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Custer: Symbol v. Human Being.
on July 17, 2004
The purpose of "Son of the Morning Star," both the book and the miniseries, was to show that George A. Custer is not just a symbol, good or bad, for culural/political causes, but a human being with flaws and attributes. A previous review is a perfect example of the failure to see Custer as anything but as a symbol. To some people, Custer is the embodiment of the evils of Manifest Destiny. It's an ironic fate for someone who died in the most spectacular, albeit temporary, setback for Manifest Destiny.
Custer is a fascinating historical figure because of his symbolism. So many people have such strong feelings about him for what he represents, but so few people really know anything about him. Born the son of blacksmith in a rinky-dink Ohio farm community, Custer was no son of privilege. Yet he was a brigadier general at age 23, a major general at age 25, and fought with great courage and skill in America's most horrific war. It never ceases to amaze me how people throw slurs at the officers and men of the Indian fighting army, but ignore that a large percentage of those men fought with undeniable heroism to re-unite this country and free the slaves. Custer, Reno, Benteen, Cooke, Yates, Keogh, Tom Custer, Smith, and a number of other officers of the 7th Cavalry were all Civil War vets.
Attacks on Custer's courage for "fighting women and children" just demonstrates an ignorance of his Civil War combat record and the realities of Plains Indian warfare. Custer graduated college in June 1861 and a month later he saw action at Bull Run. In April 1865, he would receive General Lee's flag of truce near Appomattox. In between, he saw action in almost every campaign in the Eastern theatre of operations. Even after he became a general, he still exposed himself to danger and was often seen fighting in hand to hand combat. At Appomattox, his superior, General Sheridan awarded him the wooden table, upon which General Grant signed the papers of General Lee's surrender, as a gift of appreciation for his magnificent courage and leadership.
Yet people believe that such a ferocious combat commander reveled in fighting women and children! Plains Indians didn't fight like Rebels. They had a different concept of warfare from the U.S. Army- guerrilla tactics, hit and run. To the Army, the biggest difficulty of Plains Indian warfare wasn't fighting the Indians, it was finding them! In 1876, the biggest fear the U.S Army had was that the Lakota and Cheyennes would scatter before the Army could attack them and this mentality was the reason for Custer's decision processes on June 25. The Army had been forced to attack villages because this was the only effective method it had of forcing the Indians to stand and fight. Yes, women and children would die as a result and this was regrettable, but so were civilian casualties at Vicksburg and Atlanta. However, on June 25, 1876, the Army completely underestimated the Lakotas' and Cheyennes' willingness to stand and fight. Custer thought he would be pressing the issue, but instead had the battle dictated to him with catastrophic results for himself and his men. This "arrogance" was a mindset held not only by Custer, but the entire U.S. Army and they paid for it on June 25.
"Son of the Morning Star" was an attempt to present Custer and the Little Big Horn not just as symbols. Another reviewer mentioned "Little Bigman" as being a more historically accurate potrayal. That is absurd. While "Little Bigman" is a very entertaining film, it's as unrealistic as the 1941 movie "They Died with Their Boots On" which starred Errol Flynn. Flynn's Custer was portrayed as the ideal American military hero for a country that was preparing for World War II. In 1970's "Little Bigman," Custer is shown as a symbol of lunatic American imperialism as the country clashed over the Vietnam War. "Son of the Morning Star" was an attempt to show Custer as a human being without World War II or Vietnam era propaganda. This miniseries does take a lot of dramatic license with its subject, but in comparison to previous efforts on the Custer/Little Big Horn story it's refreshing in its candor.