Thursday, July 12, 2012

Last Stands

This post has everything to do with college football and nothing to do with college football all at the same time.

My grandfather is buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery near Augusta, Michigan.  He served as a medic during World War II and is interred there in honor of his military service.  Fort Custer National Cemetery is a part of the Fort Custer National Military Reservation, which was used during World War I as a mobilization facility and as a camp for German POWs during World War II.

"Sighting the Enemy" is an equestrian monument of George Armstrong Custer in his boyhood hometown of Monroe, Michigan, honoring his service for the Union Army during the United States Civil War.  Standing in the heart of downtown Monroe, it is 14 feet tall and was dedicated in 1910 by President Taft himself.  Monroe also has a Custer Airport and a Custer Elementary School, one of the largest in the state of Michigan.
There are six counties in the United States named for George Armstrong Custer, along with two villages, a city, and an unincorporated town.  The US 85th Infantry Division was nicknamed the Custer Division, named for the Fort where it initially mustered during World War I.

George Armstrong Custer rose to prominence during the Civil War for his effectiveness as a cavalry commander, rising to the rank of (brevet) major general.  He was present at Appomattox as a part of the Union delegation that received Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Custer, however, is best known for leading his U.S. 7th Cavalry unit into an ill-advised attack on the Lakota and Cheyenne, ending in a slaughter at the Battle of Little Bighorn, losing 268 men and seeing another 55 wounded.

Custer's action has been both seen plainly, such as by President (and legendary General) Grant: "I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary." and romantically, most famously by the  Anheuser-Busch company's advertising campaign, showing "Custer's Last Stand" as a part of the larger narrative of the Indian Wars and the efforts to tame the frontier.

In the succeeding 135 years since Little Bighorn, Custer's legacy has been discussed, debated, revised, revised again, and still unsettled.  Some would like to see Custer's name wiped off the map, forgotten, shamed, erased from history.  Others want to honor Custer not for the end of his life, but for what he did before his completely fatal lapse in decision making,  Others see the memorials and encomiums as a chance to be reminded of the whole of a man's life and legacy, as a chance to discuss the past, to understand the circumstances, and know that decisions have consequences.

After all, just because you have sighted the enemy doesn't mean you know how to deal with it.

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