Sometime in the afternoon of June 25, 1876 – 134 years ago today – George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 troopers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under his direct command died on the hills and in the ravines along the east side of the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand, Sitting Bull’s Triumph, whatever it has been called, never seems to be as distant or as “historical” as other even more important moments in American history. A fabulous new book about the battle The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick goes a long way to explain why the lopsided encounter on that hot June afternoon never seems to be ready to move to the back shelves of our history.
Philbrick does a commendable job of telling a balanced story. He doesn’t detest Custer, although there is much to detest, and he doesn’t glorify the mostly Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – particularly Sitting Bull – who messed up the obsessively ambitious Custer’s opportunity, potentially, to win a great victory and position himself for a political career.
It’s fun to speculate about Custer the candidate. He was a shameless self promoter, a passably good writer, articulate – although he spoke very fast and this reportedly made him difficult to understand – and, even though his famous golden hair was thinning by the time he rode into the valley of the Little Bighorn, he was a good looking fellow.
He was also a partisan Democrat when Democrats need an attractive candidate for the White House. Who knows? He could have been a contender. Custer could also be a bully, a prude and, as it suited him, an extraordinarily attentive friend and husband. In other words, he was, well, complicated.
As Salon noted in a review of Philbrick’s extremely well written and researched book: “Today, Custer has long since become an embarrassment to educated white Americans. But the effort we’ve put into debunking him amounts to admitting we’re stuck with him. From the Goldilocks hairdo he’d actually rid himself of before Little Bighorn to the final, almost certainly inaccurate, tableau of The Last White Man Standing as the ‘hostiles’ close in, he’s the horse’s ass we rode in on.”
Even with Philbrick’s fresh retelling, we will never have the final word on the battle. The confusion of the battle – it played out over some distance in difficult terrain – and the selective or flawed memory of those who survived – and none directly with Custer did survive – combine to leave many details impossible to pin down. What really happened will forever remain a mystery.
America, even in 1876, loved a flamboyant character. Custer was all that. He rode into Civil War battles wearing his own specially designed black velvet uniform. He once organized his entire regiment into companies defined by the color of the horses – a black horse company, a grey horse company, etc. He skillfully courted the press. One of the men who died with him in Montana was a newspaperman along to report on his exploits. Custer was a personality. Cable TV would have loved him.
Philbrick makes a compelling case that Custer, had his customary luck held that long ago day, just might have prevailed. He had used similar tactics before to raid Indian villages and had his subordinates – Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen – not hated Custer so much, and been better soldiers, they just might have pulled off the attack they launched against the massive native village. Sitting Bull shared that belief early on that hot afternoon, saying that he thought his warriors might well be routed.
Finally, the Custer of Hollywood and heroic paintingts has survived and thrived because his very best publicist was his handsome wife, Elizabeth or Libby. She lived a long life, dying in 1933 at age 91 and, playing the role of “professional widow,” she pulled out all the stops to burnish he departed husband’s reputation and keep his memory alive. A profile in American Heritage noted that her last letter to Custer ended this way: “My thoughts, my dreams, my prayers, are all for you. God bless and keep my darling. Ever your own Libbie.”
As the Wall Street Journal has noted in its review of Philbrick’s book, the author is generally even-handed and displays, I think, just the right amount of disdain for Custer. Philbrick also continues the historical advance of the Custer story from “tragedy” to “cautionary tale.”
By the summer of 1876, the United States was in transition from a post-Civil War focus – Reconstruction would officially end with the election of 1876 – to a nation with imperial designs. The prevailing political and military sentiment was to contain the “hostiles” on confined reservations in order to advance the nation’s economic development and population expansion.
The Little Bighorn was but a momentary pause in that march for, as the Austin-American Statesman notes: “After the battle, Sitting Bull’s huge village quickly scattered, and virtually every band surrendered to federal authorities within a few months. Reservation life brought only despair and deprivation. ‘This victory, great as it was,’ Philbrick writes of the battle, ‘had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible defeat.'”
For a long time, I thought it strange that we named the battle after the guy who had lost. Why not the Great Sioux and Cheyenne Battle? Or, Sitting Bull’s Battle? Former Montana Congressman Pat Williams answered the question when he told me a while back that during his 18 years in Congress, he caught as much flak for sponsoring the legislation to change the name of the battlefield – from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield – as anything he ever did.
Custer died 134 years ago today, but then again he never really died.