Why History Can’t Get Custer Right

Love or hate General George Armstrong Custer, there’s one thing Americans haven’t been able to do: ignore him. 138 years after his death during the June 25-26 Battle of Little Bighorn — his passing a tragedy, or just desserts, depending who you ask — Custer is as famous as ever. He is mentioned in books, articles and in the media far more often than at the height of his fame when he was alive, and his durability in the public eye is comparable to another controversial military maverick, George Patton.

In Custer’s day, people had a more nuanced, realistic view of the “boy general.” This changed after Little Bighorn, a shocking Indian military victory that came when many Americans already considered that chapter of frontier history over. The aura of heroic tragedy from that battle clung to Custer for almost a century after his death, burnished for decades by his devoted wife Libbie, who defended her husband against all naysayers. Uncritical biographies followed the dictum that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Popular mid-20th century portrayals of Custer, such as by self-avowed Custer buff Ronald Reagan in “Santa Fe Trail,” and most famously by Errol Flynn in “They Died with Their Boots On,” captured his boyish spirit, charm and bravery.

So Custer, the unblemished hero, was asking to be knocked from his pedestal. Once he became a superhero, it was a short step to transform him into a super villain. As political correctness took hold of American culture the crimes of the frontier experience — both real and imagined — were heaped on Custer’s head. As the 1969 Native American manifesto said, Custer Died for Your Sins.

Custer went from the immaculate tragic hero to the equally false guise of incompetent, genocidal Indian killer. In the 1970 satire “Little Big Man,” Richard Mulligan played Custer as a self-important, delusional fool, an image which many took at face value. In 2009’s “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” Bill Hader’s Custer was a blustering klutz who laments, “I will always be famous for my biggest failure.” At least in the movie, he was one of the good guys.

There were other variations on the theme. In “The Last Samurai,” former U.S. cavalry trooper Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, touts the politically correct line that Custer was a “murderer,” an “arrogant and foolhardy” officer who “fell in love with his own legend” and got his men killed. But old-school Samurai warlord Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, is impressed that Custer went into his final battle outnumbered ten to one. “I like this General Custer,” he said. “I think this is a very good death.”

In the Vietnam War film “We Were Soldiers,” Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commanding the unit descended from the battalion wiped out at Little Bighorn and portrayed by Mel Gibson, wonders aloud, “What was going through Custer’s mind when he realized that he’d led his men into a slaughter?” Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, played by Sam Elliott, growls, “Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain’t.” The expression soon appeared on bumper stickers and t-shirts. But even if the real-life sergeant Plumley said it, which is doubtful, it is far from the truth. Custer was well-known for his bravery and steadiness under fire. As Abraham Lincoln said, Custer led every charge “with a whoop and a shout.” To paraphrase the real Hal Moore, whose men nicknamed him “Yellow Hair” in homage to Custer, the only thing they had in the Ia Drang Valley that the 7th Cavalry didn’t at Little Bighorn was air support.