Custer's Lemonade Stand

The October 1996 Santa Fe Sun Column. My NOTE TO EDITOR reads: "postiche" as defined in Dictionary of Foreign Terms means: "[Fr.] pos-TEESH: superfluously added on; artificial, sham." STET!!!

by Hart Williams (& illustration also)(c) 1996

"having seen a fair piece of both states, I can state with some certainty that there are NO mountains in either."



The West (PBS)
Produced by Ken Burns, directed by Stephen Ives.

With Custer on the Little Bighorn, William O. Taylor, Viking, 207 pp., $27.95.

Since before Kit Carson (of Taos) diplomatically replied to "dime novel" regurgitations of his "fabulous" exploits (if he'd done any of them, he couldn't recall), facts about "The West" have been secondary in Eastern consciousness to hack imagination. Jimmy Stewart, in the film The Man From Laramie ends up taking the "trail" from Laramie to New Mexico (Santa Fe, seemingly) to scoop up salt (evidently from the Great Salt Lake, "just outside" of town).

Ken Burns -- whose "Civil War" series was a revolution in historical documentary -- has merely perpetuated the mythos here. Again and again and again Burns/Ives mislabel western locales: e.g. talking about Kansas and Nebraska emigrants, we seemingly see a shot of Pole Mountain in the background, facing west from Cheyenne to Laramie. I don't know about you, but having seen a fair piece of both states, I can state with some certainty that there are NO mountains in either.

Or consider this: Every time Brigham Young and the Utah Mormons are mentioned, the leitmotif that plays is "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," which dates from 1863 (long after the Mormon emigration), is about a Civil War POW, and "was picked up by Union troops, who used it as a marching song, and soon crossed the Confederate lines where, with a few changes in text, it was sung with equal vigor by marching soldiers of the South."

The connection with Mormons? The above citation comes from the liner notes to "Songs of the North and South/1861-1865" by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Richard P. Condie, director.

Modern "history" -- which the regular reader might note that this columnist has commented on at great length in these pages -- is much like an alcoholic. Until the endless rationalizations, distortions and outright "hidden" agendas can be cut through, "history" will never make it to an A.A. meeting. Or, perhaps, a good twelve step program for Messrs Burns and Ives might entail a walk on an eleven step pier.

As a Westerner, I am personally, professionally and familially insulted by The West, and those who have picked up a few of the volumes suggested in this column over the past couple of years should know precisely what I'm talking about. Bruce Hampton's Children of Grace -- The Nez Perce War of 1877 puts to shame "The West." The distortion here -- much as I will discuss below -- is that horrible emigrants and hateful U.S. Army troops destroyed the Nez Perce. 

Absolutely not. 

Congress gave Chief Joseph's clan the WRONG END of the Wallowa valley in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. The settlers AND the Army AND the Nez Perce didn't understand it. Congress decided (back East) and would not tolerate any interference from the three parties wronged. General O.O. Howard, the one-armed Civil War hero -- who founded the first "Negro College" (as in Fund), Howard University -- had his career destroyed by duty in the Nez Perce War -- which he personally hated!

Burns/Ives mentions NOTHING of this.

While their material is historically "accurate," what is omitted is damning.

The Santa Fe Trail and Santa Fe (a HUGE reason for the Mexican War of 1846) are all but ignored, which should, gentle readers, offend YOU.

Or consider George Armstrong Custer: Burns/Ives add NOTHING to perhaps THE most hackneyed tale of the American West. This section of The West is less a pastiche than a postiche, wherein "Custer's Last Stand" manages to become "Custer's Lemonade Stand."

Burns/Ives give the impression that, after detaching Reno's companies for an ill-fated attack on the HUGE Indian camp, Custer and his men were personally cut down by Sitting Bull, with some help, and the ENTIRE command was obliterated.

Which brings us to William O. Taylor's amazing WITH CUSTER ON THE LITTLE BIGHORN. Taylor, like Burns, hailed from New England. Taylor was with Reno on that fateful charge, and was assigned to the burial detail of Custer's command. Taylor wrote this masterful piece (even more amazing when one considers that Trooper Taylor was neither a professional writer, nor historian) in 1917, and died in 1923. His manuscript was never published, but was found by antiquarian Greg Martin in 1986, when Taylor's collection of artifacts (including two arrows pulled from one of Custer's dead command) came on the market.

Why this was not published sooner is the real mystery. Taylor is an insightful, careful writer, and where he has not been a first person witness, he consults official records, corresponds with Elizabeth Custer (the widow) or includes other first person accounts.

That campaign, like the Nez Perce War the following summer, was Vietnam in the West. Taylor -- like Howard, like many of the troopers -- felt that what they were doing was WRONG. They knew that the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the rest were being wrongfully deprived of life and property, and at the time of the Little Big Horn battle, most had never seen combat. Add to this Taylor's observation (confirmed by editor Martin) that the troops were carrying (and probably using) an abundance of alcohol, and the "mystery" of the defeat becomes much less mysterious.

Burns/Ives don't even note that Reno's command survived, after a thirty-six hour siege.

I wish that I could go into greater detail, but this length must suffice. Taylor's book (and his photographs -- supplemented by Martin) is a minor masterpiece.

Here: let me give you the simple salient fact that makes it all make sense. Congress, loathe to spend any extra money on the Army (but happy to send men to their dooms in brutal campaigns "masterminded" back East) would not appropriate ammunition funds for target practice. And so, the U.S. Army and Cavalry were sent to slaughter and be slaughtered without generally being able to hit the broad side of a barn. Sound like what comes out of the south end of a north bound horse? Well, so does PBS' embarrassing The West.


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