(VU University Amsterdam ACASA, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Keywords: controversial afterlife, heritage, historic perception
2026 is the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Little Big Horn where General Custer and his 7th cavalry were annihilated by the Sioux warriors led by Crazy Horse and Siting Bull.
Today George Armstrong Custer is one of the most famous people of the old wild west, an icon of what it is to be an American. General Custer, Civil War hero, Indian fighter and all American hero, immortalized in books and movies.
But Custer is also the butcher of the battle of the Washita. During this “battle” Custer and his 7th cavalry took all the wives and children hostage when they attacked the Cheyenne camp. Using them as shield he killed nearly all of the native American warriors. Custer tried to repeat this tactic at the Little Big Horn, but it backfired dramatically and he and almost all his soldiers lost their lives in the battle.
And that should have been the ignominious end of a failed soldier only fit for a little footnote in history. But the opposite happened. After his death Custer transformed into the icon of part of the American psyche. Numerous films and books haven been written about this man. Some praise him as a hero and some condemn him as a glory hunter, insane person and war criminal. But he never disappeared into obscurity.
In the 21st century a new generation is questioning the heroes of old. They are not heroes anymore but remnants of a mentality that was oppressive and wrong!
And yet there is one remarkable exception. George Armstrong Custer! Today the memory of him is more alive than ever. And far from describing him as a villain, today he is portrayed as the one true American, flawed but still worthy of our admiration. This presentation will explain why.
Relevance for the conference: Custer is visual heritage and controversial
Relevance for the session: Custer as a subject of controversial heritage explains why some subjects survive changing attitudes in society
Innovation: nobody talk about why object stay heritge even when they are controversial this one does
• Isabel Vandervelde 2014 Custer Laughed James E. Mueller 2013 Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud