.  Loving husband, rowdy older brother, stern commander, ambitious soldier, curious frontiersman- Cole’s Custer is all these in an epic mini-series worthy of its topic.  Like Evan Connell’s definitive book, the film gives a balanced account of Custer and his career on the frontier.

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Weekly History News Roundup

French massacre unearthed… mutilated remains discovered in circular pits near Alsace

 

King Tut’s dagger likely made from meteorite… recent tests strongly suggest extraterrestrial origins

 

Historian claims Hitler had younger brother…. records show possible sibling who died when Hitler was three years old

 

JFK’s love letter to his mistress up for auction... Mary Meyer is the likely recipient of randy letter

 

TJ Stiles wins second Pulitzer for history… “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.” offers fresh insight

 

Uneasy dig

Uneasy dig

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Sibling Rivalry

Thomas Ward Custer rode to his death… along side his brother at the battle of Little Big Horn.  The dynamic, rowdy pair had been soldiers nearly all their lives.  Tom followed in his older brother’s foot steps, enlisting in the Union army at the age of 16.  Though George achieved more fame, he thought the world of his little brother, “Do you want to know what I think of him? Tom should have been the General and I the Lieutenant.”   The elder Custer was the youngest man to achieve the rank of Major-General while young Tom was one of 19 men to win the Medal of Honor twice.  Personally capturing two Confederate battle flags under severe fire (the second attempt nearly cost his jaw)  Tom was undoubtedly a hero.  The exploits of his older brother have relegated him to obscurity.

He won all the medals

George (Autie, as Tom called him) was austere, devoted, and a teetotaler….  Tom tried to emulate his brother, but strayed to drink and hell raising when his sister-in-law Libbie was not near to regulate him.  Together, the Custer boys were notorious pranksters, and few familiar with them on the frontier were immune from their antics.  Autie Custer had molded the 7th Cavalry into a fast-moving, hard-hitting combat unit;  His brother was with him every step of the way.  Detractors labeled them the “Custer Clan”, and resented the good fortune which seemed to follow the family, “Custer’s Luck.”  That luck ran out on June 25, 1876.  George, Tom, and baby brother, Boston Custer died on the dusty hills of Southeastern Montana.

Tom Custer was an American hero… He died bravely on the field of battle fighting for his country.  His enemies mutilated his body beyond recognition that day.  His remains were only identified by a tattoo on his wrist.  Ironic that warriors described as noble by our society are excused for such behavior.  Cultural sensibilities must be respected, even in the desecration of the dead.   Should we believe this?   More to come…….

Custer Clan

 

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Bad Medicine

Myles Walter Keogh was born to be a soldier… the young Irish lad, stricken by the poverty of the Potato Famine, sought adventure and glory on the battlefield.  At the urging of the Catholic clergy young Keogh enlisted in the Papal army of Pious IX.  As a member of the Company of St. Patrick, Vatican Guards, Keogh was cited for gallantry by the Papacy three times.  When American clergymen came to Europe to recruit members of the Papal army for the Union cause, Keogh enlisted right away.

The real fighting Irishman

Fighting with distinction in the… Shenandoah valley, Keogh caught the notice of the Union high command.  George McClellan remarked, “a most gentlemanlike man, of soldierly appearance,” whose “record had been remarkable for the short time he had been in the army.”  Keogh fought with some of the Union cavalry’s hardest hitting units, including the division of General John Buford at Gettysburg and General George Stoneman on Sherman’s March to the Sea.  By the end of the war, he was one of the most distinguished young cavalry officers in Federal service.  Future Secretary of War John Schofield described Keogh, “He is one of the most gallant and efficient young cavalry officers I have ever known.”  Following the Civil War, he was promoted to Captain in the regular army and assigned to the 7th Cavalry, under the command of George Armstrong Custer.  On the Plains Keogh continued his meritorious service, but seemed to be afflicted by a melancholy streak, “Impudence and presumption carry with them great weight and a certain lack of sensitiveness is necessary to be successful. This lack of sensitiveness I unfortunately do not inherit.”  A life of military campaigning was taking a toll on the dashing Irishman.

Keogh’s marker at Little Big Horn

It is never a good sign when a soldier… prepares for a campaign by deeding his land to family, buying life insurance, and ordering his personal papers to be burned upon death.  Myles Keogh knew his fate awaited him on the campaign of 1876.  Keogh commanded half of the battalion that rode to destruction with Custer.  The troopers with Keogh battled in their own last stand on the ridges East of Custer’s position.  Keogh’s body was  surrounded by a ring of eight troopers.  He was one of two bodies not to be mutilated in the post battle atrocities.  It is said that the Papal medals he wore around his neck frightened the Indians; this soldier was considered “Bad Medicine.”

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Ranking the Movie Custers

Hollywood has attempted to tell the Custer story…in no fewer than 25 films, and dozens of portrayals in television programs.  In the eyes of the movie industry, Custer must be portrayed as either a hero or villain.  Custer’s death at Little Big Horn is such a considerable part of the American story, his true character has been lost in competing cultural and political debates about the plight of American Indians.  With little concern for accuracy, filmmakers have used these two-dimensional images of Custer to help shape cultural opinions.  Here are the best (and worst) portrayals of Custer on film:

More Mel Brooks than history….

5. Richard Mulligan, Little Big Man- 1970:  The worst portrayal of Custer in cinematic history.  The first of the big-budget revisionist westerns, Arthur Penn’s film shows all soldiers as villains and Indians as noble freedom fighters.  Mulligan’s Custer is the epitome of American wickedness; racist, homicidal, inept – the actor smirks and mugs his way through what amounts to a libelous piece of character assassination.

4. Robert Shaw, Custer of the West- 1967:  The typically reliable Shaw is badly miscast in a poorly made movie.  The lanky red-head from history appears as a pudgy blonde in faux buckskin.  The battle scenes bear almost no resemblance to historical accounts and Shaw’s Custer looks like a bad Halloween costume.

Dashing Errol in buckskin

3. Errol Flynn, They Died with Their Boots On- 1941:  Flynn is a dashing yet rowdy Custer in full heroic form.  The film is not historically accurate, but like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, many envision this film as “the way it should have been.”  The film is ridiculed today for being culturally insensitive because of the negative portrayal of Crazy Horse(Anthony Quinn) and other Indians.

2. Henry Fonda, Fort Apache- 1948:  JohnFord’s film is loosely based on Custer and Little Big Horn.  Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a stern disciplinarian whose ambition becomes his downfall.  This common interpretation of Custer’s character is captured perfectly by Fonda’s dour performance.  Custer’s Last Stand is replaced with Thursday’s Charge, but the rich detail and fair depiction of the Indian wars makes this film a classic.

Heads up to Gary Cole Archives

1. Gary Cole, Son of the Morning Star- 1991:  Cole seemed an unlikely choice, but he brilliantly rises to the occasion.  He gives a performance that captures all the facets of the complex man.  Loving husband, rowdy older brother, stern commander, ambitious soldier, curious frontiersman- Cole’s Custer is all these in an epic mini-series worthy of its topic.  Like Evan Connell’s definitive book, the film gives a balanced account of Custer and his career on the frontier.

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