Snapshots Of General Custer

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Evan S. Connell’s best-known novel, Mrs. Bridge , published in 1959, is a portrait of a Midwestern wife and mother of the 1940s whose complacent certitudes inexorably isolate her first from her own children, then from the increasingly uncertain world beyond her tidy Kansas City neighborhood. Toward the end of the book, her son and daughters gone, her husband dead, Mrs. Bridge finds some solace in a family album containing snapshots of the single European trip she and the late Mr. Bridge had managed to take:

“I don’t know whether this would interest you or not,” she would say to guests, picking up the album in both hands, and as she deposited it on her visitor’s lap she would say, “Now, just look at them until you get bored, but for heaven’s sake don’t feel obliged to go through them all.” And she would then hover nearby, anxious to know which pictures were being looked at. Often she would be unable to sit still; she had to look over the visitor’s shoulder, reaching down now and then to say, “That’s the famous old cathedral you’re always hearing about.” Or, “That’s the ocean, of course.” Or, “This was taken from the steps of the National Gallery, and right there—directly behind the man on the bicycle—is where we ate lunch.”

Mrs. Bridge is both funny and harrowing, a mosaic of shrewdly observed, flatly rendered details—her awful discovery of a girlie magazine while putting away her son’s folded shirts, her too adventurous attempt to bake pineapple bread for her husband on the cook’s day off—whose dispiriting pattern she never discerns but which the reader cannot miss.

In recent years Connell has produced two volumes of eclectic historical essays— A Long Desire and White Lantern —in which he employs something of the same technique, spinning colorful versions of explorer’s adventures and scholarly feats out of seemingly disassociated facts, but embellished now with his own observations. Last winter he published Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn . Like Mrs. Bridge , it is filled with wonderful detail. Readers interested in Western history will certainly not be bored with it, though they may be baffled and frustrated. For, despite the energy and elegance of Council’s writing and the diligence of his research, this volume, like Mrs. Bridge’s photograph album, remains finally a collection of raw material for a moving story its compiler evidently could not find a coherent way to tell.

 

The book begins and ends on the Custer battlefield, but in between it twists and meanders and turns back upon itself as bewilderingly as the Little Big Horn. Nearly everything Connell gleaned from his reading seems to be included, and he read a great deal: his bibliography lists upward of 420 titles. There are disquisitions on every imaginable aspect of the Custer campaign; of the Plains Indians wars of which it was the most memorable event; of the lives led by the various tribes against which those wars were waged; and of the myths that have grown up over the intervening decades. Among a thousand other things, we learn that roasted puppy tastes like porpoise; that Sitting Bull’s name more properly signifies “a wise and powerful being who [has] taken up residence among them”; that life for the troopers between punitive expeditions was so empty that they got up battles between colonies of red and black ants (the red ones were fiercest, the author reports).

Much of this material is riveting, if tangential to the story of the Custer fight. There is, for example, the tale of Mrs. Nash, a 7th Cavalry laundress at Fort Abraham Lincoln who married several troopers in succession over a number of years. While her final husband, a private named Noonan, was away on a scouting expedition, she fell ill and died. Friends preparing the body for burial discovered she had been a man. When Noonan returned and heard this astonishing news, the grieving husband bravely maintained for a time that his wife had been of the proper sex, then shot himself.

Connell’s eye for telling detail is as sharp as ever, though he too often vitiates its raw power with his own arch and anticlimactic commentary; like Mrs. Bridge, he can’t resist peering over the reader’s shoulder, pointing up the obvious. Again and again, however, he does spot the little vivid things that traditional historians rarely see but which can help make the difference between literature and mere scholarship. Describing the Medicine Lodge Creek conference, for instance, a gaudy in-gathering of some five thousand Indians of the Southern Plains tribes for peace talks in 1867, he notes that “after Missouri senator John B. Henderson finished embracing various Indians his nose was yellow, one cheek retained a red streak, and the other cheek had several green tattoos.” He reports that one of the verminous soldiers’ brothels that stood on the mud flat across the Missouri from Fort Lincoln was called “My Lady’s Bower”; that Comanches especially liked sugar and, when they could get it, used half a cup in every mug of coffee they drank; that Custer’s favorite staghound, Bl’fccher, was a casualty of his 1868 assault on Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village on the Washita. (Excited by all the noise and action, the big, overeager dog “decided to join the Indians,” Connell writes, “and got an arrow through the ribs.”)

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.”