Magazine article USA TODAY

The Two Faces of George Armstrong Custer

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Two Faces of George Armstrong Custer

Article excerpt

Was he a distinguished and honored military hero or a headstrong, irresponsible egomaniac?

Heroes are like the phoenix; when they die, they always are resurrected out of their own ashes. Subsequently and inevitably, their lives become legend and, in them, history and myth merge so as to become almost indistinguishable. A prime example is the case of George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Little Big Horn in southeast Montana, June 25, 1876. About 300 books, 45 movies, and 1,000 paintings have centered on him. Custer has had a city, county, highway, national forest, and school named in his honor.

Controversial in life, he is more so in death. Even his grave marker at West Point was changed at the insistence of his wife, Libby. The original was that of a cavalryman astride a charger; the second, a more simple obelisk. Did his widow, who lived for 55 years after his death, shape the image of both the real-life and mythical Custer?

Custeriana continues to generate controversy. One might say it even thrives on it. Examples are Congress' rescinding Maj. Marcus Reno's court martial verdict a few decades ago. Another is the renaming of The Custer Battlefield that was the site of a national military cemetery and given national monument status by Pres. Harry Truman in 1946. Political correctness, at the urging of Native Americans, won out, and the national monument was renamed the Little Big Horn Battlefield. Apparently, Custer's name was anathema. Directorship of the monument also changed. Whites were replaced and the previous and present Monument Director both are of Indian ancestry. To complete the purge of Custer influence, the Custer Battlefield Association, which ran the book store and previously contributed time, material, personnel, and money, was ousted in 1993.

A prominent encyclopedia that, when published in 1975, told of the Indians slaughtering Custer's troops at the Little Big Horn accuses Custer in its new revised edition of effecting a massacre at the western engagement at Washita in the Oklahoma Panhandle. It is instructive that the 1941 Errol Flynn movie, "They Died with Their Boots On," glorified Custer and received rave reviews as a classic. Of course, it served wartime ardor, coming out when the nation was confronting World War II. In the anti-Vietnam War era, Dustin Hoffman's 1970 film, Little Big Man, portrayed Custer as a raving maniac.

A major fire on the battlefield in August, 1983 (possibly set by disgruntled Indians), exposed the area, and a subsequent two-year archaeological dig with forensic and anthropology experts took place in 1984-85 85. More than 1,000 additional artifacts were discovered, offering new grist for the interpretation mill, and Custer's Last Stand was fought all over again in a spate of books on topics as diverse as time/motion studies and new archaeological explanations. Opinions as to Custer's blame for the defeat became doubted.

Why is Custer of such perennial and controversial interest? Was Custer a Janus? Were there two George Armstrong Custers - one, the Custer of the East, a distinguished and honored breveted Civil War general; the other, a maniacal regular rank Lt. Col. Custer of the West? Was the first a hero and the second a goat?

George Armstrong Custer was born in 1839 in New Rumely, Ohio. His father was a blacksmith and a staunch Democrat. The family moved to Monroe, Mich., where they joined other relatives. How Democrat Custer got an appointment to West Point from diehard Republican Congressman John Bingham remains a mystery.

After a probationary period, Custer received full cadet status in 1857. Always a prankster and bon vivant, he graduated at the bottom of his class and his record of demerits (mostly for minor infractions) was the highest at the Point. Cadets sympathetic to the South, many who were friends of Custer, already had left the academy. They would be met later on the field of battle. …

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