An excerpt from
The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer
Michael A. Elliott
On the morning of June 25, 1876, an estimated six to eight thousand American Indians were camped in southern Montana along the banks of the Little Bighorn River, which many of them called the Greasy Grass. The majority were Lakota Sioux, whose five camp circles were arranged according to band: Brulé, Oglala, Sans Arc, Minneconjou, and Hunkpapa. There was a sixth circle, too, made up of Cheyenne Indians who had become allies of the Lakotas, as well as a few Arapaho Indians who were visiting the Cheyennes. The size of this encampment had nearly doubled during recent weeks, as the so-called summer roamers had left their agencies and reservations in the Dakota Territory to join with those who had braved the winter and a cold, cruel spring. The result was a village impressive in its size, and some of its leaders were doubtless already wondering how long the rolling hills surrounding the river could sustain this many people and their grazing horses.
For the time being, though, those living along the Little Bighorn had every reason to feel confident. Eight days earlier, while the village was relocating to this site, 750 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, including Crazy Horse, had mounted an attack on federal troops marching north along the Rosebud River, to the east of the Little Bighorn. The warriors faced an opposing force almost double in size—nearly 1,300 fighting for the United States, including 250 Crow Indians, longtime enemies of the Sioux—yet were able to turn them back and away from the village. Now reunited, the village could field somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 fighting men. The Indians knew that there were other federal troops on the march, trying to find them and drive them back to their assigned reservations, but they took the fight on the Rosebud as evidence that their numbers and determination would enable them to prevail.
That afternoon, their convictions were put to a new test. Mayhem erupted at the southern end of the village; blue-coated federal troops charged across the river, deployed into a skirmish line, and fired into the village. While children, women, and the elderly ran toward safety in the opposite direction, Indian warriors (mostly Lakota Sioux) prepared their weapons and mounted a swarming, decisive counterattack that quickly demoralized the soldiers. In less than an hour, the federal troops were retreating from the timber where they had hoped to make their stand; they recrossed the river and dashed up to a hilltop, where they would assume a defensive position and hope they could maintain it until some kind of relief arrived.
At about the same time that the Indian warriors began noticing the soldiers’ retreat, they heard gunfire from a new direction—the northern, or downstream, end of the village. Warriors began leaving the first fight to meet a contingent of troops who had come to a ford in the river near the Hunkpapa camp and were moving back into the hills, trying to circle around that end of the village. The Lakotas and Cheyenne rode off—some to counter their movements directly and others to encircle them from their rear. This second fight would be an even more decisive victory for the Indians and would sear this day into the consciousness of the nation that had opposed them. By nightfall, the 211 men who had attacked the village from downstream were all dead in the ravines and hills surrounding the Little Bighorn River. Among them was George Armstrong Custer.
On his final day, Custer was a thirty-six-year-old lieutenant colonel who was still, as was the custom, frequently addressed using the general’s rank that he had earned in the Civil War—a practice that historians and biographers have continued after his death. He was ambitious, which hardly unusual for a career officer who had risen to glory at an early age. He almost certainly hoped that a major victory in the campaign against the Sioux and Cheyennes would lead to promotion, perhaps eventually putting him on the path toward regaining the general’s star that he first wore in the Civil War at the improbably young age of twenty-three. If he was no longer as flamboyant in appearance as he had once been—the receding hairline perhaps sobered him a little—he was every bit as confident in his abilities as a leader of troops in combat. By all accounts, he was a bold, aggressive, and often inspiring field commander of cavalry. His trademark was not so much tactical brilliance as a combination of self-confidence, daring, and, at least until this day, luck.
Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was one of three forces in the field as part of the U.S. army’s campaign targeting those Lakota Sioux Indians, as well as Cheyennes with them, who had rejected their designated reservations in the Dakota Territory. The army had gauged roughly where these “hostile” Indians were camped, and the three columns of troops were converging in the hope that they would be unable to escape. Custer had no way of receiving news about the Rosebud fight, in which the Indians had succeeded in knocking one of the columns out of commission for the rest of the summer. Nor did he have an accurate estimate of the number of Indians who had banded together; all the documents that precede his last battle suggest that he had been led to expect a village no larger than half the size of what he found.
Custer’s main concern was not being outnumbered but being eluded. Conventional army wisdom held that the principal asset of Plains Indians was their mobility, their ability to disperse instantly into smaller groups that could travel more quickly and easily than army columns burdened by clumsy supply trains and the difficulty of finding suitable forage for their horses. From the moment on June 22 when the Seventh Cavalry left its camp on the Yellowstone for Custer’s final march—first south along the Rosebud and then west to the Little Bighorn—every decision that its leader made was driven by this fear of evasion.
Custer’s contingent comprised nearly 650 men: 31 army officers, 566 enlisted men, an assortment of civilian quartermaster employees, a newspaper reporter, and his sixteen-year-old nephew, who, along with two of his brothers and a brother-in-law, would die with him. Custer also traveled with thirty-five Indian scouts, mostly Arikara but including six Crows and a few Sioux. This was a large force, but it might have even been larger. Custer had refused additional infantry and two Gatling guns, both of which, he thought, would make the Seventh Cavalry less mobile and less able to take its opponents unaware. The final days of Custer’s life were hot, dusty, arduous ones for his men, as he pushed them forward along the trail that the Indian village had left as it moved from the Rosebud River to the Little Bighorn. Early on the morning of June 25, the scouts had sighted the village from a gap in the Wolf Mountains known as the Crow’s Nest; Custer joined them, but the morning haze prevented him from seeing the pony herds more than a dozen miles away that the scouts pointed out. Nevertheless, he planned for his troops to lie low for the rest of the day and then attack the next morning, when most of the Indians would still be sleeping.
This plan quickly unraveled as Custer heard reports that his forces had been discovered—both by Indians riding near the scouting party and by others who had found a box of hardtack that had accidentally dropped from one of the pack trains. Fearing that the main village would soon learn of the position of the Seventh Cavalry from these Indians—a fear that, it turns out, was unfounded—he ordered his officers to prepare their companies as quickly as possible to resume the march and attack. As they rode westward again, Custer split off two smaller groups: one company would travel behind with the mules and supplies; another, composed of three companies, would scout upstream, to the south. Then, he divided the bulk of the regiment—about five hundred men and officers—one last time. Three companies would charge into the village at its southern end under Major Marcus Reno; the other four would ride with Custer to the north—and to their deaths.
Since that day, thousands of pages have been written to describe what happened to the federal troops at the Little Bighorn, but perhaps nothing has been as succinct as the assessment attributed years later to Iron Hawk, a Hunkpapa Lakota who fought in the battle. “These Wasichus,” he said, using a Lakota word for whites, “wanted it, and they came to get it, and we gave it to them.”
One reason that the Battle of the Little Bighorn has compelled generations of military historians and amateur enthusiasts to sift through the evidence of what occurred there is that little else beyond these bare facts can be established with absolute certainty. The unknown, and seemingly unknowable, facts of the Battle—its so-called mysteries—have been the subjects of passionate debate and bitter dispute. For instance, since the moment that newspaper reporters began conveying the story of Custer’s demise, estimates of how many Indians were camped along the river when Custer attacked, or how many Indians took up arms against him, have varied widely. One lieutenant who survived on the hilltop upstream said there were nine thousand Indian warriors—a number that has seemed to historians to be too high—while his comrades said the Native American force was fewer than half that. The lower estimates were still notably larger than what several recent studies of the fight have suggested. It has taken more than a hundred years to reach a loose consensus on the number of Indians fighting Custer and his men, and it could take at least a hundred more to reach an agreement on the tactics that they used. In fact, the exact movement of the forces during the fight, both the Native American warriors and the cavalry soldiers under Custer, remains one of the most contentious topics among the cadre of professional and amateur historians who study the Little Bighorn.
Unanswered questions about numbers, times, and locations, though, are really just echoes of the deeper conflicts that have persisted about the behavior of Custer, his officers, and his men—and about who should take responsibility for a defeat that quickly became more significant as a national mythic spectacle than as an actual military loss. From the moment that news of the battle reached the newspapers—more than a week after Custer’s death—every comment on the feats and follies of the men who fought there has been tethered to the issue of culpability. It is a matter so enduring that mock courts-martial of a resurrected Custer are still staged regularly by a South Dakota group that assembles for this purpose. In 1998, the Indiana University School of Law even held its own Custer court-martial featuring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the presiding judge on the panel of three distinguished legal minds hearing the case. Dressed in nineteenth-century army blue, “Major General” Ginsburg pronounced the court’s unanimous finding that Custer violated the United States’ Articles of War “by failing to conduct appropriate reconnaissance and by dividing his force in the face of a numerically superior enemy.”
One hope among those seeking to extend and verify the historical record of the Battle of the Little Bighorn has been that testimony by Indian participants could provide the key—not only because Indians were the only ones who could provide eyewitness accounts of the final hours of Custer’s battalion but also because it was presumed that Indians would be less interested in whether Custer or one of his officers were at fault. Yet that same testimony has put into circulation stories about the battle that historians have spent over a century trying to disprove: reports that at least some Custer’s men were drunk, that a group of them committed mass suicide, that Custer’s own son (by a Cheyenne Indian woman) was present at the battle, that Custer hoped a great victory at the Little Bighorn would catapult him into the presidency of the United States, to name a few.
The most lurid rumor of all, though, did not have an Indian origin. Rain in the Face, a Hunkpapa Lakota, had once been placed under arrest by Custer’s brother Tom, and newspapers printed stories that at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the warrior tore open Tom Custer’s body and cut out his heart in revenge. The story had enough currency that Elizabeth Bacon Custer, George’s widow, included it in the first of her memoirs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made it the subject of a poem—though Longfellow cast Custer himself, not Tom, as the victim of Rain in the Face’s sanguinary malice:
Rain-in-the-Face, in his flight
From the enlightened, free-verse perspective of most Americans today, pursuing the mysteries of the Battle of the Little Bighorn might seem as outdated as both the style and content of Longfellow’s poetry. But these controversies surrounding Custer and his fate persist because the fight between the Seventh Cavalry and the village of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho was, as all military conflicts surely are, a political contest over competing visions of power. The Battle of the Little Bighorn resulted from and participated in a long struggle over questions of territorial governance and conflicting claims of sovereignty, as well as the implementation of solutions to these problems. For Custer and the Seventh Cavalry, the campaign had also become entangled with the divisive, never-ending battle between the political parties in the United States. As much as a military leader might want to divide the business of soldiering from the ugly world of partisan bickering, George Armstrong Custer could no more separate the two than his modern-day counterparts are able to do. Custer, in fact, nearly had lost the command of the Seventh Cavalry because of his participation in hearings aimed at exposing the corruption of the Ulysses S. Grant administration—a political blunder that infuriated the president to such a degree that he was ready to punish Custer by keeping him on the military sidelines.
Partisan politics, though, ended up serving Custer well, if only posthumously. Democrat newspaper editors—particularly James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald—seized on his defeat at the Little Bighorn as a signal of the catastrophic failure of Republican policies and corruption among the government Indian agents who had been appointed by Grant’s administration. Grant himself told the press that he regarded “Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary.” The editorial page of the Herald, conversely, placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the commander-in-chief: “The deplorable truth is that President Grant is chiefly responsible for the appalling miscarriages which have attended this disastrous campaign against the Sioux.” Bennett wasted no time in launching a campaign to raise funds for a Custer monument; for him and for other foes of Grant, transforming the slain general into a figure of glory made the president and his cronies appear as villainous blackguards.
The political wrangling of the 1870s played a part in transforming Custer from an historical footnote to a household name, but only a part. Like the 168 words that Abraham Lincoln spoke when dedicating the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Custer’s defeat at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne would have been little remembered had it not resonated with America’s body politic more deeply than anyone at first could recognize. In 1876, the nation was simultaneously commemorating its centennial and emerging from an economic depression; it had defeated secession, but the work of reconstruction and reunification still remained incomplete; the United States had spanned the continent yet still appeared to have only the loosest of grips over wide swaths of it. In other words, the United States in 1876 was a nation celebrating the achievement of its Manifest Destiny yet wondering whether that destiny had been achieved at all, and if so, at what price.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn gave a country at once confident and doubtful what it needed and would continue to need: a hero defeated in spectacular fashion—and defeated not just by anyone but by the American Indians considered to be the last holdout of savagery on a continent otherwise secured for civilization. While Americans today frequently regard the struggle over the enslavement, emancipation, and civil rights of African Americans as the central conflict of their country’s history, the national imagination of the nineteenth century was configured differently. Even in the decades after the Civil War, the status of free blacks was still too divisive and unresolved a question—one that could mar the harmony of a newly reunited country—for most white Americans to consider emancipation to be the central act of their national drama. On the other hand, whites, particularly those living east of the Mississippi, could look at the conflicts taking place between the U.S. army and the Plains Indians through the ennobling lens of distance. What they saw had all the elements of a melodrama: on the one hand, a desperate people setting loose their most violent, treacherous impulses in order to resist the inevitable, and on the other, brave men performing the dangerous work of securing the frontier for a more enlightened order. More than any other, the victory of civilization over American Indians stood as the quintessential American narrative—a heroic, if somewhat tragic, story that distinguished, above all, the struggles and sacrifices of America’s New World from Europe’s old one. This is the same story mined so brilliantly by William Cody in the various manifestations of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a show that changed over time but that consistently drew upon the dramatic incorporation of the American West into the United States—and that avoided referring either to the Civil War or to slavery.
Part of the power of this story in the American imagination—at least in the imagination of white Americans—emanated from the ambivalence that it generated. It has often been stated that white Americans of the nineteenth century thought of Indians in one of two ways: either as treacherous savages whose removal and perhaps even extermination were necessary to the safety of civilization or as noble savages whose decline and disappearance would be the price of progress. In the 1870s, this emotional matrix did produce distinct and opposing stances among non-Indians toward what was called “the Indian Question,” leading to conflicts between reformers (mostly living on the Eastern seaboard) who thought military action against Indians to be unjust and Western settlers who thought military action was long overdue. For many non-Indian Americans, though, these feelings of sympathy and disdain were not so sharply divided from one another; they were capable of holding both attitudes simultaneously—supporting the violent dispossession of American Indians throughout the continent while still lamenting the fate that they suffered. One could cheer for the blue-coated soldiers and still be saddened that each of the army’s victories brought the day closer when Indians would no longer roam freely in the great open spaces of the American West.
Custer himself understood this ambivalence and even shared it. In My Life on the Plains, his memoir published two years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, America’s best-known Indian fighter declared, “If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people adhered to the free open plains rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be the recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in without stint or measure.” We will return later to this passage, which has become a touchstone of Custerology. Here Custer neatly demonstrates the bind in which Americans of his time placed the indigenous peoples of the Plains. They could either submit to the confinement of the reservation—and be disdained for no longer being free (read: real) Indians—or they could face the army that Custer so eagerly led into battle. This impossible set of choices was the product of the contradictory desires that Custer shared with many of his generation, desires that Indians both remain as they were on the “free open plains”—almost as aesthetic objects to be appreciated for their beauty and antiquity—and that they be removed as impediments to the civilization of railroads, mines, and farms.
For many Americans, the fate of Custer and his men at the Little Bighorn fed these same desires. Custer was not simply a victim of government corruption or poorly considered policies, in spite of what the Herald argued, but a martyr of the long march of civilization toward its ultimate dominion over the earth. If Custer had led his Seventh Cavalry to victory in Montana, he would now be as well remembered as his contemporaries Nelson Miles, George Crook, John Gibbon—hardly household names. Instead, the soldiers of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry were treated as descendants of the Spartans at Thermopylae and of the Texans at the Alamo. The image of Custer and his men being overwhelmed by hordes of bloodthirsty Indians reminded Americans that this was a genuine struggle with not only triumphs but also epic losses. Military victories over the Plains Indians seemed small and even sordid by comparison; the Battle of the Little Bighorn proved that the army had both a worthy foe and a worthy hero in the slain general. One need not feel guilty about the fate of the Indians if they were capable of this kind of carnage.
Those whose lives were distant enough from the battle not to be touched directly by its blood and dust could regard the Battle of the Little Bighorn as the grand closing chapter of a book that had been nearly forgotten by the modern age. Here were the risks, the sacrifices, the emotions that modernity had sorely neglected. A decade after the tremendous suffering of the Civil War, here was a heroism less complicated and more easily recognizable than anything that could be found in the murky work of national reconstruction. No less savvy a student of the paradoxes of the American body politic than Walt Whitman comprehended immediately the enduring power that Custer’s death would hold over the nation. Within a day of reading about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Whitman submitted “Death-Sonnet for Custer” to the New York Tribune. In his poem, the self-appointed national bard employed the visual details—the “tawny hair flowing in battle . . . bearing a bright sword in thy hand”—that would become stock features of visual representations of Custer for decades to come, even if Custer’s hair had actually been cropped close for this campaign and the Seventh Cavalry had left their sabers behind. Whitman had an instinctive flair for employing the kind of imagery that would prove indelible over time.
However, Whitman’s most insightful comments on the Custer phenomenon came five years later, when he recounted his experience of viewing John Mulvany’s Custer’s Last Rally, one of the many paintings that Whitman’s “Death-Sonnet” seemed to prefigure. In describing the painting, the poet blurs the work of art and the historical event it represents:
There are no tricks; there is no throwing of shades in masses; it is all at first painfully real, overwhelming, needs good nerves to look at it. Forty or fifty figures, perhaps more, in full finish and detail, life-size, in the mid-ground, with three times that number, or more, through the rest—swarms upon swarms of savage Sioux, in their war-bonnets, frantic, mostly on ponies, driving through the background, through the smoke, like a hurricane of demons. A dozen of the figures are wonderful. Altogether a Western, autochthonic phase of America, the frontiers, culminating typical, deadly, heroic to the uttermost; nothing in the books like it, nothing in Homer, nothing in Shakespeare; more grim and sublime than either, all native, all our own and all a fact.
The collision of short, descriptive phrases in Whitman’s prose produces an almost lyrical disorder to his description of both the painting and the battle. The sheer volume of action distracts him. Yet as his description proceeds, the heroism of cavalry comes to the foreground; he goes on to extol Custer and the “muscular, tan-faced men” who die with him. The “swarms upon swarms of savage Sioux,” by contrast, recede into the background of the writing—but it is hard to imagine Whitman’s rapture without them. In his formulation, the conflict with indigenous enemies makes it possible for the United States to claim the battle as a unique and constitutive moment of its history not shared by any other nation. The ferocity of the defense of their land by the Lakota Sioux (and also the Cheyenne) was what made this moment “all our own,” truly “autochthonic,” and different from of the European battles of Homer and Shakespeare. Whitman’s manner of thinking continues as histories regularly treat the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Plains Indian wars of the nineteenth century as conflicts wholly separate and distinct from the international military conflicts that would dominate the century that followed.
Custer’s afterlife began with poems like Whitman’s and paintings like Mulvany’s; it continued because this kind of praise has generated an equal measure of skepticism since the moment news of the Little Bighorn reached the U.S. newspapers. For every person ready to proclaim Custer a hero, there has been another—like President Grant—ready to label him a fool. The debate over who should bear the blame for the Seventh Cavalry’s debacle at Little Bighorn has driven generations of investigations into the mysteries of what actually occurred there. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the two alternative scapegoats—Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen—were still alive, and discussions of the battle were often written by those who wished to either exonerate or criticize one of them. In fact, Reno, who led the initial charge toward the village from upstream, eventually requested that a court of inquiry be convened so that he could receive a fair hearing on the charges being leveled against him by Custer’s hagiographic biographer, Frederick Whittaker. (The court found that Reno’s conduct—particularly the hasty retreat he ordered—was far from exemplary but did not merit any type of formal censure.) Benteen, on the other hand, had nursed enmity against Custer long before 1876, but he reserved his harsh judgments of his late commander for private letters and other informal exchanges. Benteen’s correspondence, in fact, put into circulation sordid rumors about Custer’s personal life, including allegations of extramarital affairs, that would find their way into print decades later.
Benteen and, to a lesser extent, Reno had their followers among those still fighting the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Custer had one who could not be trumped: his widow, Elizabeth. Only thirty-four years of age at the time of her husband’s death, Libbie Custer became a vigorous and staunch defender of her husband’s reputation both behind the scenes, where she encouraged those writers and historians sympathetic to her husband, and in front of them, as a lecturer and the author of three of her own books. It became an oft-told story among Custer aficionados in the first half of the twentieth century that Elizabeth was so well regarded within the U.S. army, especially among those from the Seventh Cavalry who survived the Little Bighorn, that many who had evidence damning her husband refused to put it into print as long as she was alive. Theodore Goldin, a private who had charged the Indian village with Major Reno and waited on the hilltop with the other survivors for rescue, wrote as late as 1928 that “every man’s heart bled” for the “loyal and loving” wife of General Custer. “This and this alone to-day is and will be as long as she lives, . . . responsible for the suppression of a lot of matters that may throw a clearer light on that campaign.” Regardless of whether there was a kind of informal gag order as long as Libbie Custer lived, she ended up outliving not just Benteen and Reno but nearly every other eyewitness to the battle. (Goldin survived her by two years, but his letters would not reach print until the 1950s.) Anyone waiting for her death to produce new testimony about the battle or General Custer would end up taking his story to the grave.
By the time Elizabeth did die in 1933, at the age of ninety, Custerology had solidified and organized itself around its competing interests. Not all were interested in vindicating or castigating George Armstrong Custer himself; just as many were dedicated to reconstructing his final movements. This military and historical puzzle has afforded generations of historical sleuths the endless pleasure of trying to solve a complex mystery while simultaneously searching for the missing clues that will reveal its secrets. To that end, some historians continued the work of collecting American Indian testimony, including the stories of several who did not participate in the battle themselves but learned about it through their family or tribe. Others combed through the printed record, searching archives and libraries for inconsistencies and clues that would yield new insight. Still others devoted themselves to gathering and printing the stories of enlisted men and scouts who had been overlooked. Relatively few Custerologists have been professional historians. Many had spent all or part of their career in the military; the rest came from other professional callings. Among the most active of the twentieth century were an engineer, a newspaper editor, a professor of physiology, and a podiatrist.
Custerology has been the persistent endeavor of amateur historians for more than a century, even though the reputation of Custer himself among the larger public of the United States has fluctuated dramatically during that same period. Poets such as Whitman and Longfellow may have begun the elevation of Custer into the pantheon of American icons, but it took Anheuser-Busch to complete the process. In 1895, the brewing company commissioned Otto Becker to produce a lithograph of Cassily Adams’s painting Custer’s Last Fight and then proceeded to distribute the print to tens of thousands of barrooms across America as a decorative promotion. [Offsite link: See an image of the print on the Smithsonian website.] In the Becker lithograph, Custer stands, saber aloft, surrounded by a landscape of corpses, ready to strike the Indian assailants who besiege him. In the foreground, warriors prepare to scalp and mutilate fallen soldiers, and in the background, a mounted charge of Indians emerges from the dust of battle to spell Custer’s doom. No performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—which incorporated “Custer’s Last Rally” as its closing act for periods in the 1880s and 1890s—or Hollywood production introduced so many Americans to Custer’s gallant demise as Becker’s lithograph did.
Hollywood did play an increasing role in shaping Custer’s memory as the twentieth century proceeded, particularly as that memory began to suffer at the hands of writers seeking to debunk the story of his heroism as a mythic fallacy. The title of Frederick Van de Water’s biography, Glory-Hunter, is a tip-off to the selfish, impulsive, foolish Custer portrayed inside its covers. Van de Water published Glory-Hunter the year after Elizabeth Custer’s death, and in it he furnished the model for the Custer who was portrayed in novels and histories unsympathetic to the general for years to come. But Van de Water could not compete with Errol Flynn, whose 1941 performance in They Died with Their Boots On would both inform a nation preparing for war about the need for martial sacrifice and inspire the next generation of Custer aficionados. Flynn’s dashing, prancing Custer starts out as something of a flamboyant naf, but his sense of honor and dedication to righteousness take center stage as the film comes to its conclusion at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film may be riddled with historical inaccuracies, but Flynn’s performance has been venerated by Custerologists for generations. Moreover, They Died with Their Boots On comes much closer to the historical facts than does his 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, which features if not the worst, then surely the strangest, casting of a George Armstrong Custer on screen, with Ronald Reagan taking the role.
Yet when Custerphiles rail against the damage that Hollywood has inflicted on their Cavalier in Buckskin, to use the title of a more recent biography, it is not Reagan they have in mind. Instead, they direct their ire at Arthur Penn’s 1970 adaptation of John Berger’s best-selling novel Little Big Man, which gives readers a Custer whose racism and megalomania crumble into insanity at the Little Bighorn. Such a portrait of Custer, they are quick to point out, is true neither to the novel (where Custer is pensive and melancholic as he approaches his final battle) nor to the man revealed in historical documentation. They argue that Penn sacrificed the ambiguity of Custer’s character—his simultaneous wish to admire and to fight Indians—to a political statement that has less to do with the history of the American West than with the United States’ involvement in Vietnam at the time the film was made. To make Custer the epitome of U.S. imperialism—whether the nineteenth-century effort to conquer the Indian tribes of North America or the twentieth-century one to establish spheres of influence across the globe—strikes his advocates as both ahistorical and unfair.
These objections of the Custerphiles have some merit. Penn’s film does have much more to say about twentieth-century Indochina than about the nineteenth-century Plains. But they have missed a larger matter. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Little Bighorn, the attention paid to Custer’s last stand has always been part of Americans’ long-standing, often fractious debate among themselves about the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world, about the history of its territorial expansion and the future of its global aspirations. Contemporary references to the figure of George Armstrong Custer often link, whether intentionally or not, the nineteenth-century project of continental expansion to its twentieth- and twenty-first century endeavors as a world power. Sherman Alexie’s 1996 poem “Custer Speaks” ends with these lines:
I was born again in Hiroshima.
Indeed, the Custer films of the early 1940s seem now to be directly tied to the run-up to the entrance of the United States into World War II, and Penn is not the only writer who used the figure of Custer to address the presence of American troops in Vietnam. In his book-length account of the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, Colonel Harold Moore recalls the pride he felt upon learning that his “airmobile” soldiers had been designated a unit of the Seventh Cavalry, making them the regimental heirs of Custer and his men. Moore’s troops even adopted the title of Custer’s old regimental song, “Garryowen” (originally an Irish drinking tune), as their own slogan. In the film version, featuring Mel Gibson as Harold Moore, Custer not only serves as a reminder of the necessity of military heroism but also delivers a sense of foreboding. Gibson/Moore spends his last night before leaving for Vietnam staring at two pictures: a painting of Custer’s last stand featuring Indians engaged in the gory work of scalping and mutilation, and an equally graphic black-and-white photograph of French soldiers killed at the hands of the Viet Cong.