Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The False Narrative: The Man Who Loved Custer


     Six months after the battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876), Frederick Whittaker’s A Complete Life of General George A. Custer was published.  Whittaker’s book was a canonization which presented Custer as a dashing and brilliant military leader abandoned to his fate by lesser, disloyal, treacherous, and cowardly men.  Whittaker borrowed generously from Custer’s own book My Life on the Plains, as well as on his own imagination, which was fulsome, since Whittaker was a professional writer of nickel and dime novel fiction for a leading publisher.

     Whittaker opens, “Much of Custer success has been attributed to good fortune, while it was really the result of a wonderful capacity for hard, energetic work, and a rapidity of intuition which is seldom found apart from military genius of the highest order,” and continues.  “Few men had more enemies than Custer, and no man deserved them less. The world has never known half the real nobility of his life nor a tithe of the difficulties under which he struggled. It will be the author’s endeavor to remedy this want of knowledge, to paint in sober earnest colors the truthful portrait of such a knight of romance as has not honored the world with his presence since the days of Bayard.”

     Whittaker writes, “…Custer’s invariable method of attack was the same which he adopted at the Big Horn, an attack on front and flank…from all sides if he had time to execute it….He counted much on the moral effect to be produced on an enemy by combined attacks and a cross-fire, and always found his calculations correct.  In fact only one thing could vitiate them.  This was the cowardice or disobedience in the leader of any of the fractions which were to work simultaneously….” According to Whittaker, Custer died because of Major Reno’s incapacity and Captain Benteen’s disobedience.  “Reno was ordered to ‘charge’: he obeyed by opening a hesitating skirmish and then running away.  Benteen was ordered to ‘come on; be quick.’  He obeyed by advancing three miles in two hours, and joining Reno in a three hour halt….he stopped, and let his chief perish.”

     Whittaker now turns to the testimony of one of the Indian scouts, Curly, who claimed to have escaped from the field of battle.  When Curly saw that the party with Custer was about to be overwhelmed, he begged Custer to let him show him a way to escape.  “…Custer looked at Curly, waved him away and rode back to the little group of men, to die with them.”  Why, Whittaker asks, did Custer go back to certain death?  “Because he felt that such a death as that which that little band of heroes was about to die, was worth the lives of all the general officers in the world….He weighed, in that brief moment of reflection, all the consequences to America of the lesson of life and the lesson of heroic death, and he chose death.”

     Whittaker’s biography of Custer molded the public’s perception of George Armstrong Custer for over fifty years, because it was endorsed and defended by Custer’s widow and her powerful friends and allies.  Elizabeth Custer was widowed at the age of thirty-four and spent the next fifty- seven years, until her death in 1933, glorifying and defending her husband’s reputation.  Only after her death did historians begin seriously re-examining the Custer legend.

Sun Tzu, the Master of War, once said, “Those who are skilled in producing surprises will win. In conflict, surprise will lead to victory. ” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

1.The Hostage, in which Abraham Lincoln is kidnapped by the rebels.
2.The German Invasion of America of 1889, in which Germany unexpectedly launches its might against the United States.
3.The Invasion of Canada 1933, in which the new American dictator launches a sneak attack on Canada.
4.Cherry Blossoms at Night: Japan Attacks the American Homeland (1942), in which Japan attacks the American homeland in a very surprising way.

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. 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. 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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