After wandering around the Crazy Horse Memorial site I decided to pick up something I’d been long meaning to read: Stephen Ambrose’s “Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors.” I started reading it at the Black Hills Mile Hi Motel in Custer, South Dakota. Quite fitting, I believe. Then I wanted to bring the book along with me to the Buglin’ Bull, where I ate a delicious Buffalo burger, but I thought that would be a little too cheesy.
So I read most of the book back home in Denver, wherein I had an increasingly hard time picturing George Armstrong Custer in his namesake town where I spend subdued evenings spotting deer along the Mickelson Trail. I don’t think the quiet small town matched the General’s flamboyant personality. Custer as the guy who racked up the most demerits at West Point (one hundred were allowed every six month period. Custer once hit ninety in the first three months), wore conspicuous attire even in the battlefield, and spent months in New York and Washington schmoozing with reports and politicians.
However there is no denying that Custer loved the area. He was constantly itching to get back west where he could hunt buffalo, march his men through blinding blizzards, and hunt Indians. Even when everyone else was miserable, Custer rarely found anything on the Great Plains to complain about. Custer once toured the area with Colonel Stanley, and his love of the area is downright comical when compared to Stanley’s notes:
“Stanley said it had rained four out of the past six days, sometimes in torrents, and that he was miserable. Custer said, ‘Our march has been perfectly delightful thus far.’”
“No artist, he [Custer] wrote, could fairly represent the wonderful county we passed over, while each step of our progress was like each successive shifting of the kaleidoscope, presenting to our wondering gaze views which almost appalled us by their sublimity.” Stanly told his wife that while the river itself was beautiful, “the country adjoining is repulsive in its rugged, barren ugliness.”
Custer’s cockiness, optimism, and craving for attention caught up with him though. When he and his entourage (which typically included a menagerie of animals, a band, and a reporter) headed out to Little Bighorn he refused extra cavalry support, refused to rest his men and horses before the battle, and refused to properly scout the area. Crazy Horse and the largest collection of Sioux Indians that had “even collected on the northwest Plains,” trounced the cocky General. Custer and his 225 soldiers died that day.
I hate to say it was a good thing Custer died, but…well…yeah. Ambrose cautiously suggests that had Custer been victorious, he may have secured the Democratic Presidential nomination. And this pro-slavery Southern Democrat (who “had nothing new to say – he merely repeated whatever the current wisdom of the Democratic party might be. He filled his letters and his conversations with political slogans, which enlightened no one…”) would have been a terrible president. A town named after him is okay, but I’m glad school children have never been expected to revere him as a president.
A few miles north of Custer, SD is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Kind of. It’s actually the site of a museum that looks out at a huge rock face that barely appears to have Crazy Horse’s face carved out, despite the fact that construction has been going on since the late ‘40’s. The memorial is going to be HUGE, although I doubt I (or anyone reading this) will be alive to see it completed. The fact that it’s taken over half a decade to carve out but a face is kind of sad, but maybe symbolic of Crazy Horse. Unlike Custer, he was a much more modest leader, recognizable in battles for his lack of war paint and feathers.
*Purchasing “Crazy Horse and Custer via the affiliate link above will earn me a bit of cash, so thanks!