Friday, July 31, 2020

The First Custer Movie (1912)

Custer's Last Fight (1925 Version)

In 1912, Thomas Ince produced Custer’s Last Fight, the first film depiction of the events surrounding the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Filmed at a cost of $30,000 in 1912 (which equates to some $80 million in today’s dollars), Custer’s Last Fight was, at that time, the most expensive motion picture ever made.

The film was billed as “The Most Colossal and Sensational War Picture in the Entire History of Motion Pictures”.  When the film was made, Custer was generally regarded as a great military leader who died a hero’s death on the battlefield.
Thomas Ince hired the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show to provide props and extras.  Miller Brothers employed numerous Native Americans as extras, including some who participated in the actual 1876 battle.

The 1912 three reel picture was refurbished in 1925 with additional footage that expanded the film to five reels.  The New York Motion Picture Company boasted that the film featured 1000 soldiers and 1000 Indians and that the film “…is a perfect reproduction of the most heroic incident in the nation’s history….”  The expanded version was released in 1926, the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  The 1925 version is the one most commonly seen today.

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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Paul Revere of the South (1781)

Jack Jouett

 In 1781 the British stepped up operations in the Southern theater of war.  Benedict Arnold and a British fleet ravaged the Tidewater of Virginia, burning cities, seizing crops, and destroying everything that they could find.  Later in the year Lord Cornwallis swept northward into Virginia and began to lay the country waste.  His only opposition was a small American force under the Frenchman Lafayette.

The Virginia General Assembly abandoned Williamsburg, Richmond and Petersburg, fleeing to Charlottesville.  The Virginians decided to assemble in mid-June.  The British hatched a plan to capture or kill the entire Virginia Assembly and Governor Thomas Jefferson in one lightning raid that would crush all opposition.  Lord Cornwallis chose the savage Banastre Tarleton and his battle hardened cavalry to do the job.

Banastre Tarleton

On the night of June 3, 1781, twenty-seven year old John “Jack” Jouett spotted Tarleton’s cavalry near Cuckoo Tavern in Louisa County.  Suspecting that the British were marching on Charlottesville, Jouett mounted his horse at 10 PM and began the forty mile ride to Charlottesville. Traveling only with the light of the moon, Jouett took rough backwoods trails, riding hard to out distance the British.

At 11:30 PM, Tarleton paused for a three-hour rest at Louisa Courthouse. The British resumed their march at about 2 AM, and soon encountered a train of thirteen Patriot supply wagons at Boswell's Tavern bound for South Carolina.  Tarleton burned the wagons and continued toward Charlottesville.

 At 4:30 AM, Jack Jouett ascended the mountain on which Jefferson's home Monticello sits.  An early riser, Thomas Jefferson was in the gardens at Monticello when Jouett arrived.  Jefferson fortified Jouett with a glass of Madeira and sent him on the two additional miles to warn the town of Charlottesville.

Jefferson did not rush to make an escape.  He had breakfast and spent two hours gathering up important papers, all the while checking the path up the mountain with his telescope for signs of the British.  When Jefferson finally spotted the British he mounted a horse and headed into the woods, successfully eluding capture.

Thanks to Jouett’s timely warning most of the Virginia legislators in Charlottesville also escaped capture.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Elizabeth Custer and the Custer Myth

Libbie Custer

     Custer’s widow was left with large debts that her husband incurred speculating in the stock market.  Mrs. Elizabeth (“Libbie”) Custer eventually became financially comfortable based on her success as an author.  Her three books, Boots and Saddles(1885), Following the Guidon (1890), and Tenting on the Plains(1893) recount her life with Custer on the frontier. 

     Boots and Saddles covers the period leading up to the battle of the Little Bighorn, and paints a picture of domestic bliss, “An ineffaceable picture remains with me even now of those lovely camps, as we dreamily watched them by the fading light of the afternoon.” (E. Custer, 31).  Elizabeth Custer paints a human portrait of Custer as, “boyish”, as the soldier’s friend, and as a man devoted to his mother.  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.

     While Mrs. Custer does not directly address the events on the Little Bighorn in any of her books, she does mention the issue of the Indians being better armed, “We heard constantly at the Fort of the disaffection of the young Indians of the reservation, and of their joining the hostiles.  We knew, for we had seen for ourselves, how admirably they were equipped.  We even saw on a steamer touching at our landing its freight of Springfield rifles piled upon the decks en route for the Indians up the river.  There was unquestionable proof they came into the trading posts far above us and bought them, while our own brave 7th Cavalry troopers were sent out with only the short range carbines that grew foul after the second firing.”(E. Custer, 220)  Clearly, she believed that this was one of the reasons for the disaster.