Did an undiagnosed case of OCD contribute to a military disaster?
Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. By Evan S. Connell. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $13.29, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Americans didn’t always find it easy to cast George Armstrong Custer as an imperialist lackey who attacked Indians justly angered by broken treaties. Evan Connell notes in this rambling history of the Battle of Little Bighorn that much of the public viewed him as a homegrown Siegfried, “a warrior of matchless strength and purity,” for decades after a band of Sioux and Cheyenne and others killed all of his men in perhaps as little as 20 or 30 minutes on June 25, 1876.
Son of the Morning Star lends plausibility to both views of one of the most controversial figures in American military history. Connell’s overconfident Custer led a reckless Seventh Cavalry charge against a vastly larger number of warriors who saw gold miners streaming onto land promised to them by the U.S. government. But his book describes enough of the Indian atrocities that preceded the attack, including the murder and scalping of children, to show why any 19th-century American might have seen the young lieutenant colonel as a noble martyr.
Connell tells Custer’s story with a slack hand absent from Mrs. Bridge, the taut masterpiece that made his reputation. A poem that Walt Whitman wrote right after the Battle of Little Bighorn, he says, is “not very good”: “If he had waited, as poets are supposed to do, recollecting in tranquility, he might have done better. Then again, it could have been worse.” Son of the Morning Star has a fair amount of such blather. But Connell has a novelist’s eye for suggestive detail that adds layers of interest to the accounts of the battle typically found in history books. He writes that the impulsive Custer had obsessions that included “washing his hands again and again” while serving in the Army during the Civil War. And although his book doesn’t raise it directly, the question lingers: Did America’s Charge of the Light Brigade result in part from what would today be called an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder?
Best line: No. 1: “Just as each tribe marked its arrows in a distinctive way, so each had a particular style of scalping: diamond-shaped, triangular, square, oval. Sgt. [John] Ryan observed in his memoirs that when the scalped body of a trooper was found the Indian scouts knew immediately which tribe was responsible.” No. 2: “Abdominal wounds usually were fatal, whether or not the blade [of an arrow] could be withdrawn. This fact being known to Indians, they frequently aimed at a soldier’s bellybutton, and it is said that experienced frontiersmen sometimes would wrap a blanket around their middle in hopes of stopping the point or at least diminishing the impact.”
Worst line: No. 1: “In addition to written orders, he seems to have been told verbally to dump the stove.” No. 2: The lines about Whitman quoted in the review above.
Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.