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Louise Barnett
Louise Barnett
Touched by Fire
ISBN: 080505359X
Touched by Fire
Ms. Barnett talked about her book, Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer, published by Henry Holt and Company. She talked about the military and private life of General Custer and examined issues of class, race and gender. She depicts a man who never adjusted to life after his success in leading volunteers in the Civil War and examines how the Battle of the Little Bighorn created him as both a mythic hero and villain.
Touched by Fire
Program Air Date: October 13, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Louise Barnett, author of "Touched by Fire," what's that title mean?
LOUISE BARNETT, AUTHOR, "TOUCHED BY FIRE": It comes from a speech that Oliver Wendell Holmes made about the Civil War, and it seemed to me very appropriate. He said, “To our great good fortune and our youth, our hearts were touched by fire. And we learned at an early age that life was a passionate and serious thing.” I haven't exactly quoted that, but the point is that people who were young during the Civil War were inspired and matured in a way that perhaps hasn't happened to every generation.
LAMB:But the subtitle on your book is “The Life, Death and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer.” Who was General Custer?
BARNETT: Well, Custer was part of that generation that was touched by the fire of the Civil War. He had a splendid, heroic career as a general in the Civil War. And then afterwards, the time when he becomes very interesting to me, at the age of 25, he was one of 135 unemployed major generals. He had to redirect his life. For the first few years, it wasn't easy. And then he found a new career on the frontier. So he's a fascinating study.
LAMB:What was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and where is that located?
BARNETT: The Little Bighorn is located in southeastern Montana in an area that was not yet part of the United States at the time that the battle was fought on June 25th, 1876. It was a territory that was occupied by various Indian tribes, not really settled at the time, in fact, not even accurately mapped, which was one of the problems that Custer encountered in fighting a battle there.
LAMB:What happened?
BARNETT: Good question. People have been arguing about that for the 120 years since the battle, because it's been very difficult for our nation to understand how this fighting force that was very famous, the 7th Cavalry, led by this distinguished ex Civil War general, at the present time a lieutenant colonel ...
LAMB:How old was he, by the way, then?
BARNETT: Only 36. He had been the Union's youngest general at the age of 23. In any case, no one could understand how he and all of the men with him five companies of cavalry had been wiped out by people that they regarded as primitive savages. At the time, people were no longer thinking about Indians as important enemies of the United States. They felt, and they were historically right, of course, that the struggle for possession of the continent had long been settled, and this was just a kind mopping up operation. No one had the slightest expectation that Custer and his force would be wiped out or defeated, for that matter.
LAMB:How many men did he have that were killed that day?
BARNETT: The total killed was 265, certainly a very small number when you think of Civil War battles. Just one of the points that I make in the book how astounding it is that this battle has lived on in our national consciousness when relatively few people were involved in it.
LAMB:What time of day did the battle occur?
BARNETT: Probably in the early afternoon. It's rather hard to get a definite fix on this, because the men had set their watches by Chicago time, which, of course, today would not be the time for southeastern Montana. And reports of what happened to Custer, of course, are speculative, because no one from his command survived, and the Indian opponents were not wearing watches.
LAMB:Did anybody ever talk to the Indians who survived?
BARNETT: Yes, they did. But you get a lot of difficulty of communication, because at that time, really in the infancy of anthropology, you didn't have people who both understood Indian culture and could understand Indian languages well enough to interpret on a complex level. You had a lot of people on the frontier who knew enough words for crude communication but not anyone who could simply go back and forth easily between those two radically different cultures. The consequence was that Americans tended to disregard what Indians said because they couldn't understand what they were talking about. Their communications didn't make sense, and so they were simply dismissed.
LAMB:Which tribe was it?
BARNETT: Mostly the Lakota Sioux and northern Cheyenne.
LAMB:Who were they?
BARNETT: They were plains Indians, warlike people, militaristic societies who fought fiercely and well. They were certainly noble opponents because they were well trained in their own style of battle from infancy. And the Sioux, in particular, were an expansionist people who had, in fact, wiped out and taken the land of smaller, weaker Indian tribes in their own desire for hegemony in the West. And ultimately they came up against the United States which, with its greater manpower resources, was able to ultimately defeat them.
LAMB:What do you find if you go back to that spot, the Little Bighorn, in Montana today? Is there anything there?
BARNETT: Yes, it's part of a national park system. Fairly recently, back in 1993, it had its name changed from the Custer Battlefield to the Little Bighorn Battlefield as a way of including the Indian participants who had been excluded from the idea of the battlefield up to that time. But you do find it's not a commercialized site in the way many places are, but it certainly gets the huge number of visitors, usually over a quarter of a million, every year.
LAMB:Where can you find a Custer memorial in this country? -- because I know you wrote about a bunch of them in here. Where are the prominent ones?
BARNETT: Certainly the equestrian statue of Custer in his hometown of Monroe, Michigan, would be one of the most prominent. He's buried at West Point, has a gravestone there. There is a forest named after him, a county, a high school, a city. There are many memorials of Custer that keep his name alive.
LAMB:When did you first get interested in him?
BARNETT: My first visit to the battlefield, I think, in 1990. It's simply a place, I think, that draws you in, because it's still very unspoiled in terms of the way that it was at the time that the battle took place. You get a sense of the a kind of desolation, this rugged terrain which the troopers had not been familiar with. It's simply a setting that has a certain amount of power.
LAMB:What does Little Bighorn stand for?
BARNETT: It's simply a very small river that runs through that area. And there are Bighorn mountains. There's a Bighorn River, and this is a smaller river, tributary river.
LAMB:Exactly what happened on that day in the afternoon?
BARNETT: OK. Custer, very early in the morning of that day, believed that the Indians who were gathered in that valley which he had not yet seen, but there were enough signs to indicate that they were there he believed that they had discovered the presence of his force and that they would probably melt away the way Indians usually did if he didn't attack immediately. His plan had been to attack on the following day. So he simply went into a kind of crisis mode, led his troops down into the valley, divided them into different commands. This is what is controversial about his strategy, the fact that he divided his small group small in relation to the enemy. But you have to keep in mind that he had no idea the size of the enemy at that time. This was the greatest gathering of Indians on the North American continent. No one, no intelligence of any sort, indicated that there would be that many Indians amassed at the Little Bighorn. So Custer's actions were reasonable given the fact that he had no idea of the size of the enemy that he was confronting. And in general, it was expected that even a small group of well trained cavalry would be able to hold its own and even defeat much larger numbers of Indians, because the fighting style was so different. It was usually felt that the soldiers had an advantage over the Indians. That wasn't true in this particular case. For one thing, the Indians were fighting on their home territory. They had their village with women and children in it on the site, and this always motivated them to fight fiercely to protect their women and children. They even, most likely, had better weapons than the troopers that they faced. So there were many reasons why they, in fact, had the advantage. They attacked from a concealed position, whereas the troopers were out in the open. When Custer did divide his command, in fact, it's pretty clear that he was just doing it as a reconnaissance rather than formulating a battle strategy. He would have done that later had it been possible. But by the time he discovered the extent of the village how large it was it was too late.
LAMB:How many Indians were there?
BARNETT: Probably at least 3,000. And ...
LAMB:How many were killed?
BARNETT: Three thousand warriors, I'm talking about. And many more in terms of dependents. We don't really know. The Indians always maintained that they had very light casualties. And the reason we don't know is because they always removed the bodies of the dead and wounded from the field of battle. So they left no trace of how many casualties they took. But we do know that people who survived that fight on the Indian side continued to die for months after that, so that probably there were more casualties than the Indians first admitted, possibly even as many as the whites sustained.
LAMB:Any photographs from that battle?
LAMB:And where do you go in the United States to find all the different accounts that have been written?
BARNETT: Well, there's so many, you would have to go to a good library and hunt around. More has been written about Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn than almost any other historical American figure. It's really an amazing thing when you consider that Custer was not historically significant in the way that other leaders have been, but he has certainly captured the imagination of the nation.
LAMB:You write this, page 345. “Other than the persistence of racism, it would be hard to explain the ongoing notoriety of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a battle that resulted in only a small number of dead and wounded and did nothing to change the final outcome of the historic conflict between Indians and whites for the possession of the West.” Other than “the persistence of racism,” what do you mean?
BARNETT: I mean that there was a strongly held opinion that any number of whites could defeat any much larger number of Indians. And you find this all over. I would say it's endemic in the accounts of people living at that time. White superiority was something that people felt, at the end of the 19th century, was scientifically based. They certainly didn't consider it to be racism as we do today. They simply thought that it was a fact that was scientifically verified. And as a result, they felt that almost any number of whites ought to be able to defeat a large force of Indians. So the shock that people experienced when Custer and his famous 7th Cavalry was wiped out by the Indians somehow, I think, has led people to keep refighting that battle ever since to try and find some explanation as to why Custer and his troopers were wiped out, other than the explanation that seems to me obvious. The Indians were the better fighters, for many reasons, on that particular day. I think it's been very hard for our culture to face that because of its inherent feeling that we meaning at that time white America should always be able to defeat an enemy coming from a radically different culture, like the Indians.
LAMB:Where do you live?
BARNETT: Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
LAMB:What do you do up there?
BARNETT: Actually, I teach at Rutgers University in New Jersey, so I commute.
LAMB:Can you get in a pretty good fight with somebody who thinks entirely differently than you do about this subject right now? I mean, is there somebody out there that does that's written a book?
BARNETT: Oh, people are writing books all the time. In fact, I belong to the Little Bighorn Associates, a group of people who know everything about the battle and about Custer and who have a national conference once a year to talk about all of these issues. And one of the things that's appealing about Custer is that he does generate so much interest so long after his death. He was, in many ways, an exceptional person and a compelling personality who still, I think, can fascinate people today.
LAMB:Are there people that think you're just totally off the base on this racism thing?
BARNETT: Probably so. I haven't actually encountered any yet. I've been pleased that many people have told me that they feel that my book is a balanced account, which is what I was trying to produce.
LAMB:You have a picture in the book of Sitting Bull. Who is he, and where did you get the picture?
BARNETT: Sitting Bull was probably the most significant leader among the Lakota Sioux, not a war leader he was already, at the age of 42, past his prime as a war leader but as both a spiritual and political leader. He was clearly very intelligent, profoundly thoughtful. And I think that picture reveals the determination and will that he brought to living his life. I particularly like it because, to my mind, Sitting Bull's character is revealed by that picture. It actually comes from our own National Archives.
LAMB:Here in Washington?
LAMB:Who was Crazy Horse?
BARNETT: Crazy Horse was the very much admired leader of the Lakota Sioux in that particular battle and also in other battles against the army as well.
LAMB:There's also a lot of myths about him over the years. Where does he place in history? And he's used as a mascot for one of the is it 7th Cavalry today? Is that right?
BARNETT: His name has been used in many contexts. During the Vietnam War, the 7th Cavalry used his name for an operation, Operation Crazy Horse. And right now a gigantic statue is being carved not far from Mount Rushmore in North Dakota to commemorate Crazy Horse. It seems as if over time the pizzazz of being a great fighter has won out over the more thoughtful contributions of Sitting Bull.
LAMB:When you have your sessions with the Little Bighorn Association, what is it that people disagree about the most?
BARNETT: Well, people are apt to disagree about many different things: whether or not Custer was to blame in any way for the disaster; the contributions of various of his subordinates at the time. Episodes in Custer's life can generate controversy. I mean, these are people who care a great deal about the truth of the battle. They care about preserving the battlefield and about Custer's life. I don't know if you know that recently, in spite of the passage of time, as I've said, feelings continue to be very strong. Recently the battlefield has been extremely controversial, because the present superintendent, on the 120th anniversary of the battle, invited any Indians who wanted to ride up and count coup on the grave marker that has been raised over the bodies of the dead government soldiers. Counting coup means displaying your courage and audacity by striking your enemy with a stick and then getting away without having the enemy kill you. In fact, it was obviously at times much more difficult than killing the enemy. The problem that I, and I think others, have with that gesture is that these enemies were already dead, and it simply seems inappropriate to dishonor the dead by a ceremony of that sort. But it's certainly a good example of how feelings continue to percolate around that battlefield.
LAMB:What's the difference between a “Custerphile” and a “Custerphobe?”
BARNETT: A Custerphile is someone who has a very positive feeling about Custer, and a Custerphobe is the opposite. Often I mention in my book that a Custerphile rather, a Custerphobe is simply a disillusioned Custerphile, someone who started out wanting to admire Custer and ended up finding fault with him.
LAMB:Did you change your mind about him at any time?
BARNETT: Oh, on a number of matters, because when I went into this project, I knew very little about Custer, simply the popular information or the popular image that everyone acquires through movies and a little bit of history. So it was a learning experience for me. And as with any historical figure, there are episodes that can be interpreted in different ways. It's a very complex matter to weigh the evidence and try to decide what was going on in an episode that that has many different facets. So there were times I would have one opinion, and I would do more research and modify my opinion. I think this is simply the way historical research goes.
LAMB:Can you name one of the biggest things you change your mind on?
BARNETT: Probably whether or not Custer had an affair with the Indian princess, the Cheyenne captive Monacita. This is something that can't be proven either way. We simply don't have evidence that would say, one way or the other, whether this took place. But we do have some evidence that seems to me credible to indicate that Custer and Monacita did have some kind of liaison or intimate friendship. He used her as a courier to her own people. She always came back, appeared to be very fond of him. And then when she did finally go back to her own people, she wanted to leave her son, who had been born in captivity but with an Indian father, with Custer. And it seemed certainly a mark of her respect for him that she volunteered to do this.
LAMB:Where's the information on that located?
BARNETT: Notes that a researcher named Walter Camp took from a scout who had been with Custer at the time named Ben Clark. People disagree as to whether Clark is telling the truth. It seems to me, from my reading of him, that he is, and those manuscript notes are in the Lily Library of the University of Utah.
LAMB:Now go back to your own situation. You said that you started to get interested back in 1990 when you went to Montana and saw the Little Bighorn Monument, Battlefield. But what got you there in the first place?
BARNETT: Well, I was like any other tourist, just taking a kind of vacation trip. And as I say, over a quarter of a million people visit that battlefield, even though it's in the middle of nowhere in terms of accessibility. It's not near any big city. You have to make an effort to go there. But...
LAMB:How far is it from the biggest what's the biggest city it's located near?
BARNETT: Billings. It's about, I would say, a half hour, maybe a little longer, from Billings. But Billings is not a huge metropolis. It's the unspoiled character of the battlefield that I think is extremely attractive.
LAMB:What do you normally teach?
BARNETT: I teach American literature and American studies.
LAMB:And was this just a vacation that got you to this monument?
BARNETT: It was a vacation, but when I was there, simply because I have the habit of a researcher, I couldn't help but notice that they had a huge archive of primary material. And I simply wanted to come back and work on it. So as soon as I got back to school, I arranged to take a year off. And I simply got in my car with my computer and drove to the battlefield and started to do research.
LAMB:And what kind of facility do they have there for you to do research?
BARNETT: They simply have a room with a table. It's quite basic but adequate for someone who simply wants to sit there reading one document after another.
LAMB:What book is this for you, first?
BARNETT: No, that is actually my sixth book. My other books have been academic books.
LAMB:So then at what point did you think you had a non academic book, a trade book that the public would buy?
BARNETT: It's hard to say when I had that realization. But as I myself found Custer more and more fascinating, it seemed reasonable that this story would be something that other people might enjoy reading. Custer, for me, is a very representative American character. That is, he comes from humble origins in the Midwest. His parents were poor farmers. He goes to West Point. He becomes a successful general. He's tremendously optimistic and cheerful and believes in this country. He believes in its expansionist policy, believes that there is opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard and make a living. So he was always interested in self improvement as well. When he was on the frontier, he learned a great deal about the flora and fauna of the area. He learned rudimentary paleontology. He taught himself taxidermy. And he started writing a book about his frontier experiences which, for someone who graduated last in his class at West Point ... one of his classmates said it was the last thing you would have ever imagined Custer doing. It's not surprising that he ended up dying in battle, because he was a very physically active and courageous person, but that he would sit down and study and then write his own book in certainly a readable style is truly amazing.
LAMB:What town are you from originally?
BARNETT: I'm originally from Northport, Long Island, New York.
LAMB:Did you grow up there?
LAMB:What'd your parents do?
BARNETT: My father was employed by the Veterans Administration Hospital in that town.
LAMB:And when did you first get your interest in either being a teacher or an English, a little history, research?
BARNETT: I think in college I knew that I wanted to be a teacher for the usual reading reasons. I loved reading and writing. I loved research. But after doing the books that I've done on literature, I think I was ready to change the focus of my research to history. For me, having spent all of my life working on imaginative literature that is, stories that had been created by people working with fact and historical events is very exciting. It's like a new kind of activity for me.
LAMB:And where did you go to college?
BARNETT: At the University of North Carolina for my undergraduate years and Bryn Mawr College for a PhD.
LAMB:If we had followed you around since 1990 you were at the battlefield out in Montana where else would we have seen you working on this book?
BARNETT: Many places. It's the thing that I discovered about the difference between literary criticism and historical research; a lot more traveling is involved. I went to Berkeley, California, where I spent eight months doing secondary sources in the Bancroft Library there, which is famous for its Western collection. But I had to go to a number of repositories of original documents; for example, Monroe, Michigan, where both the Custers grew up, both George Armstrong and his wife; to Yale for some significant letters; certainly to West Point; to New York Public Library; and, of course, to Washington, DC, to the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
LAMB:Where'd you find the most material that was useful primary material?
BARNETT: Well, certainly the battlefield archive has the largest amount. But Monroe, Michigan, and the National Archives would follow the battlefield.
LAMB:You've got a picture in here of General Custer's wife at what age?
BARNETT: She's 22 in that picture.
LAMB:Where did they meet?
BARNETT: In Monroe, Michigan, where she was a native, and he moved there following his sister and her husband. And eventually his whole family moved to Monroe from Ohio where he had been born.
LAMB:Wasn't there a dispute about the statue in Ohio, and versus Monroe, Michigan? Did they end up putting the statue in what is it? What's the name of that New Rumley or something?
BARNETT: Yes, they did ultimately put a statue there as well.
LAMB:What was the controversy?
BARNETT: Well, I suppose, arguing as to whether Custer was a native son of one place or the other.
LAMB:How did these I mean, when they got married, how long were they married, how many years?
BARNETT: They were married for 12 years. And then, of course, Libby Bacon Custer was a widow for 57 years. Her life I find almost as interesting as his because she devotes her widowhood single mindedly to projecting the image of her husband as a great hero.
LAMB:You're not very happy in this book with Stephen Ambrose, are you?
BARNETT: Well, that may be putting it strongly. I admire Stephen Ambrose's ability to write. But I do take issue with his picture of Libby Custer. I think ultimately -- although he doesn't mean it this way -- it's insulting to Libby.
LAMB:You say that “feminine fidelity has traditionally been so prized that Libby Custer's devotion has pleased even those who consider her husband a villain, as if fidelity to such a man has even greater merit than it would to a more deserving spouse. To historian Stephen Ambrose, Libby was one of the most remarkable American women of the 19th century, although he never justifies his sweeping statement, remarking only that she had unbounded energy and was as courageous as Custer himself. Both characterizations are nonsense.”
BARNETT: Yes, that's true. Libby was not as courageous as Custer. Libby was terribly frightened of thunderstorms and hid under the bed whenever there was thunder. Custer was known for his exceptional courage, leading his men into battle. I don't see that you can really make that comparison. But more than that, it seems to me a foolish comparison. Ultimately Ambrose is saying that Libby wasted her life being the wife and then widow of George Armstrong Custer, that had she been born a boy, he says, she might have risen to the very top of society. I think that's speculative, and there's no real basis for knowing what Libby's life would have been like. But I think it's insulting to the life that she did very consciously choose for herself. She did not regard being George Armstrong Custer's widow as some sort of lesser thing. She regarded it as a very honorable occupation. And when you consider that women simply very rarely had professions at the time in which she lived, I would say that she made a very good choice. Being his widow did become a profession for her. She wrote three books of memoirs, which were all best sellers. She became wealthy giving lectures about their life on the frontier. To me, this is an enlightened choice, and I see no reason to denigrate what she did by trying to compare her to a late 20th century career woman.
LAMB:She died what year and where?
BARNETT: 1933 in New York. In spite of their happy years on the frontier, Libby chose to make her life in the very urban setting of New York. That was understandable because she was left an impoverished widow. Her only chance, really, for supporting herself was to go to a major urban center. She and Custer had always enjoyed vacations in New York, and she had a certain number of contacts there who were helpful to her in getting started in her life as a widow.
LAMB:How much money did he leave her when he was killed, and how much money did she have when she died in '33? Did you find that out?
BARNETT: I'm afraid he left her nothing but debts. This was quite shocking. He had speculated in railroad stock shortly before his death and incurred considerable losses, over $8,000, which at the time was a very large amount of money, particularly for someone on a lieutenant colonel's salary. And, of course, he did not expect to not to live to repay this. But Libby was left with that debt, which she had known nothing about until his assets were totaled up. So she started out with that burden. However, when she died, she left an estate of over $125,000, which in the 1930s was obviously a considerable amount of money. She was quite lucky in being on the lecture circuit and then making careful investments.
LAMB:You somewhere in the book talk about that General Custer was offered a contract to what? make $200 a day? Was that it? to speak?
BARNETT: Two hundred dollars per speaking engagement that he was going to do after the Sioux campaign was over the following fall. That had been his plan. And, of course, he thought that would go a long way to wiping out this debt that he had incurred.
LAMB:So ...
BARNETT: As I say, no one thought that he was going to be killed at the Little Bighorn.
LAMB:So today we're watching generals make a lot of money. Speaking is nothing new I mean, that he could have done it, and she did it. How much did she get a speech?
BARNETT: I don't know, but often that much and sometimes more. It depended; she was not willing to speak to just any audience. She generally preferred a kind of genteel women's club audience or university community. She had terrible stage fright. She preserved her image as a very feminine retiring woman, in spite of taking to the public platform, as it was called. And part of the way that she preserved it was this stage fright, which made it very difficult for her to address large audiences.
LAMB:1885 you have reprinted a couple paragraphs of a letter here that she wrote to then-President Grover Cleveland, in which Libby Custer writes, “If you knew how, year after year, the sorrow of my life has been intensified with the knowledge that I as a woman could do nothing to establish the proof that my husband did not go to his death rashly, you would realize how earnest is my appeal now that the opportunity has come before you. For nine years, I have only been able to hear the unjust accusations against my husband's name by the hope that a friend would some time be raised up, brave and loyal enough to defend him against the charge of his rashness on the day of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in which he lost his life.” And her whole point had something to do with General Nelson Miles. What was she writing the president of the United States about, and did he know who she was?
BARNETT: He certainly knew who she was. What she wanted was for General Nelson Miles, who had been a close friend of the Custers and became his the champion of his tactics in the Battle of the Little Bighorn he was scheduled to be transferred to Arizona, I believe. And she wanted him to remain in Montana so that he could do work on a vindication of her husband. So essentially, she was asking the president of the United States not to transfer an important general for her own personal reason. And the president obviously ... I haven't unearthed any reply to her letter. I'm sure there was one. But the bottom line is that Miles' transfer proceeded as scheduled.
LAMB:Did they have any children?
BARNETT: No. It seems very likely that one or that probably there was some physiological reason because they did want children originally. And at a certain point, Custer wanted to adopt his nephew, and Libby evidently said no to that. So that many, many years later, as she's very old and speaking to reporters, she says, “I have only two regrets: the death of my husband and that I do not have a son to carry on his honored name.”
LAMB:Who else was killed at Little Bighorn that was a relative of General Custer's?
BARNETT: Well, it was really quite a bloodbath of Custers. He lost two of his brothers, a brother in law and a nephew. So the Custer parents lost three of their children and the husband of a fourth in that battle.
LAMB:If you would have hired General Custer and he was a colonel then, a lieutenant colonel, back in 1876, if he didn't meet his death, why would people have wanted to go hear him and pay money to hear him back in 1876?
BARNETT: Oh, he was a historic figure. He had had tremendous achievement during the Civil War, and in a way that seems to me to be breathtaking. For example, he captured the first enemy battle flag of the army of the Potomac. And by the same token, at the end of the war, he received the flag of truce of General Lee. So he was involved in these two moments of great symbolic, as well as historical, significance. And everything in between was a series of compelling victories for Custer. He really did live the role of the romantic knight on a charger. There are many instances of his courageous behavior. For example, he saw a private shot and klled on the fighting line, and he risked his own life simply to rescue this man's body, because he said he couldn't stand to think of it being riddled with bullets if it remained there. On another occasion, a sergeant was badly wounded. Custer leaped from his horse, put the wounded man on the horse, and sent it back to the rear, and then waited to be rescued himself. This is in the heat of battle. Actions like that seem to be simply second nature to Custer. And he certainly had a great fund of experiences, both in the Civil War and on the frontier where he knew such famous scouts as Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. I think he could have talked many evenings and kept an audience interested.
LAMB:You say that the table in which the surrender was signed at Appomattox was given to Libby Custer?
BARNETT: Yes, by General Phil Sheridan. This is the table where Grant sat and wrote out the articles of surrender. And afterwards, since it was obvious that all of the furniture in the room was going to be significant, General Sheridan bought the table from the owner of the house, presented it to Libby Custer, who he knew because she had been the only woman allowed in his Army camp. He felt that Custer was the only one of his generals who wasn't spoiled by association with women. Wives tended to distract his other men, but he found that Custer went into battle just as eagerly as ever, and so he allowed Libby to come to the Army camp, became very fond of her, and in the note that accompanied the table, he said that, “I owe as much to your gallant husband for his efforts in bringing this war to a conclusion as to anyone.”
LAMB:Whatever hap ...
BARNETT: And this was no more than the truth.
LAMB:Whatever happened to that table?
BARNETT: It's either in the Smithsonian or some other museum here in Washington.
LAMB:He was court martialed.
BARNETT: Twice, actually.
LAMB:What were the reasons, and what happened to him?
BARNETT: Well, the first was not terribly significant. It happened right at West Point at the very right after his graduation. It was a very minor thing and did not set him back. But the serious court martial happened in 1867 on the Kansas frontier. This is where Custer, I think, making a very difficult transition from his success and achievement in the Civil War to the vast plains of the frontier, which was a very marginal and unrewarding kind of duty, chasing Indians who could never be caught, it seemed, so he had no opportunity to show his skills in battle. It seems to me he experienced a crisis which caused him to lose his head as a commander, to go AWOL, essentially, in order to get back to his wife. That was the pressing motive of his leaving his men, taking a long forced march to get to her ...
LAMB:Where was this?
BARNETT: ... no matter what.
LAMB:What were the circumstances around that?
BARNETT: Why did he leave his men?
LAMB:No, the march. I mean, where was the march? From where to where?
BARNETT: In Kansas, from he was out in the field, and he headed back for the fort where he thought he would find her. She wasn't there, so he woke up this commanding officer in the middle of the night and said, “I'm taking a train that leaves in 15 minutes to go to the next fort to see my wife.” And the next morning, when his commanding officer, Colonel A.J. Smith, got up, he realized that this was highly extraordinary, and Custer was placed under arrest and court martialed for this.
LAMB:What happened then?
BARNETT: Well, Custer became very involved in his own defense and presented a what he thought was a very strong defense. He challenged just about every member of the court, to begin with, and was constantly raising points of order, was constantly overruled during the court martial and was judged guilty on every count. At that point, he got a rather lenient sentence. Someone else might have been simply dismissed from the Army permanently. He was suspended for a year.
LAMB:And then what happened after that? How old was he when that happened?
BARNETT: He was only 28. He was still a very young man. Afterwards, you could say that his luck came back. I think he learned a lot from that experience, from the whole tour of duty in Kansas. And when he came back to the frontier, it was in response to a telegram that Phil Sheridan had sent him saying, “Almost all of the officers here are calling for you to come back. You're the only man who can lick the Indians. I'm counting on you.” And Custer, in essence, got up from the dinner table, packed his bag and left, even before the return to command had become official. And, indeed, he came back with a new spirit and won a victory over an Indian village, the Battle of the Washita, in late November of 1868.
LAMB:What was Custer's luck?
BARNETT: Custer's luck was an expression that people made up during the Civil War to explain his incredibly fast rise to prominence, that he was always in the right place at the right time. It seems to me that you have to give Custer credit for more than this. He was in the right place at the right time, but he knew how to make the most of those opportunities which many people would not. I think, for example, of what happened to another man who was appointed brigadier general at the same time that Custer was, Elon Farnsworth. Both of them became generals right before the Battle of Gettysburg. Both were under the command of General Judson Kilpatrick, whose nickname was “Kill cavalry” because he was so reckless with the men under his command. Custer managed to somehow get his orders from Kilpatrick countermanded by another general, and as a result, he played a significant part in the Battle of Gettysburg. When Pickett was charging against the Union front, Stuart was coming around the rear with the idea that they would cut the Union forces in half. Custer actually prevented Stuart from carrying out his part of that strategy, because he got himself out from under Kilpatrick's orders. Farnsworth, on the other hand, was ordered to make a suicidal charge by Kilpatrick, and he even questioned Kilpatrick and said, “Are you certain you want me to do this?’ Kilpatrick insisted, and Farnsworth, only a few days after his appointment to the rank of general, was killed, along with many of his men. Custer somehow was able, even under a leader like Kilpatrick, to not only keep himself alive but to play a distinguished role.
LAMB:Are there any original notes that he kept, General Custer?
BARNETT: Oh, many. He was quite a correspondent in many long letters to his wife in which he discussed and to his family, discussing his battles and his experience in the field. But in addition he, of course, wrote many military reports. And at the time of his death, he was writing his Civil War memoirs based on his reports and notes that he had kept.
LAMB:What's his handwriting like?
BARNETT: Fortunately, it's not too hard to read.
LAMB:What did he write on?
BARNETT: He used ink on paper.
LAMB:Paper survive well?
BARNETT: Pretty well. I think the Custer documents are in good they're legible.
LAMB:How hard is it for you to write?
BARNETT: To write?
LAMB:Yeah, when you got down to actually putting words on paper.
BARNETT: Well, by the time I did that, I had a lot to say. I think I wrote quickly and with a lot of enthusiasm. But then I spent a great deal of time rearranging what I had written. And, in fact, the form that the book is in is not that of a traditional biography, nor was it intended to be, because it seemed to me, to truly understand Custer or any figure any historical figure, you need to understand something about his world. And so I have chapters on the plains' Indians; on the frontier Army, the vast difference between that Army and the men that Custer had commanded during the Civil War; on frontier Army wives, because they played a large part in the life of the Custers on the frontier. And then I have a long section after Custer's death dealing with Libby Custer's 57 year widowhood of preserving his memory.
LAMB:This cover can you tell us what's the material? What's the art behind the photograph?
BARNETT: Yes, that's a painting of the battlefield. As you probably know, the Battle of the Little Bighorn is probably the most painted event in American history. There are many paintings of it. And in the foreground, you see the figure of Custer imposed upon that background in a way that dominates the battle which, of course, you might read ironically, since he was defeated and killed in the battle. But that pose is characteristic of his great self confidence and the way that he fought.
LAMB:You write about his appearance, and inside, you have other photographs that show how his appearance changed, the mustache and the hat and all of that. Is that done for effect?
BARNETT: To a certain extent, but it depends upon how you read that. Custer, before his transformation, was rather careless in dress, and it seems as if he didn't really pay any attention to matters of clothing. Once he became a cavalry leader, he said that he wanted to wear a distinctive outfit that his men would always be able to see in battle. And this was not unusual. Jeb Stuart, a cavalry leader for the Confederate army, also wore a distinctive outfit. Generals at that time designed their own uniforms, and they often tried for a unique look.
LAMB:You have two pictures in here we showed the one earlier when she was 22 years old of Libby Custer. How old is she here?
BARNETT: I'm not certain, but I think she's in her late 60s in that picture.
LAMB:How would you describe her? What were the things that you liked the most about her?
BARNETT: Libby is a very cheerful, kind person of the sort that people instantly like. She was unassuming, attractive. People were drawn to her. And I have great admiration for the way that she recreated her life after her tragedy of losing her husband to whom she had been tremendously attached. They had a very intense love marriage. When he was away, he would write letters that were sometimes as long as 100 pages, letters written by hand, of course.
LAMB:Any of those in the files?
BARNETT: Oh, yes. And I read through them. One of them ends with the comment, “Do you think this letter is too long?” I'm sure Libby didn't, but I as a researcher might have answered, “Yes, it was a bit too long.” But he would often end by saying that, “I've got to stop now, because it's late at night, and reveille is only in another couple of hours.” He had tremendous energy and enthusiasm for his wife. He could go without sleep. And after a hard day's riding on the march in the field, he could write letters late at night to his wife.
LAMB:What would he say to her for 100 pages?
BARNETT: A lot about the hunting exploits of himself and their dogs he was very proud of their abilities - and his horses, too. Custer had an affinity for animals. He was one of those people who could tame them easily. They were attracted to him as he to them. And he particularly liked specimens who fulfilled, I think, his own sense of himself, that is, he liked dogs who were courageous, who would go attack a bear if they found one, who could run faster than other dogs; horses who did not get tired. This was what he liked and often wrote about.
LAMB:One of the things you say about the frontier Army is that a staggering one third of the men recruited between 1867 that's after the Civil War was over and 1891 deserted. For every five men who died from wounds or accidents, eight died from disease, and countless more were plagued with scurvy.
BARNETT: Yes, it's a pretty grim picture. And many people at the time, and many historians afterwards, have felt that the frontier Army really represented the dregs of society. It was very poorly paid. Conditions were harsh. Supplies were often awful. Custer found on the frontier some bread that was stamped “1861” that was really moldy and couldn't be eaten. And yet they had nothing else. The frontier Army, in a way, served as a kind of French Foreign Legion for us. Often men who were wanted by the law, or who were escaping wives that they wanted to get away from, entanglements of various sorts, would end up in the Frontier Army, as did newly arrived immigrants who didn't speak enough English to get another job. So Custer went from commanding volunteers, middle class men, very often like himself, who were fighting because of love of their country, to, on the frontier, commanding men who seemed just impossible as soldiers. And I think you can see that this affected his attitude, that he really isn't as caring about his men on the frontier as he was known to be during the Civil War.
LAMB:Go over the basics one more time. General Custer was how old when he died?
BARNETT: Thirty six.
LAMB:The battle was on what day?
BARNETT: June 25th, 1876, which, of course, was our centennial year.
LAMB:The Little Bighorn is located where?
BARNETT: Southeastern Montana.
LAMB:How many men died, and did any of the white Americans survive?
BARNETT: Not those who accompanied Custer. They were all five companies. Everyone with him was killed.
LAMB:What was the status of an Indian then in the American system? Could they vote?
BARNETT: No. Definitely not. But the status would depend on who we're talking about, because there were Indians who sided with the United States government. Custer was accompanied by Crow scouts who were bitter enemies of the Sioux and who never regretted their decision to fight with the white Army because they felt it preserved their land for them, which the Sioux had been in the process of taking.
LAMB:How many Indians died on that day?
BARNETT: Hard to say. Several hundred, possibly. We really have no way of knowing accurately.
LAMB:And you say there were 3,000 Indians there in battle.
BARNETT: Most likely. Again, we can't be certain of those numbers.
LAMB:And what's your next book?
BARNETT: I think it's going to be something having to do with Army courts martial.
BARNETT: Well, I found the trial transcripts that I read for this particular book were fascinating. There have been some interesting cases in the history of our armed forces, and I'd like to explore them in further detail.
LAMB:Have you started it yet?
BARNETT: Just barely scratched the surface.
LAMB:Here's the cover of the book. It's called "Touched by Fire," and it's all about General George Armstrong Custer. And our guest is Louise Barnett. And we thank you very much for joining us.
BARNETT: Thank you.

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