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Thursday, February 26, 2009

REWRITING HISTORY

I am surprised most people think the Seventh Cavalry was wiped out at Little Big Horn by the Sioux and Cheyenne. In truth, of the 650 officers and men, scouts and civilians engaged on June 25, 1876 (on the Army’s side) only some 286 were killed: a devastating 44%, but hardly the entire command. Most of the men under Major Marcus Reno made it out alive. And where Reno was able to hold his command together over three horrible days of combat, the 210 men directly under the command of “General” George Armstrong Custer were dead within three hours of the first shot being fired. The results for the U.S. Army were even worse in the Second Battle of the Little Big Horn, when, for fifty-seven years, they were mercilessly attacked by a five foot four inch Victorian widow with blue-gray eyes and chestnut hair. Her name was Elizabeth Bacon Custer. And in this engagement she wiped the U.S. Army out, leaving no survivors.
Immediately after the battle the military judgments were fairly unanimous. President Grant, who had been elevated to the White House based on his record as a military commander, told a reporter, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops brought on by Custer himself,…(which) was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.” General Philip Sheridan, the man who had lobbied for Custer’s inclusion on the expedition considered the disaster primarily Custer’s fault. “Had the Seventh Cavalry been held together, it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn."
And finally, General Samuel Davis Sturgis, overall commander of the seventh, whose son, James, had died on the Little Big Horn, reacted negatively to the suggestion that a monument be dedicated to the memory of “The American Murat”, Custer; “For God’s sake let them hide it in some dark valley, or veil it, or put it anywhere the bleeding hearts of the widows, orphans, fathers and mothers of the men so uselessly sacrificed to Custer’s ambition, can never be wrung at the sight of it.”Having dismissed Custer, the army also dismissed his 34 year old widow. Barely a month after her husband had died amid the Montana scrub brush, “Libby” Custer was forced to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln. As a widow Libby had no right to quarters on the post, and so lost the social support of her Army life and friends. Her income was immediately reduced to the widow’s pension of $30 a month; her total assets were worth barely $8,000, while the claims against Custer’s estate exceeded $13,000. And then, in her hour of need, Libby received support from an unexpected source.His name was Frederick Whittaker, and he scratched out a living as a writer of pulp fiction and non-fiction for magazines of the day, “…about the best of its kind”. He had met Custer during the Civil War, and the General’s death inspired him to write a dramatic eulogy praising the fallen hero in Galaxy Magazine. Whittaker also mentioned Custer’s “natural recklessness and vanity”, but Libby immediately contacted him. Libby provided Whittaker with the couple’s personal letters, access to family and friends, war department correspondence and permission to use large sections from Custer’s own book, “My Life on the Plains.”
What emerged, just six months after Little Big Horn, was “A Complete Life of General George A. Custer”. It was pulp as well, filled with inaccuracies and excessive praise for Custer, but it was also a best seller. “So fell the brave caviler, the Christian soldier, surrounded by foes, but dying in harness amid the men he loved.” This time there was no hint of faults in Custer. Instead the blame was laid elsewhere. Of Custer, Whittaker wrote; “He could have run like Reno had he wished...It is clear, in the light of Custer’s previous character, that he held on to the last, expecting to be supported, as he had a right to expect. It was only when he clearly saw he had been betrayed, that he resolved to die game, as it was too late to retreat.” http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/History.Whittaker (Sheldon and Company, New York, 1876).All but a few professional soldiers admitted that Whittaker had gotten it wrong. In fact one of the most serious charges laid against Custer was that at the Washita he had, in fact, deserted a junior commander and his men. But those same officers withheld their criticism of Whittaker to avoid being forced to also criticize Custer's widow. Reno (above) eventually was forced to ask for and received a Court of Inquiry (not a Court Martial) on his conduct at Little Big Horn, which cleared his name and revealed the character of the people Whittaker had relied on for his version of the battle, but it made little difference to the general public who declared the Inquiry a whitewash.Elizabeth Custer went on to support herself comfortably by writing three books; “Tenting on the Plains”,"Following the Guidon” and “Boots and Saddles”. In each her husband was idolized and lionized. In 1901 she managed to squeeze out one more, a children’s book, “The Boy General. Story of the Life of Major-General George A. Custer”: “The true soldier asks no questions; he obeys, and Custer was a true soldier. He gave his life in carrying out the orders of his commanding general… He had trained and exhorted his men and officers to loyalty, and with one exception they stood true to their trust, as was shown by the order in which they fell.” By the time Libby died, in 1933, at the age of ninety-one, her vision of Little Big Horn was set in the concrete of the printed page.The first who endorsed Libby's view was Edward S. Godfrey, who had been a junior officer at the Little Big Horn and a Custer “fan” from before the battle. His 1892 “Custer’s Last Battle” was unequivocal. “...had Reno made his charge as ordered,…the Hostiles would have been so engaged… that Custer’s approach…would have broken the moral of the warriors….(Reno’s) faltering ...his halting, his falling back to the defensive position in the woods...; his conduct up to and during the siege…was not such as to inspire confidence or even respect,…” .” These attacks on Reno continued for most of the 20th century. The 1941 movie staring Errol Flynn as Custer displays Libby's view of Reno as well as any tome, echoed even by respected historians such as Robert Utley who in the 1980’s described Reno as "… a besotted, socially inept mediocrity, (who) commanded little respect in the regiment and was the antithesis of the electric Custer in almost every way.”So for over a century Marcus Reno was reviled and despised as the coward who did not charge as ordered, instead pleading weasel-like that Custer had not supported him as promised. It would not be until Ronald Nichols biography of Reno, “In Custer’s Shadow” (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1999) that Reno received a fair hearing.About the same time the Indian accounts of the fight began to finally be given a serious consideration by white historians, including the story told to photographer Edward Curtis in 1907 by three of Custer’s Indian scouts. The three men said they watched amazed as Custer stood on the bluffs overlooking Reno’s fight in the valley, a story supported by some soldiers in the valley fight who reported seeing Custer on the bluffs. (Most historians had always assumed they were imagining things.)
One of the scouts, White Man Runs Him (above), claimed to have scolded Custer; “Why don’t you cross the river and fight too?” To which the scouts say Custer replied, “It is early yet and plenty of time. Let them fight. Our turn will come.”And it did. But sure was a long time coming.
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