Sunday, July 26, 2020

Custer's Last Moments

 The Last Stand

   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.

The Indians met the men under Custer’s immediate command about six hundred yards east of the river.  The Indians drove the soldiers up the hill, and then made a circuit to the right around the hill and drove off or captured most of the horses.  The troops made a stand at the lower end of the hill, and there they were all killed.  Whittaker’s source is the New York Herald of October 6, 1876 which published the deposition that Kill Eagle, one of the hostiles, gave to Captain Johnston, Acting Indian Agent.

Citing an “officer of the general staff who examined the ground” as his source, Whittaker describes the Custer fight in detail.  Custer was driven back from an unsuccessful attempt to cross the stream to successive stands on higher ground.  Three quarters of a mile from the river Calhoun’s company is thrown across the line of retreat.  Whittaker (who perhaps had the powers of a psychic medium) puts these words into Custer's mouth, “The country needs; I give her a man who will do his duty to the death: I give them my first brother (First Lt. Calhoun was the husband of Custer’s only sister).  I leave my best loved sister a widow, that so the day may be saved.”

James Calhoun

Whittaker continues, “So they stood till the last man was down…and then came the friendly bullet that sent the soul of James Calhoun to an eternity of glory.  Let no man say that such a life was thrown away.  The spectacle of so much courage must have nerved the whole command to the heroic resistance it made.  Calhoun’s men would never have died where they did, in line, had Calhoun not been there to cheer them.  They would have been found in scattered groups, fleeing or huddled together, not fallen in their ranks, every man in his place, to the last.  Calhoun, with his forty men, had done on an open field, what Reno, with a hundred and forty, could not do defending a wood.  He had died like a hero, and America will remember him, while she remembers heroes.” (Whittaker, 597)

Whittaker continues, “…every man realized that it was his last fight, and was resolved to die game. Down they went, slaughtered in position, man after man dropping in his place, the survivors contracting their line to close the gaps. We read of such things in history, and call them exaggerations. The silent witness of those dead bodies of heroes in that mountain pass cannot lie. It tells plainer than words how they died, the Indians all around them, first pressing them from the river, then curling around Calhoun, now round Keogh, till the last stand on the hill by Custer, with three companies.” (Whittaker, 597-8)

Whittaker now turns to the testimony of one of the Indian scouts, Curly, who claimed to have escaped from the field of battle.  (In 1886, Gall, a war leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota, claimed that Curly knew nothing about Custer’s last moments, ”He ran away too soon in the fight”). 


 According to Whittaker, however, 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, 599-600)

Elizabeth Custer with President Taft

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.

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.

Success leaves clues. So does failure. Some of history’s best known commanders are remembered not for their brilliant victories but for their catastrophic blunders.

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