Monday, May 04, 2015

George Armstrong Custer and African-Americans

Isaiah Dorman

In his 1984 book, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, Evan S. Connell talks at length about Isaiah Dorman a black interpreter with Custer.  While earlier historians either omit reference to Dorman or pass over his role quickly, Connell spends several pages talking about his origins, his marriage to an Indian woman, his friendly relations with the Indians and his slow and painful death at their hands when they believed he had betrayed them by working for the bluecoats. (Connell, 25-27)

Elsewhere Connell quotes Custer’s views on blacks, “I am in favor of elevating the negro to the extent of his capacity and intelligence, and of our doing everything in our power to advance the race morally and mentally as well as physically, also socially….As to trusting the negro…with the most sacred and responsible privilege, the right of suffrage, I would as soon think of elevating an Indian Chief to the Popedom in Rome.” (Connell, 125)

Connell discusses the life and lot of black soldiers on the frontier, noting at one point that the high desertion rate in the U.S. Army did not apply to black soldiers.  “In 1867, for example, twenty -five percent of the army simply vanished….It has been suggested that they (black soldiers) could not easily merge into frontier communities and for the most of them a soldier’s uniform represented a social step forward.  The only thing certain is that very few buffalo soldiers missed roll call.” (Connell, 151)

Connell’s breakthrough inclusion of blacks in the Custer saga mirrors broader trends which saw the general emergence of history’s “invisible people” (blacks, women, minorities) into popular and academic histories.

Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.

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