No sooner had I finished reviewing Michael Wallis’s recent biography of Billy the Kid for this journal than what should come in the next day’s mail but Michael Elliott’s excellent new book Custerology, about that other hardy perennial of western legend, sometime General George Armstrong Custer, who with more than 250 men of the Seventh Cavalry, which he commanded, met his death in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in southern Montana, on the afternoon of June 25, 1876. This was only a little more than a week before the US was to celebrate its one hundredth birthday in Philadelphia, which festivities Custer would undoubtedly have enjoyed attending with his vivacious wife Libbie. Had things gone his way in Montana, the Custers might well have made it to the big party, and if Philadelphia was too far, there was also the Democratic convention, held that year in St. Louis.
As it happened, something more than distance dashed the Custers’ hopes. An overwhelming force of fighting men chiefly from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes saw to it that Long Hair, as Custer was sometimes called, did not have things go his way.
Legend—I emphasize the word—has it that as fortune failed Custer he fired his last bullet and laughed. How did the warrior or warriors who may have seen this know it was his last bullet? By that time the dust stirred by perhaps two thousand horses and the gunsmoke from hundreds of rifles would have reduced visibility so that even Long Hair—who sported a recent haircut—might not have been recognized. Was the empty pistol there when, sometime later, his corpse was identified? Why wouldn’t an Indian simply have taken it?
Custer himself was not incapable of irony. Brilliantly and precociously successful during the Civil War, he had then mostly, in the American West, watched his career stall. President Grant didn’t like him and soon bluntly placed the blame for the embarrassing massacre squarely on Custer, which, it now seems clear, was where the blame belonged. Perhaps he did laugh at the end, but somehow the image doesn’t quite fit.
Here is a much-quoted example of General Custer’s irony, taken from his autobiography My Life on the Plains—sometimes called by the Custer-hating Captain Frederick Benteen, who had served under him, My Lie on the Plains—published in 1874:
If I were an Indian, I often think that I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people who adhered to the free open plains, rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be the recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in without stint or measure….
Though Custer as a cadet at West Point did practically nothing but accumulate demerits, he often wrote fairly well. In periods when President Grant kept him on the shelf, usually to punish him for flagrant misdeeds, Custer turned to journalism …