Mueller on “A True Insight into a Cavalryman’s Life”: George Armstrong Custer as Literary Journalist

29 Sep 2017 11:03 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

Editor’s Note: University of North Texas professor James E. Mueller presented his paper, “‘A True Insight into a Cavalryman’s Life’: George Armstrong Custer as Literary Journalist,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Mueller to tell us more about how and why he started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for himself and our field.

By James E. Mueller, University of North Texas

Once considered an American hero, George Armstrong Custer’s name can’t even be used to sell frozen custard.

This past summer Sonic made the mistake of using the Civil War cavalryman and Indian fighter to hawk a new dessert. A commercial promoting the frozen custard featured some slightly funny banter between its usual pair of comedic actors, one of whom had dressed up as Custer and thought the general’s real name was Custard. The actor was dressed in Custer’s Civil War uniform—the one he wore for four years in the fight to preserve the Union and end slavery. No matter. Custer’s subsequent service on the frontier during America’s postwar Westward expansion has become the symbol for all the wrongs done to Native Americans, and he must be banished from polite society as anything other than a bad example. Sonic is based in Oklahoma, which has a large Native American population, and protests were swift and effective. Sonic pulled the ad and apologized two days after it started running. 

Custer, of course, had his faults, and the treatment of Native Americans by the federal government was often cruel and dishonorable. But historical figures should be more than one-dimensional caricatures for modern Americans to use as emotional punching bags. We live in a highly divisive age where more and more people seem to look at their fellow citizens as either villains or heroes rather than as human beings who have a mix of good and bad in their character. This attitude has spilled into history, and we’re in danger of losing a balanced view of the story of the country.

Finding balance in the story of Custer’s life is one of the main reasons I’m writing a biography of him. It might seem an odd choice for a journalism historian, but one of the reasons that Custer was so famous in his time was his success as a writer and a self-promoter. Custer had a side career as a journalist and was his own press agent, cultivating journalists and giving them great copy. My presentation on Custer’s writing to the International Association of Literary Journalism Studies is one part of that biography, which is tentatively titled Custer’s Ambitious Honor: A Life of Service and a Lust for Fame. The book is the natural culmination of research I’ve been pursuing for almost 25 years. 

So much of research is prompted by a combination of luck, opportunity and necessity. When I started the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas, I discovered Custer’s headquarters during his Reconstruction service had been in a building that is now part of the UT campus. UT has a wonderful collection of historical Texas newspapers. I needed a paper for my Southern history class. I cranked the microfilm to find out how newspapers in a Rebel state had covered the death of a Yankee hero at the Little Bighorn, especially a hero who had enforced Reconstruction in 1865 and 1866. Texas papers, almost exclusively Democrat, supported the Democrat Custer, saying he was a gallant soldier defeated because of the perfidy of the Republican President U.S. Grant, who had denied him the troops he needed.

I presented the paper at AJHA, where I received encouragement to pursue the topic. I did, writing enough papers and articles to lead to a book, Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud: Custer, the Press, and the Little Bighorn. The book won a couple of awards, including finalist for best nonfiction book from the Western Writers of America. While writing Shooting Arrows, I naturally had to do a lot of research on Custer the man. I found that in contrast to the received history that he was a born soldier, he had first wanted to be a teacher and had continued that interest and a variety of others throughout his brief 36-year life. In fact, his first professional job had been as a teacher in a one-room school house in Ohio, and he entered West Point with the idea that he would pursue a career in education after a few years in the Army. Custer was also passionate about politics, and he considered running for Congress immediately after the end of the Civil War. He accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a campaign trip in 1866, and continued to associate with politicians and political journalists for the rest of his life, sometimes to the detriment of his military career. He loved the theater, and his best friend was the famous actor Lawrence Barrett. Custer himself engaged in amateur theatrics at his various military posts, and at the time of his death had signed to go on a speaking tour with the same agency that hosted Mark Twain. Of interest to journalism history—Custer was a writer, authoring a bestseller about his experiences on the frontier called My Life on the Plains, as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles. 

The theme that unites the various aspects of Custer’s life is a passion for artistic creative endeavors, whether performing, teaching or writing. The skills required for each profession were useful for all of the others, and his military career, too. For example, teaching requires a theatrical presence in the classroom as well as the creativity and writing skills of crafting lessons. Teaching was also an important skill for Custer’s military career as he had to spend a significant time training recruits during the Civil War and in the frontier Army. On the other hand, the artistic side of his nature—his artistic ego—sometimes got in the way of his military career. His need for attention and recognition caused him to ignore or disobey the orders of his superiors in the Army and the civil government. In his personal attitude toward government, Custer was raised as a fierce Jacksonian Democrat who believed in the greatness of America. He served his country with distinction, yet his artistic ego was constantly battling with his sense of duty. He wrote for newspapers and magazines even when it might have been more prudent to focus on his military career.

What kind of a writer was Custer? I think he was a literary journalist, and that’s why I presented my preliminary ideas to the conference. Many of his biographers are critical of Custer’s style, claiming it was written in the wordy Victorian manner that is difficult for modern readers to enjoy. Frederick Van de Water, who wrote the debunking biography Glory-Hunter, said Custer “never met an adjective he didn’t like.” Louise Barnett wrote a much more favorable biography called Touched by Fire, yet claimed Custer’s writing was too formal, like military reports.(1)

However, after reading all of Custer’s Civil War reports, I think his military writing was decidedly informal at times, appearing to be composed by someone who was striving to be a writer. Custer’s official reports often featured a dramatic flair in what was, after all, supposed to be a government record with all the excitement that term conveys. Custer described an attack as a mix of blue uniforms contrasting with a “mass of glittering sabers” that was “one of the most inspiring as well as imposing scenes of martial grandeur ever witnessed upon a battle-field.”(2) A sergeant who was killed was “the bravest of the brave,” an officer was wounded when a bullet “carried away the end of his thumb,” and the Rebels when defeated turned into “a panic-stricken, uncontrollable mob” in which “entire companies threw down their arms, and they appeared glad when summoned to surrender.”(3)

It’s no surprise the Custer agreed to write for newspapers and magazines when editors asked him for accounts of his activities on the Plains. He also regularly wrote hunting stories for the sporting magazine Turf, Field and Farm under the pen name “Nomad.” But his most famous work was a series of articles for Galaxy magazine—a sort of Atlantic Monthly of its day—that was turned into a book called My Life on the Plains, or Personal Experiences with Indians. The 7th Cavalry’s Captain Frederick Benteen famously called Custer’s book “My Life on the Plains,”(4) and Colonel William B. Hazen, who Custer had criticized in the book, privately published a rejoinder pamphlet called “Some Corrections of ‘My Life on the Plains.’”(5) But no less a personage than William T. Sherman, general of the army, wrote Custer that he and everyone in his family had read the book with “deep interest.” Sherman told Custer that “your articles on the Plains are by far the best I have ever read.” Sherman noted that he had received “hard knocks” from writing his own Civil War memoir but encouraged Custer to write one because it would be a valuable contribution to history.(6) Custer was at work on that memoir when he was killed at the Little Bighorn.

For the literary journalism presentation I re-read closely My Life of the Plains, looking for how it fit literary journalism standards. Custer’s writing was similar to the sketch journalism of Mark Twain, which is considered one of the precursors of literary journalism.(7) Custer’s work includes many humorous vignettes, and in contrast to his current reputation as an egotistical maniac, he sometimes made himself the butt of the joke. In an episode often quoted in Custer biographies, Custer left his column to hunt. He got caught up in the chase and pursued a buffalo until he was out of sight of the column and the bugler he had brought along. When Custer had run it down and was about the kill it with his pistol, the buffalo turned to gore his horse. The horse veered sharply. Custer instinctively grabbed for the reins with his gun hand. He accidentally shot his horse in the head, killing it instantly. Custer was thrown over his horse’s head, and as he was flying through the air he wondered what the buffalo would do to him when he landed. It merely snorted and sauntered off, leaving Custer alive but alone in enemy territory with no horse and no idea where his troops were. He started walking in what he thought was the right direction, and fortunately for him ran into his command instead of enemy warriors. The tale was funny and dramatic, yet not designed to frame Custer as a hero. 

Custer’s intense involvement in the stories he told is a hallmark of literary journalism--immersion. Of course, as a cavalry officer Custer had little choice but to be immersed in Indian warfare, but his descriptions were so vivid that they brought the reader with him on the frontier. In one chapter, Custer described his terror when approaching an Indian village at night. The Army wanted to negotiate with the tribe, so he and few of his men left the main command and dismounted when they found the village. As they walked toward the tepees, they called out but got no answer other than the barking of camp dogs. Custer freely confessed that only pride kept him from turning around and running back to his horse. It turned out that the Indians had abandoned the village out of fear of the cavalry, but it was an anecdote that captured the uncertainty of Plains warfare. 

Although the book was largely a war story—an account of Custer’s participation in a couple of campaigns in 1867-68—he also wrote in great detail about geography, animals, Native culture and the interplay of all three as they contributed to the way people lived on the frontier. This “thick description” is another key element of literary journalism. Instead of merely writing that the Indians used smoke signals, Custer described what type of wood they used and how they held the blanket over the fire to create just the right sort of smoke. He explained the importance of ponies to the Plains Indians and why their speed and endurance made them superior to the Army’s horses. The ponies, he wrote, could survive on cotton wood bark when there was no grass. Indians would cut the wood into four-foot strips and toss them to the horses, who would hold them down with their hooves and gnaw them like a dog would a bone.

Custer used a variety of other literary journalism techniques like scene-by-scene construction, dialogue and a focus on ordinary people to enliven his narrative. It’s not necessary to go into all of those examples here other than to conclude that Custer developed his own distinct voice while writing his Plains stories. He created an authorial character who had the interests of a scientist in observing his world, was passionate about his military duty and yet was able to laugh at himself and his mistakes. He wrote from a distinct point of the view—that of the ordinary cavalryman. (The title of the presentation comes from Custer’s own description of his book.) He was frustrated at the government’s mad policy of simultaneously feeding and arming the tribes yet demanding the Army fight them when they used those arms on civilians. He also railed against newspaper editorials that claimed the Army wanted war. No one who ever had to go to war, particularly the guerrilla style of warfare on the Plains, would seek a war, Custer wrote. The collected stories in My Life on the Plains struck a note with his contemporaries, who he was able to take to the frontier with him through the power of his writing. 

What can journalism historians take from this research? It suggests that when studying literary journalists, historians should not focus solely on full-time reporters. Soldier-journalists such as Custer produced a lot of copy in the 19th century, and we are seeing a rebirth of that in today’s military with soldier-bloggers like Colby Buzzell, who took us to the front lines in Iraq with a “milblog” that led to his book My War: Killing Time in Iraq

As for my own research, Custer’s writing career will be an important part of an effort to tell the story of his life and how it contributed to the national story. In Custer’s own time, his death was the subject of jokes within weeks of the Little Bighorn, as I related in a chapter on humor in Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud. One newspaper even called his death “Sioux-icide.” Some blamed Custer for the defeat, others wrote that his attack was what most officers would have done under the same circumstances. But the consensus was that despite the outcome of the battle, he died in the service of his country. Americans in 1876 seemed to have a more balanced view toward their heroes than we do today. I hope this research can make a contribution in that direction.

(1) Frederic F. Van De Water, Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1988) 227; Louis Barnett, Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 365.

(2) John M. Carroll, Custer in the Civil War: His Unfinished Memoirs (San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1977), 35.

(3) Ibid., 46.

(4) Robert M. Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 54.

(5) Ibid., 125.

(6) (Marguerithe Merington, ed., The Custer Story: The Life and Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994), 244.

(7) Norman Sims, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 44-45.

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James E. Mueller, Ph.D., is Professor and Interim Associate Dean, Mayborn School of Journalism, University of North Texas.


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