A Haunting New Vision Of The Little Big Horn

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On the high, treeless plains of central Montana this summer the Department of the Interior, the nation’s principal conservation agency and custodian (through the National Park Service) of all national historic monuments, will play host to an estimated 275,000 visitors. They will come, as have millions before them, to see and walk “the very ground” upon which occurred what must be the most memorialized single event in American history: the battle fought on Sunday, June 25, 1876, between some four thousand Indians and five companies of U. S. Cavalry—215 men in all—under the command of George Armstrong Custer. But this year’s visitors to the Custer Battlefield, unlike their predecessors, will have the chance to take home, for the price of $1.25, a remarkable new souvenir—a ninety-three page, paperbound handbook, prepared by the Park Service and printed by the U. S. Government Printing Office. It is one of the most striking examples of illustrated history to be published by anyone in some time.

The book includes a concise, lucid account of the celebrated Custer “last stand” written by Robert M. Utley, a number of interesting old photographs, and good maps. But what sets it off from the general run of historic handbooks and from all the innumerable paintings, sculptures, beer ads, bottle caps, and cigarette cards that the Custer fight has inspired over the years, are the fifteen pages of powerful and decidedly original illustrations by artist Leonard Baskin, some of which are reproduced here.

The extra money needed to produce such a book was gotten up by a group of private citizens from Billings called the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association. They told the Park Service only that they wanted “a distinguished piece of publishing.” The decision to pick Baskin was made by Vincent Gleason, publications director for the Park Service, who with gentle understatement calls the drawings “very non-G.I.” In an afterword for the book, Mitchell A. Wilder, head of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, writes that Baskin “cuts through a century of mediocre, apocryphal pictures to reveal the actors of this tragic drama as they were, not in the event, but in life and death.”

Baskin, who teaches art at Smith College and who also designed the handbook, began work on the drawings two years ago. The Indians were what interested him most, he says. (“It was really their ‘last stand,’ if you stop to think about it.”) But his extraordinary seated Custer (right), which is also being used as a huge poster by the Park Service, will doubtless stir up more controversy than anything else in the book. (“I was fascinated by his sense of posturing, his sense of dressing up [see cover] and by his incredible mania about himself.”) And while historians continue to debate what Custer did or did not do at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Baskin says simply: “The Indians took him—that’s all. And somehow one is glad. He would have made a terrible President.”