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Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Had George Custer been killed at Appomattox, writes the author, he would have been remembered only as the great cavalry general who ranked next to Sheridan in the Union Army. At 23, the ``Boy General'' combined audacity, courage, leadership and an uncanny instinct for striking the critical blow in battle. By contrast, his reputation as a frontier commander was tarnished, and his claim to immortality rests on the debacle at the Little Big Horn. Utley, former chief historian and assistant director of the National Park Service, has written extensively about military action in the West. Here he examines the man behind the legenda man of contradictions who inspired devotion or hatred but not indifference. Custer's quest for money led to shady deals and probable kickbacks; he faced a court-martial and was suspended from the Army for a period. Utley gives a detailed picture of the frontier Army and the events that led up to the Last Stand. He refutes the notion that the battle was an act of bravado to secure personal glory for Custer. Rather, he argues, it was bad luck. Nobody expected the Indians to stand and fight; other companies mismanaged intelligence, and all of them underestimated their opponents. Utley makes a plausible case. This is heady material for western and military buffs. Illustrations. 13,500 first printing; BOMC and History Book Club selections. (October)
First volume in the Oklahoma Western Biographies series and Book-of- the-Month Club selection. According to Paul Andrew Hutton, the best biography of Custer ever written." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

Table of Contents

Series Editor's Preface Page xiii
Preface xv
1 Immortality 3
2 Boy General 13
3 Regular Army 36
4 Total War 57
5 Iron Horse 103
6 Gold 128
7 Politics 148
8 Last Stand 165
9 Judgments 194
Sources 213
Index 217
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First Chapter




THE Tribune Extra hit the dusty streets of Bismarck, Dakota Territory, on the morning of July 6, 1876, its strident headlines fixing the tone for newspapers all over the United States.

The nation's senior generals read the headlines in the Philadelphia papers. William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan, attending the festivities in Independence Square marking the centennial of American independence, had remained to tour the great exposition celebrating one hundred years of national progress.

Reporters sought out the generals to ask about the headlines. Sheridan pointed out that the report bore all the marks of a fanciful tale by an imaginative frontier scout. Sherman refused to take the dispatch seriously either. In the absence of any confirmation from official sources, he said, the press item had to be discounted as mere rumor. As he spoke, an aide handed him a telegram: "Dispatches from General Terry ... confirm the newspaper reports of a fight on the 25th of June, on the Little Horn, and of General Custer's death."

Custer dead? To the generals as well as all who read the papers that morning, the story seemed preposterous. For more than a decade George Armstrong Custer had basked in public adulation as a national hero. In the Civil War he had won headlines as the "Boy General." With flowing blonde locks and gaudy uniform, he had led a full division of Sheridan's cavalry at age twenty-four and had fought his way from one resounding triumph to another. Since Appomattox, with fringed buckskins replacing blue and gold, and as lieutenant colonel of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, he had kept his name bright with Indian victories and hunting exploits on the western plains. By 1876 the public saw him as the very embodiment of the Indian-fighting army, civilization's advance guard opening the way for hardy pioneers who would subdue the western wilderness and, as divinely enjoined, make it blossom with the fruits of honest toil. Even to hardeyed realists like Sherman and Sheridan, the vaunted Custer could hardly fall victim to a calamity such as the newspapers reported.

But the unthinkable was true after all. For forty-eight hours the telegraph key in the Northern Pacific depot at Bismarck never stopped clicking as the fateful details sped eastward to pack newspaper columns for days on end. Custer and his regiment, about six hundred strong, had come upon an Indian village that numbered about eight thousand people, with perhaps two thousand fighting men. He had divided his command and attacked. Major Marcus A. Reno and three companies had been repulsed and had joined with Captain Frederick W. Benteen and three more companies, together with the supply train and still another company, in hilltop positions. For two days they had held out against besieging warriors. When help finally arrived, driving the Indians off, scouts had found the bodies of Custer and the men of five companies, 210 officers and enlisted soldiers, scattered along a ridge four miles down the Little Bighorn River from Reno's hill. No man of that force survived.

Such were the bare details, but they were promptly buried under an avalanche of emotional prose as editors hurried to sensationalize one of the biggest news stories of the time. In the florid prose of the day, correspondents penned vivid accounts drawn from fertile imagination. Typical was one in the New York Herald:

In that mad charge up the narrow ravine, with the rocks above raining down lead upon the fated three hundred, with fire spouting from every bush ahead, with the wild, swarming horsemen circling along the heights like shrieking vultures waiting for the moment to sweep down and finish the bloody tale, every form, from private to general, rises to heroic size, and the scene fixes itself indelibly upon the mind. "The Seventh fought like tigers," says the dispatch; yea, they died as grandly as Homer's demigods. In the supreme moment of carnage, as death's relentless sweep gathered in the entire command, all distinctions of name and rank were blended, but the family that "died at the head of their column" [Custer, two brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law] will lead the throng when history recalls their deed.... Success was beyond their grasp, so they died--to a man.

The press also plunged into a bitter controversy over the character and actions of the star player of the drama. On the very eve of his last campaign, Custer had gained notoriety by charging the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant with fraud and corruption on the frontier. With the 1876 presidential-election contest heating up, editorial writers chose sides according to their paper's political affiliation. Democratic journals portrayed the dead hero as the tragic victim of Grant's Indian policy, while Republican papers assailed him as a foolhardy glory hunter.

"Who Slew Custer?" asked the New York Herald. "The celebrated peace policy of General Grant," it answered, "which feeds, clothes and takes care of their noncombatant force while the men are killing our troops--that is what killed Custer.... That nest of thieves, the Indian Bureau, with its thieving agents and favorites as Indian traders, and its mock humanity and presence of piety--that is what killed Custer."

Not so, editorialized the Chicago Tribune; Custer caused his own death. He "preferred to make a reckless dash and take the consequences, in the hope of making a personal victory and adding to the glory of another charge, rather than wait for a sufficiently powerful force to make the fight successful and share the glory with others."

The disagreements among editorial writers mirrored disagreements within the military fraternity. Among his fellow officers, the young luminary had always inspired mixed opinions. Many disliked him personally, envied his success and eminence, and regarded him as a creature of press-agentry, altogether lacking in military merit. Others idolized him, or simply admired his record as a soldier.

The nation's most venerated soldier led in the attack. "I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops," declared President Grant, "brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary--wholly unnecessary."

Others picked up the theme. Unnamed officers in Washington as well as at General Sheridan's headquarters in Chicago accused Custer of disobeying orders and rushing blindly into an ambush, all because of "that foolish pride which so often results in the defeat of men." Samuel D. Sturgis, Custer's immediate superior as colonel of the Seventh Cavalry, told reporters that his subordinate "was a brave man, but also a very selfish man. He was insanely ambitious of glory;" he was "tyrannical and had no regard for the soldiers under him;" and on the Little Bighorn, he "made his attack recklessly, earlier by thirty-six hours than he should have done, and with men tired out from forced marches." Even Sherman and Sheridan conceded that Custer was "rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians."

Few officers on active duty charged to Custer's defense, although many, notably the aggressive Colonel Nelson A. Miles, backed him wholeheartedly, and even Sherman and Sheridan later softened their indictment. Strangely, Custer's most vigorous support came from former Confederate foes. One was General Joseph E. Johnston. Another, General John McCausland, said that he would have done just what Custer did. "The only way to fight with cavalry is with a dash--to charge. I don't blame him." A third, General Thomas L. Rosser, a West Point comrade, absolved his old friend and Civil War opponent of recklessness and laid the blame entirely on Major Reno, who "took to the hills, and abandoned Custer and his gallant comrades to their fate."

Within weeks after the news of the Little Bighorn electrified the nation, the groundwork had been laid for one of the most universal and enduring legends of all time. The mystery of what happened on the Custer battlefield, combined with the dazzling and controversial persona of George Armstrong Custer, kindled a fascination in the public mind destined to grow out of all proportion to the true significance of the man and the event.

On the popular front the newspapers created an enormous body of imaginative falsehood that subsequent writers drew on uncritically. Custer's first biographer bears major responsibility. Frederick Whittaker, a sometime dime novelist and Civil War veteran who idolized Custer, rushed his thick, turgid tome into print within six months after the Little Bighorn. Crammed with misinformation from the press, it served as a principal source for a generation of scribblers of adventure books, tabloids, and penny dreadfuls, many of whom flagrantly plagiarized it.

This sample, typical of much that pretended to history, is from J. W. Buel's Heroes of the Plains (1881):

Men had sunk down beside their gallant leader until there was but a handful left, only a dozen, bleeding from many wounds, and hot carbines in their stiffening hands. The day is almost done, when, look! heaven now defend him, the charm of his life is broken, for Custer has fallen; a bullet cleaves a pathway through his side, and as he falters another strikes his noble breast. Like a strong oak stricken by the lightning's bolt, shivering the mighty trunk and bending the writhing branches down close to the earth, so fell Custer; but like the reacting branches, he rises partly up again and striking out like a fatally wounded giant lays three more Indians dead and breaks his mighty sword on the musket of the fourth; then, with useless blade and empty pistol falls back the victim of a dozen wounds. He is the last to succumb to death, and dies, too, with the glory of accomplished duty in his conscience and the benediction of a grateful country on his head.

By the close of the nineteenth century so much demonstrable untruth of this sort had been crammed into the collective American memory as to be forever beyond eradication. (No one knows when he died, or how he died, or even where he died. He bore two wounds, not a dozen. Neither he nor anyone else carried a sword.)

On the professional front the debates in military circles over the commander and his decisions lent the subject respectability while adding zest and broad appeal to its mythological life. The army officially disposed of the dispute in 1879, when a military court of inquiry took testimony and gave Major Reno an insipid exoneration of any fault in the disaster. But that only stoked the controversies over who deserved the blame. Did Custer dash heedlessly to his doom in quest of glory? Did he disobey the orders of his superior? Did he rashly divide a command that should have been kept intact? Did he launch his assault blindly, without proper reconnaissance? Among not only professional soldiers but an army of students as well, these arguments have raged endlessly generation after generation.

Ever present in the background of the controversies was the shadow of Elizabeth Custer. The tragic figure in black, widowed at thirty-four, prompted silence in many who might have spoken in criticism. On her own, furthermore, she shaped the public's memory--and thus posterity's conception--of her dead husband. She worked closely with Frederick Whittaker to ensure that the image projected by his Life of Custer coincided with her own. She wrote three books herself--Boots and Saddles (1885), Following the Guidon (1890), and Tenting on the Plains (1893). All were intimate portrayals of a saintly husband and an idyllic marriage, and they made their legions of readers see him as she wanted him seen.

Libbie Custer devoted the rest of her life to protecting and defending the memory of her "Autie." And if there was a "conspiracy of silence" to defer attacks on him until she died, it was a futile conspiracy, for she outlived all the conspirators. She died on April 6, 1933, two days short of her ninety-first birthday, and almost fifty-seven years after the July day when the steamboat Far West nosed into the Fort Lincoln landing with Major Reno's wounded from the battlefield of the Little Bighorn.

Not only prose, but poetry, art, and drama glorified the Boy General. Poets began framing verse on the very day of the first dispatch. On July 7, 1876, no less an interpreter of the American scene than Walt Whitman penned a paean to "Thou of the sunny, flowing hair," and both John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ultimately made their contribution. In verse after verse, Longfellow's "The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face" recounted the saga of the Little Bighorn and immortalized one of its most persistent myths:

But the foemen fled in the night
And Rain-in-the-Face, in his flight,
Uplifted high in the air
As a ghastly trophy, bore
The brave heart, that beat no more
of the White Chief with the yellow hair.

Almost a century after the Little Bighorn, one authority had identified no less than 150 poetic renditions of Custer's death on the bleak Montana ridge. Most were by unknown hacks, but even more than the Whitmans, Whittiers, and Longfellows, they captured the essence of the Custer legend. First the newspapers, then Whittaker, had told how, as the battle neared its end, a Crow Indian scout had offered to lead Custer to safety:

A second's silence. Custer dropped his head,
His lips slow moving as when prayers are said--
Two words he breathed--"God and Elizabeth,"
Then shook his long locks in the face of death,
And with a final gesture turned away
To join the fated few who stood at bay.
Ah! deeds like that the Christ in man reveal
Let Fame descend her throne at Custer's shrine to kneel.

Painters and illustrators lost no more time than the poets in embracing the subject, as the newspapers and magazines of 1876 amply attest, and decade after decade the mountain of artwork portraying Custer and the Little Bighorn has risen ever higher. Nearly two thousand depictions have been identified, ranging from giant, meticulously detailed canvases through magazine illustrations to the "pop art" of modern advertising.

By all odds, the most famous is the Adams-Becker painting. No faces in American history have inspired greater boozy contemplation than those of the men who peer out from this work. Cassilly Adams painted the original in 1886--a huge, stilted, undramatic composition intended as a traveling exhibition. But it remained for Otto Becker, recreating the canvas for lithograph by the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company, to beget the version that adorned the saloon walls of America for a generation. Ultimately, more than a million copies rolled off the presses, prompting one authority to speculate that it had been viewed by more low brows and fewer art critics than any other picture in American history.

The dramatic arts also quickly turned to Custer and the Last Stand. The typical theater stage was scarcely large enough to encompass so magnificent a subject, but some thespian troupes tried. It remained to the great tent-sheltered Wild West shows of Adam Forepaugh and Buffalo Bill Cody, however, to do the drama justice. Forepaugh regularly reenacted "Custer's Last Rally" as part of his production, while Cody staged it as the grand climax of his show.

These and other Wild West circuses, of course, merely prefigured the greater splendor of the motion pictures. The very first of the silent film makers found Custer irresistible. Between 1909 and 1913 no less than five features, including one directed by D. W. Griffith, focused on Custer and the Little Bighorn. Others appeared in the 1920s, especially as the fiftieth anniversary, in 1926, fired fresh public interest.

The twentieth century loosed new floods of prose. An unending procession of novels, including several respectable juveniles, featured stock characters riding with the Boy General. A new crop of historians took up the old controversies as the professional soldiers of the Indian-fighting years died off. Custer did not escape the school of fashionably cynical debunkers that formed coincident with the Great Depression. In Glory Hunter, published in 1934, Frederic F. Van de Water pictured a Custer in every way the opposite of Whittaker's gallant cavalier: tyrannical, brutal, detestable, vain, ambitious, selfish, arrogant, reckless, and incompetent.

The anti-hero image put down deep roots in American prose, but did not entirely crowd out the hero image. For many, Custer continued to be the shining knight of old. Frederick Whittaker would have applauded Warner Brothers' 1941 spectacle They Died with Their Boots On, in which Errol Flynn swashbuckled his way from Bull Run to the Little Bighorn, along the way fighting Rebels, Indians, dim-witted superiors, and corrupt politicians. Olivia de Havilland's Libbie furnished the love angle. The picture perpetuated almost every cliche in the Custer repertory, but a nation just entering World War II found it a stirring celebration of America's military heritage.

In the twentieth century, Custer not only endured as legend but also came to life as symbol. Because it was instantly recognizable by almost everyone, the single word, "Custer," became synonymous with whichever character traits one wished to assign him--from the suicidal rashness of Van de Water to the selfless courage of Whittaker. Bridging all personality extremes, Custer was a synonym for the lost cause, the forlorn hope, the total disaster looming momentarily in whatever context one applied it. This symbolism took the form of admonitory rhetoric, editorial commentary, political cartoons, and the one-liners of comedians. Nearly every political crisis brought forth a rash of cartoons depicting a beleaguered public figure, bristling with arrows and surrounded by fallen troops, standing alone atop the last-stand hill.

In the decades following World War II, a darker and deeper symbolism also surfaced--Custer as emblem of America's misdeeds against the Indians. "Custer Died for Your Sins," Vine Deloria declared in the title of his 1968 best seller, which signaled the beginning of the American Indian protest movement. "Custer Died for Your Sins," proclaimed the bumper stickers, picking up the theme. Almost overnight, George Armstrong Custer became the symbol for all the iniquities perpetrated by whites on Indians--and some that were not.

Custer could symbolize the nation's guilt complex because his name carried two essential ingredients of a usable symbol: it was almost universally recognized, and it evoked the appropriate historical connotations. Moreover, the Van de Water characterization had become common enough that, with a bit of embroidery, Custer could play the truly heavy villain. The films of the 1960s, which began to look at Indians as human beings rather than mere impersonal foils for white pioneers, also increasingly portrayed Custer as a bloodthirsty Indian killer, leading his troopers on murderous rampages that wiped out whole villages and cut down men, women, and children indiscriminately. For such a butcher, the posters announcing that "Custer had it coming" simply stated the obvious.

Butcher Custer reached an apogee in Arthur Penn's 1970 film version of Thomas Berger's novel, Little Big Man. Here Custer did double duty--as a metaphor for American barbarism in the Indian wars and for identical American barbarism in Vietnam. The lunatic Custer, raging about the Little Bighorn battlefield with insane laughter and incoherent shouts as the Indians closed in, personalized the madness of both conflicts. Little Big Man cried out against Vietnam while crying out for atonement to the American Indians.

In 1976, Custer again helped to advance the cause of Indian reform, when celebrants gathered at the Custer battlefield to mark the centennial of the Little Bighorn. Just as the army band struck up "Garry Owen," Custer's battle song, Indian drums sounded and up the road marched Russell Means, leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM), with two hundred followers. As a signal of distress, they dragged on the pavement an American flag, upside down. To dramatize the plight of the Indians, Means threatened to disrupt the ceremony and even torch the museum containing Custer memorabilia. A parley produced a truce, but the speeches proceeded in front of a nervous audience ringed by Indian activists in red berets with folded arms and menacing visages. Custer, as symbol of all that was reprehensible in America's treatment of the Indians, had been enlisted in the crusade for Indian rights. As Means knew, an Indian protest at Custer battlefield on the centennial of the battle could not fail to attract national attention, and he was right.

Popular fascination with General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn showed no sign of weakening. In the 1980s it took on new life as breathless press dispatches reported two summers of archaeological investigations on the Custer battlefield. Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star, a vast, rambling potpourri of Custeriana, hit the best-seller list and promptly headed for television. Books, magazine articles, motion pictures, and television continued to dramatize the man's life and probe the mysteries of his death. The Little Big Horn Associates, a national organization dedicated to Custer and the Last Stand, counted more than eight hundred members and drew hundreds to annual conventions.

Clearly, the Custer of legend and symbol is a different person from the Custer of reality. For each generation of Americans since 1876, the mythic Custer tapped deep and revealing intellectual and emotional currents. He was what they wanted him to be, and what they made him told more about the creators than the created. In turn, this towering Custer of folklore endowed the Custer of history with a significance far beyond what he attained in his lifetime. It makes an examination of who he was and what he did more worthwhile than if he were simply another Civil War general turned Indian fighter. What he did is readily discoverable. Who he was is vastly more elusive.

George Armstrong Custer's admiring public saw him as the personification of the Indian-fighting army. As a leader of blue-clad troopers on the frontier, his name shone more brightly and constantly than all others, some of possibly greater achievement and skill. In many ways he merited the public's vision of him. Because both posterity and his contemporaries ranked him as the premier Indian fighter of all time, he affords an ideal medium for viewing and understanding the institution of which he was so conspicuous a part--the frontier army of the American West.

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