Custer’s Luck

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Multiculturalism has won the battle for the right to tell our story.  All cultures, regardless of their particular practices or beliefs, deserve respect.  They must never be compared to ours, for this ultimately leads to judgements.  Judgements hurt people, and in this world, that is not allowed.  No where is this more prevalent than in the study of American Indian culture.  Indian culture is noble, peaceful, and they have been victimized by the greedy, warlike cultures of Europeans.  The American government systematically destroyed Indian culture so it must be inferior.  The historical comparisons were all unjust, for Americans cannot be as civilized as they proclaim because of these cultural crimes.  Multiculturalism ignores particulars, ambiguities, and complexities.  The culture clash must be black and white- the irony is lost upon the politically correct.  Little Big Horn is no different.  Custer and the 7th Cavalry were forces of evil and they got what the deserved…even postmortem mutilation.

 

Did Custer die for our sins?

 

5-7 Cav. Regt. cases colors at FOB Kalsu

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 red hair,  the airs of “Garry Owen” whistling over the plains.   Remembrance is not history, but the American mind needs both.

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The Other Custer

Thomas Ward Custer rode to his death… along side his brother at the battle of Little Big Horn.  The dynamic, rowdy pair had been soldiers nearly all their lives.  Tom followed in his older brother’s foot steps, enlisting in the Union army at the age of 16.  Though George achieved more fame, he thought the world of his little brother, “Do you want to know what I think of him? Tom should have been the General and I the Lieutenant.”   The elder Custer was the youngest man to achieve the rank of Major-General while young Tom was one of 19 men to win the Medal of Honor twice.  Personally capturing two Confederate battle flags under severe fire (the second attempt nearly cost his jaw)  Tom was undoubtedly a hero.  The exploits of his older brother have relegated him to obscurity.

He won all the medals (commons)

George (Autie, as Tom called him) was austere, devoted, and a teetotaler.  Tom tried to emulate his brother, but strayed to drink and hell raising when his sister-in-law Libbie was not near to regulate him.  Together, the Custer boys were notorious pranksters, and few familiar with them on the frontier were immune from their antics.  Autie Custer had molded the 7th Cavalry into a fast-moving, hard-hitting combat unit;  His brother was with him every step of the way.  Detractors labeled them the “Custer Clan”, and resented the good fortune which seemed to follow the family, “Custer’s Luck.”  That luck ran out on June 25, 1876.  George, Tom, and baby brother, Boston Custer died on the dusty hills of Southeastern Montana.

The Custer clan

Tom Custer was an American hero… He died bravely on the field of battle fighting for his country.  His enemies mutilated his body beyond recognition that day.  His remains were only identified by a tattoo on his wrist.  Ironic that warriors described as noble by our society are excused for such behavior.  Cultural sensibilities must be respected, even in the desecration of the dead.   Should we believe this?  

Revision Gone Awry

Historians must stop giving… credence to rumors of controversial historical figures fathering children with women they allegedly oppressed.  This has become standard operating procedure for writers wishing to gain notoriety in the historical profession.  Latch on to rumors, oral tradition, slander- and give it legitimacy through politically correct currents flowing through society.  Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings garner most of the headlines, but historical revisionists continue to use this accusation to sully the reputations of prominent Americans.  George Armstrong Custer has come to symbolize the evils of American Indian policy; revisionists want to force Indian love children on to his tarnished historical resume’.

George and Libbie

George loved Libbie Custer… from the moment they were introduced in 1862.  Her family was not impressed with the young cavalryman home on leave (a drunken courting call led to his oath of sobriety.)  His promotion to General at the age of 23 changed Judge Daniel Bacon’s mind and he gave the couple his permission.  The Custers were wed on February 9, 1864.  She stayed as close to her “Autie” as possible throughout the rest of the Civil War and then followed him wherever the army took them.  The two had a fiery love affair which comes through in their playful letters.  Libbie wanted children badly and blamed herself for their inability to conceive.  In fact, George was to blame for their childlessness.  Custer contracted gonorrhea while a cadet at West Point.  The Academy’s medical records show he was treated for it.  The disease more than likely sterilized him.  Custer would never father children…yet historical revisionism can produce immaculate conceptions.

With one of his hounds

Custer did not father a child with… the Cheyenne woman Monahseetah.  Revisionists base the claim on Cheyenne oral tradition, which is notoriously unreliable, and the testimony of Captain Frederick Benteen, the most vocal Custer critic of them all.  She did have two children after meeting Custer, but the father could not have been George Armstrong.  There is no direct evidence, none.  There is speculation in the form of tall tales found in Indian oral tradition.  There is slander found in the acidic letters from Benteen.  Custer holds a contentious place in American history.  Revisionists are trying to gain the upper hand in the debate with the most unsavory of tactics.

Bad Medicine on the Battlefield

Myles Walter Keogh was born to be a soldier… the young Irish lad, stricken by the poverty of the Potato Famine, sought adventure and glory on the battlefield.  At the urging of the Catholic clergy young Keogh enlisted in the Papal army of Pious IX.  As a member of the Company of St. Patrick, Vatican Guards, Keogh was cited for gallantry by the Papacy three times.  When American clergymen came to Europe to recruit members of the Papal army for the Union cause, Keogh enlisted right away.

Fighting Irishman (commons)

Fighting with distinction in the… Shenendoah valley, Keogh caught the notice of the Union high command.  George McClellan remarked, “a most gentlemanlike man, of soldierly appearance,” whose “record had been remarkable for the short time he had been in the army.“  Keogh fought with some of the Union cavalry’s hardest hitting units, including the division of General John Buford at Gettysburg and General George Stoneman on Sherman’s March to the Sea.  By the end of the war, he was one of the most distinguished young cavalry officers in Federal service.  Future Secretary of War John Schofield described Keogh, “He is one of the most gallant and efficient young cavalry officers I have ever known.”  Following the Civil War, he was promoted to Captain in the regular army and assigned to the 7th Cavalry, under the command of George Armstrong Custer.  On the Plains Keogh continued his meritorious service, but seemed to be afflicted by a melancholy streak, “Impudence and presumption carry with them great weight and a certain lack of sensitiveness is necessary to be successful. This lack of sensitiveness I unfortunately do not inherit.”  A life of military campaigning was taking a toll on the dashing Irishman. 

Fell here (FLBH)

It is never a good sign when a soldier… prepares for a campaign by deeding his land to family, buying life insurance, and ordering his personal papers to be burned upon death.  Myles Keogh knew his fate awaited him on the campaign of 1876.  Keogh commanded half of the battalion that rode to destruction with Custer.  The troopers with Keogh battled in their own last stand on the ridges East of Custer’s position.  Keogh’s body was  surrounded by a ring of eight troopers.  He was one of two bodies not to be mutilated in the post battle atrocities.  It is said that the Papal medals he wore around his neck frightened the Indians; this soldier was considered “Bad Medicine.”

Custer on Film

Hollywood has attempted to tell the Custer story…in no fewer than 25 films, and dozens of portrayals in television programs.  In the eyes of the movie industry, Custer must be portrayed as either a hero or villain.  Custer’s death at Little Big Horn is such a considerable part of the American story, his true character has been lost in competing cultural and political debates about the plight of American Indians.  With little concern for accuracy, filmmakers have used these two-dimensional images of Custer to help shape cultural opinions.  Here are the best (and worst) portrayals of Custer on film:

Character assassination (TCM)

5. Richard Mulligan, Little Big Man- 1970:  The worst portrayal of Custer in cinematic history.  The first of the big-budget revisionist westerns, Arthur Penn’s film shows all soldiers as villains and Indians as noble freedom fighters.  Mulligan’s Custer is the epitome of American wickedness; racist, homicidal, inept – the actor smirks and mugs his way through what amounts to a libelous piece of character assassination.

4. Robert Shaw, Custer of the West- 1967:  The typically reliable Shaw is badly miscast in a poorly made movie.  The lanky red-head from history appears as a pudgy blonde in faux buckskin.  The battle scenes bear almost no resemblance to historical accounts and Shaw’s Custer looks like a bad Halloween costume.

Flynn in buckskin (TCM)

3. Errol Flynn, They Died with Their Boots On- 1941:  Flynn is a dashing yet rowdy Custer in full heroic form.  The film is not historically accurate, but like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, many envision this film as “the way it should have been.”  The film is ridiculed today for being culturally insensitive because of the negative portrayal of Crazy Horse(Anthony Quinn) and other Indians.

Fictional but accurate (TCM)

2. Henry Fonda, Fort Apache- 1948:  JohnFord’s film is loosely based on Custer and Little Big Horn.  Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a stern disciplinarian whose ambition becomes his downfall.  This common interpretation of Custer’s character is captured perfectly by Fonda’s dour performance.  Custer’s Last Stand is replaced with Thursday’s Charge, but the rich detail and fair depiction of the Indian wars makes this film a classic.

Photocred- IMDB

1. Gary Cole, Son of the Morning Star- 1991:  Cole seemed an unlikely choice, but he brilliantly rises to the occasion.  He gives a performance that captures all the facets of the complex man.  Loving husband, rowdy older brother, stern commander, ambitious soldier, curious frontiersman- Cole’s Custer is all these in an epic mini-series worthy of its topic.  Like Evan Connell’s definitive book, the film gives a balanced account of Custer and his career on the frontier.

Expunging Our Past

Progressive historians like Charles Beard… went to great lengths to discredit the work of America’s first published historian, George Bancroft.  The Nationalist school of American history revered our Founders and proclaimed American exceptionalism.  Beard argued that America’s founding ideals were nothing more than a clever disguise for our true inspiration, greed.  The New Left revisionism that pervades historiography today is a mere continuation of Beard’s fundamentally flawed concept- America really isn’t that great….

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Neo-Nationalism is a historical school of thought… that strives to reconcile two wildly opposed views of America’s past.  Common ground is sought within the discipline- social, political, military historical study working in concert to preserve the common threads that bind all Americans together…

The overriding message should be that historical figures are human and not infallible. We can honor their great deeds and learn from their most human mistakes. 

Needlessly provocative works like the NY Times’s 1619 Project blur the lines between political activism and historical discourse.

Sadly, our fears of the slippery slope of iconoclasm have been realized as monuments to our Founding generation are being destroyed by mobs of ignorant people more concerned with political convenience than history.

We must stop this current craze of tearing down and erasing our history because the historical figures did not possess our modern sensibilities. 

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  • America’s founding ideals are exceptional- and are standards that are difficult to attain- our history is comprised of the struggle to uphold these ideals.
  • The Founders were extraordinary men- but not infallible… we have to learn from their example- good and bad.
  • The history of America is not the story of class struggle- the silent masses played a vital role in our history and their stories should be told- but not through Marxist constructs.
  • History should be popular.  Our past must be understood by the citizenry- historical studies targeted only at academics cannot be how we measure the discipline.  There is a way to make history insightful and enjoyable.

It Will Happen to Jefferson

Jefferson is the obvious target…

It may start with the Confederate flag… but this movement to radically alter our history will continue.  Narrow minded academics like Paul Finkelman will fan the flames of discontent and dangerous media pundits will use tragedy to rally the uninformed to their nefarious cause.

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Jefferson is frustratingly complex and it is easier to… simplify his transgressions-  he owned slaves, therefore he must be bad.  We recognize the horrors of slavery today- but this doesn’t satisfy the new generation of moral police.  Regardless of what Jefferson did for our country, he owned slaves and that was wrong.  They believe America’s true greatness exists in spite Jefferson.  Our Creed did not need articulated apparently- and the thousands of freedom fighters throughout history who have spat Jefferson’s words at tyrants- they would have found them on their own.

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Jefferson critic Annette Gordon-Reed… is discerning enough to see advocacy gone too far.  She recently told InsideHighered.com –

“I understand why some people think his statues should be removed, but not all controversial figures of the past are created equal, I think Jefferson’s contributions to the history of the United States outweigh the problems people have with aspects of his life. He is just too much a part of the American story … to pretend that he was not there.  There is every difference in the world between being one of the founders of the United States and being a part of group of people who fought to destroy the United States.”

American Iconoclasm

Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For not one of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love.”

― Thomas Jefferson

Kyle Sammin correctly surmises in a recent edition of  The Federalistthat historical figures are imperfect- the millennial demands of  removing every monument and memorial to historical figures who do not satisfy their modern sensibilities is both foolish and destructive.  Though many of his comments following the Charlottesville violence were divisive and insensitive, Trump’s fear that removing monuments to Confederate generals may lead to the destruction of memorials to our Founders were not far from reality.  Trump’s implication(inadvertent)  is that there is a slippery slope with historical revisionism–    Click on links

These links are the steady progression of arbitrary historical revision… being driven by a generation of social justice warriors completely lacking any semblance of humility.  So-called activists who are convinced they are not only morally superior to their grandparents, but to all previous generations.  This is hubris at its most blatant and dangerous.  Politicians, like Nancy Pelosi pander to these intellectual pipsqueaks by joining in this fool’s chorus- moral redemption through historic erasure.

As previously stated in the pages of this blog… there are more appropriate places for Confederate symbols and monuments than government buildings and public squares.  This is a reasonable debate and it should continue.  The slippery slope of historical revisionism is real and we are well on the way down it.  Sadly, legitimate leadership is required during such a crisis of conscience.  We have Donald Trump…

Historical Revision in Perspective

At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record.  This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history.  But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.

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Gordon Wood, Brown University professor of History.

As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare.  If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust.  Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was?  Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom?  Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia?  All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.”   To hell with what came before…

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There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people.  Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond.  In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors