Why History Can’t Get Custer Right

James S. Robbins JAMES S. ROBBINS is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and a member of the advisory board to the National Civil War Museum. Formerly, he was an award-winning editorial writer at the Washington Times, professor at the National Defense University, and special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero (2014), This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (2010) and Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point (2006).
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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.

The real Custer was a young underachiever, the charismatic, lovable rogue at the bottom of his West Point class whose Civil War battlefield exploits rocketed him to rank and fame. His repeated, desperate charges at Gettysburg against superior numbers of Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry made him a national hero. At the surrender at Appomattox he was a bronzed, hard-eyed, 25-year-old major general who had seen action in many of the largest, most significant battles of the war.

But after the war Custer faced mundane service on the frontier, at lower rank and without the energizing prospect of imminent action. In contemporary terms, he transitioned from major combat operations to counterinsurgency. As Gen. John Gibbon said, glory on the Plains meant “being shot by an Indian from behind a rock, and having your name wrongly spelled in the newspapers.”

He fought in fewer battles the next ten years than he did in the last year of the Civil War. And Custer’s victories — most notably at Washita in 1868 — were as much condemned as heralded. It was a difficult life for a natural born warrior, and Custer had trouble adapting. He turned into a martinet on post, suffered a humiliating court martial and was smacked down by President Grant for meddling in Washington politics. But he was always looking for the final, career-capping major battle, the fight that would enshrine his name in history forever. And at Little Bighorn, for his sins, he found it.

James S. Robbins is the author of The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero from Regnery Publishing.