A blustery, unseasonably cold spring morning encourages me to while away the time going through the stack of junk-store bargains stacked in the floor for “rainy day reading.” A Larry McMurtry $1 publisher’s over-stock called “Custer,” caught my eye. I thumbed through it a bit, and concluded, “Here’s one for Dad.”
My father is a voracious reader. Forced by family circumstances to leave school after what passed for six years of primary school in depression era Mississippi, he is self-educated. Impressed into the service of the American Empire in 1944, he is a proud and unapologetic veteran. Often, he and I disagree on politics, especially as to the presumptions and arrogance of American imperialism in the late 20th Century. Maybe it is the false sense of immunity from generation sassiness that his 87 years inspired, but I was uncharacteristically saucy when I dropped it off on the morning visit: “Here’s one you may find interesting…one yamned Dankee who got his comeuppance.”
Prepared for a verbal spanking, I was surprised. Dad’s eyes lit up, and he exclaimed, “Oh, yeah, he was an arrogant son-a-gun, wasn’t he?”
What is it with Custer?
Gen. George Armstrong Custer is the poster boy for American shame about the mistreatment of the Amerinds. The process had begun in the 17th century, so Custer cannot be blamed for its culmination in the late 19th. He was a product of his time. So, why are Americans almost universally willing to consign him to the dust bin of history as prideful and arrogant, and gleefully remember his “just deserts” at the hands of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho alliance in the Sioux War in June of 1876?
If you want history, go to the library. If you want opinion, stay tuned. (This is the Op-Ed page, remember?)
In 1876, Radical Reconstruction was in its death throes. Large scaled immigration flooded the American frontier with hungry and ambitious men who had no dog-in-the-race in the War Between the States. They were here to cash in on the opportunities presented by the explosive growth of capitalism and the exploitation of the continent’s unmatched resources. The ship-wreck of reconstruction had taxed the patience of Americans, and the flowering of the literature of the Lost Cause provoked sympathy for the victims of Sherman’s war crimes.
The Amerinds, on the other hand, were a convenient object of sympathy. The outcome of the Sioux War no longer in doubt, they were on the wrong side of history, and their doom was sealed. The Grand Army of the Republic was a political force to be reckoned with, and whatever buyer’s remorse it may have been experiencing about the WBTS, it was not a smart move to incur its wrath.
The 7th Cavalry was overwhelming Irish (“Garyrowen,” an Irish air, was their unofficial nickname), the most despised minority in the country in 1876. Furthermore, several troopers of the 7th were Confederate veterans, and whatever sympathy public opinion had for the Lost Cause, it was still too soon to publicly admit. This was still the era of “Waving the Bloody Shirt” in politics.
By 1876, a sense of fatigue with sectional politics is discernible in the punditry and the literature. In contrast to Mark Twain and his sympathy for the freedmen, the archives of the period are replete with racist and/or unsympathetic views. Not only did Democratic Redeemers get in their shots, but so did revisionist northern writers. In contrast to the freedmen, over whose role in the economy (not to say whose freedom – that is arguably an abolitionists’ conceit) the war had been fought, the Amerinds were victims of white imperialism and capitalism around which romantics could rally. Freedmen were part of the warp and woof of American life, and their presence (not least in high quality literary output) caused discomfort among the pundits. The largely pre-literate Amerinds, on the other hand, suffered defeat and retreated to reservations to await starvation. They were the perfect object of sympathy for the drawing room crowd – no longer a threat to anyone, and removed from everyday experience.
Though outraged at the blow to national pride, few Americans mourned the vainglorious Custer and his rag-tag band of ex-Confederate and Irish-Papist misfits.
Custer’s outspoken criticism of government corruption had made him a pariah to the Grant Administration, and many prominent Republicans were likely gratified to have his reputation smeared. Often, peace comes at the price of honor.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.