Tuesday, October 29, 2013

mythology and the hero

You can lose a battle and win a war 
or likewise win a battle and lose a war.

Custer with his scouts 1874-- Library of Congress photo

To understand my cavalry hero for the fourth Oregon historical, I needed to understand the military. When you write about an abstract outlaw, sheriff, rancher, etc., you can play loose with the likely facts but the military has certain absolutes-- or does it? I needed to understand the military of that time. Who better or more written about than George Armstrong Custer?

Some think Custer was made famous by his death at the Little Big Horn. That's not true. He was a celebrity in his own time. His death shocked the nation-- some say as much as JFK's assassination did a later generation. He was politically popular and many think he planned to run for president which considering past candidates isn't impossible. He was immediately blamed for his own actions that day and equally quickly mythologized for the same reason.
 "When a person becomes a model for other people's lives, he has moved into the sphere of being mythologized." Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Yes, he did have an ability to tell his own story in a way that excited others. When you read his own words in the book he wrote about his life on the plains, he was as effusive in praising others as admitting mistakes he himself made. He comes across as a very likeable man. He was however a man who gave orders, expected discipline from others as he did from himself. He was a teetotaler in a group where heavy drinking was more the order of the day. His physical attributes are definitely part of what led to the mythology. The daring man who can ride all night and fight all day is still a powerful hero image.

Certainly after his death, his widow worked to get out stories he hadn't told, to make sure people saw him as a dedicated man who had fought for the good of all. On the positive side, there were others who added to the mythology. In 1877 when interviewed by a reporter for the New York Herald, Sitting Bull told the story of what he remembered of how Custer died.
Sitting Bull: Up where the last fight took place, where the last stand was made, the Long Hair stood like a sheaf of corn with all the ears fallen around him.
Reporter: Not wounded?
Sitting Bull: No.
Reporter: How many stood with him?
Sitting Bull: A few.
Reporter: When did he fall?
Sitting Bull: He killed a man when he fell. He laughed.
Reporter: You mean he cried out.
Sitting Bull: No, he laughed. He had fired his last shot.
Was this the truth? Was Sitting Bull carrying on a mythology which had also been powerful among the tribes? Who can know. There are as many versions of how Custer died as you could find for any famous event in history. The facts that can be agreed upon were that he was a very young man to acquire leadership. He was quite disciplined, strong, athletic and he demanded discipline from those who served under him which was resented.

Some adored him and others hated him. Just before his death he had been called back to Washington to testify at a corruption trial of President Grant's Secretary of War. Custer testified that they were sending inferior food to the reservations as well as the troops. That and other times he had spoken out earned him Grant's enmity. His having to go there at that time, spend time testifying and then waiting to be released to head West was a factor in the failure at the Little Bighorn. He would have rather been training his troops, getting them ready. Instead that fell to Reno who didn't do much about it. The Seventh that went into battle weren't the equivalent of troops he'd taken with him before when he'd had time to toughen and strengthen their skills. 

Some writers, as did Stephen E. Ambrose in Crazy Horse and Custer, recognize the hero but also the fallible human who could make a mistake-- perhaps for political purposes; but then be willing to pay the price. That is courage either way. I liked James Donovan's, A Terrible Glory for how it showed politics as playing a big role in what happened and its aftermath for both the military, the nation, and the Sioux.

When I got through reading the various versions of the Little Big Horn that day, it was clear that nobody could know for sure how Custer himself died. There are a multitude of explanations for how he had been shot twice, his body was stripped, but not mutilated (beyond holes in both ears and some saying they had poked an arrow up his penis... not sure what meaning that had but the ear holes were to make him hear better next time). I'd read he wasn't scalped because he was balding except that made no sense. Custer always had a high forehead. Most books say he had cut his hair short and it explains it. A few have other, juicier explanations.

This research has helped me understand a lot of how my cavalry officer's life would have been. He was a West Pointer like Custer. He also served in the Civil War as well as fought Indians. Although the battles my hero was engaged in were taking place in Oregon and Custer's were out on the Plains, in a fictional sense, they might they have known each other. My hero would have been the older by 7 years.

Whether Custer was a bad guy or a hero is still hotly debated. Yes, after reading so many books (who could possibly read them all), I have an opinion. Between the letters husband and wife exchanged, their own books of their experiences, I also have an opinion on their marriage. Does my opinion on that or Custer's character make any of it fact?


mealtime, Big Creek Kansas 1869 as Elizabeth went with him wherever possible

What I don't think can be debated is that the United States didn't act honorably with how it took the Black Hills, Pahá Sápa, from the Sioux and cheated them in the doing. The quest Custer was on was one assigned him by Grant and Sheridan. One wanted the land. The other wanted Indians killed. Sheridan famously had said the only good Indian was a dead one and that even though, while earlier serving in Oregon, he had had an Indian mistress whom he left to fight in the Civil War. Custer's death served both purposes more admirably than his surviving and gaining even more fame would have. Was there a conspiracy? Who can know but there are those who profited by the emotional anger stirred up at Custer's death and weren't sad to see him out of the way.


Having been to much of this country, where it is said Crazy Horse was born and later secretly buried, I have strong feelings about what happened. It is said in my family that my grandfather was the first white baby born in the illegally taken land of the Black Hills when his father went there to mine for gold. I've often thought if reincarnation is true, maybe I was part of the Sioux people of that time from whom  the land was taken. I have never wanted to go to the Black Hills but have three times climbed Bear Butte which was/is sacred land to the Plains peoples.


Yes, the Plains tribes had to be convinced to stop warring on the white settlers, and it wasn't really possible that the country would cede them all the land they originally had, but how it was done was disgusting. Men like Custer, serving in the military, often paid the price for that wrong doing.

Custer was a romantic hero with many books written about him as well as 94 movies where he was either main character or secondary and 41 documentaries. There is no mid ground with how people see Custer. Mostly he's demonized or portrayed as the gallant hero. Frankly his flaws don't make him one bit less fascinating.

In one of her books, Elizabeth Custer wrote about her last view of her husband and the 7th Cavalry riding away, their musicians playing, The Girl I left Behind Me. Yes, they really did use music even in an attack and it often was Garry Owen. Music is powerful for inciting emotions; so maybe it makes sense why he used it to the point that in a movie you'd think that couldn't be real. Off on that last campaign, she wrote how a mirage seemed to split the troop in two where half appeared to disappear into the sky. An omen that half would soon be killed? There are a lot of mysterious happenings connected to Custer and the Little Bighorn.

They did ride into mythology-- hero and coward alike as later generations try to find better ways to understand what happened that day. Why has it remained so fascinating and why have people sought for years to discover what actually went wrong? Whose fault was it? Could it have ended differently with different choices being made? Today there are many more tools to approach the questions, but are there better answers? Maybe. I will present more in my next blog as I have more to read and am not done with this man.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

With a lot more coming on Custer (I get it not everybody is a history buff), I wanted to put a link to one I wrote for someone else's blog with a bit more of Custer's background but still the same difficulty to decide what is fact and fiction beyond the basics-- looking at Custer