Mean Mr. Custer

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Martin Fritz Huber on Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star

The Spring 2014 issue of The Paris Review includes an interview with the American writer Evan S. Connell, who died in early 2013. This posthumous nod may inspire renewed interest in Connell, whom contemporary readers will know primarily, if at all, for his fictional portraits of a mid-twentieth century Kansas City couple, Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969). As Mark Oppenheimer wrote in The Believer in February 2005, the Bridge novels are terse sketches of bourgeois repression, each rendered in a series of vignettes where, as Oppenheimer has it, nothing much really happens. Ironically, Connell’s most financially successful title, his ‘Surprise Best Seller,’[1] Son of the Morning Star (1984), was a non-fictional account of General George Armstrong Custer in which a whole lot happens and whose swashbuckling protagonist is about as unrepressed as a latter-day Caligua. In the wake of Connell’s death, Son of the Morning Star hasn’t yet had the revival it deserves, though given the enduring Custer myth, this may only be a matter of time.

Evan S. Connell started out writing fiction. Once he began reading Custer biographies and first-hand accounts from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he saw that historians would often leave out entertaining, if tangential, aspects of the story, as if to include the peripheral eccentricities of characters would be to undermine a book’s academic value. This, Connell felt, made for painfully banal reading. In his words, “a lot of historians, if they find something funny, don’t put it in. They think it all has to be serious, and their books are so deadly dull.”[2] Atoning for the mistakes of its predecessors, Son of the Morning Star abounds with bizarre marginalia that a more “serious” historian might omit, much of it imparted in the deadpan style typical of Connell’s novels. Take, for instance, the following detail regarding the frenzied alcoholic binges of Captain Frederick Benteen, who commanded a battalion of the 7th Calvary under Custer at the time of the Little Bighorn:

The cause of these drinking bouts seems to be related to his wife, Catherine, who was not very strong and who did not belong on a frontier. He called her Kate or Kittie, logical diminutives. He also called her Pinkie and Goose, names that might be simply affectionate or could have originated during some private moment. However, he very often referred to her as Frabbie, Frabbel, Frabbelina, and at least once as Frabbelina of Gay Street—which is, to say the least, uncommon. (33)

Connell has a knack for picking up on this sort of information.

Yet he doesn’t marshal it into a typical, chronological biography. Nor does Son of the Morning Star attempt to impose any clear narrative structure on the events surrounding the cataclysmic Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, which would turn old “Iron Butt” (one of several Custer aliases Connell favors) into a “national totem.”[3] There are no numbered chapters, only untitled sections demarcated by the image of Custer’s personal guidon: a swallow-tailed flag bearing crossed white sabers. The tone is conversational. A tangent about, say, the time in the spring of 1864 when Custer sent his mustache to his wife Elizabeth in the mail, will suddenly be cut off by an abrupt “Anyway,” or “In any event,” as if the author has caught himself rambling. It is as though, faced with the glut of information from historical societies, military records, personal correspondence, and oral testimony from both Native American and U.S. Army sources, Connell decided the best approach would be to present a constellation of tenuously linked anecdotes. One could be forgiven for assuming that such an approach would result in a spectacularly tedious book, but in fact it accounts for a larger part of its charm.

Add to that Connell’s tendency to editorialize. On Benteen, again:

In not a single photograph does he look formidable, not even very military. He appears placid, gentle, benevolent, with feminine lips and prematurely white hair. Only after contemplating that orotund face for a while does one begin to perceive something rather less accommodating. Embedded in that fleshy face are the expressionless agate eyes of a killer. (30)

It’s like something out of Zane Grey. After reading this passage, I spent twenty minutes googling photos of Benteen, searching for a lurking menace. In his later years his gentle visage bears a mild resemblance to that of Ian Holm, aka Bilbo Baggins—though film geeks will recall that Holm once did a turn as Jack the Ripper in From Hell.

While we’re on the subject of hell, it is hard to read Son of the Morning Star without thinking of Blood Meridian (1985), published the following year. Cormac McCarthy corroborates Connell’s warning that life on the 19th century American frontier wasn’t for softies, though the two authors’ styles couldn’t be more distinct. Unlike in McCarthy’s lurid phantasmagoria, where the gory details are invariably described with lyrical panache—thick ropes of dark blood rising like snakes from the stump of some poor guy’s neck, etc.—Connell’s nonfiction renders the violence in language so subdued that the effect is often humorous:

Black Elk himself scalped a soldier who was still alive. It was hard work because the soldier’s hair was short and the knife was dull. The soldier ground his teeth and made such a fuss that Black Elk had to shoot him in the head. (13)

Quite. As anyone familiar with the Bridge novels will know, Connell is the master of comedic understatement. One might argue that such whimsy is out of place in an account of the Great Sioux War, where hundreds of lives were lost on both sides, but Connell’s particular brand of humor, by turns macabre and frequently relishing the absurd, feels appropriately calibrated.

Which isn’t to say that this is a particularly “funny” book. Some of the stuff here could give even the grimmest McCarthy fiction a run for its money: an infant is smashed against a tree; heads are clubbed into mush; genitals are sliced out; the sound of a scalp being ripped from a skull is likened to the popping of blisters. But after having read Blood Meridian —in which everything has to portend an underlying metaphysical struggle and the landscape is so unrelentingly austere that it makes you wonder how there can be so many yoga retreats in Arizona— perhaps one too many times, the almost blasé tone in which Connell recounts certain atrocities is a welcome change of pace.

About halfway through Son of the Morning Star we get the story of Mr. William Thompson, who in 1867 was ambushed by a party of Cheyenne in central Nebraska, scalped, and left for dead. Thompson survived the attack and managed to escape by night, even recovering his severed pate, which his assailant had callously tossed into the dirt. Finding his way back to the railroad station at the Willow Island depot, Thompson eventually boarded a train to Omaha with a his scalp riding along in a bucket of water. During this trip, Connell notes, “Thompson was quite weak, which is not surprising, what with a bullet hole through one arm, a knife would in the neck, and the top of his head gone” (167). When he finally arrived in Omaha, Thompson was greeted by a reporter from the New York Herald, who would describe the survivor’s buoyant piece of scalp as “’somewhat resembling a drowned rat, as it floated, curled up, on the water’” (167).

Thompson’s tale is just one of many incidents that Connell seems to have included for no other reason than that it’s an amusing story, and it’s slightly ridiculous that it can be told as an anecdotal aside. For sheer outrageous flamboyance however, no one in Connell’s book is a more fascinating subject than the Son of the Morning Star himself.

Paraphrasing the words of a Captain William Ludlow, who had known George Armstrong Custer from the time they where both West Point cadets, Connell writes that the latter “was apt to exaggerate … not from a wish to misrepresent, but because he saw things larger than they were” (351). In some ways, inflated perception has also been the story of Custer’s legacy, whether in the decades after his death when he was mourned as a national hero (Teddy Roosevelt, unsurprisingly, was an admirer), or in more recent times when Custer’s name has become synonymous with notions of Manifest Destiny and the eradication of Native Americans.  In Connell’s narrative, Custer comes off as freakishly energetic (during a Yellowstone expedition in 1873 he would stay up nights to refine his skills as an amateur taxidermist, while the rest of his regiment lay exhausted), and engaging in acts of derring-do that might alternatively be viewed as remarkably courageous or remarkably stupid. In this, he was certainly consistent.

His battlefield modus operandi seems to have already solidified during the Civil War when, fighting for the Union Army, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general at the absurdly young age of twenty-three. As Connell writes,

He rode in front—always—and at Gettysburg a high percentage of the luckless wretches who followed him were killed or wounded. Another time he led four hundred volunteers on a saber charge against an entire Confederate division and lost eighty-six men: it was theatrical, audacious, and it stopped the rebel advance, which was the intent, but military analysts believe that cautious defensive maneuvering would have accomplished the same thing at less cost. (113)

Custer himself almost always came away unhurt, right up until that day in June, 1876, when he would lead a couple hundred soldiers to attack an Indian encampment on the Little Bighorn River that several scouts reported was the largest they had ever seen. According to one account, Custer’s corpse wasn’t scalped after the battle because those who killed him thought it was bad medicine to take hair from someone who was clearly insane.  

That may also have been the opinion of several of Custer’s own men. The Seventh Calvary had a pretty serious desertion problem, with 52% saying adios in 1867 according to a report sent from the Adjutant General to the Fortieth Congress. While enlisted men have many reasons to be fickle – the maggot-infested cuisine probably didn’t help – one wonders how many soldiers were disturbed by the impetuous nature of the man who was most responsible for their survival. Once, in 1874, travelling through the Black Hills, Custer became so annoyed with Bloody Knife, his “favorite” Indian scout, that he drew his revolver and started shooting at him. Another time, when Custer’s brother Tom, who also served in the Seventh and would lose his life at the Little Bighorn, overslept, the general set fire to the grass outside his tent.

Acts such as these might be difficult to reconcile with the more innocent, not to say childish, aspects of Custer’s personality. He was an animal lover (especially dogs) and would travel in the most hostile country with a vast menagerie in tow. He collected swords. He was an irrepressible fop; in Son of the Morning Star we are repeatedly referred to his strawberry curls flowing in the wind. An unabashed self-mythologizer, Custer always insisted on musical accompaniment for his adventures, the Irish quickstep “Garry Owen,” becoming the marching tune of the Seventh Calvary. Custer always wanted a “sixteen-piece band mounted on white horses” to accompany his men onto the battlefield. Though this request wasn’t granted in the case of the Little Bighorn Battle (good thing for the musicians), it is clear that he saw no frontier as too harsh an environment for a group of able instrumentalists (“A recruit named Jacob Horner said that while traveling through rugged territory Custer ordered the musicians to dismount, clamber up a rocky hillside, and perform.” (103) The ludicrousness of it all could make Iron Butt come off as a sympathetic figure—at times he sounds like a real life Warner Bros. cartoon—until one remembers that his story is marked by countless deaths. He may have loved animals, but he also loved killing them.

Evan Connell’s obvious fascination with Custer, that hotspur who “stands forever on that dusty Montana slope” (106), is offset by the malevolence of the U.S. government’s attitude towards Native Americans. Connell quotes a telegram cited in Custer’s book, My Life on the Plains (1874), in which Ulysses S. Grant writes of the need to exterminate every Sioux man, woman and child. Connell points out that if just one word is altered it reads like a message from Eichmann to Hitler (132).

When, days after the fight, the Seventh Calvary dead were retrieved from the Little Bighorn battlefield many had been subjected to posthumous desecration, to which Connell offers the following:

The mutilation of Custer’s troops may be explained partly by the grief and bewilderment these Indians felt. They could not understand why soldiers pursued them when all they ever wanted was to be left alone so that they might live as they had lived for centuries: hunting, fishing, trailing the munificent buffalo. They failed to see why they should live in one place all year, why they should become farmers when they had been hunters. They thought the earth was created for everybody, that that it could not be appropriated by individuals or groups, and to destroy vegetation by plowing was to contradict the obvious plan of a supreme deity. (286)

There can be no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie, either here, or in Connell’s graphic account of John Milton Chivington’s Colorado Calvary attacking a peaceful Cheyenne village; women and children were butchered by U.S. troops in what would become known as the Sand Creek Massacre. Chief Black Kettle escaped, only to be killed four years later, when Custer’s Seventh attacked his winter camp in 1868. The Battle of the Washita was Custer’s only significant “victory” in the Indian wars, and Connell draws attention to the facts: of the 103 hostiles killed in the attack, 92 were squaws, children and old men (187).

This elegiac note runs through Connell’s book (within ten years the tribal leaders responsible for vanquishing Custer’s force at the Little Bighorn—including Sitting Bull, Gall, Crazy Horse, and Rain in the Face—were either dead or had surrendered), however, in its treatment of Native Americans, Son of the Morning Star does well not to idealize the way of life of a vanishing people. Connell doesn’t obscure the reality that Lakota warriors could be just as violent and avaricious as their Anglo oppressors. He includes testimony of Indians killing the buffalo for sport and leaving their corpses to rot, which challenges the stereotype of the sagacious, economizing native. Of course, when it came to the holocaust of the American bison, the palefaces were undisputed masters, their feverish hunting practices causing the buffalo population to decrease from tens of millions in 1800 to less than one thousand animals at the close of the century. When reported by Evan Connell, such blatant mismanagement becomes indicative of a more deep-seated stupidity.  

It is said that at the beginning of the twentieth century one buffalo wandered across the prairie not far from a small town in Wyoming. The townspeople hitched up their wagons and rode out to have a look. They drove around the creature and stopped, the wagons forming a circle with the buffalo inside. For a long time they stared at this legendary animal. Then, because they could not imagine what else to do, somebody shot it. (136)

Fritz Huber is an editor currently living in Santa Fe, NM, where he works for Outside Magazine


[2] ibid

[3] Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star (New York: North Point Press, 1984)