I recently finished reading Evan S. Connell’s history, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. It’s about the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. In this battle, the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army was annihilated by a coalition of indigenous peoples from the northern Great Plains. You might have heard of this battle as “Custer’s Last Stand.” But the individuals, nations, and cultural dynamics involved in this event go far beyond that title. This book unpacks it all with scrupulous attention to original source materials. And honestly, I was fascinated by everything I learned.
I guess you could say I’ve been on something of a “Wild West” kick. It started with reading Lonesome Dove last summer. Then I really enjoyed our family’s travels through Utah and Nevada over the summer… I’ve watched a few other television series and films set in the Western United States… My expanded imagination for the West also played a minor role in deciding to travel to New Mexico last month… And (while reading this book), I even decided to opt for “The Custer” when it came time to shave my beard for Presidents Day.
Anyway: back to the book! Son of the Morning Star is a thick one: 442 pages. And the level of detail can be either fascinating or frustrating (or maybe a little of both). I was pretty disoriented for the first quarter of the book, since it has very little preamble and jumps straight to the battlefield. However, as I kept reading I was able to piece things together. George Armstrong Custer is certainly a distinctive figure from this period of American history. He embodied many of the character qualities associated with this era.
Specifically, he had a flair for the flamboyant and romantic. He placed a high value on chivalry and gentility. And, of course, he made a name for himself as an “Indian fighter.” It sounds like he wasn’t particularly astute as a military officer. But as a public persona, capturing the hearts and minds of the American people, he had few peers in the Gilded Age. He wasn’t not exactly a villain, according to Connell. But he wasn’t a hero either.
Even though the book’s title is a reference to a name associated with Custer (a name bestowed upon him by the Native Americans), I especially appreciated the book’s attention to Sioux and Cheyenne leaders. Sitting Bull, Rain in the Face, and Crazy Horse stand out as particularly powerful figures. They were complicated in their own ways. Still, they emerge from this narrative as more sympathetic figures. Their courage, strength, and perseverance stand out as especially remarkable. Even though they won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, they ended up losing the war. The story of Sitting Bull’s death was especially tragic.
Back in 2018, our family got to visit the historic site where the Battle of Little Bighorn took place. And I definitely appreciated the place’s significance at the time. Still, I think I would appreciate it more now. The Battle of Little Bighorn was a resounding victory for the Native Americans, but it kind of ended up being the beginning of the end of the United States’ “Indian Wars.” The story of this battle spurred a new wave of military recruitment and public furor for the complete elimination of indigenous tribes within United States territory. So, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is a tragedy of American History, on many different levels. But I appreciate the way that Son of the Morning Star brought many different angles of this tragedy to light.