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American Experience: Custer's Last Stand - Television Review

By Jay Wertz 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: January 17, 2012 
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Custer's Last Stand. Library of Congress.
Custer's Last Stand. Library of Congress.

The Boston Tea Party. The Alamo. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Custer's Last Stand. The Battle of Little Big Horn, fought June 25–26, 1876, and popularly known as Custer's Last Stand is among the first historical events children learn about in America. It is engrained into popular culture, portrayed hundreds of times in everything from scholarly studies to movies to an Anheuser Busch beer advertisement. Singer-songwriter Tom Paxton wrote about it satirically in "Give Somebody a Medal."

"Custer's Land Stand," a new documentary from the PBS television series American Experience, is the latest to explore the cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer and the battle to which his name is forever linked. "Custer's Last Stand" premieres on PBS on Tuesday, January 17 at 8:00 p.m. (Check local listings).

Although it would seem there that by now there is nothing new to present, in fact the documentary does offer fresh aspects of the battle, what led up to it, and the implications of the defeat of the U. S. Army's 7th Cavalry at the hands of a coalition of Plains tribes under the spiritual and political leadership of Sitting Bull. Some new historical research is presented, but this history lesson transcends the battle to look at the large and enduring myth of Custer, one of America's most controversial figures.

"Myths are fascinating things," says "Custer's Last Stand" producer-director Stephen Ives. "They're often based on a kernel of truth but then they take on a life of their own. Exploring a myth and finding out where it came from and how it's become part of our collective consciousness is a fascinating enterprise. And never more so than in trying to unravel the complicated life of somebody like George Armstrong Custer. He really did embody so many of the contradictions that were part of America's drive to become a continental nation—that, and the fact that he died in spectacular fashion."

As director of the acclaimed PBS series The West, Ives saw the potential for expanding the story of one of the west's most colorful characters.

"Custer has fascinated me ever since I made The West series back in 1996. I never felt like anyone had ever tried to penetrate inside his psyche in a satisfying way. And then Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a new book called The Last Stand, which I felt really did get at that aspect of Custer's character in an insightful way. And so the time seemed to be right to pull back the curtain on what had often been a stereotyped and simplified view of Custer and try and dig deeper."

"Custer's Last Stand" is first and foremost about Custer, his relationships, and what made him tick. And though Philbrick is in the film, this is not a visual representation of the book. The film steps back in Custer's life and looks at the driving forces behind the carefully planned public persona Custer shaped for himself.

There is no doubt that ambition was an enormous part of Custer's character. It was evident in his career choice in the military, one of the most visible and powerful professions at the time. It was evident in the way he worked his charisma and image into a rapid rise in rank and power in the Civil War (although he did not alter the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg with his heroic charge against General "Jeb" Stuart's Confederate cavalry on July 3, 1863, as the film suggests). Custer's fame and image also attracted the attention of the woman of his dreams, Elizabeth "Libby" Bacon, whether that was part of his plan or not. (It likely was; her father, an influential judge, thought Custer's undistinguished family background was a poor match for his daughter).

George and Libby Custer. Library of Congress.
George and Libby Custer. Library of Congress.
"I wanted to explore more about Custer's relationship with Libby, his wife, who was one of the most extraordinary women of the 19th century, I think," explains Ives. "Their love affair was truly remarkable. The way in which they had a kind of mutually shared ambition. The way in which they kind of completed each other was really quite moving and quite interesting to me. They were the power couple of their day."

A couple not unlike … the Clintons?

"George and Libby Custer are Bill and Hillary Clinton, on one level," says Ives. "They're a tremendously charismatic, powerful, politically astute ambitious couple. They're glamorous. They're the kind of people that people want to be around."

When Custer did run into trouble, Libby picked him up. When he hit a dry spell in his career not long after the Civil War, he reinvented himself as an Indian fighter. Libby was quite willing to take on the challenge, and even excelled as the gracious hostess of the frontier posts to which Custer was assigned. Although there is evidence offered to suggest that Custer may have dallied with other women on his long solo trips to the cities of the east, his real personal problem was gambling. He was, after all, a gambler by nature.

More troubling for him professionally were missteps with other officers and former officers, including then-president Ulysses S. Grant. But Philip Sheridan, who had been in charge of cavalry in the Army of the Potomac during the last months of the Civil War, was always there to lend his protégé a helping hand.

This film is crafted as a journey along the path of Custer's life to its culmination in his date with destiny on the rolling prairie of southeast Montana. However the military history descriptions of Custer's victories and defeats are uneven. Some, like the Battle of Washita, are given greater attention than others in the documentary because they develop the picture of Custer's views of his mission and of what it took to be a leader in this strange kind of warfare the former Union officers had to adjust to. Custer's approach was not popular with all the Indian fighters who served with and around him. The film suggests that the enemies he made within the ranks would help to doom him.

It is only later in the documentary that the other side, the Native American side, of the events leading up to Battle of Little Big Horn is explored. And this is primarily revealed through the reaction of the Hunkpapa medicine man, Sitting Bull, to the continuous westward expansion of the white man and the cavalry's part in it.

Ives explains his choices in how he covered the battle and its participants: "I didn't want to and didn't make a film for military history buffs. There's not a blow-by-blow description of exactly how the Last Stand unfolded. I thought it was better to have that take place as a kind of haunting mystery off-stage. I did want to explore the kind of fateful relationships Custer forged between Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen. I didn't think I could do justice to the kind of complexity of Custer's story, or to the mythic afterlife of Custer, if I also brought Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull into the story on an equal footing."

If the film is the story of Custer—and it really is—this approach makes sense. The overall campaign to force the Lakota and Cheyenne onto the Great Sioux reservation is presented reasonably well. However, the ways the Sioux tribes lived and fought, and how aspects of the culture impacted the warfare, are not developed very well. The formation of the tribal alliance is minimally discussed, only through Sitting Bull's role in it. Crazy Horse is barely mentioned. The battle is described primarily through what was happening on the south side of the field, where Reno and Benteen were stationed. Granted, they were officers on the scene who survived to provide firsthand accounts.

George Custer. Library of Congress.
George Custer. Library of Congress.
Overall, the story aspect of the film is strong when the viewer realizes that it is more about Custer and the myth surrounding the Last Stand than about the battle itself. Examples of the pop-culture development of the myth through movies and literature are presented. These things show the breadth of the fascination with the subject, and the on-camera speakers rev up enthusiasm for the man and the event. Some are stronger and more interesting than others. "Films like this end up having a certain synthesis built into them because we have a kind of Greek chorus of talking heads that help us bring the history back to life," explains Ives.

But a film should be visually interesting as well. "Custer's Last Stand" utilizes familiar American Experience techniques of still-life motifs, photographs and some beautiful vistas of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Because this is a very long film the photographs, probably the best available, are stretched too thin. More interesting is the way Ives uses battle recreation scenes, pushing the envelope of this form in a way not seen since We Shall Remain. It would be wise for other American Experience programs to do the same to keep the visual element of these programs as interesting as the content.

It is probably no surprise to anyone to learn, whether through viewing this documentary or experiencing other historical accounts, that Custer was intent on building a legacy and a legend for himself. "Live hard, die hard," the saying goes. It is those who take risks, often controversial ones, who will be remembered. Custer probably knew that, as have others who followed and will continue to follow him on the path of celebrity and notoriety.

"I think that's why I love him," Ives says. "Because he's in some ways, a creature of his age, but at the same time he's a very modern, very familiar character."

For readers who would like to know more about the Sioux's point of view, click here to read an eyewitness account by Lakota Sioux Chief Red Horse.

About the Author:
Jay Wertz is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian's Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He is also the author of The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian's Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publication is due out in January 2012, D-Day: The Campaign Across France, the second volume in the War Stories series, published by Weider History Publications.


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4 Responses to “American Experience: Custer's Last Stand - Television Review”


  1. 1
    ernestino de oliveiraa says:

    Please you can sale in the brasil translate in portuguese brasilian very people like this part of american history thank is this a sugest

  2. 2
    Whale says:

    This was a bad show with bad history bringing up the lies that Libby Custer perpetrated for decades after her husband's rampant stupidity got himself and his men killed.

    whale

  3. 3
    DCaretaker says:

    I haven't seen the program but the way it's described sounds as it would be a waste of time. The story is supposed to be about the battle but offers none of the new evidence disclosed by the first archeological investigation.

  4. 4
    C. Lee Noyes says:

    The subject matter “expert” might not appreciate the PBS broadcast Custer’s Last Stand because of its focus as well as several clear factual errors. However, neither the “Custer buff” nor Little Big Horn/Plains Indian Wars scholar is the intended audience. Moreover, the “uninformed” viewer may neither notice nor care about several technical “deficiencies” that will be provided upon request.

    Producer-director Stephen Ives has generally succeeded if his purpose was to concentrate on the military career of George Armstrong Custer, to assess that officer’s personality and accomplishments and judge his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, for the benefit of those viewers having a general interest in American history and prominent Americans. Any evaluation of the broadcast must reflect that intent and not whether or not it primarily records the story of the Little Big Horn in sufficient, accurate detail. (The title of the program is thus a misnomer.)

    Few would dispute the program’s observation that the Civil War “Boy General” was an ambitious (even vain) risk taker as demonstrated by his questionable personal decision to leave his 7th Cavalry command during the 1867 campaign against the Southern Cheyenne in Kansas out of concern for his wife’s health, safety and whereabouts. He was also (as Theodore Lyman and several other Civil War observers noted) a “great actor performing in front of his men,” as evidenced by his flamboyant demeanor and his custom made exotic uniforms. “By all accounts,” author James Donovan has written, “it appears he took to war like a duck to water.”

    Custer seemed to possess the instinctive ability to assess threats on the battlefield and to initiate rapid tactical responses. Most of these instant decisions were appropriate and successful. (The engagements at Trevilian Station, June 11, 1864 and Little Big Horn, June 25, 1876 were notable exceptions.) Perhaps the best example of such intuitive leadership was the decisive role of Custer and his Michigan Brigade in thwarting the advance of the superior Confederate cavalry force of Major General J.E.B. Stuart on East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The broadcast correctly emphasizes this significant Union tactical victory at that cavalry clash. However, it does not address the strategic importance of Custer’s role in the defeat of General Robert E. Lee’s plan by preventing Stuart’s attack against the rear of the Army of the Potomac in conjunction with Pickett’s Charge.

    As viewers clearly learn, Custer’s military service after 1865 was a striking contrast to his fame and fortune during the Civil War. Like many officers in the small post-war Regular Army that offered limited opportunities for promotion, his career stalled as he was assigned to Frontier posts and Reconstruction duty in the South. Notwithstanding his contemporary and subsequent reputation as a seasoned Indian fighter (much self-proclaimed), his “accomplishments” were essentially limited to three military actions against Plains Indian warriors before the Little Big Horn, the most significant being his 1868 attack on the Washita River in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), which the broadcast portrays in a graphic yet generally accurate manner. Unfortunately, the audience does not learn of Custer’s skilled, successful efforts as a diplomat and peacemaker in the aftermath of the Washita by his securing the release of two captive white women from the Cheyenne without force and persuading this and the other Southern Plains tribes on the warpath to proceed to the new agencies established for them in the Territory. One must further stress the fact that several other Regular Army officers (notably General George Crook and Colonels Eugene A. Carr, Ranald S. Mackenzie and Nelson A. Miles) were far more accomplished (although far less renown and recognized) Indian campaigners, a fact that the program might have acknowledged in order to place Custer’s achievements and reputation in proper perspective.

    Many have written of Custer’s alleged “abandonment” of Major Joel Elliot and several enlisted men at the Washita, first and foremost Captain Frederick Benteen of the 7th Cavalry, a participant in the fight. The broadcast repeats the conventional assumption that the deaths of Elliot and those soldiers who pursued escaping members of Black Kettle’s band caused a “rift in the entire regiment,” a schism reflected by Benteen’s condemnation of Custer that was anonymously published by the press.

    Notwithstanding Benteen’s pathological hatred of Custer (for whatever reason) until his death, Little Big Horn students have exaggerated alleged factionalism within the 7th Cavalry and the impact and legacy of the Washita/Elliot affair. Of all the officers who survived the Washita, only Benteen is known to have made an issue of Elliot’s death and that become more pronounced in the 1890s towards the end of his life. Its divisive role in the outcome of the Little Big Horn should be ignored simply by virtue of the fact that few officers of the regiment in 1868 remained in the unit in 1876 and even fewer participated in the Little Big Horn (including members of Custer’s entourage).

    In addition to Benteen, several other instances of 7th Cavalry officers’ dislike (if not hatred) of Custer have been documented. The contemporary comments of Captain Albert Barnitz and Lieutenant Charles Larned are known examples as well as the later outspoken remarks of Lieutenant Charles De Rudio to Little Big Horn researcher Walter M. Camp. No boss or leader (whether in business, government or the military) will please everyone; and Custer (given his polarizing personality) testifies to this axiom.

    Charles Varnum (Custer’s chief of scouts in 1876) recalled Benteen’s acknowledged dislike of Custer but denied the existence of factions within the regiment, including the alleged animosity between Custer and Major Marcus Reno. There is little contemporary evidence to sustain the existence of cliques within the 7th Cavalry notwithstanding personality clashes in addition to that between Benteen and Custer.

    In a larger context, personality clashes and bickering were common in the Frontier officer corps given the isolation of posts generally manned by small garrisons and the limited opportunities for promotion before the Spanish-American War. Why should or would the 7th Cavalry have been any different?

    For example, contemporary documentation establishes such a clash between Lieutenants Benjamin Hodgson and Donald McIntosh before the Dakota Column marched from Fort Abraham Lincoln when McIntosh placed Hodgson under arrest for threatening an enlisted man of his unit and demonstrating disrespect for his superior. Both officers died in Reno’s chaotic retreat from the Little Big Horn Valley and one can only speculate about the impact of their differences (and any miscommunication) on the outcome of that disastrous engagement.

    Although the documentary portrays Custer as a courageous, flamboyant (if not rash) man of action, it correctly acknowledges his “brilliant” tactical feint and his successful withdrawal of the 7th Cavalry after destroying Black Kettle’s village and learning of the approach of what appeared to be a superior warrior force from other encampments on the Washita. This writer only wishes that more attention would have been devoted to Custer’s cautious side, which contradicts and contrasts with his aggressive, impulsive reputation. At the Battle of Trevilian Station in 1864, for example, the young general demonstrated not only reckless abandon (barely avoiding the capture of his surrounded command in addition to losing his headquarters wagon) but also an unwillingness to attack against unfavorable odds. On the second day of that engagement, he refused to jeopardize his battered brigade when he disregarded an order to assault a strong Confederate position. During his well-publicized 1873 skirmish with the Lakota on the Yellowstone River in Montana Territory, he correctly suspected an ambush, halted his pursuit, deployed his men as dismounted skirmishers and repulsed his attackers until relief arrived. Other examples of such caution can be cited.

    Most would agree with the broadcast’s further observation that Custer believed that he was “destined for greatness.” However, if his judgment usually led to success in the face of the enemy, it clearly failed when he pursued business ventures or became embroiled in political controversy as his disastrous appearance before the Congressional committee investigating corruption in the War Department in 1876 attests. In this context, Elizabeth Custer’s restraint complemented (if not balanced) her husband’s impulsiveness even though she recognized his “superior judgment and experience.” No one would likely dispute the observation that she was “the more politically astute” half of this 19th Century “power couple.”

    Few Little Big Horn experts would disagree with the program’s assumption that during the Sioux War of 1876 General Alfred Terry expected Custer’s column to “strike the blow” against the “hostile” Lakota and Cheyenne bands believed to be located somewhere on the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory and that Terry further expected the 7th Cavalry (as the “hammer”) to drive the Indians north towards Colonel John Gibbon’s Montana Column (the “anvil”). Terry (in the words of Paul Hutton) had “unleashed” Custer and “everyone knew it.” Ample first-hand contemporary evidence supports this premise and the universal but disastrous erroneous belief within the U.S. Army (Custer included) that the Indians would not stand and fight. Terry’s orders to Custer were, first and foremost, to “prevent the escape of the Indians” from the effort to subdue them. This fallacious strategic military premise better explains the outcome of the Little Big Horn than Custer’s personality, judgment or decisions on that Bloody Sunday. Determined to defend themselves, the Lakota and Cheyenne did not “scatter.” The rest is history.

    The attention devoted to Sitting Bull and the Lakota perspective is adequate given the focus and purpose of the broadcast. However, it should have mentioned the roles of the Oglala war leader Crazy Horse (who more than Sitting Bull avoided contact with the Americans and opposed the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868) and of the Northern Cheyenne (who were by accident the first military target of the 1876 Sioux War when Crook’s expedition attacked their village on Powder River on March 17, an episode that resulted in their joining forces with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and the eventual assemblage of 7000 Indians on the Little Big Horn).

    No study has definitively documented the broadcast’s aggressive portrayal of Sitting Bull’s followers (for example, the alleged attacks on wagon trains), notwithstanding contemporary perceptions and an 1875 Interior Department report that rationalized (if not orchestrated) the Sioux War of 1876. Clearly the non-treaty (or non-reservation) bands led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse would defend themselves and their hunting grounds against the incursions of outsiders, whether settlers, the military or other tribes. Armed clashes with military escorts for railroad surveyors on the Yellowstone River in 1872 and 1873 testify to such responses. These bands also continued to battle and raid the Crow and other traditional tribal enemies. However, the program might have clearly emphasized the fact that the “hostiles” in general sought to avoid contact with the U.S. Government and its citizens (for example, by procuring arms, ammunition and other trade goods through middlemen such as the métis) and simply wished to exercise their hunting and treaty rights unmolested. “Sitting Bull,” according to biographer Robert Utley, “preferred that all of these whites simply get out of Sioux country and stay out. If they would not, he would fight.”

    Space does not permit an in-depth analysis of the broadcast’s comments concerning the alleged motive/s for Custer’s 1874 Black Hills Expedition and the Federal Government’s response to the subsequent gold rush into that part of the Sioux Reservation established and protected by the Fort Laramie treaty. Please refer to John S. Gray, Centennial Campaign (Chapter 3: “The President’s Escape”) for an excellent analysis and plausible interpretation of the Grant Administration’s response to and resolution of the legal and political dilemma posed by the influx of miners.

    Generally the photographs that illustrate this presentation are adequate, though their resolution is often poor and they are often placed out of chronological or historical context: For example, the 1873 image of Custer and a slain elk appears during the discussion of the 1874 Black Hills Expedition. Also, images of George and Elizabeth at Big Creek near Fort Hays, Kansas (Summer 1869) and of Custer and officers of the 7th Cavalry at Camp Sandy Forsyth, Kansas (October 1868) do not correctly illustrate “Hancock’s War” of 1867. Photographs of a Civil War horse artillery battery, of the 5th Infantry at Fort Keogh, Montana Territory (ca. 1880) and of captured Crow Indians after the 1887 “insurrection” at their agency, moreover, are not relevant illustrations of Custer’s military career or the Little Big Horn. Instead of a Civil War era cap-and-ball revolver, the Model 1873 metallic cartridge Colt Single Action Army revolver should have illustrated the Little Big Horn overview. (D. Mark Katz, Custer in Photographs places several such photographs in the proper context of the Custer story.)

    Contemporaneous, high resolution (and additional) digital images from original plate negatives would have been available from the following institutions: Denver Public Library (David F. Barry Collection); Montana Historical Society (F. Jay Haynes and Stanley J. Morrrow collections); Library of Congress (Custer Civil War and other related images); South Dakota Historical Society (William H. Illingworth stereotypes and other images of the Black Hills Expedition), etc.

    Custer’s Last Stand, in my opinion, is on the right tract when it judges the broad historical context of George Armstrong Custer and his impact on our culture. As Paul Hutton eloquently notes, the legacy of Custer and Little Big Horn “symbolizes all the things that make us uncomfortable with American history.” That legacy raises the fundamental issue of what was “the cost to become the United States.” Each and every generation certainly reinvents Custer to reflect its attitudes, needs and values and even the threats to our culture. Interpretations of the man may change not only because more objective information and research about him is discovered and developed but also because subjective cultural biases change with each era.

    Be that as it may, if the legend of the Western Frontier has shaped much of the nation’s culture, the legend of Custer and his perpetual Last Stand has, in turn, so shaped our image of the West.

    A list of technical corrections will be emailed by contacting CLeeNoyes@aol.com.



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