Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell
The Custer of our Dreams
Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn.
by Evan S. Connell.
North Point Press. 448 pp. $20.00.
“I Don’t think I’ll write any more than has been written on the Custer massacre,” stated war correspondent John F. Finerty in 1890, explaining that “the Custer business has been written, so to speak, to satiety.” But General George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn and the wiping out of some 215 men with him remains our most frequently rehashed fight. Custer buffs still wonder whether he fell early or late in the battle; argue over whether the seeds of defeat lay in his decision to split his command; question whether his subordinates could have avoided the catastrophe and defeated the “hostiles” through more vigorous action. The Little Big Horn Associates, numbering over 600, study Custer, his last fight, and the Seventh Cavalry; many Associates also belong to the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, which has over a thousand members. For millions of others, “Custer’s Last Stand” remains symbolic of glory in defeat, a struggle against hopeless odds, or (most frequently now) military ineptitude and a comeuppance for racial sins.
George Armstrong Custer, a well-liked but “underachieving” cadet at West Point, was commissioned a second lieutenant during the Civil War just in time to distinguish himself at First Bull Run. The quick thinking and tactical skill he displayed impressed such generals as George McClellan and Alfred Pleasonton, the latter recommending Custer’s promotion to brigadier at age twenty-three. At the great cavalry battle east of Gettysburg, the newly-minted “Boy General” and his Michigan Cavalry Brigade played a key role in stopping rebel horsemen from hitting the Union rear; Custer, having evaded superfluous orders, charged three to four times his own number of Confederate cavalry—and won. As a divisional commander (and major-general at twenty-five) Custer received the first flag of truce at Appomatox, and after the surrender General Philip H. Sheridan presented the table on which Grant’s terms had been drafted to Custer’s wife, writing that “there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.”
But Custer was flamboyant as well as useful, though the chief detail remembered today is his long blond hair. He was audacious—to a fault. (“If he had only added discretion to his valor,” offered a friend, “he would have been a perfect soldier.”) In an age which still treasured images of war’s chivalry and thus insured that men would try to recreate them, Custer played himself, and glittered when he rode; before routing rebel troops led by his West Point classmate General Thomas Rosser, Custer doffed his hat and bowed in the saddle, and when Confederate General Joseph Kershaw was presented to Custer, he was “royally” entertained. The rebel Kershaw described Custer at the height of his career as the most inflamed Yankee journalist might have done:
A spare, lithe, sinewy figure; bright, dark, quick-moving blue eyes; florid complexion, light, wavy curls, high cheek-bones, firm-set teeth—a jaunty close-fiting cavalry jacket, large top-boots, Spanish spurs, gold aiguilettes, a serviceable sabre . . . a quick nervous movement, an air telling of the habit of command—announced the redoubtable Custer whose name was as familiar to his foes as to his friends.
But in the minuscule postwar Regular Army, even popular heroes were hard-pressed to secure suitable positions. Custer, retaining his brevet rank of major-general, finally became lieutenant-colonel of the new Seventh U.S. Cavalry, which he generally commanded in the field. During General W.S. Hancock’s fruitless 1867 Indian campaign in Kansas, Custer found himself court-martialed for various offenses, including going AWOL to visit his wife and ordering some particularly brazen deserters to be shot on the spot. Condemned to a year’s suspension of rank and pay, the seemingly indispensable Custer was recalled by Phil Sheridan for his 1868 winter campaign against hostile Indians who had slaughtered scores of whites in Sheridan’s military district.
Marching his regiment deep into the Indian Territory, Custer struck Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village on the Washita River—killing warriors, burning lodges, shooting ponies, and bearing off the women and children; some of these were also killed or wounded, but Custer had given orders against this and all or most of these casualties were probably accidental (save for those deliberately butchered by Custer’s Osage Indian scouts). The victory still haunts Custer and his legend. He was charged with “abandoning” Major Joel Elliott and some troopers who became separated from the command and were wiped out by Indians from other villages along the river, and with attacking unsuspecting, “peaceful” Indians—though the slain, peaceably inclined Chief Black Kettle himself, who could not control his raiding warriors, had been warned that his village (which contained raiders’ loot and white captives) might be attacked.
Custer’s writings reflected his ambiguous feelings about the Indians. On the one hand, the Indian was “a savage in every sense of the word”; yet he also had many qualities which Custer could admire. In a passage often quoted by his defenders, Custer confesses:
If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people who 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.
But as an agent of civilization Custer warned that the Indian could not be given this option. “When the soil which he has claimed and hunted over for so long is demanded by this to him insatiable monster, there is no appeal; he must yield, or, like the car of Juggernaut, it will roll mercilessly over him, destroying as it advances.” It was the “persistent paradox” of white-Indian intercourse, as well as his own contradictory nature, that enabled Custer in his memoirs first to denounce the stereotyped “noble red man” and then, a few pages later, lament that reservation life deprived the Indian of those qualities which “tend to render him noble.”
Sometimes he seems all contradictions, a personality dividing those who knew him, and those who would only read about him, into opposing camps. He could be a brutal disciplinarian—yet a Kansas volunteer cavalryman wrote during the Washita campaign that Custer’s men all liked him and thought him “a fine fellow, kind to them and will share with a private who is in need.” He impressed men as modest, yet egomaniacal; methodical, yet reckless. His boyishness was a cardinal virtue, or a commander’s fatal flaw. He was honest to the point of naiveté; he was cold and calculating. He cared only for duty; he hungered for glory at the expense of others.
But controversy is not legend; only Custer’s death could guarantee his apotheosis. In 1876 the U.S. government, determined to bring all Plains tribesmen under its control—partly to make possible the seizure of the Dakotas’ Black Hills, where an expedition led by Custer had discovered gold in 1874—ordered three columns of troops against the bands of such “irreconcilable” Sioux leaders as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Custer would have commanded one of these, had he not angered President Grant by testifying before Congress to the complicity of Grant’s brother Orvil and others in Indian Bureau graft. By his own entreaty and that of General Alfred Terry, Custer was finally permitted to command his own regiment.
On June 25, 1876, Custer, having separated from Terry’s column with the Seventh Cavalry, gazed into the valley of Montana’s Little Big Horn River. His Indian guides insisted there was a big hostile vilage nearby—and that the soldiers’ presence was known. Rather than conceal his regiment until dawn for a Washita-sty le attack, Custer felt obliged to mount a daytime assault. The regiment was divided into four parts, including one company for the lagging pack train. Captain Frederick W. Benteen went on a scouting mission to the left with three companies, while Major Marcus A. Reno, with three more, was to strike the village—Reno later testifying that Custer had told him he would be “supported by the whole outfit.” Riding with Custer’s own five companies were his brothers Captain Thomas W. Custer (holder of two Medals of Honor) and Boston Custer (a civilian employee), his skylarking nephew Armstrong Reed, and his brother-in-law Lieutenant James Calhoun.
Reno attacked first; but as he rode forward, Indians began to swarm from the village. Despite the lack of strong resistance, Reno stopped dead and formed a skirmish line, losing the value of shock and surprise. He then retreated to some timber, where Indian pressure increased. Reno apparently panicked and led another retreat (or “charge” as he called it) toward some bluffs on the other side of the river. Retreat became rout as the soldiers were pursued by the emboldened Indians, and heavy casualties included the black scout and interpreter Isaiah Dorman, later found to have been tortured before death.
Custer, aware of Reno’s engagement, had apparently decided to support him with a flank attack. Trumpeter John Martin reached Benteen with the general’s last message: “Benteen: Come on. Be quick. Big village. Bring [ammunition] Packs. W.W. Cooke. P.S. Bring Pacs [sic].” Benteen, who had ended his fruitless scouting mission, went forward to Custer but was stopped by Reno, who had halted his retreat. A movement toward Custer initiated by an officer acting without orders ended in withdrawal under Indian assault; no further attempt was made to link up.
In the meantime, Custer had engaged an overwhelming number of hostile Sioux and Cheyenne. His exact movements and actions will never be known, and Indian eyewitnesses, many of whom were interviewed in later years, told such wildly contradictory stories that little consensus could be reached concerning even the broad outline of the battle’s progress.
After a second day of siege by the Indians, the Reno-Benteen men were relieved on June 27 by troops under Generals Terry and Gibbon, who informed the shocked soldiers that the bodies of Custer’s command had been found. Custer himself, shot twice, lay naked among over forty men on what was later known as “Custer Hill,” where a last stand had been made using dead horses as impromptu breastworks. He had been wearing his hair short and was not scalped, but, according to recently divulged information, an arrow shaft had been forced up his penis. He was thirty-six.
Here were the raw materials of epic. After news reached the East and recriminations were exchanged (those blamed for the debacle included Custer, Reno and/or Benteen, corrupt Indian agents, and President Grant), the facts of Custer’s last battle (as Bruce Rosenberg has traced in his book, Custer and the Epic of Defeat) were interpreted or altered to fit the mythic pattern of other last-ditch, no-survivors fights throughout history. For Walt Whitman, the Last Stand simply confirmed the
. . . old, old legend of our race
The loftiest of life upheld by
For many years, Custer’s Last Stand eclipsed the Alamo as America’s answer to Thermopylae. His popular image was heroic—often absurdly so. (Even if not tactically right, he remained romantic.) Custer’s devoted widow Elizabeth contributed to the legend with three books recounting the couple’s life; she also managed to inhibit (and outlive) some acquaintances of the general who pulled their critical punches during her lifetime.
After she died in 1933, the debunkers quickly gained the upper hand. In 1934 Frederic F. Van de Water published his Glory-Hunter, portraying Custer as a near-psychopath willing to betray anyone for personal fame. The hostility of many such “Custerphobes” bordered on the unhealthy. But Custer’s personality puzzled even cooler-headed students; when, over thirty years later, the conscientious historian Robert Utley, who had entertainingly chronicled the legend’s origins in Custer and the Great Controversy, was asked by the New York Times to define the “real” Custer, his article was rejected, for he had disdained to pigeonhole the hero as the Times—and perhaps the times—demanded.
As the symbolic Indian-fighting army officer, Custer soon became a whipping boy for “pro-Indian” writers and Hollywood film-makers. In the Vietnam war era, Indians were “in,” Custer was the dead horseman to beat. Vine Deloria, Jr. told us that Custer Died for Your Sins; Dee Brown’s best-selling “history,” Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, denounced him to guilt-ridden whites. (Brown’s later coffee-table book, The Westerners, contains a chapter on Custer and his wife in which virtually every statement is false or misleading.) In Arthur Penn’s distorted 1970 film of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Custer conducts a My Lai-style massacre at the Washita before going mad at the Last Stand—which Penn, a bloodthirsty liberal, considered a Good Thing. Perhaps the culmination of this trend occurred in 1976, at the Last Stand’s centennial observance at the battlefield, where Indian hoodlums poured urine on the monument to the dead (resting on a mass grave) and cavalry buffs reriding Custer’s route were fired upon.
Other Western heroes, once debunked, cease to be important, but not Custer, the essential scapegoat. Although his defenders still attempt to restore his laurels, they are seldom heeded by the mass media, where oversimplification and error run riot—in one school text, Lieutenant Custer even wins his brigadier’s promotion through a clerical error, a “fact” gleaned from the 1941 Errol Flynn film, They Died With Their Boots On. In the popular press, film, and television, Custer remains a complete buffoon and scoundrel, reviled like no other former hero.
Enter novelist Evan S. Connell, fascinated by it all, to immerse himself in “Custeriana” and emerge with a best-selling work which John M. Carroll, one of Custer’s most energetic defenders, calls “the best book ever written on the battle of the Little Big Horn.” It is crammed with a wealth of vivid and fascinating detail.
Unfortunately, the “big story” often seems to elude Connell, who is obsessed with digression, flashback, and flashforward. Rather than telling the tale chronologically, Connell begins his crazy-quilt narrative with Custer’s detachment already annihilated and the remainder of the Seventh under Reno and Benteen besieged by the Indians; but soon Captain Frederick Benteen is urinating against a tent within earshot of appalled ladies, as recounted at his 1887 court-martial. Before we really know who Marcus Reno is, we are already bombarded with opinions on his courage or cowardice; he dies on page 47 (complete with obituary) only to be resurrected later. The digressions are such that the narrative is almost indiscernible; it seems all potted biographies and discourses on subjects Western. Lost in Custer trivia, Connell even wastes more than a page on a temperance fanatic’s destruction of a “Last Stand” lithograph put out by the Anheuser-Busch brewing company.
Connell does break with most popular authors in not vilifying Custer; absent is the Indian hater or incarnate fiend. But neither does he view Custer altogether favorably, and he sometimes repeats charges against him without applying the proper skepticism. He seems content to believe that Custer’s military talent was minimal, a belief disputed by Gregory Urwin in his recent defense of Custer’s Civil War generalship, Custer Victorious. Connell’s Plains Indians are refreshingly unsentimentalized (he unflinchingly details their love of war, the atrocities they committed, and the ecological havoc they wrought), yet he repeats the absurd charge that of Cheyennes slain at the Washita, 92 out of 103 were noncombatants. Evidence and simple probability dictate otherwise, especially since over 50 prisoners were taken. Perhaps most disappointingly of all, Connell attempts little systematic analysis of the Little Big Horn battle, preferring to bounce about facts and possibilities and leave the possibly bewildered reader to choose among them.
In one sense, Connell’s lack of system could be said to reflect his view of Custer’s complex personality. Rather than pinning Custer to any post-mortem psychiatric couch, Connell in effect marvels at his paradoxical magnificence. Ultimately, he seems to savor the mystery of it all; if his book has one grand theme, it is that much of the truth about Custer is beyond our grasp.
Perhaps one day what Bruce Rosenberg calls “the Custer of our dreams” will resemble a real person. In the meantime, Evan Connell’s book at least strikes a blow in favor of complexity. As for the zealous student of the subject, he knows that no matter which book he considers the best, it won’t be the last. Of the making of Custer books there is no end.