Still Standing

George Armstrong Custer in the 21st century.

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.

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