Manticores, Myths, and Memory (part three)

Forrest’s statue in Memphis, circa 1900 (Library of Congress)

(Part three 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). Yesterday, they explained their “manticore” metaphor and how figures such as Sherman, Mosby, Forrest, and Custer fit that metaphor—a metaphor Hickok now fits, too.

Part Three: The Reservoir of Popular Memory

These and other Civil War figures all live in befogged public memory thanks to earnest historians and laboriously footnoted tomes, but much more so, as novelist David Madden contends, due to film, fiction, television, re-enactors, highway markers, and innumerable other stokers of the popular imagination. Public memory is mercurial, but its foundation in particular myths is predictable.[1]

For example, Forrest has been banished from his namesake park in Memphis, with his bones shunted to a corner of his hometown’s memory and his bust carted from the legislative Rotunda in Nashville to the basement of a state museum. History turned—as did public memory—from recalling the heroic cavalryman of the Lost Cause to emphasizing his more sinister role as slave trader and Klansman. And so the monuments to his legend must change or disappear. His days are numbered. The myth did not change, but values attached to it did. Earlier, the individual, the general who rose from poverty to prominence, appealed to fundamental and constant cultural values. But when society elevated and broadened egalitarianism, Forrest’s impedimenta devalued his monuments. The fate of Forrest’s memory parallels the fate of the Rebel flag. Media memory factories have memorialized the Civil War and the warrior culture of the Lost Cause. But the storyline changed, and the factories are retooling.[2]

By contrast, and in spite of wreaking far more havoc on the Southern landscape and psyche, Sherman has never fallen out of favor, even in the South. In fact, with the emergence of the Lost Cause myth, Sherman went up in value because the March to the Sea confirmed for the South its own nobility. So, the reasoning goes, the South must have been an even greater culture to have emerged from such an absolute military and psychological shellacking.

This schizophrenic recall is manifest in objects of dubious historical veracity. “Sherman’s sentinels,” the chimneys of torched plantation houses, still stand in the swath that marked Sherman’s March to the Sea, reminders of and testament to the general’s fiery punishment of the South more than 150 years ago. They are visible, sturdy icons, born of an era when fireplaces were essential, not ornamental. But their mute testimony is sometimes false. Sherman biographer John Marszalek told us that when visiting Georgia he encountered people who pointed to lone chimneys still standing where Sherman and his troops had burned their way across the countryside. Marszalek informed them, at times, that the March had not been within a hundred miles of the alleged arson. He changed no minds and only annoyed some of those issuing the indictment.[3]

The enhancement of reality, putting Sherman where he never went, was a way of making the story bigger, the villain more vile, and its survivors more gallant and dauntless. Also, of course, one’s ancestors must have been substantial people to have merited the attention of such merciless brutes, as if the Goths might have ignored a couple of muddy crossroads shacks if they had Rome in their sights. Though the South crumbled before modern, industrial war, that destruction became, quixotically, proof of cultural superiority. Forrest’s myth could not overcome the changes in cultural attitudes about equality, in spite of his martial genius. Sherman’s myth could better accommodate shifting cultural values. Though Sherman was no egalitarian and his ideas about race not so different from Forrest’s, Sherman’s deeds and legend did not so clearly embrace racism or include racist organizations.

Mosby, less significant than other Civil War figures, is less celebrated in public memory, although less castigated. Though Mosby fought for the same side, same cause as Forrest, he escaped condemnation, The Gray Ghost notwithstanding, because his legacy dodged the issue that was inescapable in Forrest legend.

*     *     *

George Armstrong Custer may be the most famous soldier in American history who wasn’t later president or wasn’t named Robert E. Lee. As such, Custer’s myth, which ironically is a metaphor for defeat, carries enormous weight in American memory, and bears little relationship to his actual importance in American history.[4]

Custer’s contested legacy reflects changes in cultural values and the constancy of cultural mythologies. His individualism is writ large in the iconic image—most notably in a beer-company poster—of the Last Stand. It was as though his death was made for the movies. Like Forrest, Custer ended up on the wrong side in terms of equality, although it was Indians rather than African-Americans in his case. His legacy will only sustain the public’s interest in his mottled career. He scores well in terms of individualism and bravery. The verdict on his egalitarianism is complicated: he fought for the “right” side in the Civil War, but fought against Indians in the West. However, he died on the frontier in a memorable year, helping clear the way for its conquest and showing its danger, and appealing to the public imagination. His allure persists because he appeals to the culture’s frontier fantasies. The changing temper of the times, though, means the same event, same story, even the same place, will need different interpretations. Everyone seems to know of Custer’s Last Stand. Few may be aware it probably never happened as depicted in film and fiction.[5]

The impact of the press on the Custer story is immeasurable. The fevered speculations about what “actually” happened that day first came from the hands of reporters. Journalists wrote the first two major biographies of Custer. Whittaker’s worshipful book was the only substantive biography of Custer in the 19th century. Whittaker created the template for more than a half-century of Custerphilia among historians and biographers, essentially unchallenged until the 1920s, when Modernists began to look more critically at American culture, history and icons. Frederic F. Van de Water’s biography is the antithesis of Whittaker’s. Van de Water’s Custer is vain and egotistical, squandering his men’s lives for the sake of self-aggrandizement. Custer embodied America’s dark side: violent and imperialistic.[6]

As journalists, Whittaker and Van de Water wrote for broad appeal within the limits of permissible opinion. The facts of the battle had not changed, but the public interpretation of them did. In the 1930s and 1940s, professional historians and geographers sifted evidence and broadened the investigation. New archeological, anthropological, ethnological and psychological voices were introduced. The Indian perspective was reevaluated. The axis of the story shifted. Like the contrasting biographies, the cinematic Custer went from hero to jackass, but in only a single generation instead of two. In They Died with Their Boots On, Custer was the good guy killed by Indians. By 1970, Custer was an egotistical fool in Little Big Man.[7]

Custer and the Last Stand exemplify the power of myth and memory. Facts are sparse, but the myth is boundless. Recent historians have challenged the idea that Custer died on a hilltop. Even the location of Custer’s remains is a point of contention. Some visitors stop at the battlefield memorial in Montana, thinking he’s there, near the hilltop marker. He may be, depending on who is buried at West Point. There are plenty of reasons to doubt that his bones are in his tomb. In 1985, an anthropologist who examined the bones at the Little Bighorn National Monument expressed some reservations about who was buried at West Point. The soldiers who exhumed Custer’s remains may not have got the right man. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, bodies at the battlefield were often poorly identified and buried hastily in shallow graves, including Custer. For the next year, the remains were exposed to the elements and animal scavengers. In 1877, bodies thought to be Custer and his officers were exhumed and sent east.

It is fitting that just as we have been unable to settle on the place of his spirit in our national memory, we may have carted the wrong bones across the continent while the real ones are forever in the dust where he fell, wherever that may have been. His mortal remains may be scattered, but his story is firmly in the grip of mediated America.[8]

(To be continued….)


[1] David Madden, The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction: Readings and Writings from a Novelist’s Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 110.

[2] Ashdown and Caudill, The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest, 59-61.

[3] Caudill and Ashdown, Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory, 95-97, 179-80; personal interview with John Marszalek, January 19, 2007, Starkville, MS.

[4] See Michael Frisch, “American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography,” in David Thelan, editor, Memory and American History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 1-26.

[5] The Budweiser poster was painted by Cassilly Adams in 1884, and a subsequent lithography by F. Otto Becker in 1889. Caudill and Ashdown, Inventing Custer, 3-4. On historical memory and narrative, see Thelan, Memory and American History; the “Introduction” is an excellent essay on historical memory.

[6] Frederic F. Van de Water, Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1934).

[7] On the idea of the range of permissible opinion and how the press operates within such limits, see D.W. Harding, “General Conceptions of the Study of the Press and Public Opinion,” Sociological Review 29 (1937), 370-90.

[8] Caudill and Ashdown, Inventing Custer, 301. More recently, the Custer family has denied permission to exhume the remains at West Point.

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