“In war, truth is the first casualty,” wrote the Greek poet Aeschylus. And Americans are as adept as anyone at trimming inconvenient truths from history to create and immortalize war heroes: Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Alvin York at the Meuse-Argonne, and certainly Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn. Custer’s death, in the 1876 battle that featured his famous Last Stand against Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, ensured that the details of how and why he died—and the truth of his hubris and questionable judgment—would be pushed to the margins in favor of a far more glorious and lasting narrative.
Within days of the battle, America’s mythmaking machinery had cranked into high gear. Custer had lost five companies—more than 260 men—but the New York Herald suggested the Last Stand showed that “manhood and valor, self-denial and absolute consecration of duty, even at the sacrifice of life, all remain with us.” Walt Whitman dashed off a death sonnet for Custer featuring “struggle, charge and saber-smite” (though in fact, Custer’s men left their sabers back at the fort). The transformation was complete when a hagiographic biography, guided by Custer’s wife, Libbie, appeared just five months later and became a bestseller. For a while, George Custer walked on water.
Over the years, scholars have chipped away at this Custer fable and uncovered details of the battle that tarnish the young cavalry commander’s legacy. He clearly made some questionable decisions at Little Bighorn, such as splitting his column into four. But the revisionists may have gone too far when they planted the idea that Custer was on the defensive almost from the beginning of the fight and spent the entire battle retreating. That doesn’t fit Custer’s record from the Civil War, where he was always, always on the attack.
Now comes the prominent Western historian Paul Andrew Hutton with a provocative new theory. More than 135 years after the Last Stand, Hutton argues in our cover story that Custer stayed on the attack almost to the end. He even had a plan that might have let him wiggle out of disaster. Hutton offers plenty of evidence for this theory—evidence that’s escaped the notice of those who built up the Custer legend and those who tore it down. Ultimately, what Hutton offers is a portrait of Custer as both human and hero—a portrait that’s truer than any we’ve seen before.