I have never been a particular fan of General George Armstrong Custer.
In another life, another career, another part of the country, long, long ago, I made a movie at West Point, one of the few the Army ever allowed to actually be filmed right there at the school. I was really into creating a life for my character, and I was naturally interested in the history of this most illustrious military academy, so I soaked up as much as possible while I was there—the history, traditions, trivia, lore, rumor, whatever. In my free time, I hung out with the real cadets, did some weight training with them, and tried to glean as much as I could about the reality of their lives. It’s been forty years now, and memory is always tenuous, warping and bending in the dry air of time, so cut me some slack if I have misremembered some things, but certain tidbits stuck in my mind and made certain famous graduates especially intriguing for one reason or another.
General Robert E. Lee: one of the few cadets ever to graduate without a single demerit, famous for his military skill as much as for his dignity and his sense of honor, famous too for his all too human sentimental attachment to people and places (the last time he was passed through Alexandria, Virginia, he took the time to climb the brick wall around his childhood home to see if the snowballs were in bloom in the garden).
General George S. Patton: patrician, gifted horseman, Olympic athlete, probably the most colorful general in American history, famous for his profanity-laced aphorisms (“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”), famous too for his boast that in all the years it took him to graduate, he never once set foot in the library. (And the army proved that it does have at least some sense of humor, because among the row of statues of illustrious graduates looking out over the parade ground, Patton’s is directly in front of the library and is the only one turned away from the parade ground, looking at the building he never entered.)
General William Westmoreland: one of the most able and honored cadets during his time at the academy, the man who led a team of his fellow cadets out one night and managed, undetected, to hide the much-hated reveille canon in the top of the bell tower. They did it in one night. It took the Army Corps of Engineers two weeks to get the thing back down.
The unknown—or unremembered by me—cadets who somehow dug up the reveille canon, after the academy had sunk it into a block of cement following Westmoreland’s stunt, and absconded with it, leaving a large hole and a huge mound of earth. The army searched for weeks and was unable to find the canon until finally, some officer realized the hole in the ground did not correspond to the location of the canon. But the mound of dirt next to it did.
And then there is Custer: last in his class, famous for his prodigious courage, prodigious athletic ability, the prodigious violence of his temper, and above all his prodigious luck.
Evan S. Connell opens Son of the Morning Star with a detachment of cavalry under Lt. James Bradley discovering the remains—literally—of the famed Seventh Cavalry littering the valley of the Little Bighorn. It seems at first an odd way to start a history, but on reflection, everyone knows the story well, and by starting this way Connell (who only died this past January at the age of eighty-eight) manages to convey the shock and horror, not only of what Lt. Bradley’s men found, but what it meant for the army and for the nation, “nation,” in this case, referring exclusively to whites, not to the original inhabitants of the land. Custer and his Seventh Calvary were thought to be invincible, and to find their naked, scalped, and mutilated bodies was almost more than anyone could believe or bear. Men from all over the country, including many recently defeated (in part by Custer) Confederate soldiers, volunteered to go after Sitting Bull and his alliance of Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes. And go after them they did. There are no heroes on either side in this segment of American history.
And that is part of Connell’s genius: like the snippets above, better than the snippets above, he manages to capture the essential personalities of even the most minor and little known players in this tragedy. With extraordinarily painstaking research, frequently using their own words, he brings people to life (the bibliography alone runs to thirteen pages), and makes their success and failures understandable results of their character.
In Custer’s case, he paints of portrait of a man who allowed his arrogance, ambition, and ultimately his belief in his own press, to destroy him and almost all his men. And yet, even as he does so, Connell show why Custer was such a national icon, and why his defeat captured America’s imagination in an unprecedented way, a way that still endures.
If this dark corner of American history is of interest to you, or if you just want to revel in a tale told by a master, read Son of the Morning Star.