There's more to Custer than his 'Last Stand'

A painting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Custer's actions were immortalized in paintings like this one, which shows the general and his men from the 7th Cavalry being defeated by the combined forces of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.
Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Gen. George Armstrong Custer is a man best known for the way he died.

Custer's Last Stand, also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, ended in defeat for the U.S. Army when Custer and more than 200 of his men were killed in a battle against the combined forces of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne tribes.

That battle has left Americans grappling with Custer's legacy for more than 100 years. In the aftermath, some memorialized Custer as a hero, saying he went down in a blaze of patriotism. But many others, including President Ulysses S. Grant, have called the entire battle an egotistical folly, saying Custer foolishly led the 7th Cavalry Regiment to their deaths.

'Custer's Trials' by T.J. Stiles
'Custer's Trials' by T.J. Stiles
Courtesy of Knopf

T.J. Stiles' new book "Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America," starts far before that fateful day on the prairie. He digs through history for the man behind the mythic figure, and what he finds is a pile of contradictions.

Stiles joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to talk about his new book, and the legacy of Custer.

"To obsess over the last stand is to miss his significance in the post-Civil War years," Stiles said. Custer "was so important during his lifetime, and that's something we lose when we focus, understandably, on his dramatic death."

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"If you go past his death ... you see someone who was a national celebrity, and was intensely controversial during his lifetime."

Custer was a household name after the Civil War, partly for the media uproars he kept igniting. He traveled the country for various pursuits, from the Great Plains to Wall Street to the South in the midst of Reconstruction. As he traveled, however, he failed to find a place to fit in.

"He was engaging with the making of a completely new world, the America we know today," Stiles said. "And yet some of his volatility reflects the fact that he never could adapt to that new world."

He harbored huge insecurities, Stiles notes, and had a flare for the dramatic. He also had a taste for war. After the Civil War ended, "he can't let go of his own love of fighting and winning."

The portrait Stiles creates of Custer is far more than the iconic man in the painting, and gets at the darker side of his behavior. "He was a man of deep prejudices and deep bigotry," Stiles said, and his complicated nature reveals a lot about the country that has both idolized and criticized him.

"His achievements shaped our past and present, as did his failings," Stiles writes in his introduction. "To reduce them all into his final failure — catastrophic though it was — it to turn away from ourselves, to refuse to see the worst in American history or how hard it was to achieve the best."

To hear the full discussion on Custer with T.J. Stiles — including the role Custer's wife played in establishing his legacy — use the audio player above.