Friday, January 28, 2005

Custer: the Legend, the A-Hole

Louise Barnett, Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Jeffry D. Wert, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Biographies have a way of coming out in pairs, trios, and even quartets. These two worthwhile Custer bios appeared in the spring of 1996, almost simultaneously. This is a review Mark G. published with the Cleveland Plain Dealer in May of that year.

George Armstrong Custer is the patron saint of American hubris. Even at its most flattering, his popular image is of a bold cavalier galloping headlong into disaster; at worst, it resembles the depiction in the 1970 film Little Big Man: Custer charging off to ruin with the exultant cry, "Take no prisoners!"

It is grimly appropriate that the first major clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese troops involved a reconstituted, helicopter-borne Seventh Cavalry, whose sergeants responded to orders with a snappy "Gary Owen, sir!" - a reference to Custer's favorite song. Like Custer, the Americans in the Ia Drang Valley were looking for the enemy. Like Custer, they found him in punishing abundance.

By rights, Custer ought to be an obscure figure. True, he fought gallantly during the Civil War and became a brigadier general at age 23, but that conflict produced many gallant, youthful generals. After the war he won success as an Indian fighter, but not as much as several others.

His notoriety derives from one simple fact. On a sunny day in June 1876, he and his entire command - 263 men - were annihilated by 2,000-3,000 Indians at the Little Bighorn River in present-day Montana. The shocking defeat spawned a fascination with Custer that has never abated. More has been written about him than any American save Abraham Lincoln.

There are two main ways to approach Custer. The first is to take his fame at face value and treat him as a significant military figure. The second is to acknowledge the true root of that fame and give the myth of Custer as much coverage as the man. Jeffrey Wert, a veteran biographer of Confederate leaders John S. Mosby and James Longstreet, pursues the first strategy. Louise Barnett, a professor of literature at Rutgers University, adopts the second. The results are two very different books that nevertheless share a basic sympathy for their subject.

Wert's biography walks the reader straightforwardly through Custer's life, focusing almost exclusively on his military career. Born in New Rumley, Ohio, in 1839, Custer grew up mostly in lower Michigan before gaining appointment to West Point. When the Civil War broke out, he and his classmates graduated a year early.

Custer joined the Union Army of the Potomac, where he gained a reputation for energy and guts, finishing the war as a major general. After the war, he became second-in-command of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, a unit which, for all practical purposes, he commanded until his death. Though well-liked by his Civil War troops, he managed to antagonize many soldiers in his postwar outfit by a penchant for severe discipline and flamboyant display. He was even court-martialed in 1867 and sentenced to a year's suspension from rank and pay.

The reason for the court-martial tells a lot about Custer. The charge was leaving his post without authorization in order to visit his wife, Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon Custer. Married early in 1864, the pair enjoyed a close, highly charged relationship and wrote one another constantly during their lengthy separations. On this occasion, Custer had heard nothing from her for an extended period and became frantic to see her.

Thanks to the intercessions of Gen. Philip Sheridan, who knew Custer well from their Civil War days, Custer was returned to active duty and sent west to help subdue raiding Cheyenne war parties. Unable to overtake the war parties in the open field, Custer resorted to a common Army expedient: He traced them back to an Indian village and launched a surprise attack at dawn, thereby forcing the warriors to stand and defend their women, children and the elderly.

Over 100 Cheyenne, many of them noncombatants, died in this Battle of the Washita, which sealed Custer's reputation as an Indian fighter. But although he participated in several other expeditions against Indians, the Washita remained his only major encounter until the Little Bighorn nine years later.

The second book, Touched by Fire, deals less with Custer's military career than his marriage and his conscious efforts to cultivate a dashing image. It spends much time placing Custer's experiences and persona in the context of his time, and it is excellent on the meanings of the Custer myth.

Although informed by contemporary sensibilities about sex and race, it seldom strays into ideological dogma. Occasionally a lapse does occur, as when Barnett simply notes that Indian war parties sometimes gang-raped white women but waxes indignant that white men, when discussing such outrages, would stress the fact that these women were "wives": "For whites, the abuse of those women belonging to men made the most compelling case against Indians." On balance, however, Touched by Fire is a very good book, thoughtful, well-written and fair-minded about Custer.

Barnett's basic technique is to take a revealing aspect of Custer's life and devote a chapter to a sustained appraisal of it. A particularly effective chapter examines the "mystery" of Custer's Last Stand. Students of the battle have spilled rivers of ink to explain how Custer and his command could have been killed to the last man. Theories have ranged from negligence on the part of key subordinates to outlandish speculations that Sitting Bull, Custer's opponent at the Little Bighorn, had once been a West Point cadet. Each small decision by Custer en route to the disaster is lovingly dissected and redissected.

But, Barnett argues, the mystery cannot be chased from the battlefield because "the locus is not the physical site but the psyche of white America. Its source is racism, the pure and simple conviction that a body of white soldiers" like the Seventh Cavalry "could not be overwhelmed even by an overwhelming number of Indians. For the typical Custer buff, mystery is preferable to this stark fact."

At the core of Touched by Fire is Libbie Custer, and the book continues even after Custer's death to recount her tireless efforts to preserve and protect his memory. Since she survived until 1933 and wrote three books about her husband, those efforts were impressive indeed. Barely 34 years old when Custer died, she was beautiful and energetic and could easily have moved on to a new life. Instead she remained utterly devoted to Custer's memory; to be his widow was her only and highest calling.

Libbie has a good recent biography of her own - Shirley A. Leckie's Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth; - but Barnett's shorter treatment is accomplished and insightful. Wert, too, addresses the rare relationship between Custer and Libbie, but too often his coverage goes little deeper than the recounting of sexual double entendres they shared in their private correspondence.

The Custer literature is so abundant that any newcomer must justify its existence. The rationale for Wert's Custer is its balanced coverage of Custer's Civil War and western careers. The result is a good one-volume military biography that nevertheless improves little on Gregory Urwin's Custer Victorious, which covers the Civil War years, or Robert M. Utley's Cavalier in Buckskin, which concentrates on Custer's postwar career.

Barnett's Touched by Fire, on the other hand, is a sharp, original and engaging study of Custer's life and myth which, though less concerned with military campaigns, nevertheless includes a first-rate account of the Little Bighorn. It vividly demonstrates how, when dealing with a legendary historical figure, it is best to address the legend as well as the individual.

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