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Why We’ve Gotten ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ Wrong for Nearly 150 Years

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Sometimes to get remembered in history, you need a great publicist.

This weekend marks the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn—also known as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’—a chapter in U.S. history that some historians are arguing needs a rewrite. The story American students are generally taught is that “in one of the most decisive battles in American history,” Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 men from five companies of the Seventh infantry cavalry heroically died on June 25, 1876, in a sneak attack by Native Americans in what’s now Montana. It was part of the broader crackdown by the U.S. government on Native Americans, who were seen as threatening innocent white settlers.

So how did a defeat become viewed as one of the greatest noble tragedies in American history? A persistent lobbying campaign by Custer’s widow, for one, and because the story of Custer as a martyr fit neatly in the larger story that Americans wanted to tell about the nation’s push westward after the Civil War, historians say. Only in recent years have we begun to learn more about the perspective of Little Bighorn from its Native American victors, whose roots at that site go back decades before the settlers arrived—and started to rethink the legacy of the man who led the charge.

“When we think of Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of Little Bighorn… we should think of it as a successful defense by Native people against an attempted act of genocide,” says Lindsay Stallones Marshall, assistant professor of history at Illinois State University, who got her start teaching about Custer as an AP U.S. History teacher.

Marshall is writing a book on how distorted narratives about the “Indian wars” after the Civil War made their way into schools. The answer reveals a potent mix of the powerful who engage in history making: soldiers burnishing their own reputations, loved ones honoring family members, lawmakers lobbying for federal dollars, and textbook writers mythologizing American Manifest Destiny.

“Textbooks are a specific kind of document designed for a specific purpose, and it’s not simply to tell students what happened in the past, but to give them a particular view, particularly of the American past,” says Marshall.

Some of the early narratives about Custer came from the man himself; because of his celebrity as a Civil War hero, Custer ghost-wrote newspaper dispatches in which he pretended to be a correspondent and inflated his own role in battles and military exploits. (A couple of newspapers published these posthumously, acknowledging Custer as the author.)

But Marshall says a bigger reason ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ is so well known is because of the military officer’s widow, Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon Custer, who worked to burnish her husband’s legacy. She published the 1876 bestseller A Popular Life of General Custer with Frederick Whittaker and a memoir Boots and Saddles in 1885, both of which glorified Custer’s exploits in battle. She also came out with a pamphlet defending her husband after one of the men who commanded a separate operation, Frederick Benteen, claimed that Custer recklessly endangered his troops. Over the next few decades, she wrote, and encouraged journalists to write, newspaper articles about her husband and organized commemorations of the battle and statues of him.

George Custer and his Family
Portrait of General George A. Custer with his brother, Tom, and wife, Libbie.Corbis/Getty Images

Part of the reason Libbie’s efforts were so successful is that no one from Custer’s five companies survived the battle, and Mark Kellogg, a journalist from the Bismarck Tribune who had been covering Custer that summer, was also killed in the fight. This left a lot of gaps to fill in over the years—and opportunities to reframe the defeat. Many Custer experts don’t even know where the phrase “Custer’s Last Stand” comes from. But what they do know is that Libbie’s campaigning helped galvanize a cottage industry of amateur historians going out to the battlefield site looking for artifacts and trying to understand what exactly happened in the battle.

During that time, several Indian wars veterans associations were also schmoozing members of Congress and valorizing Custer for introducing “civilization” to the West as a way to try to increase the size of military pensions and expand eligibility. They were pushing for the government to offer pensions to everyone who fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn and all Indian wars beyond enlisted soldiers, as well as expand access to soldiers’ homes and healthcare for those who had been wounded. In 1917, in part thanks to these lobbying efforts, Congress approved a new system of compensation for military veterans that included more people who served in the post-Civil War Indian wars.

Marshall’s research found that accounts praising Custer seeped into textbooks, which perpetuated Custer’s heroic reputation for generations to come. One 1880 textbook said that while Custer lost the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Native Americans were “soon beaten on every hand.” By the 1920s, most textbook narratives sounded like a 1919 textbook Our United States, which described Native American resistance as a “hopeless struggle…against the tide of civilization.” Over the last century, Marshall found that textbooks tend to depict Native Americans as “inconvenient” to the “triumphal story of American expansion.” Native Americans are described as “an obstacle to progress,” as Marshall puts it. “Assimilation into American society,” according to Marshall’s reading, is the only beneficial outcome of any encounter between the United States or settlers and indigenous peoples—and Custer’s story is instrumental in pushing that narrative.

Little Big Horn battlefield, 2019.Dukas/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In the 1920s, the author of a textbook for the dominant textbook publisher at the time, American Book Company, was going to leave out ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ because it didn’t change the course of western expansion, but Marshall found a revealing handwritten note in the publisher’s archives that said, “We shall have to make room for Custer.” The story of Custer was so inspiring that booksellers in the Northern Plain states told the American Book Company that they wouldn’t be able to sell a textbook that didn’t mention “Custer’s Last Stand.”

American students today still learn some of these same lessons. “I did a bunch of forensic tracing and found phrases and specific details lifted straight out of books going all the way back to the 19th century,” Marshall says. “That’s how this framing remains preserved.”

Students still tend to learn about Custer dying bravely during battle, for example, but not about the bravery of the Native Americans who defended themselves against settlers of European descent who were there illegally. What doesn’t fit neatly into the Custer story of the popular imagination is the 1868 Treaty of Laramie, which had given the area where the battle took place to Lakota. However, once gold was discovered in the Black Hills area where the battle occurred, settlers and miners flocked to the area. “These settlers were there against U.S. treaty law and native people were rightfully defending themselves,” says Marshall. Nor do American students often learn about the Battle of the Washita, which took place eight years before Little Bighorn and in which Custer led an attack on a village of mostly Southern Cheyenne people and rounded up women and children as prisoners.

Still, “Custermania” grew during the golden age of Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century. A 1936 movie Custer’s Last Stand showed the phrase had taken hold and may have helped popularize this framing. Films like the 1941 They Died With Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn as Custer and Olivia de Havilland as his Libbie Custer, came out in time for the U.S. entering World War II, bolstering patriotic feeling and support for the troops. One of the most reproduced lithographs of all time is an Anheuser-Busch ad depicting “Custer’s Last Fight,” showing Custer waving a saber and Native Americans pointing their weapons at him; it hung in bars in the 19th and 20th centuries.

‘Most students never got that part of the history’

In the last three decades, the Native Americans’ side of the Battle of Little Bighorn—which they refer to as “Battle of the Greasy Grass”—has become better known, further complicating Custer’s legacy.

Lakota historian Donovin Sprague cites the renaming of Custer Battlefield to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991, as “a beginning” for Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho nations to incorporate more of the Native American perspective in displays at the monument and around the battle site. (TIME declared, “The Winners Get Their Due” in the Dec. 9, 1991, issue, when Congress approved a bill renaming the site.)

“People are just beginning to see that it isn’t just this black-and-white, cowboys versus Indians theme, and that’s the way that it’s been portrayed in popular culture and Westerns,” says Mandy Van Heuvelen, a South Dakota native and enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who is a project manager at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. Traditionally, the Native American side of the Battle of Little Bighorn has been passed down through families; she learned from her grandfather that his grandmother witnessed the battle. “Maybe we shouldn’t hold [Custer] on as high of a pedestal as we have,” she says. “It’s important to understand the history from multiple points of view.”

Read More: Without Indigenous History, There Is No U.S. History

That perspective is slowly coming to the classroom, too. Donovin Sprague, a descendent of Crazy Horse, who led the Native Americans to victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn, now teaches the Native American side of this history at Sheridan College in Sheridan, Wy. “Most students never got that part of the history,” Sprague says. Every year, educator Jim Real Bird orchestrates a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana featuring about 150 participants. He says the goal of this year’s event is to feature Native Americans and focus on their often downplayed victory in the battle. “That’s why we do the show,” he says. “It heals people.”

Chief Crazy Horse
Chief Crazy Horse, circa 1870.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 murder and the conversation it sparked about the history of underrepresented voices in America, Native Americans and their supporters found a new opportunity to voice their concerns about the predominantly white men lionized in the nation’s monuments—Custer included. In Oct. 2020, the National Park Service announced plans to build a new visitors center on the site of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument to offer more educational programming on the tribes that fought in that battle. In 2021, in Monroe, Mich., where Custer and his wife grew up, residents called for the monument of Custer on horseback to be removed. At a June 15 Monroe City Council meeting via Zoom, the city clerk read out a letter from George “Chip” Armstrong Custer IV, one of Custer’s descendants, against the removal of the monument, arguing that Custer and fellow U.S. military officers were simply following orders: “Custer has become the poster boy for all wrongs committed against the American Indian during our roughly 250 years as a nation.” The next month, the City Council unanimously approved a plan to develop, with local schools and Native American groups, a plan to expand the site of the monument to include a more complete representation of Custer’s military career and Native American perspectives. (That project and the fight to remove the monument stalled in 2022.)

Marshall hopes illuminating how Custer became a heroic fixture in American memory will help Americans think more critically about their monuments, their reenactments, their oral histories, and their textbooks. “The stories we tell give us the reasons for acting the way that we do,” says Marshall. “So I think it’s really important to understand where our stories come from, so that we can correct them when they lead us astray.”

-With reporting by Arpita Aneja

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com