September 28, 2009

From Custer to Custer, and, oh yes, Custer

Today we leave Custer County on our way to Custer County (the one with Custer State Park) in it.

The great cavalry tactician has quite a few things named after him. It's part of a shift in nomenclature that I notice when traveling north of the Platte.

M. and I live at the northern edge of the tide of Baroquely religious Spanish place names, which is how it is that I belong to the Blood of Christ Shooting Sports Club—which sounds like something from Franco's Spain.

But up there in the country of my boyhood, place names reflect a flint-hard animism (Spearfish, Sundance, Black Hills, Bear Lodge) or the memories of Army officers, from the luckless (Cherry County, Fort Fetterman) to the more competent: Sheridan, Fort Collins, Miles City, Sturgis, Crook County, Terry Peak.

Which brings me back to Custer. On my trip north three weeks ago, I listened to the audiobook of James Donovan's A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West.

What I learned from it was not so much about the battle, which is covered elsewhere. Read whatever has been published since the archaeological work of the 1980s, such as Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn or Soldiers Falling into Camp: The Battles at the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn.

It was the politics. The post-Civil War Army was a real catfight, as officers fought for promotion in a shrinking military force, and back-stabbing was an art.

Donovan describes how Custer and the man who would become his key subordinate at the Little Bighorn, Capt. Benteen, published anonymous letters attacking each other in newspapers during the 1870s. Talk about blogging about your boss!

Yes, Custer's rashness led to the complete loss of his battalion, but he was also a convenient scapegoat, Donovan argues. Terry's caution, Crook's vacillations, Gibbon's hesitations—not to mention Benteen's hesitation to reinforce Custer when ordered—all were minimized in the official reports, while Custer took all the blame, being conveniently dead.

Even the inquest into Major Reno's drunken cowardice at the Little Bighorn was affected by a desire to save regimental honor and blame Custer, Donovan suggests.

As I drove north, occasionally the text and geography coincided, so that certain locales, such as those from the 1874 Black Hills expedition, coincided in the text and out the windshield. It's nice when that happens.

Now M. will be with me, but we are not looking for Custer. Blogging will be irregular, maybe nonexistent, until we return.

1 comment:

Reid Farmer said...

Enjoy your trip. This post is a great reminder for me - Doug Scott, who did the archaeology work at the Custer Battlefield, is an old friend and classmate of mine from CU. A while back I meant to post on his work there, but got distracted