Although what really happened to Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his command at the Little Bighorn remains a mystery, the man behind the myth is as inscrutable as his final battle, two University of Tennessee, Knoxville, journalism professors claim in a new book.
Their research reveals that Custer was a self-invented hero long before the fight that made him immortal, and the stories that emerged after his death served the interest of those who wanted to control his memory.
A debate about the "real" Custer was underway even before the public learned about Little Bighorn. Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown dissect the Custer myth in their new book, "Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend.”
Was Custer a war hero who fell prey to incompetent associates, faulty equipment and lack of support? Or was a he a reckless leader whose pursuit of glory led to the demise of more than 200 U.S. Soldiers?
"Custer was both heroic and reckless," Caudill said. "It earned him acclaim during the Civil War, when he was a very accomplished field commander, winning numerous battles and clashes, including East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. He ended the war as a brevet major general.
"That same audacity and decisiveness, though, was his undoing at Little Bighorn, where a lack of information, poor communications and unforgiving terrain were too much for even Custer's bold elan.
"The Civil War defined his life. The Little Bighorn defined his legend.”
Ashdown said unraveling the Custer myth is a timely story.
"The nation is in the process of purging American history of certain problematic symbols and controversial heroes as it searches for a usable past," he said. "Custer repeatedly has been built up and torn down by the culture, and the time for revision may again be at hand.
"We've tried to show how popular history is first created and then shaken up by mythmakers to meet contemporary concerns. A lot has been written about Custer, but we deal more with how the press and culture have 'invented' him."
The book was released today by the publisher Rowman and Littlefield. It is the fourth in Caudill and Ashdown's series of studies about Civil War-era military figures.
They are also co-authors of "Sherman's March in Myth and Memory" (2008), "The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest" (2005) and "The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend" (2002).
Caudill's research focuses on the history of ideas in the press. His published works include the book "Darwinism in the Press: The Evolution of an Idea," and journalism monograph, "The Roots of Bias: An Empiricist Press and Coverage of the Scopes Trial.”
Ashdown, a professor emeritus, is a Chancellor's Teaching Scholar and a winner of both the Robert Cherry Foundation's national award for extraordinary teachers and the Alexander Prize, which is presented for excellence in teaching students. He previously served as a UT Macebearer, the university's highest faculty honor. His research focuses on literary journalism, especially the work of James Agee, and cultural history. He recently edited "Complete Journalism: Articles, Book Reviews and Manuscripts" by James Agee.