Friends Of The Little Bighorn Battlefield

The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Robert Utley Memoirs

Webmaster's Note: Robert Utley presented this paper, for the first time, for all to hear at the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield's symposium on June 26, 2001. Mr. Utley serves as a board member for the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Mr. Utley's memoir, Custer and Me was published in late 2004.

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I have lived with General Custer and his friends and enemies for a full generation. Every time I have written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, I have told a different story than be­fore. Fresh insights materialize each time I look back to the subject. Instead of another rehash of the Little Bighorn, here is a personal recollection, a "memoir," if you will.

I am a Custer nut because of Errol Flynn. When I was twelve, early in 1942, he so stirred my imagination by his portrayal of General Custer in They Died with Their Boots On, my career ultimately turned from law to history. I read all I could find in the library about Custer. In those years of wartime celebration of the military, I found my flawless hero in George Armstrong Custer.

In 1946, the war over, I saved enough money as a drug store soda jerk, at twenty-five cents an hour, to buy a bus ticket from my Indiana home to the Montana site of Custer's Last Stand. The superintendent of the monument and his wife took me in town and made sure I saw all there was to see.

What a wonderful experience. That day led to a truly defining experience. In June 1947 I donned the uniform of the National Park Service and stood on Custer Hill to tell the story to all who came. Tossing aside Park Service age requirements, the superintendent hired me, seventeen and just out of high school, as a seasonal ranger. I spent six summers during my college years at Custer Battlefield.

That superintendent was Edward S. Luce -- Captain Luce, although somehow he later promoted himself to major. He was a big, red faced black sheep of a Boston Brahmin family. He had served two hitches in the Seventh Cavalry in the first years of the century and had been a captain in World War I. He wore the Seventh's regimen­tal crest on his watch chain, and he ran the battlefield like he had once run Troop B of the Seventh as its first sergeant.

Most Americans were proud militarists in those years after World War II. The Seventh Cavalry had fought splendidly in the war-first into Manila, first into Tokyo. The Seventh and the "boy general" who first led it dominated the story we told at the battlefield.

At the end of that first summer, a friend I had made -- one of that innumerable fraternity obsessed by the Little Bighorn -- invited me to visit him at his home in Lead, South Dakota. R. G. Cartwright, "Cartie," was athletic coach at the Lead High School, and he devoted much of his spare time and energy trying to unravel the mysteries of the Little Bighorn.

Cartie took me to visit Charlie Windolph. We sat on his front porch as the old man reminisced about his immigration from Germany and his years as a trooper in the Seventh Cavalry; about his troop commander, Captain Benteen; and about those bloody two days on Reno Hill when the Sioux and Cheyenne, having wiped out Custer, almost overran the rest of the regiment. On June 26, 1876, Benteen gave Charlie Windolph a battlefield promotion to sergeant. And here I was, seventy years later, actually talking with a veteran of the Little Bighorn.

Charlie Windolph died three years later, almost a hundred years old, the last army survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That summer following his death I rode a bus down to Lead and returned with three carefully guarded treasures -- Charlie's discharge certificate, signed by Captain Benteen, the Medal of Honor awarded Charlie for heroism at the Little Bighorn, and the Purple Heart later pre­sented for wounds.

I was there with my badge and Stetson when thousands gathered for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle in 1951. It was a grand military celebration -- with each of the services represented by brass. Three-star General Albert C. Wedemeyer stood for the army, and five-star Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, Franklin Roosevelt's chief of staff during the war, gave conspicuous presence to the navy. Always a worshiper of military rank, Luce got so excited that he drove the government car with the emergency brake on and set it on fire.

With two officers there that day I remained friends for years. One was Colonel Brice C. W. Custer, the general's grandnephew and a highly decorated combat veteran of the war. The other was Colonel William A. "Wild Bill" Harris, just home from Korea, where he had commanded the Seventh Cavalry in the breakout from the Pusan perimeter.

Brice Custer was the finest-looking soldier I have ever known. He had recently come home from occupation duty in Japan, where, ironically, he had served as lieutenant colonel of the Seventh Cavalry, the position his great uncle had held for ten years. Brice commanded the army reserves in Billings. When Hollywood came to town to make the movie Warpath, Brice donned a corporal's uniform and rode behind the film's Custer bearing his personal banner.

In later years I occasionally dropped in on Billy Harris, who had retired a major general and settled in San Antonio. He told me stories of Korea. When he took over the Seventh Cavalry during the Pusan breakout, it was low in combat effectiveness and morale was shot. These kids, he said, had been told they were fighting to make the world free from communism, and they could not relate to that. He told them what they were really fighting for was the honor and traditions of Custer's Seventh Cavalry, and they could relate to that.

Billy borrowed a technique from Custer and made himself visible. He sported a walking stick. The bumper of his jeep bore a big ply­wood cutout of the Garry Owen regimental crest of the Seventh. And somewhere his sergeant major had found a McClellan cavalry saddle to drape over the jeep's hood. Under Billy, the Seventh drove north and, adding to World War II firsts, was the first unit to enter Seoul.

I was there in 1950 when Brice Custer turned the first spade of earth for the Custer Battlefield Museum. And I was there two years later, on the very eve of my own induction into the army, when "Major" Luce stood proudly with General Jonathan Wainwright, hero of Corregidor, to dedicate the museum. Wainwright presented the battlefield with a Winchester rifle, an artifact of the Little Bighorn, It had come to him from his father, who was adjutant of the First Cavalry at Fort Custer during the Sword Bearer outbreak at Crow Agency in 1889. The rifle had been used by a Sioux at the Little Bighorn, picked up by a Crow, and then passed to Wainwright's father in the Sword Bearer affair.

Wainwright also presented Luce with a bottle of Scotch, The "Wainwright Bottle" became one of Luce's most prized possessions, hidden on a top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. When I dropped in for a visit a year later, en route to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Luce allowed me a drink from the Wainwright Bottle. No greater honor could have been conferred.

And why am I telling all these old stories about the military? The answer: as in all generations through history, we were products of our time and place. The story we told at the battlefield – I on the hill where Custer fell, our official publications, the museum we finally got in 1952 -- conformed to what Edward Linenthal, in his book Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields, calls "patriotic orthodoxy.” This is the long-held and unquestioned conviction about the United States and what it stands for.

In those years of my youth, I did not know what patriotic orthodoxy was, but we assuredly practiced it at the battlefield. The story we told was of brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country and the opening of the West. The Indians were card­board cutouts, impersonal foils for celebrating the heroism of Custer and his troopers. Indians participated in the entire anniversary and other events at the battlefield, but no one ever asked them how they felt about the speeches, and the version of history we were purveying, and none of them ever volunteered.

During my years, therefore, the battlefield as symbol and shrine as well as historic site incontestably belonged to the "orthodox patriots" of Ed Linenthal's book. During the 1960s the National Park Service reshaped the interpretive presentations at the battle­field to give more emphasis to Indians and the Indian side of the story, but not enough to stand against the onslaught that began at the end of the decade.

In 1968 Vine Deloria published Custer Died for Your Sins. In 1971 Dee Brown published Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. A year later Dustin Hoffman starred in Little Big Man, which portrayed the fron­tier army as bloodthirsty butchers, and Custer at the Little Bighorn as a raving maniac. In 1973 Sioux fought the FBI at Wounded Knee. The American Indian Movement stoked a red-power movement to rival the black-power movement. Little Big Man and similar movies were really more about Vietnam than about the Indian Wars. What we were doing in Vietnam, they said, was just what we had done to the Indians.

The red-power movement drew strength from the war protests, the social upheavals of the 1960s, and the general cynicism of the time. I recall when Indians seized and trashed the headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. I was then an assistant director of the National Park Service, with offices across the street in the Interior Department. SWAT teams glared up in the hall out­side my door. Among the police units swarming around the BIA building was the horse-mounted U.S. Park Police, an arm of the National Park Service. One morning the office wit came in and declared: "There's a switch for you, the Indians inside the fort and the cavalry galloping around outside."

Thus did Custer Battlefield become an ideological battleground. Whose shrine was it? Or whose should it be? Custer had been chosen as the personification of all the wrongs whites had inflicted on Indians, and what better place to dramatize wrongs and demand rights than the battlefield where he died? Indians insisted that their story be told at the battlefield and that their people have a memorial there. The National Park Service promised both.

The orthodox patriots were not about to allow the perversion of their shrine without a fight, although now I change Linenthal's terminology from orthodox patriots to Custer Loyalists. Just as many orthodox patriots turned against the Vietnam War, so many of them threw their sympathies to the red-power movement.

There were and are thousands of Custer Loyalists and they express themselves stridently and politically. The story the Indians wanted told was not only bad history they felt (correctly), but also it dishonored gallant American soldiers whose bones lay beneath the monument atop Custer Hill. As Linenthal has pointed out, for Indians and Custer Loyalists alike, the Custer Battlefield became “sacred ground" -- a shrine at which to pay homage to, or even worship, abstractions that were poles apart.

The National Park Service got caught between these two armies. It could satisfy neither side without prostituting history. As chief historian and later assistant director, I also got caught between the two sides.

At the centennial ceremony in 1976, I was the principal speaker. Russell Means had threatened to disrupt the ceremony and trash the museum. The Park Service took him seriously enough to move Custer's uniforms back to the Harpers Ferry Museum center and to cover the grounds with a ranger SWAT team assembled from various parks.

The army band had just struck up "Garry Owen" when Means and 250 Indians, drums thumping and dragging an American flag upside down on the pavement, marched into view. A truce was negotiated. Means delivered a diatribe at the podium, after which he withdrew to the monument while the program ran its course, with the audience surrounded by tough-looking Indians in red berets.

The Custer Loyalists were there that day too -- livid over the con­duct of the Park Service. They were outraged by the surrender to Means. Some even urged that rangers save the flag from defilement at gunpoint if necessary. They were furious that the Park Service had denied a seat on the podium to army colonel George Armstrong Custer III, my friend as had been his father Brice Custer.

Colonel George Custer sat in the audience, holding a floral wreath he wanted to place at the monument in memory of the five mem­bers of the Custer family who had died at the Little Bighorn. That would have provided precisely the context for a Means media event, and the Park Service said no. Late in the day, after the Indians had left, I went out, linked arms with George III and Larry Frost, and we marched up to the monument and placed the wreath.

An avalanche of protest mail from the loyalists hit the Congress, the President, the Secretary of the Interior, and the National Park Service. All of it wound up in my office for answer. I signed none of the answers, of course. That duty lay with my superiors.

The issue of changing the name from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield was agitated in and out of the Park Service both before and after I took early retirement in 1980. Proponents of change argued that battlefields are not usually named for a person, much less the defeated leader, and still less for one whose name carries such negative connotations for much of our population today, both Indians and Whites.

On the other hand, the Custer name, like the landscape and the monumentation, is genuinely historic. It has been part of the battlefield ever since it was set aside as a public property. To change it is to tamper with history itself, to override the action of an earlier generation.

My own experience shows that tampering with nomenclature is invariably a futile enterprise. It always makes trouble, because someone always has a deep interest in keeping the old name. After waffling for twenty years, however, I unhappily came out for the name change. My reasoning was that Indians genuinely detest Custer's name, in the same way that blacks detest the Confederate flag. However historically invalid the Indians' feelings -- and they are -- a name change seemed little enough concession to their feelings.

I took a lot of flack for that from the Custer Loyalists, who battled fiercely but vainly against a measure so politically correct that no member of Congress could oppose it. And so, the Custer Battlefield National Monument of my youth is now the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The national cemetery at the park, however, continues to bear Custer's name.

The same legislation that changed the name, signed into law in November 1991, also authorized a memorial to the Indian dead to complement the memorial to the Seventh Cavalry dead. The National Park Service had promised such a memorial as early as the 1970s but did nothing serious until 1989.

I was the token non-Indian on the committee assembled by the Park Service to recommend ways for making good the promise. Russell Means was there too, but I do not think he remembered me as his competitor for the speaker's platform at the 1976 centennial.

The principles set forth in the committee's report represent my thinking because I drafted the report and the others signed on. For me, the issue is not, as some of the loyalists contend, that an Indian memorial would dilute the heroic image of Custer on the hilltop. General Lee's statue does not dilute the achievement of General Meade in holding the line at Gettysburg.

Rather the issue is one of harmonious integration. What one sees now at the battlefield is a historic composition consisting of terrain rendered historic by momentous events and monumentation rendered historic by age, tradition, and the sentiment that prompted its creation. The essential premise of the report, therefore, was that the integrity of this composition must not be harmed, either by misguided attempts to obliterate or alter, or by insensitive insertion of competing monumentation.

Thus an Indian memorial must be a statement in its own right, commanding equality with the existing monument, yet not destructive of the existing ambience. Whether the winning design will satisfy those criteria I do not know for certain. I do know that I gained much assurance from a presentation of the concept by Park Service officials in 1997. My uncertainties and worries have turned to optimism.

But I know too that there is a very vocal opposition to both the design and the site bombarding the President and members of Congress. I know too that the process by which the design was chosen is not what I envisioned in 1989. With the wrenching controversy over the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., fresh in mind, I hoped for a panel of judges composed of artists and preservationists of incontestable national reputation. I expected the commission appointed by the Secretary of the Interior to organize and oversee the design competition and assemble such a panel of judges. For this it was entirely competent. As it turned out, the commission itself, rather than a panel of distinguished professionals, selected the winning entry. Product or not of a flawed process, this winning entry, when finally in place on its chosen hilltop, may well turn out to be a powerful statement in its own right that does not compro­mise the integrity of the existing ensemble of monument, markers, and historic landscape.

In another way, though, it seems a key criterion will not be hon­ored. The Park Service is conducting a campaign to raise private money to pay for the memorial. Our 1989 report was explicit that funding should be public. The United States erected and paid for the monument and markers honoring the soldiers. The United States can do no less for the Indians without demeaning the high purpose of the legislation authorizing the memorial. The fund-raiser should be scrapped and the Congress urged to appropriate public funds­ -- less than $2 million. I am angry that Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell stirred such a movement for the memorial and name change ten years ago but now takes no interest whatever in the matter; he will not even answer his mail or visit the battlefield when he is in the vicinity.

Finally, I know that many people will not approve either the memorial or the site. The Indian memorial will become simply one more of the bitter controversies that have burdened this haunting landscape ever since the day Custer's blood stained its soil.

For the indefinite future, I believe, this place where historic site and shrine come together will continue to be a battleground for a struggle between two patriotisms. Neither side can win symbolic possession. The challenge for the National Park Service is to offer the public a balanced interpretation of the Battle of the Little Big­horn, set within a context of the battle for symbolic possession. After all, this second battle is part of the history of the battlefield and part of the larger history of our times.

Published by permission of the author, all rights reserved.


Robert Utley presenting, "Reflections" at the June 26, 2001 Friends of the Little Bighorn first symposium, "Reflections on the Little Bighorn"


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