Custer and the Press

MENTION George Armstrong Custer at any gathering of western scholars and you’ll likely find you’ve tugged at a painful scab on the collective American subconscious. Our feelings about Custer are deep and contradictory and mixed with guilt over our treatment of native tribes, and it’s difficult to reconcile Custer’s ultimate sacrifice with accounts that portray him as a fool or a madman. We like our hero stories to be tidy, and the Custer story is a mess.

It’s exactly this complexity that keeps us fascinated, and makes Custer a perennially viable topic for university and commercial publishers alike. From the gems (think Evan S. Connell and Nathaniel Philbrick) to the duds (Larry McMurtry), there are enough books to keep Custer buffs reading for a lifetime. The challenge is to find work that will offer some new understanding of one of the defining moments of the American psyche.In his new book, Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud, James E. Mueller does just this. He examines the role that journalists had in shaping the public perception of Custer in the immediate aftermath of the 1876 battle in which Custer and 267 under his command were killed in an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe near the Little Bighorn River in Montana.

Mueller, a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, at Denton, is a veteran reporter and the author of two previous books, both examining the relationship between the press and recent presidents. In Shooting Arrows, Mueller combs contemporary accounts in the days and weeks after the battle to present a mosaic that outlines that thinking of America while the news was still fresh and bloody in our minds.

The conversation turned on questions that resonate to this day, from our policy toward the Indians to who really was to blame for one the greatest military blunders of all time. Mueller is a careful and restrained writer, and Shooting Arrows can be slow going at times, but the journey is worth it. Consider his wealth of detail about Mark Kellogg, the only reporter to accompany the Seventh Cavalry to the Little Bighorn.

Kellogg was 43, a widower with two young daughters, trying to start a new career as a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune. “The reporter trotted after Custer,” Mueller writes, “riding on a mule carrying two saddlebags bulging with paper and pencil and enough bacon, sugar, and coffee to last fifteen days.”Mueller dispels the myth that journalists of the time were hacks and hucksters that capitalized on the sensational to sell newspapers—and who beat the drum for revenge against the Indians.

Instead, Mueller’s account shows that, despite their cultural biases, journalists provided credible accounts of the battle and wrote thoughtful editorials. In addition, at least one journalist made the ultimate sacrifice in reporting first-hand from the Indian campaigns, a story that was largely ignored until the shock of the Little Big Horn.

Mark Kellogg, the Bismarck Tribune reporter, died with Custer.

– Review by Max McCoy  for the Spring 2014 issue of The Great Plains Newsletter.

 

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