Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer

Overview

On a hot summer day in 1876, George Armstrong Custer led the Seventh Cavalry to the most famous defeat in U.S. military history. Outnumbered and exhausted, the Seventh Cavalry lost more than half of its 400 men, and every soldier under Custer’s direct command was killed.

It’s easy to understand why this tremendous defeat shocked the American public at the time. But with Custerology, Michael A. Elliott tackles the far more complicated question of why the battle still haunts the ...

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Overview

On a hot summer day in 1876, George Armstrong Custer led the Seventh Cavalry to the most famous defeat in U.S. military history. Outnumbered and exhausted, the Seventh Cavalry lost more than half of its 400 men, and every soldier under Custer’s direct command was killed.

It’s easy to understand why this tremendous defeat shocked the American public at the time. But with Custerology, Michael A. Elliott tackles the far more complicated question of why the battle still haunts the American imagination today. Weaving vivid historical accounts of Custer at Little Bighorn with contemporary commemorations that range from battle reenactments to the unfinished Crazy Horse memorial, Elliott reveals a Custer and a West whose legacies are still vigorously contested. He takes readers to each of the important places of Custer’s life, from his Civil War home in Michigan to the site of his famous demise, and introduces us to Native American activists, Park Service rangers, and devoted history buffs along the way.  Elliott shows how Custer and the Indian Wars continue to be both a powerful symbol of America’s bloody past and a crucial key to understanding the nation’s multicultural present.
 
“[Elliott] is an approachable guide as he takes readers to battlefields where Custer fought American Indians . . . to the Michigan town of Monroe that Custer called home after he moved there at age 10 . . . to the Black Hills of South Dakota where Custer led an expedition that gave birth to a gold rush."—Steve Weinberg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
 
“By ‘Custerology,’ Elliott means the historical interpretation and commemoration of Custer and the Indian Wars in which he fought not only by those who honor Custer but by those who celebrate the Native American resistance that defeated him. The purpose of this book is to show how Custer and the Little Bighorn can be and have been commemorated for such contradictory purposes.”—Library Journal
 

“Michael Elliott’s Custerology is vivid, trenchant, engrossing, and important. The American soldier George Armstrong Custer has been the subject of very nearly incessant debate for almost a century and a half, and the debate is multicultural, multinational, and multimedia. Mr. Elliott's book provides by far the best overview, and no one interested in the long-haired soldier whom the Indians called Son of the Morning Star can afford to miss it.”—Larry McMurtry

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

By "Custerology," Elliott (English, Emory Univ.; The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism) means the historical interpretation and commemoration of Custer and the Indian Wars in which he fought not only by those who honor Custer but by those who celebrate the Native American resistance that defeated him. This is not a history or biography of Custer. The purpose of this book is to show how Custer and the Little Bighorn can be and have been commemorated for such contradictory purposes. Elliott accomplishes his task primarily by looking at particular current instances of public history associated with Custer battlefields, museums, and reenactments, although he does mention some books and films. Also running through the book is the question of whether any commemoration of Custer and the Indian Wars is still relevant in the multicultural world of the 21st century. Elliott argues that it is. Not for the uninitiated, this complex and multilayered work is best suited for upper-division undergraduates and above and for others who are interested in the meaning and significance of Custer in today's world.
—Stephen H. Peters

New York Review of Books
The three best books about Custer and the Little Bighorn are Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star (1984), the relevant chapters in Richard Slotkin's The Fatal Environment . . . and Custerology, the book currently under review.

— Larry McMurtry

Western Historical Quarterly
A fascinating travelogue, one comparable in size , scale, and significance to Ian Frazier's Great Plains.

— R. Eli Paul

American Historical Review
An engaging, meticulously researched, and well-argued study, Elliott's book makes a significant contribtion to the voluminous literature on Custer and the Indian Wars. In addition to its attention to the social significance of popular representations of Custer, the book is notable for its sustained, complex engagement with indiginous perspectives and politics.

— Shari M. Huhndorf

On Point
Custerology succeeds as a meditation on the meaning of history. Elliott draws on both personal experience and a sure command of the vast Custer canon to describe why society latches onto certain aspects of the past and uses them to comprehend the present and alter the future. Anyone interested in why certain soldiers are remembered and others lie forgotten will find much food for thought in these pages.

— Gregory J. W. Urwin

Larry McMurtry

"The three best books about Custer and the Little Bighorn are Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star (1984), the relevant chapters in Richard Slotkin's The Fatal Environment . . . and Custerology, the book currently under review."
Louise Barnett
“Michael Elliott has invented the excellent term ‘Custerology’ to describe an intriguing cultural phenomenon—the ever-enduring interest in George Armstrong Custer. His book examines its manifestations with insight and authority. Custerology is a fascinating and valuable book that reveals its author’s generous sympathy and illuminating intelligence on every page.”
Robert Utley
“That any writer could find a fresh approach to George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn is a phenomenon. Yet Michael Elliott presents a fresh approach by relating the public obsession that has flourished for 131 years to its continuing resonance in the present and, almost certainly, the future. Custerology will not only be essential reading for aficionados, but compelling for lay readers as well.”
Nathaniel Philbrick

“Michael Elliott’s Custerology is a fascinating combination of meticulous scholarship, probing journalistic observation, and blessedly open-minded analysis. This is a book that says as much about America—in all its stunning and complex diversity—as it does about George Armstrong Custer and the battle that made him a national icon.”—Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Western Historical Quarterly - R. Eli Paul

"A fascinating travelogue, one comparable in size , scale, and significance to Ian Frazier's Great Plains."
American Historical Review - Shari M. Huhndorf

"An engaging, meticulously researched, and well-argued study, Elliott's book makes a significant contribtion to the voluminous literature on Custer and the Indian Wars. In addition to its attention to the social significance of popular representations of Custer, the book is notable for its sustained, complex engagement with indiginous perspectives and politics."
On Point - Gregory J. W. Urwin

"Custerology succeeds as a meditation on the meaning of history. Elliott draws on both personal experience and a sure command of the vast Custer canon to describe why society latches onto certain aspects of the past and uses them to comprehend the present and alter the future. Anyone interested in why certain soldiers are remembered and others lie forgotten will find much food for thought in these pages."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226201474
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 1,375,893
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael A. Elliott is associate professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism and coeditor of American Literary Studies: A Methodological Reader.

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Read an Excerpt

Custerology

The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer
By Michael A. Elliott

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-20146-7


Chapter One

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 Uplifted high in air As a ghastly trophy, bore The brave heart, that beat no more, Of the White Chief with yellow hair.

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.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Custerology by Michael A. Elliott Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations     vii
Introduction     1
Ghost Dancing on Last Stand Hill     19
Crow Agency, Montana
Being Custer     59
Monroe, Michigan
Lives on the Plains     102
Cheyenne, Oklahoma
Into the Black Hills     147
Rapid City, South Dakota
Testimony in Translation     191
The Library
Little Bighorn Forever     224
Hardin, Montana
Garryowen, Montana
Epilogue: Indian Country     273
Acknowledgments     283
Notes     285
Works Cited     313
Index     329
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2012

    This book is interesting , but very dry.

    Custerology has a flair for the dramatic romanticized history with a tendency to be excessively dry and yet it was the read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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