An American Odyssey: Custer at Little Bighorn
Every new American generation needs its own re-interpretations of this essential western hero and of the meaning of the country’s last pitched – and utterly disastrous – battle against the largest army of Native American warriors ever assembled.
The Little Bighorn – its causes, its lessons, its consequences, and its enduring memory grip on our national memory is nothing less than the American equivalent of England’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Neither battle seemed urgent or necessary at the time; both bore the stains of poor planning, horrid generalship and a disgracefully lurid waste of fine soldiers.
Yet, in the long view of history, both the Little Bighorn and the Light Brigade now seem pre-ordained by the inevitable forces that shaped the ages in which they took place. The Battle of the Little Bighorn had to happen.
The Light Brigade was a bloody precursor to the even more enormous carnage of the First World War. It underscored the hypocrisy of the British class system and the awful shortcomings of the English military and ruling establishments.
In our case, Little Bighorn was nothing less than the very real martyrdom of soldiers and Sioux, alike, and all in the name of “manifest destiny”, our national policy of imperialism, from sea to shining sea.
It represented equal parts of self-righteousness and self-interest. It would become the wellspring of America’s eventual emergence as the world’s preeminent super-power. But even super-powers have to begin somewhere and in the case of this country, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is as good a place as any to start.
Who could even imagine the United States today without the driving force of that self same manifest destiny? It would take us to Cuba, the Philippines, Europe, Asia, and Afghanistan and Iraqi. In the context of its 19th century era the policy of Manifest Destiny seemed as sensible and necessary as the Cold War or the current War on Terror.
Survival seemed to be at stake, not simply successful expansion. We were trying to win a country back then and an embedded culture of hard-fighting indigenous peoples were stopping us from doing it.
The notion of “genocide” seemed as fanciful and out-of-place as a trip to the moon. No one guessed that it would be the science fiction writers, alone, who could correctly foresee our national future.
The Little Bighorn had to happen precisely as it did, with the ensuing loss of life, for America to grow into the place that it is today. That might not be politically correct, but it does happen to be history. Think of it this way: for Americans in 1876, the massacre at the Little Bighorn was the very visceral twin of the attack on 9/11.
That’s why one reviewer of Donovan’s book termed the decade-long Custer expedition into the West and the Black Hills of the Dakotas as “the American Odyssey.” Custer and his men were not just following orders from Washington, but the dictates of Fate, itself.
But, it would be understandable if this book discouraged others from tackling the same territory. Donovan’s astute and craftily composed history of George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn is really that good. To call it merely definitive hardly does the book justice. It belongs on the shelf with the best of American narrative histories.
General Custer was a colorful, controversial and physically brave Civil War veteran who took command (at least in the field) of the United States Army’s Seventh Cavalry. That unit was to be the best of the best among the country’s thin blue wall of frontier troops. It was never truly designed to be a war-fighting regiment, like those massive, unwieldy units that won the Civil War for the North.
Rather, it was conceived of as a fast-moving, elite light cavalry, fully capable of keeping the peace, protecting America’s western borders, and, above all, maintaining a fragile peace with the best fighting force on the continent, the collected tribes of the Plains Indians. And, George Custer did seem like the ideal man for the job.
Isn’t that the way things always seem to go in war time, however? It all looks great on paper and in the planning sessions, but as soon as the boots of the troopers start to get dirty, those grand schemes have an irresistible way of unraveling.
It happened in Korea, it happened in Vietnam, in Granada, and in monumental terms in Iraqi – just to name a handful of this great nation’s accumulating roster of post-colonial wars. To think that Custer and his fellow soldiers-of-fortune could not make it work in the genteel climate of the late Victorian Age is to finally admit that war might never be the answer. Custer was fully committed to the American Dream and he never hesitated to risk – and finally give – his life in that cause.
And, still, he failed. It may well be that destiny intended him to fail. The taming of the West badly needed some catalyst to give it momentum. The engine for that drive became George Armstrong Custer and his squandered troopers.
Back East, America was already beginning to seethe and bridle at the stresses and instability associated with unplanned urban growth. Immigration was seen as a bigger problem then than now.
Racism had yet to be seriously addressed. Were it not for the renewed focus that the massacre of Custer and his men put on the West and on larger issues of peaceful settlement there, the authentic taming of the West could have taken another costly half-century. The deaths of Custer and his men raised the stakes at precisely the right time.
To attempt to list the merits of this powerful volume is not the stuff of book reviews, but more properly the content of a college course. Any professor of 19th century American history who misses the opportunity to make A Terrible Glory required reading should have his tenure seriously reconsidered.
The best decision that James Donovan made was to avoid the temptation to focus solely on the battle at the expense of the ten year saga that built up to it. In this type of reconsideration, Custer, long-ridiculed as a buffoon among professional military men, begins to look more and more competent with every one of Donovan’s passing pages. He was a fine soldier and leader, given the limitations of what those words meant in the world of 1876.
The complexity of the personalities and the circumstances that created the event of the Little Bighorn represents a multi-layered milieu in which each stratum has to be examined on its own merits. Custer made bad decisions, no doubt. Yet, they were almost always exactly the kind of brass, risky, aggressive decisions that had served him so well during the glory days of the Civil War.
Custer was not acting in a vacuum, either. He was accompanied by an intriguing collection of experienced, well-regarded professional officers. Several had served with great distinction throughout Europe, often in the service of the British Empire. At least half of his men were equally seasoned professional mercenaries from those world-wide campaigns. The other half were very young, somewhat naive American recruits who presumed themselves to be in rather elite company.
At the Little Bighorn a veteran army was massacred by Indian warriors who were well-lead and armed with better weapons than the Americans. The myth of blood-thirsty scalp-hunting troopers set on murdering helpless women and children is just not bore out by the facts.
At one point in our shared history, Custer was seen as a genuine American hero of the first order – a fearless force for the civilizing instincts of an enlightened, 19th century Christian society willing to sacrifice itself for the good of the emerging nation.
Revisionism eventually transformed that view into a depiction of Custer as a clumsy, cartoon-like self-mockery who played at being a general and who represented all that was evil in early American expansionism.
Both views were extreme, but, to a certain extent, each would have found a home in Custer. The triumph of this book is that it never veers away from the complex, compelling reality of the man who died with his command.Tags: George Custer, Little Bighorn