Having just written a comic novel about Custer surviving the Battle of Little Big Horn, I’m often asked: “What’s so controversial about Custer?”
The short answer is, everything—at least today. If an American hero can be banned from a Sonic fact-food commercial, as Custer was last year, he can be banned from anything.
In Custer’s case, the charge is that he was genocidal Indian-killer. If that is true—and by the way, it’s not—he was not the only one. There would be a long list of unindicted co-conspirators, including General William Sherman, General Phil Sheridan (one of Custer’s patrons), President Ulysses Grant—and a long line of presumed villains stretching from Columbus to Junipero Serra, from the Indian-fighting colonists of the 17th century to the founders who envisioned an “empire of liberty,” from the Daniel Boones, Davy Crocketts, and Andrew Jacksons who put that vision into action to Generals George Patton, George Marshal, and Dwight Eisenhower who all loved westerns and, just as alarming for some, either had Confederate antecedents (Patton) or admired Confederate Generals like Robert E. Lee (Marshal and Eisenhower). If you’re my age and wonder why kids don’t wear coonskin caps like they used to, or sing Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier or The Battle of New Orleans, or aren’t familiar with movies like the John Wayne-John Ford classic The Searchers, there’s your answer: genocidal maniacs, or their apologists, each and every one, and some of them were racist Confederate sympathizers too.
Custer, though, actually liked the Indians and, for the most part, their way of life—what could be better, he thought, than hunting and fighting and riding the open plains—and he was very fond of his Indian scouts. But then again, Custer was a magnanimous man, and magnanimity is out of style.
If Custer waged total war against the Indians, he had previously waged total war against Southerners in the Civil War—and he liked them as well. His best friends at West Point were predominantly Southerners, and during the war, he would take time off to hobnob with friends who were Confederate officers—and even attend a Confederate officer’s wedding. The idea that statues to his Confederate foes (and friends) should be toppled would have struck him as obscenely sacrilegious. He was, after all, a conservative.
But it goes even deeper than that, because the past is completely out of alignment with the present—or at least the present as liberals would have us live it. Some Southern literary sage once said that our ancestors weren’t better than we are, but they were more real. I take his point, but I think they were actually better too.
They were certainly more real in that they accepted reality and natural law. Men were men, women were women, gender was a grammatical term and not a role one took on or discarded, and even if a marital union was childless, as the Custers’ was, there was no idea of overthrowing the natural order of things.
Indeed, if Custer had ripped abs—and perhaps he had—he could have walked straight off the cover of a romance novel. He was attractive to women and a flirt, but his romance and marriage to his wife Libbie—an accomplished and educated woman, his superior in social class, whom he had to win by taking a vow of temperance and winning rapid promotion (indeed becoming the Boy General of the Union Army)—was one for the books. They were devoted almost (according to Army regulations) to a fault, as Custer was once brought up on charges of ignoring his duty in order to visit her.
After Custer’s death—and that of two of his bothers, a nephew who was named after him, and his brother in law—at the Little Big Horn in 1876, Libbie Custer remained a widow, living to 1933, guarding Custer’s memory, and writing three books about their life together.
Custer’s thoughts about nearly everything would be considered politically incorrect today. But political correctness is not synonymous with truth—in fact, it is primarily for those who can’t handle the truth. Custer did not own slaves, but if every former slave-master is to be held in contempt, then we have lost Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, and countless other men worthy of our respect. If every Indian-fighter is to be condemned, then not only was manifest destiny a horrendous crime, but so was our arrival on these shores. If men and women are “social constructs” rather than biological realities, well…then we’ve completely lost our minds and Custer’s courage, chivalry, and devotion to his duty and his wife is nothing more than toxic masculinity dedicated to a country whose sins are innumerable and that should be buried.
For the Left, the past is a dark and horrible immorality tale—something we need to overcome on our way to socialism. But as for me, if this be toxic masculinity, let’s make the most of it.
Historian and novelist H. W. Crocker III’s most recent book is Armstrong, a comic novel of George Armstrong Custer surviving the Battle of the Little Big Horn to become an anonymous, gun-slinging do-gooder in the West.