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?
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.