Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: Custer's Last Stand

Premiers Tuesday, January 17, 2012
8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS

The massacre of George Armstrong Custer and the 261 men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry under his command on June 25th & 26th, 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn looms large in the American psyche.  The image of Custer himself depends largely from which vantage point you study him.  The man of American myth and memory can be seen as a martyr, a hero or a villain; a loving husband and a strict disciplinarian; a general and a fool; an egomaniac and a romantic.

The critically acclaimed PBS documentary series “American Experience” explores the life of George Armstrong Custer in a 2 hour episode entitled “Custer’s Last Stand.”  Beginning with Custer’s battle with the Confederate cavalry under J.E.B. Stewart on July 3rd 1863 at Gettysburg, writer and director Steven Ives, presents Custer’s life in linear chronological order with occasional flashes back to his less than illustrious career as a cadet at the American Military Academy at West Point, and his courtship of and marriage to Elizabeth Bacon.

After the war the army shrank and Custer went from being a Major General of volunteers to a captain in the regular army.  In short order he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 7th U.S. Cavalry and took up residence at Ft. Riley, Kansas.  He took part in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s expedition against the Cheyenne in 1867, from which campaign he returned to Fort Riley without leave to Libby’s loving embrace, an act for which he was court martialed, found guilty and was suspended for one year without pay.

Custer’s suspension was short lived, and he soon found himself called back to duty.  Under the orders of Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer led the 7th Cavalry in an attack against the winter encampment of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle on the Washita River.  Though Custer claimed it a victory, it was a massacre, of the killed and captured, only a few were Cheyenne warriors, most were old men, women and children.

The documentary highlights Custer’s decision not to look for a detachment of the 7th Cavalry led by Major Joel Elliot after the battle on the Washita.  The bodies of Elliot and his men were found a few weeks later.  For Custer it was a decision that would sow the poison seed of distrust that would take root and grow among some of the men of the 7th Cavalry, and would result in the bitter harvest of 261 of his men at Little Bighorn.

In 1874 he led an expedition into the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, where gold was found, it would prove to be a discovery that would lead to a flood of white settlers into a place considered holy by the Lakota Sioux, and the virtual ending of the Laramie Treaty which guaranteed the use of the Dakota Territory to the Native Americans forever.

His next assignment would be at Fort Abraham Lincoln, where George & Libby Custer were at the center of the social circle.  It was a circle that included a large number of Custer’s own family: his brothers Tom and Boston, his sister Margaret and her husband James Calhoun who was also a member of the 7th Cavalry, and his nephew Autie Reed.  Among those that were not included in the Custer family’s social circle, were Major Marcus Reno & Captain Frederick Benteen, who harbored resentment and criticism of Custer’s decision not to search for Major Elliott and his men, and who would be major players in the drama that would unfold on the banks of the Little Bighorn River.

The last 30 minutes of the documentary covers the battle of Little Bighorn, or what until very recently has been known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”  It gives an overview of Custer’s plan of attack, and the splitting of the 7th Cavalry into detachments led by Benteen and Reno, and ultimately their failure to come to Custer’s aid.

Using archival photographs, illustrations, present-day landscapes and interviews with historians: Nathaniel Philbrick, Richard Slotkin, Louis Warren, Michael A. Elliott, Edward Linenthal, Gerard Baker, Paul Hutton, Louise Barnett, Shirley Leckie Reed and Philip J. Deloria; many of whom have written books on the Custers and the Battle of Little Bighorn, it is hard to find much of anything to criticize.

However, it is a telling of Custer’s life told by and large from a white American point of view.  The documentary could have only been enhanced by the adding in of the Native American viewpoint, which would have necessarily lengthened the film, and in all fairness to the producer, writer and director of the project, Custer was the main focus of their documentary.

Nathaniel Philbrick, however is in a unique position of having written “Mayflower: A story of Courage, Community and War,” a book about the friendly relationship of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony with the Native Americans which devolved two generations later into King Philip’s War, and also “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn,” which according to the documentary was “the last major battle of the Indian Wars.”  It would have been interesting to hear Philbrick’s thoughts on the evolution of the relationship between the white settlers and the Native Americans.

I do have one very minor, nit-picky criticism:  early in the documentary Custer is referred to as “the first born son of a blacksmith turned farmer,” which is incorrect.  Custer was in fact the third child Emanuel Custer’s second marriage, and his fifth son.

Read more about the Custer family HERE.

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