George Armstrong Custer is one of the most iconic figures in the history of the American West.
Colorful and controversial, he was brevetted a general at age 23, a Civil War hero, and dead on the plains of Montana at age 36. Most people know the story of his and the 7th Cavalry’s defeat at the Little Big Horn, but perhaps fewer people realize that Custer spent several years in Kansas.
From Nov. 1866 until 1871, while posted to Fort Riley, Kansas, Custer found some of his greatest success and failure as a commander.
Custer’s years in the state are the focus of author Jeff Barnes’ program, “Custer in Kansas: Breaking in the Boy General,” which he will present at the Manhattan Public Library on Wednesday, March 7, at 7 p.m.
Barnes is the author of the newly published “The Great Plains Guide to Custer.” In this historical travel guide, Barnes pinpointed 85 forts, battles and other sites west of the Mississippi associated with the legendary general. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Barnes writes and lives in Omaha. He is a Nebraska native, a journalism graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a frequently requested speaker with the Nebraska Humanities Council.
There is a wide range of titles and resources available to Custer history buffs. Websites of interest include www.garryowen.com, featuring Custer’s genealogy, a photo gallery, and a list of curious questions and topics. Jeff Barnes’ website, http://fortsofthenorthernplains.com/, includes links to historic sites associated with Custer.
Manhattan Public Library has dozens of titles about Custer’s life and the Little Bighorn battle, and hundreds of titles about the history of the American West. In “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn,” author Nathaniel Philbrick sketched the two larger-than-life antagonists: Sitting Bull, whose charisma and political savvy earned him the position of leader of the Plains Indians, and George Armstrong Custer, a man with a reputation for fearless and often reckless courage. Philbrick reminded readers that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was also, even in victory, the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations.
“A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn” by Jim Donovan explored the disastrous battle and the finger-pointing that was its aftermath. Custer, conveniently dead, took the brunt of the blame. The truth, however, was far more complex, and this book related the entire story, bringing to light details of the U.S. Army cover-up.
In “The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn,” Joseph Marshall revealed a picture of the battle previously available only in the Lakota oral tradition. He explored the significance of the battle to the Lakota, and considered the consequences it had for all Native Americans.
Louise Barnett investigated the life, death, and mythic afterlife of Custer in her book “Touched by Fire.” Barnett traced the complexities of Custer’s personality and attempted to understand how this famed military tactician waged an impossible attack at the Little Bighorn.
Evan S. Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star” is part study of Plains Indian life, part military history, and part character study. This author used meticulous research and a novelist’s eye to tell a story of heroism, foolishness, and savagery.
Elizabeth Bacon Custer remained a devoted widow for fifty-seven years after her husband’s death. She was an outspoken advocate for her husband’s legacy.
The myth of Custer, his place as an iconic figure in American history, is largely due to her efforts. Elizabeth Custer, or Libbie as she was known, wrote two books about the experiences and hardships she shared with the General. “Tenting on the Plains” concerns the Custers’ experiences immediately after the Civil War in Texas and Kansas. In “Boots and Saddles,” Libbie wrote about their final years on the plains at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory.
Finally George Armstrong Custer also wrote a book about his experiences, “My Life on the Plains: or, Personal Experiences with Indians.” In this collection of his magazine articles, Custer recounted his life in the years immediately following the Civil War and revealed his often ambiguous attitudes towards the Indians.
If you’re interested in George Armstrong Custer and Kansas, you won’t want to miss “Custer in Kansas: Breaking in the Boy General,” presented by Jeff Barnes at the Manhattan Public Library on Wednesday at 7 p.m.