By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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General George Armstrong Custer’s most notable military success involved a cavalry skirmish that secured a Union victory at the battle of Gettysburg. This essrned him a footnote in American history, but Custer was not a man who could accept footnote status. He wanted greatness, and he believed it was his for the taking, if only he could be bold enough. In the end, he achieved immortality through his bold choices–when he and 200 of his men were massacred at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
How you view Custer and his career will be in large part determined by your politics. If you view America’s 19th century expansion as a divinely ordained movement to civilize the untamed West, Custer is a martyr to American progress. If, on the other hand, you believe Manifest Destiny was about white supremacists grabbing land through genocide, then the General is the pinnacle of racist hubris and folly. Hollywood has had it both ways, too.
1941’s They Died with Their Boots On is a rollicking Errol Flynn film that romanticizes both the man and his cause. Here, we see Custer as the brilliant, flamboyant hero, galloping off to tame the wilderness for a better America, his beautiful wife (Olivia de Haviland) waving a handkerchief as his shadow drops over the horizon. This hit theaters as the United States readied itself for war against Germany and Japan, whose armies had hitherto demolished everything in their paths. The notion of the Brave American fighting for his principles against overwhelming odds (even unto death) reinforced sentiments the American people needed to get through the deprivations and loss of the next four years. Errol Flynn is dashing and impetuous, as the real Custer certainly was, and any troubles he has are attributed to overly rigid authority figures (and, of course, Sitting Bull).
Three decades later, Arthur Penn directed Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, a revisionist Western about Jack Crabbe, the (fictitious) “only white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.” In the Vietnam era, the headstrong qualities that made Custer appealing to expansionist Americans of earlier generations felt less like courage and more like arrogance. This Custer is a buffoon, the kind of general who believes he’s winning even as his men are slaughtered. (The comparisons to our commanders in Southeast Asia write themselves.)
PBS takes a more balanced approach with their American Experience episode Custer’s Last Stand. Here, historians explore the man in the context of his own times, from the perspective of both expansionist whites and Native Americans. It lacks the adventure of Errol Flynn and the dark humor of Little Big Man, but it offers a chance to reflect on the man and his legacy in our own times.
We are neither gearing up for war nor trying to end one that’s gone on too long. The United States is neither expanding its borders nor seeking to reduce our international commitments. What meaning, if any, does George Armstrong Custer hold for us?