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Changing Custer myth over 137 years

June 24, 2013
Estherville Daily News

Today marks the 137th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn when Lt. Col George Armstrong and his detachment of 208 men were killed in what was ironically the nation's centennial of independence.

Custer was his own one-man PR department, with the publication of his book, My Life on the Plains.

It was his wife, Elizabeth, though, who really fostered his reputation with the publication of several books about her late husband, including: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1891).

Until the 1960s, the Custer 'myth' had it that the former Civil War general (some continued to call him general to the point of his death) was a hero who fought valiantly and whose untimely death was a testament to his bravery.

New accounts began to erode that myth, though, some coming from long-silent Native American accounts, capped by Evan S. Connell's benchmark biography Son of the Morning Star in 1984.

The result is a change from hero to a man whose only concern was for his own image and legacy.

For a time, that legacy was of a hero. However, time changed that.

The evolving Custer story is perhaps symptomatic of how our nation has changed its views of the people we conquered. The native people here before us did not even have a concept of land ownership. That was why it was relatively easy to get them to give it away in treaties.

However, history has a way of righting itself. Once the limelight dims, people tend to view historical events for what they really were. And in Custer's case, the legacy is not one which anyone would desire.

This is not to say that our nation shouldn't worship its heroes. Instead, we should worship those heroes who deserve our worship.

If you get a chance to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument near Hardin, Mont. this summer, try to see all of it. Visit the area honoring the native people who fell as well as that honoring the soldiers who fell.

The battle marked an epoch in American history - and not an honorable one.

Hopefully, time will right the history of this tragic place and make it a place in which all people can come together in a sense of peace, not war.



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