A Look at 10/10/1877: Custer’s Last Stand and the Making of a Legend

On October 10th 1877, an entire year after his death, one of the most controversial figures of nineteenth-century American history was finally put to rest. Though today his story has become legend, in his own lifetime General Custer was something of an enigma. For the remainder of her life, Elizabeth Bacon Custer would adamantly defend her husband’s actions on and off the battlefield. His story was latched onto by the media and re-spun as a further incentive to perpetuate the violence against Native Americans. A hero was born, not out of his own actions, but the actions of others to memorialize his death.

Image from: Wikimedia

“The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell. Image from: Wikimedia.

Custer rose to military prominence during the Civil War as an extraordinarily young and gifted officer. Yet it is not for these military escapades that he is remembered, but rather for his involvement in battles against the Sioux and Cheyenne in what is today the northwestern United States. Custer represents a picture of the West as conquest.

His Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn is a highly romanticized image, a portrait of grown men playing at Cowboys-and-Indians that was once blown up into posters and hung around bars. When the actual conflict was long forgotten, what remained in place was the image. It took at least a year between his death and his funeral to plant the seeds that put the image in place.

Today is a reminder that the stories we tell ourselves have enormous power. We make our own heroes and decide their legacies long after they are gone and no longer have a say in how they are to be remembered—as tragic figures printed on the walls of bars or participants in a more complicated reality. Words are not passive reflections of the past, but rather active creators of our collective memory.

Sources:

Custer’s Last Stand, a PBS Documentary (http://video.pbs.org/video/2186572157/)

Custer’s Funeral is Held at West Point (http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/custers-funeral-is-held-at-west-point)

A Look at 9/29/1789 and the Close of the First Session of the U.S. Congress

1789 was a very exciting time to be alive. The French Revolution famously began with the storming of the Bastille, the element uranium was accidentally discovered in Germany, and—let’s not forget—Thomas Jefferson returned home from overseas, the first macaroni machine to enter the U.S. in tow. 1789 was the end of the world as a lot of people knew it, but it also marked a very fundamental beginning.

As of today, two hundred and twenty-five years ago, the first session of the United States Congress officially came to a close. Haunting the hallways of the Senate building in those days were figures as legendary as the indelible John Adams and Robert Morris who left his signature on both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. In a period of six short months, legislation as monumental and fundamental as the creation of a system of courts and the establishment of the State Department, then dubbed the Department of Foreign Affairs, was passed, the one act followed shortly after by another.

Image from: Wikimedia.

Jefferson’s drawing of a macaroni machine from 1787. If you want to check out his pasta recipe click here. Image from: Wikimedia.

It is easy to forget when we look back at this incredibly idealized point in our history, at the semi-mythical lives of these important figures in our past that we perhaps associate so closely with one another, that these men were not, in fact, so inclined to see eye-to-eye in terms of politics. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America’s future was almost diametrically opposed to Alexander Hamilton’s. And Alexander Hamilton’s life would be cut tragically short fifteen years later due to a political rivalry with Aaron Burr that escalated to the point where he died dueling Burr on the coast of New Jersey. From the onset, a great political fear was factionalism and disunity.

Yet despite individual- and larger party differences, the first session of the United States Congress was as productive as it was. And so was the second after that. And the third after that. And so on.

1789 was an exciting time to be alive because of the spirit of unity and progress that bound the young United States together despite moments of political tension. It drove forward real, tangible political momentum. 1789 was a moment of creation, the moment of defining the American identity, a definition that has not remained static but continues to change and to evolve with its history. It is not the straightest line from 1789 to 2014, but here we are again. In any case, I know I’ll be celebrating the 225th anniversary of pasta in the United States.

Sources:

From the Library of Congress (http://goo.gl/D8zMb1http://goo.gl/6xd6Q3)

From Monticello (http://goo.gl/l4Ey6m)

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