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Shooting Arrows & Slinging Mud: Custer, the Press and the Little Bighorn

By James E. Mueller, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2013, $29.95.

Exactly when and in what ways newspapers nationwide first reported the shocking news of Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s June 1876 death (along with many other 7th U.S. Cavalry troopers, of course) makes for a fine opening to this well-titled history. Author Mueller, a journalism professor at the University of North Texas, spends the rest of this well-researched book exploring each of the following: how the press dealt with assessing the blame for the defeat; how Custer’s Last Stand impacted the 1876 presidential campaign; how the all-but-forgotten “Hamburg Massacre” bumped Custer off the front page; how the press treated the victorious Indians; and how the newspapers reeled off puns and jokes about the tragedy. Among the author’s thoughtful conclusions: “In their eagerness to get the story and comment on it, the journalists of 1876 were not so much different from the 21st-century scribes covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Newspapers in the centennial year were not politically correct by today’s standards, providing readers with jokes about the deaths and scalping, the incompetence of the military, the savagery of the hostiles and, to a lesser extent, Custer himself. The Vicksburg (Miss.) Herald, among other Southern and Democratic papers, gave it to Lt. Gen. Phil Sheridan, sarcastically asking: “Why didn’t Sheridan lead that charge? He would have made a better dead man than Custer.” The Louisville Courier-Journal, one of many papers to pun around, commented, “A Sioux Indian on the warpath is the most ha(i) rra(i)sing of wild beasts.” Of course today there are far more outlets for commentaries some would judge to be in poor taste. Mueller suggests “one purpose for laughter is to reduce fear,” as in this St. Louis Globe-Democrat quote about Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry possibly avenging Custer’s death: “If Terry kills half the Sioux and routs the other half, the burying-ground might Sioux-tably be called a semi-Terry.”

Much of the Democratic press blamed the 7th Cavalry disaster on President Ulysses S. Grant and his corrupt administration, while most Republican editors blamed Custer. However, newspapers rarely made Custer’s Last Stand and Indian policy an issue in the 1876 presidential campaign, nor did Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes or Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden. “The Little Bighorn’s significance to the election,” Mueller writes, “was never as great as that of Reconstruction, government corruption or the economy.” In fact, many newspapers connected the Hamburg Massacre in South Carolina (a race fight that involved the murder of unarmed black prisoners by white Southerners) to the campaign far more than they did that battle in far-off Montana Territory. “Comparing coverage of Hamburg and the Little Bighorn shows that the latter was big news more because it was an interesting story rather than an impact story,” writes Mueller. “Hamburg as a news story had less drama, but its meaning spoke deeply to the frightening, painful memories of the Civil War.”


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.