“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?”
– The Specials
In the months and years that followed the battle of the Little Bighorn, dozens of towns and counties named after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer sprang up across the United States—paying tribute to a soldier who committed, arguably, one of the worst blunders in American military history in pursuit of the cause of settler colonialism and a national policy of violent Indian removal. In 1877 the legislature of Colorado designated 740 square miles of mountainous terrain west of present-day Pueblo as Custer County, paying tribute to both Custer and the legacy of American military activities in the Centennial State.
In 1902, more than 25 years after Custer’s death, a group of Boston promoters interested in the silver mining potential of the relatively undeveloped mountain region platted the town of Custer City—thus doubling down on the locality’s memorialization of the Civil War’s “Boy General.” No sooner was the town was surveyed, residents attracted, and pre-fabricated houses and shops shipped from Pueblo via Denver than a local committee turned to the business of erecting a statue to their namesake. “Big things are already planned for the new city,” one nearby newspaper editor explained, “and the recent activity in the Querida mining district bids fair to make Custer City a mountain metropolis”[i]
Neither Custer City nor the statue remains today. In fact, very little remains of the site—other than the pedestal on which Custer’s likeness once stood. Like many of Colorado’s early boom and bust mining towns, Custer City fell into oblivion as quickly as it had risen to public attention. Custer City can still offer historians a great deal to consider, however, especially when it comes to the question of Civil War memorialization in the American West—a topic that deserves far greater attention than it has previously received.
As it turned out, when the residents of Custer City set out to erect a statue to George Custer, they gave little thought to his postbellum service. To them Custer was an icon of the Union war effort and his later military career, which included more than one instance of extreme violence directed at Native American nations, did not factor in to their memorialization efforts. Regionalism had no effect on the memory of Custer—and even at this western locale the narrative celebrated the Civil War and the preservation of the Union and not the military conquest of the West (the very land on which Custer City stood). This, in turn, shows the power Civil War memory exerted over the popular imagination of the country—even 35 years after its conclusion.
Americans sought to bring the war to life in their dedicatory efforts, and Custer City was no exception. The denizens of the mining town extended an invitation to Custer’s widow—Elizabeth Bacon Custer—to attend the statue’s unveiling. Though she declined the offer, Libbie’s letter to the townspeople revealed her own assiduous efforts to keep the memory of her husband alive:
Bronxville; N . Y., May 9, 1902
Dear Sir : —I have read what you so kindly sent me of Custer county, studied the map, and carefully considered your letter, but I regret to say that I do not see my way to attending the ceremonies of establishing Custer City. I have been compelled to decline all engagements or invitations this summer that would take me far from New York, or one of its suburbs, Bronxville. You will know how pressing the business is that detains me east when I tell you that I have had to deny myself the privilege of meeting my husband’s soldiers at a reunion. I am building a home for myself and it requires my constant attention.
But let me assure you that I deeply appreciate your kind invitation, as well as all that Custer county is doing to commemorate my husband. I shall be much interested in the day you propose to set aside for the opening of Custer City. May I send my thanks to its citizens for naming the town for General Custer; and I would be greatly obliged if you would send me a newspaper account of the day. If I am in Denver ever again, as I hope to be, I shall be so glad to visit Custer City. Your letter and all that you have sent me regarding Custer county will be carefully preserved among the souvenirs of my husband.
Even without Libbie in attendance the event’s organizers planned their festivities to celebrate the veterans of the Civil War—and favored a tone of reconciliation. “The veterans of the civil war, both confederate and federal, should not fail to be present at the unveiling of the statue of General Custer at Custer City on the 10th” one newspaper explained.[iii] A earlier issue had also invited veterans “of Philippine war” to attend the ceremonies.[iv] The same newspaper eventually displayed large advertisements calling on veterans to visit Custer City for the statue’s unveiling—advertising their intentions to make the unveiling a reconciliation event, where Union and Confederate veterans would be encouraged to contemplate a future working side-by-side for the success of Custer City.
Though my research on this topic is still tentative, I believe this choice may be indicative of a pattern in Civil War memorialization in the West, which, free from the sectional animosities that defined Civil War memorialization in the East, could promote reconciliation as a public good—all residents, regardless of their previous loyalties or points of origin were committed to the development of the West and the settler-colonial enterprises of the era. Far removed from major battlefields and free from the acrimonious political debates that had defined the Reconstruction era, Westerners could boast that their section did not judge any man based on his former loyalties. This stance would have appealed to both George and Libbie Custer—who both favored reconciliation in the war’s immediate aftermath (see, especially, Libbie’s Tenting on the Plains).
The speech given at the statue’s unveiling would suggest there is some veracity to that speculation, as former Colorado governor Alva Adams (one of two Adams brothers to govern the 38th state—Alva is the namesake of Adams County, while his brother, Billy, lent his name to the state’s first normal school and teaching college, now Adams State University) celebrated Custer’s Civil War service and “his brilliant, brave and heroic career to the last hours at Little Big Horn, where he fell a martyr to the cause of his country and civilization.” Adams explicitly tied Union successes in the Civil War to the postbellum settlement of the West—invoking Custer’s contributions to the federal government’s various programs of “civilization”—the development of Western lands for profit and the erasure of Native American sovereignty. After Adams spoke two other speeches were given— “Mayor Foss of Silver Cliff and Dr. O. E. Sperry of Custer, the former representing the blue, the latter the gray.”[v] The dedicatory day emphasized reconciliation at every turn.
The statue at Custer City stood, briefly, as a pæan to reconciliation in the West, where former adversaries could truly let bygones be bygones and look to the possibilities of the future. Studying this impulse of reconciliation in the West gives a new twist to familiar narratives of Civil War memory and truly allows scholars to see how the Civil War effected a region that saw almost no battles on the scale of the war’s Eastern and Western theaters, but encompassed multiple visions of what the United States could become. Though the statue of Custer was likely melted down for scrap metal during the Second World War its history offers a tantalizing glimpse at a new direction for Civil War memory studies.
[i] Silver Cliff Rustler, April 16, 1902
[ii] Wet Mountain Tribune, May 42, 1902.
[iii] Wet Mountain Tribune, June 7, 1902.
[iv] Wet Mountain Tribune, May 10, 1902.
[v] Wet Mountain Tribune, June 14, 1902.