Snapshots Of General Custer

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The Indian wars were grim, and the author spares the reader nothing. Even the sound of scalping is described: “a peculiar popping,” he says, “evidently similar to the noise of bubbles or blisters popping.” Indians traditionally mutilated the dead, and Connell provides a grisly field guide by which the reader can tell just who did what: the Sioux slashed throats, he reports; the Cheyenne cut arms; everybody liked to take home a bright tattoo. According to one elderly woman who claimed to be an eyewitness, two Cheyenne women paused on the battlefield to pierce the eardrums of Custer’s corpse with a bone awl because he had been unwilling or unable to hear Indian warnings to those who dared venture into their sacred Black Hills. And whites often replied in kind: troopers routinely tore down Indian burial scaffolds, scattering the bones of the dead in search of beaded relics; the genitals of men and women killed in raids on their villages were sometimes carried away as souvenirs.

Connell understands, too, the special power of the understated language of ordinary people to evoke extraordinary scenes and explain extraordinary events. “We walked on top of their internals,” remembered one veteran who had helped bury soldiers after the Fetterman Massacre in 1866, “and did not know it in the high grass.” A Sioux warrior named Paints Brown recalled that Custer’s troops had carried “lots and lots of money and we took it. We knew what the silver was, but the paper we didn’t know. And the children played with it, they made little teepees out of it, and put about one hundred dollars in bills together and made toy shawls, and some of it was bloody.” Asked by a member of a court of inquiry to account for the special ferocity with which the Sioux and their allies had fought Custer’s invading army, Capt. Frederick Benteen answered, “We were at their hearths and homes, their medicine was working well, and they were fighting for all the good God gives anyone to fight for.”

The reasons for Indian resistance were never really very puzzling. Almost everything about Custer still is. What sort of man was he? What made him hurry his command so gaily toward disaster? He was, of course, the flamboyant author of his own legend, and he struggles hard to stay at the center of this puzzling, crowded book despite the presence of enough lesser characters to people twenty rich novels. (Some years ago Thomas Berger fashioned an especially elegant and mordant one, Little Big Man , from much the same material.) Connell approaches Custer from all angles, packing in all the data he can muster: we get everything from a list of the wedding presents he received to a partial catalog of the black marks he ran up at West Point. Most revealing are snippets of the letters he and his adoring wife, Elizabeth, wrote to one another.

Only Custer could have made a heroic incident out of the fact that he had inadvertently shot and killed his own horse while hunting.

It is clear that he was never the paladin she and her (mostly civilian) contemporaries believed he was; he was too haughty, mercurial, self-important for his own troops to have shared that view. Only Custer could have managed to make a heroic incident out of the fact that he had inadvertently shot and killed his mount while out hunting buffalo, as he did in his lush autobiography, My Life on the Plains . He was never the eyerolling hysteric that he became on-screen in the 1960s, though one brief passage from a letter home, new at least to me, hints at the nakedness of his ambition: Fred Grant, the amiable son of the President, was to be in Elizabeth’s vicinity; she should meet him at the depot with her carriage and invite him home, Custer told her, but first she was to “have his father’s picture hung in the parlor.…” The more evidence Connell piles on, the more paradoxical Custer becomes. He obviously exulted in battle. “Oh, could you have but seen some of the charges that we made!” he wrote Elizabeth from the Virginia front in 1863. “While thinking of them I cannot but exclaim, ‘Glorious War!’ … I gave the command ‘Forward!’ And I never expect to see a prettier sight.” But once the heady clangor of the fighting was over, he could display great tenderness. He wept openly whenever he parted from his wife, and before burying one of his men, he delicately slit his pockets rather than reach into them: “I cut a lock of [the dead man’s] hair and gave them to a friend of his from the same town who promised to send them to his wife. As he lay there, I thought of that poem: ‘Let me kiss him for his mother…’: and wished his mother were there to smooth his hair.” Custer kept a pet field mouse in an empty inkwell, letting it out in the evenings to scurry up his arm and bury itself in his red-gold curls, and he once altered his regiment’s line of march into Indian country in order not to disturb a nest of meadowlarks.

Despite his labors, the best explanation Connell can finally offer for what happened to Custer and his men in the valley of the little river the Indians called the Greasy Grass is that “in a tight situation his response was instantaneous and predictable: he charged.”