Monday, February 26, 2018

George Armstrong Custer: Why All the Controversy?


     In his book, Custer and the Great Controversy, Robert Utley writes, “Almost every myth of the Little Bighorn that one finds today masquerading as history may be found also in the press accounts of July 1876.”  In the bitter election year of 1876, the Custer tragedy was a godsend for Democrats to use against their Republican opponents.  “The Little Bighorn disaster…instantly became a pawn on the political chessboard.” (Utley, 39)

     Utley writes that the New York Herald launched a vicious attack on the Grant administration, denouncing President Grant as, “the author of the present Indian war.”  On July 16 the Herald asked “Who Slew Custer?”, and in answer declared, “The celebrated peace policy of General Grant…that is what killed Custer.” The press placed the battle “…in a political context that assured its rise to a national issue of the first magnitude.”  (Utley, 39, 41) 

     After the initial wave of political hysteria abated, the press insured that the Custer controversy would be constantly reignited by readily publishing the prejudices, opinions, and grievances of officers who had served with Custer or on the frontier. Pro-Custer editor’s rushed to Custer’s defense.

     And so it continued between pro and anti-Custer partisans for half a century.  Utley concludes that it was the press that, “laid the foundations for the evolution of the history of the Little Bighorn into one of the most misunderstood, confused, and controversial events in American history.” (Utley, 48)

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. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

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