Speaking out: The symbolism and mythology of Custer

Speaking out: The symbolism and mythology of Custer

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Tory Jackson

Tory Jackson

The Bismarck Park Board is considering changing the name of Custer Park. The board is wisely taking its time on the issue, recognizing how complicated history can be.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer is perhaps the most polarizing figure in the history of the American West. His ambition, arrogance and controversial military career make him a natural target for criticism, often unfairly. Conversely, his impressive Civil War record, unquestioned bravery and dramatic death resulted in blind hero worship in the decades after Little Bighorn.

Custer has become a symbol of both the injustices perpetrated on Native peoples and a romanticized version of Western expansion. His actual place in Plains history lies somewhere in between.

While he’s the most famous “Indian fighter” of his day, Custer engaged in only two major military engagements during his decade on the Plains. The first occurred in 1868 near the Washita River in Oklahoma, where Custer and his men launched a surprise attack against the Southern Cheyenne under Chief Black Kettle.

Many are quick to label Washita River a massacre, but the historic record does not compel that view. Washita River was not Sand Creek or Wounded Knee. Women and children were killed in the attack, but not intentionally (little solace to the Southern Cheyenne, obviously). Some evidence suggests they were killed by Osage scouts who fought alongside Custer. There also is evidence that Custer’s men were ordered to spare women and children and that Custer personally intervened to spare noncombatants.

In at least one instance, Custer proved to be as cold-blooded as many other military leaders of his day. During an 1867 expedition in Kansas, he gave orders to a subordinate that showed little regard for noncombatants. The orders were never carried out, as the military only engaged in minor skirmishes.

The battle for which Custer is most famous, of course, is the Little Bighorn in 1876, where he and hundreds of his men were killed by the Lakota (and their Dakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho allies). Custer has been criticized for his decisions that fateful day, and his recklessness and arrogance certainly played a big part in the Seventh Cavalry’s demise.

The criticism of Custer’s actions at Little Bighorn often overshadows the astonishing achievement of the Indian warriors who defeated him. Little Bighorn was the zenith of Lakota resistance to white encroachment, and their greatest victory against the U.S. military. In that sense, the name Custer, rather than a reminder of historic trauma, might evoke feelings of historic pride for tribal members on the Northern Plains. Frankly, it should.

Custer’s legacy can mean different things in different places. A park named for Custer might be viewed differently in Oklahoma, with memories of a military defeat for the Southern Cheyenne, than it does in our community, where Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were stationed before departing for the Little Bighorn.

For generations, Custer’s legacy has been co-opted to support competing views of history -- either as the personification of all the tragedy in Western history, or the heroic martyr for Manifest Destiny.

If we peer through the foggy mythology, however, Custer appears as a complicated man with a complicated legacy, and one who, for good and ill, is a towering figure in our local history.

We can’t avoid that history, nor should we. Perhaps the best way to bridge the divide between Custer as villain and Custer as hero is to keep his name at Custer Park and install interpretive signage to contextualize his place in history. By doing so, we can combat the ahistorical thinking that for too long has cloaked the real Custer in symbolism and myth.

Tory Jackson is an attorney and writer. His legal practice involves real estate and business matters, with a particular focus on historic rehabilitation projects. He holds degrees from Bismarck State College, the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School. He lives in Bismarck, where he was born and raised.

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