The Never Ending ‘Custer Myth’

We currently have two books in the shop on Custer and The Battle of the Little Big Horn.

If we set our mind to it we could probably stock fifty. If we weren’t too worried about the quality of the writing or the history we could easily have over a hundred titles on the shelves. Why has so much been written on this subject?

The Battle of the Little Big Horn (25th of Junes 1876) is, according to the ‘Oxford Guide to Battles’, the ‘most written about skirmish in military history’. The entire ‘battle’ lasted 36 hours with the US Army forces spending most of that time on the defensive. A concise description of the combat would take as little as two hundred words. Its most mythical aspect ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, probably lasted less than an hour.

Its only rival in literature is The Battle of Gettysburg and it might be useful to quickly compare the two: Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of the entire American Civil War. It lasted three days, involved in excess of 170,000 men and incurred close to 50,000 casualties.  The battle is capable of supporting the massive weight of historical analysis laid at its doorstep. Big Horn is a skirmish that has been warped into a controversy that has a history of over 140 years of argument, blame, accusations and hundreds of books, articles, pamphlets hanging of it like baubles on a Christmas tree.


Well the answer lies with one person:

Her name is Elizabeth ‘Libbie’ Custer, the window of George Armstrong Custer and from the day of his death she became a fierce, determined and ruthless ‘professional widow’ whose only aim in life was to protect the reputation of her late husband. Anyone, any author, or newspaper or historian who even dared to whisper even a hint that a scintilla of blame should be attached to her husband for the loss of the battle then she would leap into action. She would write letters to newspapers, threaten legal action, play the wounded, grieving widow and use friendly journalists to smear the people offending her husband’s sacred memory.

But questions remained because there was, according to contemporary thinking, no reasonable explanation as to how Custer could have failed. It was a mystery. Custer was a civil war hero, he was a ‘Man of the West’ and people knew that because in 1874 he’d published a book ‘My Life on the Plains’ to tell everyone he was. Custer was a thoroughly modern man and he used the media with skill and guile. He created his own legend well before his death made him a myth. Against direct order he even took a ‘pet’ reporter with him to The Big Horn. The reporter, Mark Kellogg of the Bismarck Tribune paid a terrible price for that venture as he died there. But this fame merely added to the questions about his failure: How could ‘The Man of the West’ fail?

Libbie worked tirelessly to deflect any blame from her husband. She wrote a trilogy of books that mythologised herself and her husband and their lives together in the Army of the West. Think ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and you’ll have the measure of the books. But she also protected her dead husband by setting up as the ‘villain’ of the piece – with the help of yet another Custer ‘pet’ reporter – one of his subordinates at the battle:  Major Marcus Reno.

This began as whispers, then hints, the accusations then an all-out campaign to blame Reno for the disaster. It became so venomous that Reno begged the Army to have a Court of Inquiry so he could clear his name. In 1879 convened such an enquiry and totally cleared Reno. But Libbie was not deterred. In fact, it wasn’t until she died in 1933 that any really dispassionate historical work was done on the battle.

So Libbie had created a vacuum around the battle, a dead man’s zone where mere facts had no standing and emotion and opinion stood tall.

Her death changed that and slowly but surely academics and reporters began to research the battle. E.A. Birinstool sneaked out a book in 1925, Walter Mason Camp, carried out a major investigation in the early 20th century but never published it in his lifetime. Fred Dustin’s ‘The Custer Tragedy’ in 1988 finally broke the dam on the ‘Custer Myth’ by robustly defending the much-maligned Reno. But Libbie had done her work well and it wouldn’t be until the 1990’s that Charles Kuhlmans ‘Legend into History’ finally took control of the subject in a manner that reflected the findings of the Court of Inquiry, the revolutionary archaeology of Douglas Scott and Richard Fox and the surviving testimony and paintings of Native American survivors of the battle. This last evidence had been gathered almost immediately after the battle when the victorious warriors had been forced back onto the reservations but evidence statements had been taken as late as the 1930’s. Kuhlman coalesced these strands into a coherent history of the battle and his work would not be bettered for 20 years.

Both of the books we stock are in my opinion superior to Kuhlman but in different ways.

Donavon’s book is primarily ‘military history’ and it obviously concentrates its attentions on the combat. It is a splendid book full of strategy, tactics and insights into the battle. Connell isn’t a military historian, he’s a novelist and this gift for narrative fill the book. It’s very good on the battle but works best as a social history of the men and women of both sides of the conflict. It fills out Libbie’s ‘vacuum’ by making historical characters real people with real virtues and vices and real personalities. Both books transcend the limits of genre and drive right to the heart of the people, their lives and how the decisions they made on that fateful day meant they lived or died.

By |2018-07-24T08:39:04+00:00July 24th, 2018|Book Reviews|