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New book looks at the origins of the Custer legends

Custer coverAs a small boy, I was fascinated by stories of Civil War generals from my native Ohio. I grew up 10 miles from Phil Sheridan’s boyhood home of Somerset and some 20 miles from William T. Sherman’s home in Lancaster. A few generals were buried in Zanesville, the nearest city to my small town home. But, my favorite as a kid, bar none, was George Armstrong Custer of New Rumley. I read everything I could about the boy general, and after I had read every Civil War and Indian fighting book from our branch library, I had the local branch librarian order over time every related book in the John McIntire Library in Zanesville. As an 11-year-old, I loved watching Wayne Maunders short-lived 1967 TV show, “Custer.” My toy army men got quite a workout that fall as I refought every episode and then invented my own imaginary scenarios of my 54mm Tempo Custer figure charging into action and dispatching hundreds of savages.

As I grew older, put the army men into their boxes for good, and began to read more critically, I began to realize that much of the Custer of my youth was not the Custer of my college years and of my adulthood. Custer the hero betrayed by timid, incompetent subordinates evolved into Custer the complex man, a person with certain talents and certain character flaws who most certainly was not the idol of my innocent youth.

Authors Edward Caudill and Paul G. Ashdown have written a new book, Inventing Custer, released this month which explores the creation of what has in the past been deemed “the Custer myth.”

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

A genuine war hero betrayed by incompetent associates, failed equipment, and lack of appropriate support in what should have been his finest hour?

Or,

A rash, reckless, glory hunter with little regard for the lives of his men, a misguided man whose burning personal ambition cost the lives of more than 200 United States soldiers?

Caudill and Ashdown begin with a brief survey of Custer’s life, main activities, personality, and accomplishments/let downs. They then dive into the post-Little Big Horn efforts to immortalize the fallen cavalier, including Libby Custer and many other admirers and early authors, continuing well into the 20th century and on to today. They explore how the myth has evolved and changed over the years, and suggest reasons why a segment of the American public continues to be fascinated by Custer’s life and particularly his last battle despite the passage of so much time.

The press had a lot to do with inventing the Custer myth, between playing up his charms and perceived talents, as well as denigrating the blood-thirsty, savage “red man” who wantonly butchered Custer and every man in his main force on the hills above the Little Big Horn River. Others in the press, by contrast, initially belittled Custer and found fault in his leadership and tactical competency, often equating these qualities or lack thereof with his blind, vain ambition as a “glory hunter.” They, too, formed public perception; in  this case negative.

Over the years, as the people who actually knew Custer died out, we are left with post-Custer interpretations, which much be weighed in conjunction with the often jaded and biased opinions of those who left their impressions of the man for posterity. The myth grew as the Old West became legendary, and Custer over time became larger than life, either as an ill-fated hero or as a self-possessed fool. The truth likely lies in between, and Caudill and Ashdown neatly look at how the opposing views came into being.

Custer at monument2Dedication of the Custer memorial at Hunterstown, Pa., on July 5, 2012.

Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown are professors of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee. They are co-authors of Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory (2008), The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest (2005), and The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend (2002).

Their book is a welcome and useful new addition to the Custer library. While there is little new in the lengthy overview of his life and times, the sections on the development of the myths and legends is noteworthy, if at times a little brief.

From the publisher: “…every aspect of Custer’s relevance as a man and a legend is up for discussion and debate. Caudill and Ashdown question and analyze the reasons why the invented Custer lives on in our nation’s memory so many years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the many ways the myth has evolved and will continue to evolve as our country continues to change.”

The authors offer, “The Civil War Custer was a man with flaws and virtues. After he brushed up against fame and glory, his celebrity outran both rank and accomplishment, thanks to the press and his own writing. The last stand became an iconic defeat, a burden that had to mean something. It became  both heroic and a metaphor for imperial overreach and military stupidity–the dark side of the American character–arrogance, overconfidence, brutality, genocide, racism, the survival of the fittest.”

“Custer resides in our historical, national imagination in the same way he is in the tomb at West Point. Some of him is there; at least we think those few bones are his. Some of him must still be at the battlefield. And some of him was claimed by the elements, becoming eternally of the landscape, where our monuments pretend certainty about history and its meaning.”

Edward Caudill and Paul G. Ashdown, Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend (New York: Rowman & Littleman Publishers, September 2015). ISBN 978-1442251861.