Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Myth of the Warrior

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Myth of the Warrior

Article excerpt

The myths - and fascination - surrounding George Armstrong Custer persist 120 years after that fatal stand on a hill in Montana. This year, publishers have issued approximately 20 books dealing with Custer, the flamboyant and controversial warrior of the West and the legends and mystique of The Last Stand.

To get to the bottom of the stack, it was time to consult an expert on Custer a the Rev. Vincent A. Heier, pastor of Holy Innocents Catholic Church in the Tower Grove area. Heier is a member of the board of directors of the Custer Battlefield Historical

and Museum Association, based in Montana. He discussed the Custer phenomena in his rectory office, where all available space is filled with Custer books and memorabilia. There has been intense interest this year, but Heier says people have always been fascinated by Custer. The massacre in 1876 had jarred Americans, he said. "How could 200-plus crack cavalry men suffer defeat during the growth of a nation? "Then there was the mystique of the Indians, and the whole `Last Stand' myth. These factors combined reached mythic proportions. Combine this with artists, writers, poets and military controversy." The legend got a boost when Custer's widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wrote "Boots and Saddles" (1885), "Tenting on the Plains" (1887) and "Follow the Guidon" (1890). "Libbie took an active role in trying to reshape her husband's image," Heier said. "Early literature portrayed Custer as a doomed martyr. He represented all the gallantry and heroism of his time. "Then in 1934, a year after the death of Libbie, Frederic Van der Water wrote `Glory Hunter,' debunking the 19th-century and early 20th-century idealism," Heier said. "Van der Water found Custer to be ambitious and glory-hungry. He wasn't the knight in shining armor. Custer was cool and calculating and thus the image began to erode." "In the 1960s and the 1970s, in both literature and film, Custer was seen as a villain, someone who represented war," Heier said. "The movie `Little Big Man' was more about Vietnam than Custer," Heier added: "You either liked him or you couldn't stand him." "In reality, Custer had many gallant qualities and many faults. Today, when most people think of Custer, they think of `The Last Stand.' They d on't think of Custer in the Civil War. His men loved him. War energized him; he was the kind of leader who led from the front, and his men would follow. He was also a man who needed a cause." But after the Civil War, Custer "had to deal with a different Army. It was a tough time for him, because he had resumed his official rank as lieutenant colonel. He tried to regain some of the glory of the Civil War, but on the Plains, he had a lot of disciplinary problems with soldiers. "There was also a political cloud at the time. A good soldier did not attack the secretary of war, William W. Belknap, and President {Ulysses S.} Grant's brother Orvil Grant. Belknap wasn't going to let Custer go to Little Big Horn." But a scandal forced Belknap to resign a and let Custer lead five companies of the Seventh Cavalry to their final battle. Here are some of the Custer books recently published: Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer, by Jeffry D. …

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