Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer
by Michael A. Elliott
Reviewed by Larry McMurtry
New York Review of Books
No sooner had I finished reviewing Michael Wallis's recent biography of Billy the Kid for this journal than what should come in the next day's mail but Michael Elliott's excellent new book Custerology, about that other hardy perennial of western legend, sometime General George Armstrong Custer, who with more than 250 men of the Seventh Cavalry, which he commanded, met his death in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in southern Montana, on the afternoon of June 25, 1876. This was only a little more than a week before the US was to celebrate its one hundredth birthday in Philadelphia, which festivities Custer would undoubtedly have enjoyed attending with his vivacious wife Libbie. Had things gone his way in Montana, the Custers might well have made it to the big party, and if Philadelphia was too far, there was also the Democratic convention, held that year in St. Louis.
As it happened, something more than distance dashed the Custers' hopes. An overwhelming force of fighting men chiefly from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes saw to it that Long Hair, as Custer was sometimes called, did not have things go his way.
Legend -- I emphasize the word -- has it that as fortune failed Custer he fired his last bullet and laughed. How did the warrior or warriors who may have seen this know it was his last bullet? By that time the dust stirred by perhaps two thousand horses and the gunsmoke from hundreds of rifles would have reduced visibility so that even Long Hair -- who sported a recent haircut -- might not have been recognized. Was the empty pistol there when, sometime later, his corpse was identified? Why wouldn't an Indian simply have taken it?
Custer himself was not incapable of irony. Brilliantly and precociously successful during the Civil War, he had then mostly, in the American West, watched his career stall. President Grant didn't like him and soon bluntly placed the blame for the embarrassing massacre squarely on Custer, which, it now seems clear, was where the blame belonged. Perhaps he did laugh at the end, but somehow the image doesn't quite fit.
Here is a much-quoted example of General Custer's irony, taken from his autobiography My Life on the Plains -- sometimes called by the Custer-hating Captain Frederick Benteen, who had served under him, My Lie on the Plains -- published in 1874:
If I were an Indian, I often think that 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....
Though Custer as a cadet at West Point did practically nothing but accumulate demerits, he often wrote fairly well. In periods when President Grant kept him on the shelf, usually to punish him for flagrant misdeeds, Custer turned to journalism, writing for the sporting journal Turf, Field and Farm and other magazines.
Custer's lament for the passing of the wild free West is a common but bittersweet theme in western narratives from Lewis and Clark on. George Armstrong Custer deliberately and knowingly hastened this passing in 1874, on his famous trip into the Black Hills of South Dakota, then owned by the Sioux, when he sent the scout Lonesome Charley Reynolds back to announce to a waiting America the discovery of gold. If Custer knew anything, it was that no treaty would hold against gold fever. The Sioux now call the route Custer took into the Black Hills the Thieves' Road. Lonesome Charley Reynolds died at the Little Bighorn.
It's well enough for Custer to say that he would cast his lot with the unconfined Indians of the plains, but almost by the time the bones of the horses had been picked clean on Last Stand Hill following his defeat at the Little Bighorn, the number of unconfined Indians was rapidly diminishing. Sitting Bull took his band to Canada and stayed there until they starved and then, after a year with Buffalo Bill's Wild West, he became a reservation Indian, too.
Crazy Horse was killed in 1877. Even as the victors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn disbanded and left the battlefield, many felt a sense of foreboding. They had won the battle but knew they weren't going to win the war.
Even as the sun set for Custer, dawn broke for the Custerologists -- as Michael Elliott calls them -- whose numbers now darken the sky. If you don't believe me, write yourself some life insurance, then head up to Hardin, Montana, toward the end of June, and you'll be able to take in not one but two reenactments of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, one sponsored by the town of Hardin itself (admission $16) and one put on by the powerful Crow family called the Real Birds (admission $12).
The Crow were scouts for Custer, and fought along with him. I attended the Crow sundance once, which might as well have been held in Harvard Yard, so thick were the white ethnologists on the ground. It would probably have been warmer in Harvard Yard too.
No one should think that because 130 years have passed since the battle the passions between tribes and within tribes have abated. Much of Michael Elliott's book is devoted to explaining that people who might have been expected to calm down in that length of time in fact haven't calmed down at all. For example, as Elliott points out, all the native guides to the battlefield itself are now Crow.
Lame Deer, a Cheyenne community not very far from the battlefield, is filled with people who aren't guiding any Wasichus (whites) anywhere. The Cheyenne fought Custer, and were punished for it. Lame Deer and Hardin are towns that might as well be on opposite sides of the moon. Explaining how all this works out today is part of what Elliott's book is about. In 2003 the federal government dedicated the Little Bighorn Indian Memorial, an earthwork that leads to a stone wall with maps and a text. A slogan on the wall says: "The Indian Wars Are Not Over."
In the mid-Eighties we, as booksellers, acquired an accumulation of what was then called Custeriana that numbered more than one thousand items: scrapbooks, newsletters, trial reports, diaries, pamphlets, magazines, reprints of reprints, the publications of various historical societies, and the like. This sort of stuff is what Michael Elliott calls Custerology. We eventually sold off our hoard for roughly the price of a shelf of Fritos and never looked back.
If we had chosen to increase our holdings in Custerology we would now have at least several thousand items -- and now that the computer has made self-publication easy, the total will only swell. The one good thing one can say about this mass of effluvia is that Custerologists have become steadily better educated. Instead of fistfights in parking lots we now have the many issues that remain -- indeed, all issues essentially remain -- aired in academic forums and the frequent meetings of several historical societies.
It's an improvement, but events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn are still, to a degree, permanently ambiguous, which is part of their permanent interest to Americans. Not that occasional silliness has vanished from these forums: there is a splinter group of Custerologists who insist on a three-word spelling of the battlefield: Little Big Horn, rather than the much more common merging that makes it Little Bighorn. Quarrels over nomenclature -- after all, two races and several languages are involved -- have been frequent ever since Custer laughed his last laugh -- if he did.
The memoirs of Custer himself, and of his wife Elizabeth (she wrote three), are useful in ways their authors didn't intend. Otherwise, in my opinion, 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: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (1985), and Custerology, the book currently under review. I should add, firmly, that I'm talking about books written from the white side only. Books from the Indian side -- Black Elk Speaks (1932), for example -- would need another essay, since there are a great many.
I don't disagree with Michael Elliott about much, but I do disagree with him about Connell's Son of the Morning Star, which I consider one of the few masterpieces to concern itself with the American West. Elliott calls it "novelistic" but it isn't. Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964), about roughly the same subject, is indeed an inventive novel. But Evan Connell, it seems to me, is a kind of historian-mosaicist, carefully placing a flake of gold here and a flake of gold there -- each flake adds to the look of the whole, and might be an incident, a character, a speculation or guess, a vignette. He is particularly strong in evoking the character of the Indians.
Here, for example, is Connell's description of Satanta (White Bear) of the Kiowas, who happily participated in a small massacre only a few miles from my family ranch house:
He was a thick, muscular individual with brilliant eyes and red paint smeared all over his face.... This spectacular apparition lived in a bright red lodge and when he rode off to war, which he did rather often, he painted not only his face but his entire body red. With obsessive consistency he carried a red shield. He may also have painted his war pony red, right down to the hooves. He was adored by Kiowa squaws.... At lunchtime he would order a carpet spread in his lodge and the repast would be served on painted boards which he had decorated with tacks....
In addition Satanta had a French horn that he blew vigorously when meals were ready. While in prison in Huntsville, Texas, for his part in a local massacre in 1871, Satanta dove out of a high window to his death -- an act I stole for my novel Lonesome Dove. Had it not been for his bad luck Satanta might have bagged General Sherman, who passed practically under his nose a few hours before the fight. General Sherman, more than once, had fortune on his side.
Three times in the past twenty years I've been asked to write a book about Custer and the Little Bighorn, and each time I've pointed to Son of the Morning Star and asked why. Of course it could be that Custer, and the battle and the West, need to be looked at afresh every generation, and here Michael Elliott, a literary scholar, has given us a book that is very persuasive. Like Elliott, I too greatly admire Richard Slotkin's The Fatal Environment, but it is about a great deal more than Custer. Slotkin is as good if not better on James Fenimore Cooper as he is on Custer. He is particularly alert to what the newspapers were saying about the West, particularly the New York Herald in the era of James Gordon Bennett, who was not only important in forming what is frequently called the "Custer Myth" but who also made Sitting Bull famous and was of some help in getting Buffalo Bill started in show business.
Custer himself was a correspondent for the Herald during his last campaign, and had he had accurate information on the standoff between General George Crook and the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian forces on the Rosebud River only eight days before the Little Bighorn he might have behaved somewhat less brashly, and not so grievously underestimated his foe. The eastern newspapers generally and the Herald in particular, as Slotkin points out, wanted it both ways. They wanted the Indians disposed of but, if possible, disposed of nicely.
In his fine book, Slotkin draws on the metropolitan press of the period and on other accounts to suggest large ideological shifts in political and social perspective on the nineteenth-century West. He quotes this from the New York Herald:
It is inconsistent with our civilization and with common sense to allow the Indian to roam over a country as fine as that around the Black Hills, preventing its development in order that he may shoot game and scalp his neighbors. That can never be. This region must be taken from the Indian even as we took Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Not to mention all the other states. The Indians, for their part, knew the whites were about to destroy them and take over their land.
For Slotkin's purposes Custer's march into the Black Hills in 1874 to take back territory that the US had ceded to the Sioux only a few years previously is a more telling escapade than the death of Custer or the massacre itself. As he writes, Custer's expedition of 1874
provided the immediate cause of the Indian war of 1876. Custer's reports of "gold among the roots of the grass" and of an agricultural "paradise" in the heart of the Sioux territory had stimulated a gold rush, and a movement for seizure of the Black Hills had become irresistible.
Custer was compared to every known hero of legend -- Hector, Roland, Horatius at the Bridge -- but the hero he most resembled was England's own version of Custer, General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, whose government underestimated another native force, the Mahdist army in Sudan. Custer got his ears pierced and General Gordon got his head cut off.
Michael Elliott, like all scrupulous students of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, points out the extreme difficulty of determining precisely what happened in that confusing battle on a hot day in Montana. A general sense can be had, but precise knowledge is something else.
Elliott reckons that he has found about 250 at least partial Indian accounts of what happened. The writer David Humphries Miller claimed to have interviewed seventy-one participants or eyewitnesses, and the indefatigable Walter Camp, an expert on railroads who collected interviews with both Indians and soldiers, told Elizabeth Custer, who hated one of the principal officers, Major Marcus Reno, that he had interviewed sixty men from Reno's troop and 150 Indian survivors.
Even allowing for some overlap, that's a lot of testimony, much of whose value is not easy to estimate. Evan Connell and others have been fastidious in picking through it, but there are still many things that will never be positively known. Did Custer, in the note he entrusted to the Italian trumpeter Martini, really say "Hurray, boys, we've got them!" The trumpeter, in a casual mood, seemed to assume that the embattled Major Reno was busy killing all the Indians in a prompt fashion.
It is worth noting that at the time of the battle many of the Indians who fought in it had never heard of Custer, though when the dust cleared, as Connell notes, at least seven warriors claimed to have killed him, these being Hawk, Brave Bear, Flat Hip, Spotted Calf, Two Moon, Horshay Horse, an unidentified teenager, and Joseph White Bull, nephew of Sitting Bull.
Besides that, of course, there's the linguistic problem. Of the most famous warnings about the size and power of the Indian forces Custer received on the day of the battle -- and he received at least three, all of them from experienced men -- the best remembered came from the Crow scout Half Yellow Face, who said, "You and I are both going home today by a road that we do not know." But Half Yellow Face had no English, Custer no Crow. Was this memorably phrased utterance delivered in sign?
The scouts Mitch Bouyer and Bloody Bloody Knife told Custer much the same thing, and even Captain Frederick Benteen, an officer he particularly trusted, advised him not to divide his force. Custer ignored them all and sent Major Reno and his troop to strike the south end of what turned out to be an immense Indian encampment. Major Reno and many of his men fled for their lives and lived, while General Custer indeed went home by a road he did not know. The problem of interpretation of such statements by Indians is an old one. Chief Gall, a leader of the Lakota Indians, once walked out of a pow-wow because he sensed that his interpreter was padding what he said.
Custer's one apparent military victory in the West, the Battle of the Washita in 1868, has, from the first, received mixed reviews. Was it a bat-tle or a massacre? Certainly it killed Black Kettle, the leading peacemaking Indian of his era, as well as Black Kettle's tough wife, Medicine Woman Later, who somehow survived nine wounds during the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. She did not survive the Washita.
As always, Custer was impatient with reconnaissance. He had already taken Black Kettle's village before it was brought home to him that there were many other Cheyenne villages strung along the Washita River. Custer at once ordered the Indian horse herd killed and then departed, taking many captives but leaving Major Joel Elliott and his platoon, which had been chasing some hostile Indians, to be cut to pieces by Cheyennes.
Many officers never forgave Custer for abandoning Major Elliott. On the earlier march to Texas, when Custer was also in command, most enlisted men hated him. While Libbie Custer was being carried to her carriage so the dew wouldn't wet her slippers, Custer had two soldiers flogged because, near to starving, they had butchered a calf.
Among the captives taken to Fort Riley after the fighting on the Washita was a woman named Monahseetah (or Meotzi) who had efficiently divorced an abusive husband by shooting him in the kneecap. In his autobiography, Custer praises Monahseetah highly: She was "an exceedingly comely squaw, possessing...a countenance beaming with intelligence." She was also, in his eyes, of "the cream of the aristocracy, if not royalty itself."
Libbie Custer met Monahseetah and had a rather different reaction:
How could I help feeling that with a swift movement she would produce a hidden weapon, and by stabbing the wife, hurt the white chief who had captured her, in what she believed would be the most cruel way[?]
Libbie clearly perceived a sexual rival, but didn't know how to come right out and say it. Custer proceeded to take Monahseetah with him on a peace mission to some Cheyenne tribes who had fled the Washita for the Staked Plains of Texas. He may have fathered a child with Monahseetah, a boy called Yellow Swallow. In one village he came up against a tough leader named Rock Forehead. Custer, who didn't smoke, was obliged to smoke the peace pipe, after which Rock Forehead dropped ashes onto Custer's boots, an insult, and told him that if he went against the peace pipe again he and all his men would be killed.
Custer went against the peace pipe and, indeed, he and all his men were killed. Most of his men were then severely mutilated but Custer was not, though it does seem to be true that the Cheyenne women pushed sewing awls into his ears. Was this done to improve his hearing in the afterlife, since it seems he hadn't heard well enough when Rock Forehead gave him one of the many warnings he didn't heed?
Larry McMurtry is the author of twenty-four novels, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and, most recently, Folly and Glory. His nonfiction works include a biography of Crazy Horse, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Paradise, and Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West (published by New York Review Books). He lives in Archer City, Texas.