All history is contemporary. One of the most famous moments in American history, Custer’s Last Stand, provides compelling evidence for this idea. From the moment the battle ended at the Little Big Horn, historians and poets began to retell the story for their own purposes. It is fascinating to see how the images of Custer and his Last Stand have radically changed in the last century, not because of any new historical information, but because of the contradictory needs of our national psyche (Barnett 410). At first, Custer’s Last Stand represented the struggle of Western civilization over savagery. After the Depression, writers portrayed Custer as a rampant egomaniac. During World War II, the Last Stand was an example of courage and self-sacrifice. Since the 1960’s the Last Stand has been seen as just retribution for America’s crimes against Native Americans. Today, advertisers use Custer as an example of the quintessentially unprepared fool. In this rush to shape Custer and the Last Stand into a symbol, these historians, poets, and filmmakers have often lost the real historic character and moment.
At the beginning of July 1876, the United States of America was preparing to celebrate its centenary. Americans were congratulating each other on the extraordinary material and intellectual progress of the last hundred years. Two of the nation’s most famous generals, William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan, were attending the great exposition in Philadelphia celebrating 100 years of national progress (Hutton 329). As other Americans, they were marveling at the mechanical wonders on display at the exposition. When the first dispatches arrived reporting the annihilation of Custer and his command, both generals thought them absurd rumors. After all, the Indian wars were over; it had been two hundred years since King Philips war, and a little over a hundred years since Pontiac’s rebellion. Americans had tamed the continent. They had bridged its geographical immensity with the trans-continental railroad in 1869. It seemed incredible that George Armstrong Custer, one of the most brilliant cavalry commanders of the Civil War, could be wiped out with much of his command by a group of primitive tribesmen on the eve of the nation’s great centennial celebration.
But this catastrophe had indeed transpired, and now Americans had to make sense out of it. Initially there was some criticism of Custer from Republican papers and President Grant. Grant stated, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary” (Hatch 84). But Americans felt that Grant was just demonstrating presidential pique, because Custer had testified in the Belknap scandal implicating the president’s brother and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At this moment in their history, Americans saw themselves as heroic tamers of a wild continent, and Custer and the frontier army were civilization’s advance guard (Hutton 4). Within days of the news, newspapers were publishing articles and poetry glorifying Custer and his men. One example is the poem by William Ludlow, “Custer’s Last Charge” (1876).
His name with age
On history’s page
Shall shine with greater glory
And bards shall tell
How Custer fell
And sing his thrilling story (qtd. in Dippie 12)
It seemed that all of America’s poets, great and not so great, had picked up their pens and joined the celebration. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and even Oakland’s famous poet Joaquin Miller in “Custer’s Last Stand.”
O Custer and thine comrades, where
Have ye pitched tent in fields of air?
Above the Rocky Mountains’ brow –
In everlasting glory now,
Ye shine like some high shaft of light,
Ye march above the bounds of night,
And some strong singer yet shall rise
And lift your glory to the skies
In some grand song of wild delight (qtd. in Dippie 19).
But the two individuals who carved Custer’s image into the national psyche for the next fifty years were a dime novelist, Frederick Whittaker, and Custer’s petite, dedicated widow, Libbie. Whittaker, working from mostly erroneous news reports and his own overheated imagination, rushed a thick, turgid tome into print within six months of The Little Big Horn (Barnett 365). He invented one fanciful incident after another. Since there were no survivors, we know nothing of what happened in Custer’s command after he divided his forces. Whittaker, however, presents detailed dramas of what happened to Custer in the final moments. One example is when Curly, the faithful Crow scout, approaches Custer during a lull in the fighting and offers “Yellow Hair” a chance to escape (Rosenberg 19).
In that moment, Custer looked at Curly, waved him away and rode back to the little group of men, to die with them. How many thoughts must have crossed that noble soul in that brief moment. There was no hope of victory if he stayed, nothing but certain death. With the scout he was nearly certain to escape. His horse was a thoroughbred and his way sure. He might have balanced the value of a leader’s life against those of his men, and sought safety. Why did he go back to certain death?
Because he felt that such a death as that which that little band of heroes was about to die, was worth the lives of all the general officers in the world (qtd. in Rosenberg 19).
Whittaker’s quickie book became the basis for dozens of other histories, novels and penny dreadfuls in the next decades (Utley 7). These books along with the books of Libbie Custer would create the image of the heroic Custer for the next half century.
Libbie Custer became a widow at age thirty-four when Custer died at the Little Big Horn. She had married him when she was young and accepted without complaint her role as a soldier’s wife, following him wherever his duty called. She endured hardship, terror, and deprivation on the frontier. Even though she had never published anything previously, Libbie now became an eloquent and prolific writer and lecturer. Her theme was always the valor and perfection of her martyred husband, and the image she created of him was romantic and inspiring (Barnett 363-372)
Horse and man seemed one when the General
vaulted into the saddle. His body was so lightly poised
and so full of swinging, undulating motion, it almost
seemed that the wind moved him as it blew over the plain.
yet every nerve was alert and like finely tempered steel,
for the muscles and sinews that seemed so pliable were
equal to the curbing of the most fiery animal (Custer 145).
Inspired by the ever-present memory of her heroic husband, Libbie Custer continued to burnish his image until she died in 1933.
In the year after her death, 1934, a writer of detective novels, Frederic F. Van de Water, began the process of dismantling the image of Custer as the gallant cavalier. The First World War and the Depression had created a “school of fashionably cynical debunkers”(Utley 10) that Van de Water belonged to. In Van de Water’s book, Glory Hunter , Custer is “tyrannical, brutal, detestable, vain, ambitious, selfish, arrogant, reckless, and incompetent” (Utley 10), driven by only one passion, the relentless pursuit of glory. Like Whittaker before him, Van de Water takes us into the mind of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. But Custer’s thoughts are very different: no longer of selfish courage but now thoughts of suicidal rashness.
Duty, when weighed against Glory, was—
had always been—a little thing. If Custer could
reach the enemy before Terry arrived, he could
win a mighty victory. He never questioned his
own and his regiment’s ability to whip all the
Indians in creation.
When he had triumphed, Mark Kellogg,
the newspaperman, would magnify his achievement.
The hero in shining new journalistic armor would
then be immune to the wrath of Grant. Custer
needed Glory too much to share her favor with Terry
and Gibbon. He was a hard-pressed egotist and a
gambler. He planned to whip the Sioux alone . . .
Doubtless, the Glory-Hunter recognized the
risk of his chosen course. . . He played a long shot to win,
with the unscrupulous rashness of his cavalry assaults
(Van de Water 364-365).
Van de Water’s image-shattering novel heavily influenced writers and filmmakers for the next 50 years. (Van de Water 13). Yet the image of the gallant hero on a horse would have one more glorious moment in history.
When Warner Bros., in 1941, decided to produce a big budget film of the Custer story, the original script was strongly influenced by the Van de Water biography. Producer Hal Wallis, however, demanded a rewrite to better fit the star, Errol Flynn, and the tenor of the times (Hutton 499-500). “In preparing this scenario,” the new screenwriter, Aeneas Mackenzie, assured producer Hal Wallis, “all possible consideration was given the construction of a story which would have the best effect upon public morale in these present days of national crisis” (Hutton 500). With the country on the brink of war, military heroes were back in style. The desired themes were now duty, love of country, courage and self-sacrificing heroism.
They Died With Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, is terrific entertainment. A romanticized biography, it attempts to illustrate Custer’s adult life from cadet days to an heroic death. Flynn was the perfect choice to play Custer. He was able to catch the boyish recklessness, panache, and charisma that the real Custer obviously had (Dippie 106). Surprisingly, the film treats Indians very sympathetically. They are no longer blood-thirsty savages standing in the way of civilization, but rather a brave and noble people who are terribly wronged. The real villains of this film are greedy businessmen (typical of Depression era films) and corrupt politicians (Hutton 410).
However entertaining this film is, it is filled with historical errors, both major and minor. Custer was not a defender of Indian rights as he is portrayed in the film; nor did he sacrifice his troops at the Little Big Horn to save General Terry’s column; nor was he the enemy of the railroad tycoons, but actually protected the extension of the railroads through the Black Hills. The most absurd fantasy of the film is the idea that the Black Hills were returned to the Sioux because of Custer’s sacrifice at the Little Big Horn (Hutton 502).
In the climax of They Died With Their Boots On, Errol Flynn stands with one hand on the regimental flag and the other holding his saber (one of the many minor historical errors since none of the troops carried sabers). Defiant and undaunted tin the midst of a field littered with “dead” extras, he is ready to sacrifice his life in the service of his country (Dippie 97). This would be the last heroic Custer that Americans would ever see.
After the war, the anti-heroic Custer became the norm in both novels and movies. This was a new period of Cold War ambiguity and ambivalence. Spotless heroes were no longer in vogue. The zeitgeist had changed dramatically. Many Americans were now concerned over the wrongs done to minorities, including Indians. Custer became an easy symbol of America’s crimes against Native Americans. He was now not only a rash and foolhardy commander but also an insane butcher, and this image reached its pinnacle in the 1970 film Little Big Man. This Custer is arrogant, vicious, and finally, crazy. His idea of a good time is to ride through an Indian village massacring helpless women and children. The Indians are the perfect victims. They simply run around in circles and never think of shooting back (Utley 11). In Little Big Man Custer has become a cartoon.
The ultimate step in the heroic Custer’s diminishment is to make him a joke (Barnett 346). In 1994 the Lotus Development Corporation took out an add in the New York Times Magazine with an image of Custer at the Little Big Horn. The warning below the picture read, “The competition is organizing around you. Does your E-mail system give you all the ammunition you need?”(Barnett 347).
On its journey through history, Custer’s image has gone from noble hero to reckless egotist and back to noble hero, then to vicious butcher, and, finally, to incompetent fool. These changing images were not fueled by new historical discoveries but by society’s needs. The real Custer was neither villain nor fool. He also was not a superhuman hero. But he was a larger than life figure in American history, and stands ready to take on as many new images as a changing society demands.
( text written by Peter Odegard, AP U.S. History )