Sunday, August 21, 2005

Custer & Co.

One of my earliest recollections of George Armstrong Custer was from the movie Little Big Man, which went out of its way to rebut the heroic myth of Custer by playing him as a vain buffoon, as much of a cartoon as if he’d appeared with Peabody and Sherman. “Your life,” he tells Dustin Hoffman’s character after deciding not to have him hanged, “isn’t worth reversing a Custer decision!” It’s remarkable how often revisionism is just as much nonsense as the older nonsense (such as They Died With Their Boots On.)

Then again, movies haven’t ever been known for historic accuracy. A more nuanced Custer appears in the popular history Son of the Morning Star, which I read a couple of summers ago. It was my kind of page-turner, though I knew how it would end. In any case, Custer found undying fame at Little Bighorn, if a near-full visitor parking lot at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument 129 years after his death is any indication.

Little Bighorn has, like the Mall in DC, been subject to the forces of creeping monument growth in recent years. Custer and his men have had their stones for quite a while. More recently, the Indian side of the battle has been represented with a memorial to all the tribes involved (including, evenhandedly I thought, the tribes that sided with the US Army). A handful of individual braves have stones now as well—two that I saw, Ve’ho’enohnenehe (Chief Lame White Man), a Southern Cheyenne, and Nestonevahtsestse (Noisy Walking), a Northern Cheyenne. According to their stones, they died “defending the Cheyenne way of life.” Won the battle, lost the war, I suppose.

Even the horses of the 7th Calvary have a memorial. Apparently, as things looked grim on Last Stand Hill, the men of the 7th shot their own horses to use as cover. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a monument to the animal casualties of war, but there it was. Something similar to remember all the horses of war may appear on the National Mall someday.


At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing like a really big disaster to secure your place in history - "Quintili Vare, legiones redde!" - Everyone remembers Custer, but he likely wouldn't be any better known today than, say, Benjamin Grierson, to name another notable Union cavalry leader, if he hadn't come a cropper at Little Big Horn. ANK


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