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'Custer's Trials' Examines The Legacy Of A Complicated American Figure


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne with the story of what many of us don't know about George Armstrong Custer.

INSKEEP: You know, when I was a kid I read Time-Life Books about the Old West. And one of them traced Custer's last days. A painting showed Custer in a buckskin outfit holding a pistol and surrounded by his last few soldiers at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Fighters from the Sioux Nation ride past, delivering a blow so brutal that the historian T.J. Stiles is not surprised it passed into legend.

T.J. STILES: The United States was feeling its power in 1876. Custer was renowned as a cavalry commander. And he was wiped out by a group of preindustrial nomads. I mean, it was shocking to Americans.

INSKEEP: Custer's story remains shocking, though he is understood differently today. This one-time hero of a spreading civilization is just as likely to be seen as a killer of Native Americans who got what he deserved. Either way, T.J. Stiles says his dramatic death obscures much of Custer's short but crowded life. Stiles traces that life in a book called "Custer's Trials." Long before he was an Indian fighter, he was a poor kid from Ohio. And then, Custer rose to become a general in the Civil War in his early 20s.

STILES: He fought in the cavalry battle on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. And, you know, he showed up in this black velvet uniform. He had gold braid embroidery going up each sleeve from cuff to elbow. He had on a sailor shirt. He had a huge, wide hat. He had long, blonde hair. Now, on one hand it shows that Custer wanted attention, that he was flamboyant. But on the other hand, we have to remember what the world was like at that time. There was no means of communicating with troops except through sight and sound. So Custer meant to be seen.

INSKEEP: And he led his men to victory after victory. This general, now known for his disastrous last defeat, was considered in his time a brilliant battlefield tactician. He became an inspiring leader of horse-mounted cavalry, comfortable amid the slaughter of America's bloodiest war.

STILES: This is mass, industrialized warfare in which men are dying randomly, in which heroism is often rewarded with an instant death. And yet Custer - he found his little narrow window in which you could still fight with a sword. And within that narrow slice, all of his romantic illusions about himself and about life were all reinforced by the Civil War when for many American intellectuals it was a disillusioning moment.

INSKEEP: Maybe that explains the way that he felt about combat as revealed in a letter that you reprint. I wonder if you could read a little bit of that.

STILES: Yes, I'd be happy to. This is a letter that he wrote to his cousin, Augusta Ward.

(Reading) You ask me if I will not be glad when the last battle is fought. So far as the country is concerned, I, of course, must wish for peace and will be glad when the war has ended. But if I answer for myself alone, I must say that I shall regret to see the war end. I would be willing - yes, glad - to see a battle every day of my life.

INSKEEP: Was that an unusual sentiment?

STILES: As the war progressed, I think it was. I try to pull out the voices of other people, including a soldier in his Michigan brigade, Victor Comte. And Victor Comte, like many of Custer's men, was very proud of their victories. He was very proud of Custer as a successful leader. And yet he wrote to his wife about how he longed for the day when the war would end. He talked about the aftermath of Battle of Gettysburg, when they saw thousands and thousands of Confederate prisoners who were maimed and wounded and leaving trails of blood on the road. And he said, it's such a terrible, pitiable sight. So this is the other side of the Civil War that's taking place all around Custer. And Custer himself actually wrote about these moments of random death. And yet it had never quite sunk in before he rose to a position where he was in command, where he could play the romantic role he wanted to play.

INSKEEP: He was able to have that view of war in part, of course, because he went years and years without being seriously hurt. And I'd like you to read a passage in which you tell a brief story of Custer from the point of view of a bullet.

STILES: OK, let me see This is when he goes to the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

(Reading) The bullet drilled through the air toward Custer's head. In the turmoil of battle, the shooter may not have aimed at this particular skull, but that was where it went. During its flight, any number of forces acted upon it, from gusts of wind to gravity, altering its course. The target surely moved in and out of the bullet's path - a turn of his neck, a sneeze, his horse shifting its weight. With surgical precision, the spinning projectile severed several strands of hair on the right side of his head and flew on, leaving the skin untouched.

INSKEEP: You describe so many incidents where he survives by a fraction of an inch. Did he come to think he was invulnerable in some way?

STILES: Well, there was an expression that actually passed into the common parlance of people who write about Custer, and that's Custer's luck, or as Custer himself put it, Custer luck. You know, America in the Civil War era was a very dangerous place to be. All kinds of dangers awaited Americans around every corner. And yet Custer seems to have gone through life with a sense that nothing would happen to him. And it's something that becomes actually very destructive to him.

INSKEEP: I hope I'm not giving away the ending to quote a part of the final sentence of your book. You said that Custer was left to be misremembered as needed by each new generation. What do you mean by that?

STILES: Well, this is something that goes to the core of why we're interested in Custer at all - is that he very much symbolizes to people what they like or dislike about American history. We see him as the hero who died to spread civilization, or we see him as the bloodthirsty, arrogant military commander who has complete disregard for indigenous life, or we see him as the heroism and the valor that, you know, Americans imagine as being part of the American character. What we need to do is not get caught up in any one sense of Custer. Don't make him bear the weight of American history. But we should feel that weight through his life.

INSKEEP: T.J. Stiles is the author of "Custer's Trials: A Life On The Frontier Of A New America." Thanks very much.

STILES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.