Being Custer

Steve Alexander as George Armstrong Custer.

Steve Alexander As George Custer
Steve Alexander as George Armstrong Custer. Photo courtesy of Steve Alexander.

Steve Alexander is George Armstrong Custer. At the very least, he's the closest thing to George Custer since Custer himself walked the earth. It's not just that Alexander looks like Custer, although the physical resemblance is uncanny. Alexander has spent virtually his entire life reading about, studying, and immersing himself in all things Custer—presenting himself as “Foremost Custer Living Historian.”

Not only does Alexander own replicas of every uniform that General Custer ever wore, he purchased and now lives in Custer's onetime home in Monroe, Michigan. With the help of his wife Sandy—who he met at a Civil War re-enactment and who herself portrays George's wife, Libby—Alexander has furnished the house with replicas of George and Libby's furniture and decorated it with photographs, medals, weapons, hats and other Custer memorabilia. 

Each June for the past 20 years Alexander has traveled to Montana to portray Custer in re-enactments of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and has appeared as “The General” in more than a dozen television docudramas. Failure recently called on Alexander to discuss what forces led him to devote his life to “being Custer.”

How long have you felt an affinity for General Custer?

I have searched my memory and it goes back to my early childhood—maybe as early as three years old. As a small boy whenever my friends and I played Cowboys and Indians I was always General Custer. I also spent a lot of time reading about Custer, the Civil War, and the history of the west. It made an impression that has been with me ever since.

What does the phrase “living historian” mean to you? 

When I began doing my portrayal of General Custer most people who did this sort of thing were called re-enacters. But my portrayal goes beyond re-enactment. When I started, my first thought was to educate the public about General Custer because there are so many misconceptions about him. I already had years and years of studying Custer so it was easy for me to slip on the boots and the uniform and talk in first person as General Custer. I have always been proactive in disseminating information about the man, almost as a medium would convey something from the past. I feel that “living historian” suits my impression better than “interpreter” or "re-enacter.” 

What is the public's greatest misconception about General Custer?

It's that he was a failure and that he had a hatred of the American Indian, which I don't think he did. I think he admired Indians. But when a solider is told to march against an enemy he has to do what is required as a military man.

How long have you been participating in re-enactments?

In 1986 I made a trip to Montana with a school chum of mine. We followed the trail out of Fort Abraham Lincoln [Mandan, North Dakota], living on beef jerky and hardtack [a cracker or biscuit made from flour, water and salt], just like the soldiers would have done. When I got to Montana it was almost like Divine Providence; I was asked if I would portray General Custer in a Little Bighorn Day celebration. 

This request was based on appearance alone? 

People have told me that even when I'm not in uniform or buckskins that I have an aura I project. As it happened, prior to the trip I purchased a J.C. Penney buckskin jacket. My school chum said to me, “You need to wear that buckskin jacket out west.” I felt a little self-conscious but he insisted I wear it. I was wearing it in this Bighorn museum when the director came out of her office and said, “Are you the gentleman who portrays General Custer?” I said, “No.” She said, “Do you know anything about him?” My buddy interjected, “He knows more about General Custer than General Custer knew about himself.” She started quizzing me and when I answered the questions correctly she proclaimed, “You're our General Custer.” That's how it happened. There was something that made her see General Custer in my demeanor that I didn't even realize I was projecting.

What are the Little Bighorn re-enactments like? 

There are two of them, one organized by the Hardin [Montana] Chamber of Commerce, and the other held by the Real Birds [Crow Indians] at Medicine Tail Coulee. Both are very similar in terms of storylines, but the Hardin re-enactment primarily includes locals, whereas the one that I'm currently involved with attracts professional re-enacters and living historians from across the nation. The portrayal at the Real Bird re-enactment is on the actual battlefield. For me to be able to ride at the actual site holds great interest for me. 

Do the Indians ever get too rough with the soldiers or with you in particular? 

We take every effort to be safe so that no one gets injured but the horses don't always follow the script. I don't believe in my heart of hearts that Indians have any ax to grind or are trying to hurt the soldiers. And the cavalry are instructed to be cautious in pointing their firearms at the Indians because the powder can burn them. If there are injuries it's by accident. 

Describe the moment you “die” on the battlefield?

I feel it's my responsibility to stand as long as I can so the viewing public gets its money's worth. At the re-enactments the battle consumes—from start to finish—maybe 15 minutes. I try to stretch it longer. If Indians put down the soldiers that are surrounding me then they grab and tackle me. If I can stand on my feet longer that's better for the show.

What similarities are there between your life and Custer's life? 

There's quite a bit of similarity, but maybe at a subconscious level I've allowed the similarities to occur. I used to work at a company called Consumers Energy, and at one point, in order to stay on the payroll I took a big cut in pay. It affected my ego in the same way that being court martialed and put out of the military for ten months affected Custer. More than the financial difficulty it was an awful [emotional] burden. I was a survey technician and they said, “You're no longer a survey technician, you're now an office clerk.” It was very hard to accept. So some things that have happened in my life have allowed me to better interpret Custer's life.

When you are in character, if someone brings up the subject of a modern invention like Indian casinos, how do you react? 

I do the life of General Custer from cadet to the Little Bighorn, and sometimes I'll do events where it's supposed to be 1861 or ’62. At that point in General Custer's career he would not have been exposed to the Indian wars, so when people start asking about Indians I can't answer the questions. Those people think I'm ignorant [laughs]. 

Sometimes I'm put into circumstances where I'm at a roundtable with, say, Adolf Hitler, Cleopatra and Alexander Graham Bell and we're discussing modern inventions and how we might have reacted to them. In all likelihood, Custer would be for Indian casinos because he was against the reservation system where the Indians were made to be wards of the state and there was no incentive for Indians to better themselves. 

How long do you plan to continue “being Custer”?

As I age that becomes a very big concern of mine. A good parallel would be Pierce Brosnan, who used to portray James Bond. For the most recent film [Casino Royale, 2006] they got a younger actor [Daniel Craig] because they said he was getting too old. I thought Brosnan was doing a great job and got a raw deal. 

For me, my whole life has been involved with the study and creation of this character and accumulating the props. I would like to think I could go another ten years, but it's going to depend on how many people are calling. Are they going to put me out to pasture for a younger guy? I don't know. 

Is there a successor on the horizon? 

There are competitors, but as for a successor it's going to be very difficult. You can put a uniform on some of these guys but that doesn't mean they are General Custer. It's something you have to spend a lot of time with. 

Do you love portraying Custer? 

I don't know myself any other way so it's hard to say what it would be like if I wasn't doing this. But I am very happy. I think if I were interested in any other subject I would pursue it just as passionately. That's just my personality.

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