He was a gambler, a probable adulterer, a braggart, a petulant boss and an impulsive blabbermouth. His eccentricity tilted toward stupidity. He once divided up his regiment according to color. Horse color. As you might expect, he wasn’t especially beloved by the troops. “I had known General Custer . . . for a long time,” one of his officers once testified, “and I had no confidence in his ability as a soldier.”
So Custer was last in his class at West Point. He was full of self-aggrandizing bombast, but ebullient and florid enough to barge his way into the public spotlight. The Battle of Little Big Horn was nothing short of utter stupidity and a brash, self-serving, “follow me boys,” attempt to make a show for himself. Sitting Bull had been trying to make peace, which Custer refused. Custer was hugely outnumbered. The place had already been promised to the Indians, but Custer had botched the peace-making and instead spread the word that there was gold there, bringing in thousands of prospectors. The Indians said get out, but Prez Grant came down on the white folks’ side, and sent in Custer with carte blanche. Custer had plans to run for prez himself someday; becoming a hero Indian killer was high on the checklist of necessary accolades in his mind. So he rushes into battle, and gets every one of his 271 men killed. Go Custer.
But then he gets turned into a myth by his widow, who goes on a national publicity tour, carefully crafting the narrative, so that idiocy, narcissism, and recklessness turns into “Custer’s Last Stand.”
Custer’s defeat shocked the nation, and there was little doubt even in 1876 that Little Big Horn represented an ignoble moment in American military history. So how did a monumental disaster turn into a courageous “last stand”?
Philbrick’s answer: A widow’s spin and show business. After her husband’s death, Elizabeth Custer, known as Libbie, embarked on a one-woman crusade to rehabilitate her beloved’s reputation through books and speaking engagements. Buffalo Bill Cody took the myth nationwide by ending his wildly popular Wild West Show with a Little Big Horn re-enactment and a call to avenge Custer’s glorious death. But really there was nothing to avenge but the poor judgment of a dangerously ambitious officer. The Battle of the Little Bighorn — the military engagement — was a foolish and entirely avoidable defeat. Custer’s last stand — the myth — was simply good show business.