Villainous Heroes

By Russell, Stewart | History Today, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Villainous Heroes


Russell, Stewart, History Today


* In Montana, on December 10th, 1991, the National Park Service inaugurated the Little Big Horn National Battlefield, previously called the Custer Battlefield National Monument. The new signposts symbolised official recognition of a revisionary process that had turned George Armstrong Custer from hero to 'an immature personality beset with inner conflicts that could only be compensated by glory-seeking bravado and swagger', in the words of the eminent scholars of the frontier, Ray Allen, Billington and Martin Ridge.

But has revisionism not also turned Custer into something of a scapegoat? Should historians not be making more effort to guide public opinion toward a reassessment of the reputations of some of his illustrious colleagues, notably the generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan?

At Appomattox Court House, on April 9th, 1865, Grant accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Grant wrote that he 'felt sad and depressed at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly'. He paroled 25,000 Confederate soldiers and sent them home 'to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter'. Also on the scene, no doubt applauding Grant's chivalry, were SherMan, Custer, and another Union general, Ely S. Parker. Parker, Grant's military secretary, who penned the surrender document, was a Seneca Indian. Lee told him: 'I am glad to see one real American here'.

Eight days later, in North Carolina, Sherman took the surrender of Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee. His terms were even more generous than Grant's - too generous. They had to be toughened by his political masters in Washington. Unabashed, Sherman proceeded, in the words of one of his hagiographers, to 'spread food and kindliness across Georgia's devastated regions'. He declared that '[f]or fifty years to come, at least, I never want to hear a word about war in America ... I am for peace now'.

1865 is a good year to freeze-frame. One huge body of American historiography, that of the Civil War, ends there, stressing honour, chivalry and magnanimity. The autobiographies of the major players also end there, or thereabouts. Grant went on to become president and that part of his life does have its own historiography. But Sherman? Sheridan? Their reputations are anchored on their Civil War achievements. Mainstream biographers skim over their post-war careers in the form of epilogue.

To find out how they and other war heroes kept their spurs bright after Appomattox, one must consult another body of historical literature, that concerning the Native American. In it there is little honour, less chivalry, and absolutely no magnanimity. Moving our heroes from the Civil War to the Plains War, we see a group of American Jekylls turning into Hydes.

Sherman did not favour a new order for blacks. He had lived in the South before the war and his thoughts on race relations were similar to those of the men he had beaten in battle. His terms to Johnston would have allowed proslavery secessionists to stay in charge of local government. No surprise: In 1864, Sherman had opposed the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union army and he never had arty under his command. He wrote '... it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals'. And, later '... we attempt to force the Negro on the South as a voter ... we begin a new revolution in which the Northwest may take a different side from what we did when we were fighting to vindicate our Constitution'.

In September 1865, Sherman took command of military forces in the West. There, the man who had 'never wanted to hear a word about war in America' launched himself i another one, under the banner of progress. It is altogether possible that Sherman did not consider it a real war. Certainly it was not, in his eyes, a war against real people although the obstacles to progress were what Lee had called 'real Americans': 360,000 Plains Indians living we of the Mississippi and outnumbered, already, by more t a million whites.

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