52 Pick-up 2.0 #34 – 9/8/2020
Were there any surprises about Custer in all the research you did for Next To Last Stand?
Yeah, there were more than a few. A lot of the revelations concerned Custer in that a great deal of the shine has come off the heroic patina that had been applied to him over the years, mostly due to the efforts of his wife, Libby. After his death at the Little Bighorn, Custer’s choice of splitting his forces into three parts before even seeing his foe was heavily criticized–even today cadets from West Point are brought there to see what happens when you don’t gauge the strength of your enemy proportionately.
His wife felt that Custer was being blamed for a tactical error that was not of his making and set out to burnish his image a bit, and hell hath no fury like a widow scorned. The country was in need of a hero, and she was bound and determined that George would fit the bill. For better or worse, she accomplished this, and an awful lot of the details of the Brigadier General’s life were somewhat glossed over for more than a century… There can be no doubt that he was an effective officer in the Civil War, but as Earnest Hemingway cogently put it, “He had a talent for getting himself in trouble and getting out of it—until he didn’t.”
Some of the more sordid aspects were that he graduated last in his class at West Point and contracted syphilis there and was sterile as a result. He volunteered for the Army of the Potomac and as a surprising and flamboyant cavalry officer was elevated to the rank of Brigadier General at the age of twenty-three. In continued service he was busted to Colonel in the down-sized army and was charged with desertion when he ran off to go visit his wife two states away.
Another major point of interest is Monahsita, an eighteen-year-old Cheyenne woman that was taken prisoner with fifty-three other women and children by the 7th at the battle of the Washita and used as human shields. According to Captain Benteen, the Chief of Scouts and Cheyenne accounts, Custer had sexual relations with the young woman who bore him a son, conflicting with the fact that Custer was sterile. Some believe it was actually Custer’s Brother, Thomas, who fathered the child.
There were five members of the Custer family who were killed at the Little Bighorn, one of whom was Thomas, who may have been the one who actually finished Custer off in hopes of not having him tortured if captured alive. Monahsita was also there and pleaded with the Lakota women to not mutilate the body of Custer, because he was family and it was assumed that the only thing they did was puncture his eardrums as a sign of his inability to listen. They did more than that, but I think I’ll leave those details to readers of Next To Last Stand…
I guess the biggest surprise came from the anthologies of Native stories about what happened at the battle, they’re just so honest and unvarnished in the telling; people fighting for their lives, their loved ones, and for a nomadic way of life that no longer existed. The two I enjoyed the most were Custer’s Fall: The Indian Side of the Story collected and translated by David Humphreys Miller, and Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight compiled and edited by Richard G. Hardorff.
There are so many more, but I hope you’ll read the book, which is only two weeks away!
See you on the trail,