W. A. Graham - The Custer Myth

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W. A. Graham's "The Custer Myth: A Sourcebook Of Custeriana"

Dec 26, 2003 (Updated Jul 29, 2006)
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Pros:Imagine opening a scrapbook that is a wealth of historical information about "Custer's Last Stand."

Cons:None.

The Bottom Line: This single volume allows the reader to be a journalist: discover the "who, what, where, when, why and how" of the Custer fight for yourself.


We will never know exactly why Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer led every man of five companies of the 7th U. S. Cavalry Regiment to their deaths at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on Sunday, June 25, 1876 --- the dead can't tell the tale and the only "survivors" of the Custer part of the battle, thousands of Native American warriors, often told very different accounts of the combat.

The Indian accounts, depending on your source material, have to be read very carefully for one's view of the battle depends on where one is actually fighting in the battle --- your perspective is limited by your battle viewing area as a combatant: one warrior may face soldiers who run away on his part of the battlefield, thinking all the soldiers involved in the battle therefore ran away; elsewhere, soldiers may have stood their ground until the last man was killed, giving another warrior the impression that all the soldiers in the battle fought until killed right where they stood (no one is lying, but the viewing perspectives are very different).

The 7th Cavalry was not "massacred" that day, they were simply defeated, and the regiment's seven other companies made a stand some four miles away from Custer's field of death. These troopers had been ordered to "come quick" in a handwritten message from Custer and to "bring packs" (ammunition), but these troops dug in where they were pinned down, having sustained heavy casualties by three of the seven companies in making an earlier, unsuccessful attack on the Indian village. They made little effort to "ride to the sound of the guns" as Custer's men died.

The accounts of these surviving soldiers also are amazingly different from one another, often conflicting and confusing. Stories told days after the battle differ from stories told by these same soldiers years later --- were these changes due to the human need to protect one's own skin from ridicule, or for "the good of the regiment," or just because memories fade and change with the passage of time?

That's where going to the original source material is so important in studying history. To study recent books on this 1876 battle one is limited by the various authors to their prejudices for or against Custer the man --- an author may narrowly focus on obtaining quotes and certain battle information in order to support his own pre-conclusions about the battle.

The author:

In "The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custeriana" ("Custeriana" being the study of "The Custer Myth"), Colonel W. A. Graham (retired from the Army, a lawyer and one time member of the Judge Advocate General's office) brings that "original source material" together, scrapbook-style, for the student of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, a wonderful service to future researchers.

Graham, author of the 1926 book "The Story Of The Little Big Horn," took an intense lawyer's research method in his study of the battle and his conclusions, which were based on his own interviews with battle participants and research of the original source materials, found that there was plenty of blame for Custer's defeat to go around, though in that earlier book he did conclude that the battlefield commander (Custer) must take the blame for any defeat of forces under his command.

The book:

Years later, Graham decided to share his source material in "The Custer Myth," which was published in 1953.

In "The Custer Myth," Graham keeps editorial commentary to a minimum, offering corrective notes on the material here only when one of the quoted authors or source material provides data that has been proven to be incorrect. Otherwise, Graham reprints newspaper reports, magazine articles, letters and interviews with survivors just as they originally were published in the decades after the battle.

The hardcover edition of "The Custer Myth" is 448 pages (a paperback version was also published in 2000). The volume includes dozens of photographs, paintings, sketches and maps throughout.

The book is divided into four unique sections:

Part One deals with Indian accounts of the battle (including the stories of Custer's Indian scouts, such as the four Crow scouts who accompanied Custer until the start of his battle (when Custer released them from their duties, thus saving their lives), becoming the last Army witnesses to Custer's actions).

Part Two offers differing accounts of the battle and focuses on a running feud among two soldier-survivors (Captain Fred Benteen, fiercely anti-Custer, and Lieutenant Edward Godfrey, fiercely pro-Custer; both later became Army brigadier-generals --- Godfrey by regular Army rank and Benteen by "brevet" (a temporary rank given for bravery in combat)), who wrote letters and/or articles with intensity after the battle but with very different conclusions about Custer's tactics.

Part Three lets the reader go wild on a variety of "miscellaneous" topics. Included in this section are a remarkable defense of former Union General (a temporary Civil War rank in this case) Custer's tactics by former Confederate General T. L. Rosser. Rosser was Custer's classmate at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, N. Y., and had fought Custer during the Civil War in combat, so his perspective is interesting ("...I never met a more enterprising, gallant or dangerous enemy during those four terrible years of war...").

Also included in Part Three are the statements of Custer's last two messengers for help, the last white men to see Custer alive and whose lives were spared Custer's fate only by having been messengers. There's also accounts of five men, all proven false, who got publicity over the years by pretending to be survivors of Custer's battalion (stories full of narrow escapes and actually quite creative).

The last dispatches from New York Herald correspondent Mark Kellogg are also included in Part Three (he actually worked for a newspaper in Bismark, N. D., but the New York paper claimed him as their own after his death). Kellogg had the "story of a lifetime," riding with Custer to his death. Before he left this earth, Kellogg sent back stories that seem totally in awe of Custer (including one report in which Kellogg states that every man of the 7th Cavalry loved Custer so much that they "would freely follow him into the 'jaws of hell'").

Part Four includes the intense research by Custer historian Fred Dustin into the burials and many reburials of Custer's men. All were buried in shallow graves by their 7th Cavalry comrades when they were found two days after the battle (soldiers with a handful of shovels were forced to dig with their hands and knives into hard, sun-baked ground, and buried the dead under a few inches of Montana dirt).

A year later, a reburial party found bones scattered everywhere by wolves and attempted to gather up the remains for a more proper burial (most of the officers were removed from the battlefield to national cemeteries elsewhere; Custer is now buried at West Point). Other re-burials have been done in the years since (making way for roads or due to other causes --- most of the enlisted men, many of whom had been so mutilated by the Indians in the battle that they were never identified, now rest in a mass grave below the memorial on the site).

Part Four also includes a treasure trove of research sources compiled by Dustin (included by Graham in "The Custer Myth" for the first time in publication) --- the legendary "Dustin Bibliography" of original source material, a very valueable tool for the dedicated researcher.

Things to ponder:

The history buff can use "The Custer Myth" to draw their own conclusions after reading the original source material and try to solve the mysteries of the battle --- draw your own conclusions as to whether President U. S. Grant was correct in blaming Custer for an "unnecessary sacrifice of troops" or whether General William T. Sherman was fairer with his assessment that "when in such a close proximity to the Indians, there was nothing Custer could have done but attack."

Judge, too, Sitting Bull, the Sioux Indian medicine man and one of the leaders of the Native Americans who whipped the 7th Cavalry, and his statement to a reporter for The New York Herald in 1877, "Your people were killed. I tell no lies about dead men. These men who came with the Long Hair were as good men as ever fought."

In judging such an interview, remember that by 1877 the U. S. government had used Custer's defeat to build up its forces to conquer the American West and solve the "Indian problem once and for all." Note that Sitting Bull spoke to the reporter through an interpreter.

Remember that Sitting Bull spoke in 1877, not long after Crazy Horse, warrior chief of the Sioux, had been captured and then killed while in military custody. Sitting Bull spoke as Sioux, Cheyenne and other tribes (including the Nez Perce, who weren't even involved in the Little Big Horn action) were crushed by artillery, gatling guns (the weapons that evolved into machine guns), cavalry and infantry forces of the United States Army --- then ponder if, great man that Sitting Bull was, was giving the white reporter the truth or answering in a way he thought the white man wanted to hear. Was Sitting Bull even quoted correctly by the paid interpreter (or did he put words in Sitting Bull's mouth)?

Ponder, too, an 1873 government commission that stripped the 7th Cavalry of its repeating rifles and replaced them with single-shot carbines as a cost-saving measure. The approving commission included Major Marcus Reno, who three years later led the initial attack at the Little Big Horn (driven back, he united with four more companies of the regiment on a hilltop, later claiming he couldn't hear the gunfire from Custer's men who were dying four miles down river, despite officers who later claimed they begged Reno to "ride to the sound of the guns").

Ponder, also, a government that strips its soldiers of repeating rifles (rifles that can fire several shots before being reloaded) while selling "peaceful" Indians on the reservations repeating rifles for "hunting."

Recommendation:

I first read "The Custer Myth" as a history buff in high school in the 1970's. Years later, it is a volume I find myself still turning to. When I question a modern author's integrity or accuracy in a new Custer book, I can double-check the source material by opening Graham's "The Custer Myth," quickly able to see if a quote has been taken out of context from the original material.

Besides, "The Custer Myth" is a fascinating read (whether it be commentary by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, or an "anonymous" letter by a 7th Cavalry officer (Graham believes the writer was Custer himself, according to an editorial note, since Custer was friends with the publisher of The New York Herald which published the letter) written three days before the battle.

You will encounter the accounts of the people who witnessed the Battle of the Little Big Horn first-hand. These accounts may offer the most satisfying look at the battle ever published (stripped of the editorial bias that some historians have burdened more recent works with).

It is important to remember when reading the book that over the years the Little Big Horn River has been called Little Horn and Little Bighorn by white men, while the Indians refer to it as the Greasy Grass. Custer is also called, by Indians, by the various names they called him, ranging from "Yellow Hair," "Long Hair" and "Son Of The Morning Star," to the Cheyenne name of "Squaw Killer."

I highly recommend "The Custer Myth" to fans of the history of the American West. Interest in the battle remains high, as evidenced by constant references to the fight in such recent films as "We Were Soldiers" and "The Last Samurai," so this makes a fine gift as well (if it were a film, "The Custer Myth" audience would be PG-rated).

You might also enjoy these book reviews:

My review of "In Custer's Shadow: Major Marcus Reno" by Ronald H. Nichols, the story of a Civil War general who was George Custer's second-in-command at the Little Bighorn: http://www.epinions.com/content_244441386628

The story of General Custer's younger brother, who was awarded the Medal of Honor twice, is fascinating reading --- "Tom Custer: Ride To Glory" by Carl F. Day: http://www.epinions.com/content_238532333188

My review of "Boots And Saddles, Or, Life In Dakota With General Custer" by Elizabeth Bacon Custer (the general's wife is the author): http://www.epinions.com/content_185859411588

My review of a wonderful book by Bill and Jan Moeller, "Custer: A Photographic Biography," in which the authors take you to the important sites of Custer's life via 125 full color photographs and a well-written biography: http://www.epinions.com/content_172491902596

Another book in the "Custer Library" series, "Troopers With Custer" by E. A. Brinstool: http://www.epinions.com/content_166005935748

"Wild Life On The Plains And Horrors Of Indian Warfare" which includes a reprint of George Custer's 1874 autobiography "My Life On The Plains": http://www.epinions.com/content_137314733700

"The Little Bighorn Campaign" by Wayne Michael Sarf: http://www.epinions.com/content_115926404740

"Custer Victorious" by Professor Gregory J. W. Urwin, which concentrates on Custer's brilliant Civil War career: http://www.epinions.com/content_25624088196

"With Custer's Cavalry" by Katherine Gibson: http://www.epinions.com/content_95035625092

"Cavalier In Buckskin" by Robert Utley: http://www.epinions.com/content_64511708804

"The Mystery Of E Troop" by Gregory Michno: http://www.epinions.com/content_57614634628

"The Fetterman Massacre" by Dee Brown (in December 1866, Captain William Judd Fetterman led 80-men to their deaths at the hands of 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in Wyoming): http://www.epinions.com/content_39432130180

"The Custer Reader," edited by Paul Hutton (various writers collected in a single volume, each tackling a different aspect of Custer's career): http://www.epinions.com/content_54692253316


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