Witness Custer’s Last Stand on PBS, January 17, 2012
Was George Armstrong Custer an unlucky loser or a tragic hero flawed by ambition? On Tuesday, January 17, 2012, American Experience will premier Custer’s Last Stand, a revealing portrait of the man described as “desperate for fame…reckless for glory” (“fool for love” could be added to that litany). The documentary is also available on DVD.
Custer’s unfortunate legacy is the result of his miserable demise (with all of his men) at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Although not forgotten, his Civil War heroics, particularly at Gettysburg, are not a huge part of what has become the legend of Custer, which may be mythical at best. Custer is notorious because his desire to be remembered throughout history and to succeed in his chosen career made him a savage exterminator of a particular race of people, Native Americans.
With an emphasis on Custer’s career, personality, and various strategies, Custer’s Last Stand sheds light on a romantic side of Custer that is not so often discussed. Deeply in love with his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, this confident warrior could be insecure, especially when they were separated by vast distances. It was not beneath him to engage in flirtations or to write letters to his beloved Libby that included the names of women with whom he had been socializing. Libby, in turn, knew how to bring him to his knees, and at times she would take a break from their faithful correspondence which brought him to his knees.
And…what about Little Bighorn? Was Custer’s ambition the cause of an impetuous, ill-planned and poorly-considered battle, or was Custer a patsy, maneuvered by other officers into a position in which he would suffer the disgrace if their plan failed, but they would claim the glory if it succeeded?
Custer’s Last Stand continues “a month-long salute to the West that also includes…encore broadcasts of Wyatt Earp, Geronimo, Annie Oakley and Jesse James.” It is a fascinating study of myth vs. truth, legend vs. reality, as it reveals facets of George Armstrong Custer that are not as widely known as his final debacle.