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B R I A N W. D I P P I E Austin, Texas Bards of tlie Little Big Horn “Of Custer’s fight we at present know nothing, and can only surmise,” wrote Lieutenant Edward Maguire on July 10, 1876, from “Camp on the Yellowstone River, Near the mouth of the Big Horn River.” He continued: We must be content with the knowledge gleaned from the appear­ ance of the field, that they died as only brave men can die, and that this battle, slaughter as it was, was fought with a gallantry and desperation of which the “Charge of the Light Brigade” cannot boast.1 Maguire’s analogy was prophetic if not astoundingly inventive. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, had transformed the blunder at Balaclava into a thrilling display of British courage in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” The Battle of the Little Big Horn, fought some twenty-two years later, was also immortalized by poets who, like Tennyson, sought to convert defeat into a kind of moral victory, a glorious if vague triumph of Americanism. In the pages that follow I will examine some of the poetic cele­ brations of Custer, his Last Stand, and the legends that surround both. More than just dust was stirred up along the Little Big Horn River in 1876. Poetic muses that had rested long dormant also stirred, shook the dust off their wings, and took flight into the realm 1“Annual Report of Lieutenant Edward Maguire, Corps of Engineers, for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1876,” in Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers to the Secretary of War for the Year 1876, Part III, House Exec. Doc. No. 1, Pt. 2, Vol. 11, 44 Cong., 2 sess. (Washington, D.C., 1876), p. 702. 176 Western American Literature of pure fantasy. The result was “poetry” which was often so baldly bad —and baldly sentimental —that a real miracle is that Custer’s Last Stand was not long ago laughed into oblivion. Yet, though many were versifiers of no consequence, the ranks of the Custer bards did include several of the best known poets of the time. Their works were read widely in an age which had more time for poetry than our own, and their part in converting the Last Stand into a popular American myth was enormous. The British weekly The Saturday Review observed with an almost fascinated horror American efforts to apotheosize the Little Big Horn disaster. Its merciless analysis of a poem entitled “Cus­ ter’s Last Charge” by “an occasional contributor” which had ap­ peared in the New York Herald (“Amid ‘heroes’ gore,’ ‘corpses,’ ‘spouting wounds,’ and ‘savage foes,’ . . . [Custer] made a perfectly melodramatic end” ) is followed by the relatively gentle admoni­ tion that “Americans, like ourselves, are better at doing things than commemorating them”: The unfortunate General Custer has received the dubious honor of comparison with Lord Cardigan, and an American rival of Tennyson has composed a poem on “Custer’s Last Charge,” while a sculptor has named a price for which he will undertake to represent in bronze “Custer with his long hair, and in his cavalry costume brandishng his sabre.” These poets and artists will go near to add a new terror to death by making its victims ridiculous. . . ,2 But the British plea for moderation was to no avail. As General Bosquet had remarked while the Light Brigade charged to im­ mortality, “C’est magnifique, mats ce nest pas la guerre.” 3 Truly, Custer’s Last Stand was not war, but it was magnifique, and the sour remonstrances of the British press were not about to inhibit the soaring imaginations of a legion of American poets. Narrating the story of the battle in verse seems a painless method of acquaint* ing the reader with the texture and tenor of their work. With Nebraska’s poet laureate, John G. Neihardt, we join the Seventh Cavalry as they set out from the camp on the Yellowstone River, June 22, 1876, to complete the last leg of their campaign against the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne Indians — the campaign which was to end so disastrously three days later on a ridge above the Little Big Horn...


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pp. 175-195
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