Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Custer and Little Big Horn

George Armstrong Custer, 1839 - 1876
Historians and writers slow down to observe the phenomenon of Custer at Little Big Horn in much the same way that motorists tap the brakes to observe a smoking wreck on the Interstate.

George Armstrong Custer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Armstrong_Custer) was a 'body in motion' that stayed in motion until he finally came to rest at the battle of Little Big Horn in Montana (http://www.nps.gov/libi/index.htm) on June 25th, 1876.  After graduating 34th out of a class of 34 at West Point in 1861, he immediately was swept up in the conflagration of the US Civil war.   The slow moving infantry was not Custer's style; he was a horseman and a natural cavalryman.  He fought for his country as a dashing Union cavalry officer who served at the First battle of Bull Run, the battle of Gettysburg and was present at Lee's surrender at Appamatox.

His long blond hair and swagger attracted the attention of Elizabeth Bacon ("Libbie") whom he married.  In 1867, military discipline could not prevent the uxorious Custer from going AWOL to reunite with Libbie -- for which he was court-martialled on eight counts the most egregious charge being abandonment of his command.

Prior to Little Big Horn, Custer was advised to equip his unit with the latest in killing technology -- Gatling guns; he refused as their transportation might slow down this 'body in motion'.

After Custer's death at Little Big Horn along with that of all 263 of his men, many tried to adapt the Custer legend to their own purposes. His widow Libbie wrote three books which unconvincingly attempt to exonerate her husband by blaming Major Marcus Reno for the debacle.  Buffalo Bill Cody exploited the Custer legend by staging re-enactments of the battle which sometimes used Indians who had participated in the actual battle.  Anheuser Busch transformed Custer's apotheosis at Little Big Horn into a poster that adorned thousands of saloons across America (see below).

Custer sells suds for Budweiser

The myth of Custer has been interpreted and re-interpreted by each succeeding generation in popular culture.  The film They Died with their Boots on presented a version of Custer, played by Errol Flynn*, as a noble and heroic warrior for an America that was on the verge of war in 1941.  The movie is wildly inaccurate although Custer really did love the song Garry Owen (see video below).

The film Little Big Man (1970), based on Thomas Berger's 1964 novel, presented Custer as a simpleton and a demented psychopath.  This film was released at the same time that a group of native Americans were occupying Alcatraz island (1969 to 1971).

Now in 2012, we have McMurtry's version of Custer (see photo above).  Larry McMurtry, the author of Lonesome Dove, has a new coffee table book called simply Custer (www.amzn.com/1451626207).  This book is packed with over one hundred full-color photographs and illustrations about the short but eventful life of George Armstrong Custer.  McMurtry was a rare book dealer who at one time owned a collection of 'Custerology' numbering more than one thousand items.

McMurtry describes Custer as a "rash" man-child who suffered from a "perpetual restlessness" and a "need for glory".

Custer had led the 7th Cavalry to victory against the Cheyenne in the battle of Washita on November 27, 1868.  Custer did not overly trouble himself that when he attacked Black Kettle's encampment, he was attacking one of the "peace" Indians who had scrupulously stayed on their assigned reservation.  Many women and children were slaughtered and Black Kettle himself was killed.

McMurtry details the troubled historical relationship between America and its native American population.  He cites the journalist Alex Shoumatoff who "reckoned that the United States had made 354 treaties and broken them all.  It is possible to see the whole continent from Point Barrow to the golden Gate, as one big land grab."  The Black Hills of the Dakotas held gold and the Indians stood in the way of the white man's lust for gold.  McMurtry regards Custer as a foolish figure whose sad fate represented a comeuppance for the greedy white man.

McMurtry notes that after news of the battle emerged "the foreign press was not very sympathetic.  The Times of London led the way, pointing out that our long history of relations with the Indians had never been either wise or kind.  No journalist in America dared to be that blunt."

Custer's disastrous defeat at Little Big Horn was attributable to horrendously poor intelligence and a gross underestimation of the fighting spirit of the Indians.  He had divided his force and stood with 250 men of the US 7th Cavalry facing an Indian force whose upper number might be ten thousand.  "No one in living memory of Indians had seen a fighting force that large."

Custer's poor intelligence was combined with an arrogant sense of invulnerability -- the Indians always ran in the face of a steady line of disciplined US regular soldiers.  Backed into a corner, they stopped running at Little Big Horn.

Over and over again, we Americans are "surprised" by events.  Lincoln and the Northern states were caught off guard by the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and hopelessly unprepared at the start of the US Civil war.  In 1876, Americans were astonished to learn that Custer and all his men had been slaughtered in Montana by a group of 'savage' Indians.  On February 15, 1898 the USS Maine was blown up in Havana harbor killing over 250 crewmen, probably due to Spanish action, (see earlier post, Remember the Maine, but Forget the War Lovers, 2/20/12) providing the spark that would ignite the Spanish-American War.  We were unprepared for war in 1917 when Wilson led the nation into the First World War.  On December 7, 1941 the Japanese achieved operational and strategic surprise in their attack on Pearl Harbor (see earlier post, FDR in London and Pearl Harbor, 12/10/12).  The Honolulu Star-Bulletin had faithfully reported US naval fleet movements and intelligence operatives in the Japanese consulate in Honolulu duly passed the information along to Tokyo (source: At Dawn We Slept, Gordon W. Prange, 1981, www.amzn.com/0140157344).  On 9/11 2001, Al Qaeda managed to bring down the twin towers in New York City and to attack the Pentagon in Washington DC.  On December 14, 2012 we were all "surprised" to learn about the horrific events of Newtown, CT.

Over and over again, we Americans disdain the vital importance of military intelligence and preparedness and underestimate the dangers which confront us.  Remember Little Big Horn!

* The 'Curse' of Custer apparently affected this movie when an aspiring actor, Bill Meade, appearing in  a scene galloping on horseback alongside Errol Flynn through the San Fernando valley, fell off an impaled himself fatally on a sword.  (Source: My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Errrol Flynn, 1959, www.amzn.com/0815412509).

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades here...www.americainvades.com or on Amazon...www.amzn.com/1940598427


William Funk, USMC said...

"Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him better take a closer look at the American Indian."

Henry Ford

LS said...

A very interesting post...quite profound and thought-provoking. I especally liked Funk's (Ford) quote.

For new information on the life of Custer's last messenger, Italian-born John Martin, please visit "Custer's Bugler: The Life of John Martin (Giovanni Martino)" on Facebook.

Also, for more detailed information including new photographs and book excerpts, please visit http://CustersBugler.blogspot.com