It’s time to end Custer worship

A Montanan faces up to the West's own history of racism.

  • George Armstrong Custer in 1865.

    Civil War collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-BH831- 1314.

As the rebel flag of Dixie disappears from prominent public flagstaffs, questions are being asked about other symbols of defiance. For example, is it appropriate to display statues of Confederate Civil War generals, some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan and outspoken in their racist views?

It’s easy for us Westerners to wag fingers of political correctness at those states south of the Mason-Dixon line, criticizing their legacy of race relations. But we have our own messy history to deal with, a conundrum we’ve never really addressed. It’s left us with some giant blind spots in our thinking about regional identity and the meaning of democracy.

Part of our own much-needed reckoning involves some decorated Civil War officers, men who — and they were all white men — fought for the Union Army before becoming “Indian fighters.” Across the Western Great Plains today, their deeds are commemorated in a variety of place names.

Let me throw out one that blows in the breeze every year around this time: U.S. Cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer, who, on a day in late June 139 years ago, unwisely launched a surprise attack against an encampment of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho along the Little Bighorn River.

At that spot in Montana, an unremarkable hill that rises now above Interstate 90, Custer paid the ultimate price by hastening his own demise. His hubris cost the lives of 267 others, not including Native American casualties.

Should Custer be celebrated as a hero of conquest or recast as the bigoted, egotistical, narcissistic villain he apparently was? Does he deserve to have his name attached to towns, counties, a state park and a national forest, or should his name, like the Confederate flag, be removed?

Travel anywhere in Western Indian Country, as I have done on assignment for a quarter-century, and you will find few names deemed more offensive to Native people.

We forget it wasn’t all that long ago that the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was called the Custer Battlefield by the National Park Service, which manages it.

Never mind that it represented one of the few times in human history when a battlefield got named after a military strategist who committed a catastrophic blunder. Only in the wake of many decades of simmering protest was the name changed and a monument built on the site to recognize the warriors who repelled attackers who were hell-bent on their slaughter.

Custer graduated last in his class of 34 cadets at West Point and, according to historians, racked up one of the worst records of personal conduct ever accumulated at the military academy. Vainglorious, prone to insubordination, insecure and craving attention, Custer got on the wrong side of President Ulysses Grant. 

Before he fled West, hoping to pad his résumé with a few bloody triumphs over Indians, Custer had pursued a book deal in New York and contemplated seeking high elected office. Once in the West, he drifted from his post and finally went AWOL. He violated treaties forged in sacred trust between the U.S. government and indigenous tribes, and he led a ruthless attack on a Cheyenne village, killing several women and children.

Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the reassessments now being made of Confederate supreme commander Robert E. Lee. “Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture. We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain,” he wrote.  “Given our history, it seems right to aggressively go the extra mile to show that prejudice is simply unacceptable, no matter how fine a person might otherwise be.”

Custer never was that fine a person.  In the end, Brooks concludes, “We should remove Lee’s name from most schools, roads and other institutions, where the name could be seen as acceptance of what he did and stood for during the war.”

As Westerners, let us ask ourselves: Why should members of the U.S. Cavalry who committed racially motivated atrocities against Native people during the “Indian Wars” be treated any differently from Lee? Until our answer comes down on the side of justice and acknowledging prejudicial wrongs that still linger, we’re no better than Dixie. 

Todd Wilkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Montana and is the author of the new book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek — An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone. 

High Country News Classifieds