Manticores, Myths, and Memory (part two)

A manticore (from mythology.net)

(Part two of four)

Paul Ashdown and Ed Caudill are co-authors of the latest book in the Engaging the Civil War Series, Imagining Wild Bill: James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory (Southern Illinois University Press). In yesterday’s opening part of their series, they touched on the quartet who’ve been the focus of their earlier work: John Mosby, Nathan Bedford Forrest, William T. Sherman, and George Armstrong Custer.

Part Two: Of Myths and Manticores

The four figures we’ve focused on—Mosby, Forrest, Sherman, and Custer—comprised, in myth and memory, what we came to think of as our metaphoric manticore, a heraldic beast with a human head, and the body of a wingéd lion with a scorpion tail. The manticore was, in legend, a killer dredged up from the unconscious to devour its prey and leave no scraps. Each of our protagonists represented aspects of the manticore in high relief. Each had been re-imagined in public history, journalism, and literature, and often made congruent with ideologies coming to public attention through the bellows of the press. The way they had been re-imagined told us much about the meaning of the war in public memory and the durability of myth.[1]

In the last book in our Manticore Quartet, we focused on Custer’s neglected role in the Civil War, which made him a national celebrity long before the debacle at the Little Bighorn. The mythic Custer—the bold Indian fighter atop Last Stand Hill with guns blazing and golden locks flying—kept drawing us back to the West and its popular mythology. There, too, we found Sherman, first as commander of the Western armies and then as general of the army, setting aggressive Indian policy after the war and approving the mission that sent Custer and the 7th Cavalry to glory. Anything to do with the West was gilded in popular culture with an alloy of blood, heroism, and elan—the essentials of a great storyline, especially for mass media.[2]

Along with other basic elements, the sheen made Custer ideal for mass consumption, from the newspaper headlines of Civil War feats to the near half-million hits one will get now with an internet search of his name. Custer started the printer’s ink flowing with the self-aggrandizing articles he wrote for Galaxy, collected and published as My Life on the Plains. Just months after the Little Bighorn disaster, journalist Frederick Whittaker published a fawning biography of Custer. Popular culture picked up the story. From the early days of cinema, Custer had been in the movies, none more memorable than the iconic 1941 film They Died With Their Boots On, with Errol Flynn as Custer blazing away as the Indians closed in. Custer was a short-lived television series canceled due to Native American protests. Rod Serling imagined a time-traveling National Guard unit wandering into the Little Bighorn battlefield in a 1963 Twilight Zone episode. Fantasy and alternative history novelist Harry Turtledove conjured Custer as a brash fool in his rousing Great War series. Other fantasy writers couldn’t get enough of Custer, casting him as everything from a post-Civil War sorcerer to a garrulous ghost. Just in time for the 2016 presidential election, Custer turned up in a political consultant’s novel as a bullying, fascistic, Western-state governor named Armstrong George who wants to close borders and battle terrorists.[3]

Sherman’s Civil War nemesis, Forrest, was the Confederacy’s foremost “near” Western general. Forrest’s authorized biography, selectively edited, was in print by 1868. Journalists Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor collaborated with the general in telling his story, which omitted much controversy. The Nashville Agrarians in the 1930s enhanced his mythic legacy when they hailed him as a Christian knight defending the yeoman South with all the energy and purpose of “the Western man.” Saddled with his early association with the Ku Klux Klan, his pre-war reputation as a slave trader, and the taint of the Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee during the war, Forrest became a political lightning rod, especially in the 21st century. He has a long history as a high literary character, beguiling writers as notable as William Faulkner. The general could be repackaged to fit just about any storyline. Turtledove cast Forrest as a racist politician-general in Guns of the South and a unicorn-riding cavalryman in Sentry Peak. Forrest’s alleged kinsman was the title character of Winston Groom’s novel, Forrest Gump, and then the popular film. There seems no limit to Forrest’s myth.[4]

The same could be said for Mosby. Mosby was a fine, if not always accurate, writer who lived until 1916, affording him ample opportunity to gild his own legend. He helped former newspaper editor John Scott assemble an authorized biography in 1867 and published his war reminiscences in 1887. Mosby had settled in San Francisco in 1885 to work as a railroad attorney before becoming, in 1901, a federal agent battling cattle barons in Nebraska. In 1905, he was sent to the Oklahoma Territory to investigate corruption in the administration of Indian affairs. This Western background served him well in popular culture. In 1957, Mosby and his rangers became the subject of a controversial television series, The Gray Ghost, more TV Western than Civil War melodrama. Mosby was TV-ready in the 1950s. He was the iconic gunslinger, daring, cunning, but never ruthless, and handsome to boot. Though a Rebel, the 1950s Mosby represented the American spirit, a lower-case rebel with a cause who fit the era. During this time of racial turmoil across the nation, however, sponsors and networks were skittish about anything to do with the Confederacy. Mosby was yanked off his horse by nervous advertisers, and the popular series was canceled. Western novels about Mosby skirted the controversy and turned the Virginia cavalryman into a gunfighter on horseback, more cowboy than colonel.[5]

Sherman shows up in important recent fiction, most notably E. L. Doctorow’s novel The March. He appeared also in numerous fantasy novels by Turtledove and other writers, cavorting with vampires and communing with angels. John Wayne played Sherman on television, in an episode of Wagon Train in 1960, and in the film How the West Was Won in 1962. But Sherman’s most notable role undoubtedly was in Gone With the Wind (1939). He appeared only in name and flames, but was the force that animated the entire epic that came to define the March to the Sea in popular history.[6]

Like our manticore of myth, these Civil War figures comprise a beast of many parts, which it sheds and grows as the culture changes. It is adaptable to an ever-shifting society. Whether our subjects were heroes or villains is less the issue than their affirmations of myth. Sherman showed us total war, which became more lethal in legend than in fact. He made war not just physical destruction, but psychological, too. The Sherman part of the beast illustrated how the monsters in our imaginations were more terrifying than the ones in front of us.

Perhaps nearly as horrifying are those things in the nearby woodlands. Forrest was the backwoodsman who became an accomplished leader, and displayed the virtues of the frontier primitive. He showed war to be about brutality and killing, as illustrated particularly well in the Fort Pillow massacre. It wasn’t about pride, but hatred. His limb of the beast was unschooled savagery.

Mosby came out of the shadows, haunting the edges of the Union’s main forces. He was that part of the manticore most elusive and difficult to corner. He was the gunslinger personified—independent, clever, bold, brave—particularly when conjured up in early television. Custer was the celebrity whose warrior legend owes as much to the press as historical reality, the very picture of dashing elan.

(to be continued….)


[1] Caudill and Ashdown, Inventing Custer, 7-8.

[2] The name of the battle and national monument is inconsistent. We settled on Little Bighorn, but honor the variations in organizational names and references in other publications.

[3] “George Custer” Google search on June 7, 2016, turned up 469,000 hits; George Armstrong Custer, My Life on the Plains (New York: Sheldon and Co., 1874); Frederick Whittaker, A Complete Life of General George A. Custer (New York: Sheldon and Co., 1876); Caudill and Ashdown, Inventing Custer, 292-94. Stuart Stevens, The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).

[4] Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor, The Campaigns of Lt. Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry (New Orleans: Blelock and Co., 1868); Andrew Lytle, Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders, 1992, orig. pub. 1931), xxii; Ashdown and Caudill, The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest, 133-38, 141-44, 151-52, 160-64; Winston Groom, Forrest Gump (New York: Doubleday, 1986); Harry Turtledove, Guns of the South (New York: Del Rey, 1992); Harry Turtledove, Sentry Peak (Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2000).

[5] Ramage, Gray Ghost, 300-301; 319-29; John Scott, Partisan Life with Col. John S. Mosby (New York: Harper and Bros., 1867); John Mosby, Mosby’s War Reminiscences, and Stuart’s Cavalry Campaigns (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1887); Ashdown and Caudill, The Mosby Myth, 150-58, 180-92.

[6] Caudill and Ashdown, Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory, 111, 116-123, 131, 136-37; E.L. Doctorow, The March (New York: Random House, 2005).

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1 Response to Manticores, Myths, and Memory (part two)

  1. wdonohue1 says:

    The world loves a good story. In fact it shows a habitual need for a good story. The issue is, to what extent does myth expose us to deeper truth. The bible is mostly mythological but much of it brings us to a deeper understanding of human nature and God. I like the style of your expose and the rather comprehensive way you deal with your subject matter.

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