Still Standing

George Armstrong Custer in the 21st century.

Custerology Cover
Custerology, by Michael A. Elliott.

Virtually every American knows that George Custer died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After all, Custer's Last Stand is one of the most storied defeats in military history. But for a devoted band of Custer enthusiasts, George Custer lives on. Each June countless “Custerphiles” descend on the high plains of southern Montana to celebrate the anniversary of the battle, with conferences, debates, and of course, re-enactments on the agenda. 

In “Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer” (Univ. of Chicago Press), Michael A. Elliott, professor of English at Emory University, explores the thriving subculture surrounding Custer, and examines why he remains such a compelling figure more than 130 years after his death. Failure spoke with Elliott about "Custerology” and his unique approach to an otherwise well-worn subject.

What separates “Custerology” from all the other books that have been written about Custer?
There are two differences. One is that I'm more interested in the way that Custer and the Indian wars figure in our contemporary moment. “Custerology” is not an account of the past. It's an account of how the past is experienced today. 

The other difference—and this has to do with the moment in which we live—is I take into account contemporary Native American claims to political autonomy and independence. There is now a consensus among Americans that Native American tribes should have a degree of political autonomy and independence. That wasn't really true until, say, the early 1970s. So there's been a huge sea change in the way we regard the political status of Native Americans. I think that's meant something for the way this history gets treated. 

In the book you delve into two competing interpretations of the Indian wars. Can you explain?
The one I talk about most is the idea that the Indian wars were a clash of cultures—this kind of inevitable violence that came out of two different ways of life. One way of life was agricultural and based on a fixed use of land, and the other was nomadic and based on a hunting economy. Those two ways of life necessarily clashed and produced violence across the American west. 

There are a lot of advantages to that particular model. It allows historians to focus on the everyday experience of people rather than just leaders. It also allows them to draw distinctions between the ways in which different groups of people could experience the same event in a different way. 

The problem with that interpretation is that it draws attention away from the kind of political decisions that both sides made: the U.S. government in terms of the way it conducted its treaty negotiations and the way in which it tried to assign Native Americans to particular parts of the land; and also political decisions that Native American leaders made in those same treaty negotiations and in their decisions to go to war. 

The other part of the puzzle is the fact that American Indian groups were sometimes very split—even within the same tribe—in terms of how to respond to the pressures of settlement in the U.S. west. You might have had one group that was trying to get out of the way of the army and the settlers and another group that was actively trying to resist them. 

That same sort of pressure still exists today.
Absolutely. American Indian communities in the west are under tremendous cultural pressure in terms of economies that draw people away from rural reservation communities and into cities. There is a lot of variation in terms of the economic health of American Indian reservation communities—depending on where they are located, what their history is and so forth. 

One of the downsides of the casino boom is that it sometimes draws attention away from the fact that there are Indian communities that are among the poorest communities in the nation—including several of those who are the descendants of those who fought against Custer. Some of the Lakota Sioux reservation communities in South Dakota have incredibly high unemployment, suicide, and substance abuse rates.

Why is it that everyone knows Custer's Last Stand but few know about Custer or the battle itself?
It has something to do with that iconic image of Custer being surrounded by hostile forces—just about to be overwhelmed. That image became a fixture of the American imagination. Then over the course of the 20th century Custer became a way of talking about overconfidence or arrogance and the consequences of that. If you do a news search on Custer you'll find cartoon after cartoon where somebody who is about to blunder is compared to Custer—Donald Rumsfeld-George Custer cartoons being one example. It has become a kind of convenient shorthand in that way. 

There is also a larger question of why Little Bighorn is the battle that everybody knows. Part of that has to do with the fact that even that at the moment it was occurring, the U.S. colonization of the American west and conquest of American Indian peoples was something that Americans felt very uneasy about. The Little Bighorn became a way of remembering that history without having to feel that same kind of uneasiness about the very violent work of trying to subjugate and then assimilate American Indian communities. 

How did Custer manage to graduate last in his class at West Point and still rise to major general within four years?
It's a stock phrase in Custer biographies that he had a tremendous amount of luck—“Custer's Luck.” One of Custer's luckiest moments was that while he graduated last in his class he also graduated at the moment that the Civil War was starting, when there was a tremendous need for West Point-trained officers. It didn't really matter where you graduated in terms of getting a good commission in the Civil War. 

Custer also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. And some of the very characteristics that would later be Custer's downfall—his willingness to take risks and his ability to inspire confidence—were tremendous assets to him during the Civil War. He was able to command large numbers of men, most of whom were older than he was, some of whom were more experienced. Yet he was able to marshal them and maneuver them in tactical maneuvers that the enemy was not expecting. He really was a very effective field commander.

What was the trajectory of Custer's career following the Civil War?
The problem is that after the war the American army downsized. Custer held the rank of general in the volunteer army. But after the war he reverted to his regular rank, which was captain. All of a sudden opportunities become much more sparse and the possibilities for advancement much more limited. 

Custer eventually received the assignment of lieutenant-colonel of the 7th Cavalry, and he was pretty happy with that. But like most of the other officers who had served in the war, he was constantly trying to re-create that magic—that sense that what he was doing was important to the national project. One of the brilliant things about Custer's career is that he is able to reinvent himself as an Indian fighter after going through a period of struggle and malaise right after the Civil War.

What are some of the differences between Civil War re-enactments and the re-enactments of Custer's Last Stand?
The main difference is at the Little Bighorn the story has to go a particular way in order for it to work. And there is something different about portraying a battle in which the presence of Indians is so crucial. Having Native Americans ride in the battle as the Indians who fought against Custer is part of the deep appeal, as Civil War re-enactments don't depend on particular people playing particular roles. 

Also, defeat has a role in both the Little Bighorn and Civil War re-enactments. At Civil War re-enactments most people want to play the role of the South, because the role of the defeated has a kind of nobility to it. That's true at the Little Bighorn as well, and true to an even larger degree. 

Finally, a very small thing that is also unique to the Little Bighorn re-enactments is the presence of horses. Because it's a cavalry battle, people who are interested in cavalry re-enactments are very attracted to it. 

Isn't it ironic that the re-enactments of Custer's Last Stand have served to bring whites and Native Americans together?
It's deeply ironic. The re-enactment of the battle at the Little Bighorn does fill that function. But there is sometimes tension between the different groups that participate in re-enactments. It's not always between Indians on one side and non-Indians on the other. It's like any theatrical production—always fraught with tension and small struggles over things like script changes. Still, it's a delicious irony that re-enactments have become a point of cooperation between Indians and whites. 

Do the re-enacters ever take things too far?
I've resisted the temptation to ride out there myself, but the white re-enacters have said that some of the younger Indian men sometimes start to get a little rough with them. But when people get hurt in the re-enactments it's usually because they have fallen off a horse. Personally, I've never seen a re-enactment escalate into substantial violence, and the stories are hard for me to substantiate because observers are far enough away that you can't really tell. But there are stories about how the play fighting sometimes devolves into something slightly rougher. 

What was the second most famous battle in which Custer was involved? 
Custer played a role at Gettysburg, and that was where he first distinguished himself as a field commander. But the other battle that most people know is Washita River [1868], and people know of it because of films like Little Big Man, and more recently, the TNT series Into the West

Why hasn't Washita River been remembered as well as Little Bighorn?

It's not the kind of heroism that Americans want to remember. It's a much less pleasant memory to think of the army going into a village to kill warriors and take women and children prisoner. That seems much less heroic and much less dangerous. And, in fact, it was less dangerous, even though American army officers and men did lose their lives at Washita. 

It was especially problematic because the leader of the village at Washita was Black Kettle, a Cheyenne leader who was trying to promote peace between the Cheyenne and the U.S. army. When it happened there were some people who felt like the army had over-reached in going into this village and attacking it. The reason they did so was because they believed the village harbored Indians who had been raiding white settlements in Kansas. And that seems to have been true. 

Meanwhile, Cheyenne Indians don't particularly want to remember Washita, either—at least not publicly. That's one of the reasons why Washita has only been re-enacted one time. The re-enactment was so horrible for the local Indians to watch that they vowed they would never do it again. In the late 20th century the Cheyenne became active in encouraging the National Park Service to develop the battlefield as a National Historic site, but there are some individual Cheyenne who are skeptical about that project and are worried about their painful memories beyond brought to the public. 

It doesn't help that Washita is in this very remote part of Oklahoma, whereas one of the advantages of the Little Bighorn is that it's on the tourist circuit. You can stop there between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone. 

Would Custer be as well remembered if he had won at the Little Bighorn?
Absolutely not. How many other generals from the Indian wars can you name? For most Americans, probably not any. Custer was very successful during the Civil War and would probably be primarily remembered as a Civil War general if he had been victorious or simply survived at the Little Bighorn.

Is it fair to say that Custer is bigger in death than in life?

I said before that people sometimes described Custer's life as Custer's Luck. In a way, for someone who was so invested in his reputation, Custer's death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn is the final chapter of Custer's luck. If he hadn't died in such spectacular fashion we wouldn't be talking about him today.

Related content:
The Goats of West Point
Being Custer

Recommended Reading (courtesy of Michael A. Elliott)
“Touched By Fire” by Louise Barnett (Henry Holt) 
“The Custer Reader” edited by Paul Hutton (University of Nebraska Press)
“Cavalier in Buckskin” by Robert Utley (University of Oklahoma Press)