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The Custer Myth: History, Music & the Arts Can, and Should, Inform Our Perspectives, without the Past Being Hijacked
A look at the music, the myth, and the facts, and why we can't seem to reconcile things
It was that era's 9/11. Irrational acts that contradicted white society's proclaimed morals followed the shock. In one example, Buffalo Bill Cody would ride to fame with his "Wild West Show" after "Taking the first scalp for Custer," and he would re-enact it for decades as part of that show.
|"Spirit Warrior" bronze sculpture, a recent addition, looms over the horizon|
at Little Bighorn National Monument. Photo: Meteor Blades
Today, the bronze "Spirit Warrior" sculpture in the photo looms over the horizon at the Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn National Monument. It used to be, until 1991, that the place was named "Custer National Monument," and inclusion of a monumental Native American component at the site was even longer in coming. The sculpture by Ogala artist Colleen Cutschall depicts three Native American warriors riding off to battle.
Still, neither old traditional tales, including, graphically, the most famous Budweiser mural to hang above frontier saloon bars (it appears below) -- nor the dozens of movies and countless other artistic and literary depictions of the battle, and eventually, the inevitable parade of revisionist historians' portrayals -- usually attempt to inclusively present much of the entire context.
And something more that's true, regiments under Custer's command captured more Confederate battle flags and took more prisoners of war than any other. Part of the Custer Myth? Yes, and also fact.
But the primary cliches, of Custer being (a) characterized by recklessness, and (b) having a visceral contempt of Native American Indians, are just not true.
There is plenty of evidence that Custer had an Indian mistress whom he repeatedly visited in a teepee in her band's village. He was not reviled there, and he went there alone.
In fact there were Native Americans on both sides in the battle. Custer's scouts, with whom he had close friendships, were mostly from the Crow nation.
And it wasn't just the blue-uniformed troopers who died on June 25th. In fact, most of them did NOT die, after surviving being besieged atop a shallow bowl-shaped hill, under command of Custer's subordinates, Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. William Benteen. Both of them helped precipitate disaster; and with them were surviving members of the detachment led by Capt. Weir, whose efforts to reach and rescue Custer's unit got as close as modern-day Weir Point.
The thing you've always heard about the Black Hills of (now) South Dakota being ancient sacred lands of the Sioux? Not until the Sioux ran the Crow out of those hills, which had been their ancient sacred lands. Which explains why the Crow, wanting the Sioux defeated and subdued, were with Custer and the cavalry.
Tuesday's Daily Kos has a story by their staff writer Meteor Blades titled, "On this date 143 years ago, America began creating the Custer myth, much of which survives today" (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/6/25/1867186/-On-this-date-143-years-ago-America-began-creating-the-Custer-myth-much-of-which-survives-today)
The Daily Kos story is accurate as far as it goes, and it includes a good measure of context and an excellent if brief reading list with its references. But it seems to justify its omissions with the blanket idea that the Custer Myth must be un-done, seemingly by purging its every trace. Thing is, that myth is inclusive of facts that need their convolutions undone, a fuller context applied, and the justifications for their long period of cultural acceptance examined.
We aren't writing here to challenge the points of substance raised by Mr. Blades, but to enable consideration, and even to amplify, a few points and expand the context beyond where he went.
While not claiming to be an expert on the Custer battle, your editor has been over the ground there, as well as reading about and studying the battle and what led up to it.
More than anything, viewing the rises and falls of the landscape -- fording the narrow, rushing river on horseback at the places where Reno's command did, to attack a narrow end of a massive, but not visible encampment; riding up Medicine Tail Coulee and the other routes the Indians raced up into the heights to stop Custer; going into the tangle of trees on the riverbank where Reno's charge fell apart; hearing bird songs while riding up steep draws on the route of the Indian counterattack; seeing Last Stand Hill from atop Weir Point; and more, much of it on ground outside the National Monument -- and having a most remarkable guide who grew up there, talking and sharing and listening to encourage us to work together, he and I, to evaluate and explain things. It allowed me not just to see, but experience, as much as possible, the landforms as the participants saw them aboard their horses.
In the same context, learning that the sharp line of ridgetop had disappeared without a trace, when the Park Service built the visitor road, helps to understand why seemingly obvious things were invisible to cavalry participants and decisively useful to counterattacking Natives.
Riding those routes of the battle's participants, up from the wide bulge of meadow that held the massive gathering of tribal bands whose members knew the ground and were rushing to protect their families -- and the route of the precipitating participants, the cavalry who lured themselves into the fatal notions they developed without opportunity for reconsideration, informs everything about what actions were actually open to the people who took part.
To some extent, the dead Custer became the fall guy, the scapegoat to protect the reputations of others with career ambitions.
A popular belief resurrected since the movie "Little Big Man" is that Custer was crazy with hubris, and just plain insane. The historical record says otherwise.
We are always ill-served by simplistic myths that overemphasize false notions from any direction, particularly when somebody has an agenda to pursue or an axe to grind.
Custer was, not unlike Patton 65 years later, a harsh taskmaster who allowed himself many contradictory and even flamboyant excesses, holding himself in a place beyond his rules for subordinates. But Patton, who could read all his adversary's communication dispatches, thanks to the "Ultra" secret, ended-up an unquestionable success. And Custer had only scouts reading smoke and trail signs (yes, they did tell him he was heading into a massive gathering of Indians) but he is sensationally and mythically remembered for the battle he lost rather than for his brilliant Civil War career.
Eighteenth century people, particularly men, placed a large value on the pursuit of glory. People were judged in those terms. Today, we seem less able to allow for that difference in perspectives than to abruptly ridicule it.
The larger point is, there's a big bucket in which our culture enjoys dumping things, labelled "Disaster Caused by Hubris of Runaway Ego." It popularly includes the RMS Titanic sailing too fast and hitting an iceberg; launching the Space Shuttle Challenger after its o-rings froze; believing the Alamo could be held in the face of the entire Mexican army; sending Pickett's Charge into the Union center; the charge of the Light Brigade; Thermopylae; rushing the Apollo 1 spacecraft into production before assessing it for flammables and electrical sparks; most recently, putting complicated autopilot features into 737 MAX commercial airliners that crash the airplane and exprcting it won't be a problem; and plenty more that you can add.
Go ahead. Name more. But do it knowing that relentlessly simplistic labelling of our short-attention-span society deprives us of any opportunity to understand much when we oversimplify it, whether it's dissecting the past or analyzing the present. Every time and any time we allow ourselves to smugly accept the simplistic answer to complex conditions or circumstances, we set ourselves up to be satisfird with "answers" that are incomplete, and therefore, probably wrong.
As for why we asked you to read this, after the anniversary date of an event? We could say, "that should be obvious by now," but wouldn't that betray what we just said, and exhaust your patience, by asking you to settle for excessive simplicity?
And as for the beginning of the "Custer Myth" which underlies the Daily Kos piece that got us started? In fact, its author asserts -- if his title does not -- that the genesis of that myth started with the widowed Elizabeth "Libby" Custer. We'll add that she proved herself one of the greatest legend-makers in American history. We'll also point out that the Custer Myth therefore did not start with the still-bleeding corpses of cavalrymen at Little Bighorn, contrary to Mr. Blades' story title.
Is it just us, or are there echoes here in our reflex of worship of today's veterans who were sent, in our name, to destroy entire countries and leave survivors homeless (in the ruins of the cities they had once worked to build) and instead leave them "free" of regimes we don't like?
"Garryowen" was adopted as the 7th Cavalry's theme song in 1867. It's an old Irish quick-step that goes back to the early 1680s. Every cavalry movie has used it, some as the soundtrack for inspiring nick-of-time rescues by the arrival of the cavalry, others as the ironicly tragic soundtrack for troops committing massacres of Indians. Hear the Eastman Wind Ensemble rendition, with original lyrics, which has 1,342,590 views, here.
was a 1960 Number-1 hit song by Larry Verne. (Listen here.) A "marching novelty song" written by Al De Lory, Fred Darian, and Joseph Van Winkle, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for the week of October 10, 1960, and remained on radio play lists for years. Verne released 9 versions, 7 of them in 1960, plus it was put on K-Tel vinyl and tape compilations into the '70s. Ray Stevens put it on "Gitarzan" in 1969. His celebrated fourth studio album propelled the song to again enjoy airplay and popularity, this time as an expression of resistance to the Vietnam War. Stevens' version, stylistically very different from the original, is here.
Johnny Cash's 1964 archetypal concept album, "Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian" included the song "Custer." In it, the Man in Black mocks the popular veneration of George Custer. It was his 20th album release on Columbia Records, and an entire record evoking the perspective of what Native Americans had that was stolen from them. A latter-day live performance by Johnny Cash with Marty Stuart is here. You can hear the complete original album here.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Native American singer-songwriter who hit the mainstream of '60s folk-rock, did a truncated version of the Johnny Cash "Custer" song as a concert cover, which she called "Custer Song." It's here. Notably, she also wrote the song "Soldier Blue," subtitled "The Custer Girl." It was used in a movie that did well in Europe but was abruptly pulled from theatres in the U.S. Watch her live music vid of that song here.
, the first Native American rock band to reach the mainstream, recorded their song "Custer Had It Coming" on their 1989 album, "Peace Pipe." Listen here.
Johnny Horton's 1960 song "Jim Bridger" prominently features Custer in its lyrics: "He spoke with General Custer and said 'Listen Yellow Hair / 'The Sioux are a great nation, so treat 'em fair and square / 'Sit in on their war council, don't laugh away their pride' / But Custer didn't listen, and at Little Big Horn Custer died." Listen here.
"The Army Goes Rolling Along," the official U.S. Army theme song originally written by John Philip Souza in 1917, acquired modified lyrics in the 1950s. In them, George Custer and George Patton become the only officers named in the Army's official song. (Odd, when you consider the first commander of the army was also a George -- as in, Washington.) Music vid from an album of U.S. Military Bands, with on-screen lyrics, is here.
Especially important is a brilliantly choreographed scene with a rousing Hollywood music score, for Custer's key Civil War cavalry charge at Gettysburg. It's from the largely fantasy 1941 epic, "They Died with Their Boots On," casting Errol Flynn in THE role that inflated the Custer Myth into the mid-20th century, and Olivia DeHavilland as Libby Custer, whose role as
archetype mythmaker is established in the movie's final scene. This film is Hollywood magic depicting the Custer you wish had been. Watch and listen to that scene here.
First is "Crazy Horse's Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn" as it appeared in the Bismarck Tribune, June 11, 1877, just a year after the battle. It's a video reading, produced with period photos and maps. Incongruously, it includes the white man's music -- "Garry Owen" and "The Girl I left Behind" -- performed by the Brass Mounted Army band. It's here.
The other is "The Battle Of Little Bighorn: Chief Two Moon's Own Words - June 25-26th 1876" an account from his meeting with Hamlin Garland, published in September 1898 in McClure's Magazine. Video reading is here.
|Custer is still a popular subject for limited-edition heroic military lithographs|
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