I was recently stunned by my freshman class when I asked them if they knew who George Armstrong Custer was, and not a one could identify him. This is not my way of getting all school-marmy on today’s youth about their lack of historical knowledge (I’ll save that for a later post). No, the truth is, as Clay Shirkey might say, the only surprising thing about this scenario is my surprise.
Custer, for those of you born after 1965, was probably one of the 20 or 30 most famous Americans in history up until the 1960s. He was best known for the Battle of Little Bighorn, universally known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” where he and his entire command were wiped out by a contingent of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by the renowned Sitting Bull.
In a popular 1960 song, for example, Larry Verne portrayed a comically frightened trooper on the way to Little Bighorn pleading, “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go.” The most memorable line in the refrain was, “A coward I have been called, cuz I don’t wanna wind up dead or bald!”
So, in the old, pre-1960s days, Custer was truly famous. But after all, why should he have been? He was a brave and effective cavalry officer in the Civil War, and continued as a brave and genocidal officer during the wars against Native Americans in the 1860s and 70s. In other words, he was one of dozens of similar but more obscure figures in American history.
What made him famous were his marriage to the daughter of an influential judge back east, and his ambition to become famous and perhaps politically powerful after racking up what he apparently hoped would be impressive victories in the Indian Wars.
Custer’s ambition, his excellent connections and his flamboyant personality did make him famous in his day. But his role in the slaughter of indigenous families turned him into something of a villain during the cultural watershed of the 1960s. Vine Deloria’s 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, slammed him as did Arthur Penn’s popular 1970 film, Little Big Man. In the latter, Custer is portrayed as a vainglorious loon who leads his men into certain death at the Battle of Little Bighorn because he believes that “a Custer decision” is infallible and incontrovertible.
In other words, whereas the pre-1960s “swell generation” raised Custer to glorious heights, the subsequent “cool generation,” with its openness to Native American viewpoints and suspicion of military conquest, pulled him down into dusty obscurity. This is where he remains today, if my freshmen are any guide. And, frankly, as far as I’m concerned, that’s where he really belongs.*
Sitting Bull - He Had the Last Word
*For more on the swell - cool generational divide, see the Culture World post of December 11, 2010. (Back to the future!)
P.S. For a straightforward account of Custer’s life and personality, I have seen the following book recommended by reliable reviewers: The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick.