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Revisiting Custer

Larry McMurtry on the man who lost Little Big Horn

Mar. 28, 2013
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That history is written by the victorious is a truism repeated so many times that its veracity is unquestioned. But one need only browse the books, films and songs about American outlaws such as Jesse James, Cole Younger, Billy The Kid and so many more to find a platform for those who lost in the end but left a legacy in the popular imagination. There is no finer example of this phenomenon than George Armstrong Custer. And there is no better writer than Larry McMurtry to tell it.

Custer (Simon & Schuster)—by the author known for Lonesome Dove and more books than one can tally—comes along 136 years after the demise of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Custer’s story has been rehashed so often and variously that one wonders why another book is now necessary. McMurtry reminds us that there is a paradox in America continually reliving its great disasters. And here’s something to remember about our legendary heroes: Jesse James was a psychopathic killer, Cole Younger a failed outlaw who wound up in a traveling Wild West show, Billy The Kid really enjoyed shooting people for sport and George Armstrong Custer liked killing Native Americans.

The origins of Little Big Horn, as McMurtry correctly relates, go back to the 1868 treaty deeding the Black Hills to the Sioux forever. “Forever” turned out to be about half a decade. Gold was found on this land and Custer protected those who trespassed to mine it. The Sioux fought back along with the Cheyenne. Custer’s one tactical thought was that Indians, when faced with uniformed cavalry in formation, would run; this had been characteristic of nearly all his previous reckless “victories,” but this time he was wrong. He was not taken by surprise on June 25, 1876. He led around 250 men to their deaths and his own by virtue of bravado. McMurtry relates the details with scholastic precision, even though the book is heavier on illustration than text.

The author makes a comparison between Little Bighorn and 9/11. “The whole nation felt it,” he writes. But felt what? To search for an answer, let’s consider the genre known as the “murder ballad” or “disaster song,” where anti-heroes abound, and human-made and act-of-God horrors are repeatedly examined. In these folk songs is a sense of witnessing loss as though it were success.

We are brought closer to the human condition when we confront the bitter losses of the past. Such stories become more important to survival than tales of triumph. McMurtry’s important book brings the Myth of the West to life through its examination of romantic failure and a dire cultural need for salvation.


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