Ghost of General Custer
By: Mark Kodama

Outside on that lonely stretch of Montana highway, the north wind howled, rattling the windows of my motel room. Snow was expected. Huddling under a blanket, I drank a cup of hot Irish coffee as I finished my travel piece on Little Big Horn. I triumphantly smiled after I finished the final words of my first draft. I saved the file and turned off my laptop. "Poor fools. The folly of war. When we will ever learn?" I turned up the heater.

The whoops and shots of an Indian battle from the over–loud television of a neighbor's room reverberated through the paper–thin walls into my room. Large white snowflakes lit by the yellow street lights of the parking lot floated downward from the gun–metal sky. I was ready to let my inconsiderate neighbors have it.

But when I opened my door, all was silent except for the howl of the wind whipping down from the north. Closing my door, I sat on the corner of my bed. I took a final sip of my Irish coffee from my now empty coffee mug. The mug had the picture of John Lennon and his quote 'Give Peace a Chance." I turned on the coffee machine and made another cup of coffee. Men were singing Gary Owen, the old Irish drinking song and regimental battle song of Custer's 7th Cavalry.

When I opened my front door, there was only the wind and falling snow. I shut the door against the cold. Too much to drink. I looked at the time on my cell phone. It was midnight.

I heard boots walking on a wooden porch outside my room. Strange. The walkway and stairs were concrete. I looked at my empty coffee and half full bottle of whiskey.

There was a rap on my door. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. There was another knock on my door.

When I answered the door, General Custer himself in full uniform and a headless captain stood outside. "General George Armstrong Custer at your service," the phantom said. "This is my brother Tom. Never was there a better soldier, better friend or more loyal brother. He should have been the general and I the captain."

I did not know what to say.

"May we come in?" the ghost said.

So they entered my room. I shut the door against the blowing wind with two hands.

Gen. Custer and the headless captain sat on the empty chairs at the table. They took off their capes and set them in their laps. I sat facing them on the corner of my bed. "Tom and I hear you were writing a story about Little Big Horn," the general said.

"I think I had too much to drink," I replied.

Gen. Custer smiled. "As you wish." The general turned to his headless companion and said: "Ah, the smell of coffee. And the taste of whiskey again."

The general then turned to me and said "May we?"

I put my hand over my warm coffee cup, hiding John Lennon's face.

The general walked over to the coffee maker and poured coffee and whiskey into two Styrofoam cups. He looked on my nightstand by my desk. I was reading the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar. The general picked up the book. "Julius Caesar is my favorite play. My friend Lawrence Barrett played Cassius in New York City. 'I shall have glory on this losing day,'" Custer said quoting Brutus. He returned to his chair and sat down.

"I loved New York City. I planned to build a mansion for Libby there. I signed a contract to tour the lecture circuit. I was set to make millions. Never did become rich. But neither did others become famous."

"Casius always!" I said.

Custer laughed. He removed his hat. Gone was his famous long curly blond hair. Instead, his head was shaven and he had a terrible gunshot wound to his left temple. "Well," he said. "What are you waiting for? You are a journalist, aren't you? I'm General Custer. Ask some questions."

"Where are you from?"

"I was born in Ohio, the son of a blacksmith turned farmer. I grew up in Monroe, Michigan where I met Libby. Beautiful, smart, brave — she was the woman of my dreams. I can see her now at our wedding as if it was yesterday.

"When did you marry Libby?"

"1864."

"Why are you here?

"To tell my story."

Custer leaned back on his chair. He tugged on his leather gloves.

I tested his honesty. "Do you regret Washita River?"

"No. We were at war."

"Do you regret killing non–combatants?"

"Yes. I can see their faces still."

"Was the Battle of Little Big Horn a mistake?"

"No."

"Would you have done anything differently at the battle?"

"Obviously."

"What would you have done differently?"

"A faint heart never won fair lady," Custer said. "Neither did it pursue or take an Indian village. If Gen. Crook had warned us of the size of the Sioux and Cheyenne camp, if Major Reno did not retreat…if Capt. Keough had not been killed…if I had better trained troops…if I had better subordinates…if…if…You do not have these kinds of luxuries in war.

"I did not have those luxuries at Gettysburg," Custer said. "There I was a hero. And I did not have those luxuries at Little Big Horn either. We feared the Indians would slip away as they always did."

Tom Custer pulled a silver pocket watch from his blue coat. He nudged his older brother and then pointed to the watch face. The general nodded. "We have a limited time. We must return before the dawn's first light."

"Please, proceed," I said. "Tell your story as you will."

"I did not make U.S. Indian policy," the general said. "That was not my job. I did my duty. I fought Indians. That was my job.

He sipped his coffee spiked with whiskey. "When you are dead, there are no pains or joys, except from memories made from when you were alive. I graduated from West Point in 1861, just after the Civil War started. I fought each battle as if I would not survive. I had the Custer luck. War is strange — one moment someone is alive and then next moment they are just an inanimate lump of meat.

"I sported a broad sombrero with a feather, velvet uniform and bright red handkerchief around my neck. I dared fate. On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart led his famed horsemen against us from the rear. We were in retreat. I shouted to my men 'C'mon you Wolverines.' We counter attacked at full speed. Sword met sword and horse met horse. In the end, we drove Jeb Stuart and his Invincibles from the field.

"Tom became the first soldier in American history to win two Congressional Medals of Honor. For the last one, Tom was shot in the face taking the colors at Saylor's Creek

"After the war, I was appointed the commander of the newly formed Seventh Cavalry. Now, that the Civil War was over, the Indian Wars were heating up. The Plains Indians were a formidable enemy, fighting for their land and way of life. Their children rode horses before they walked. Their warriors trained to fight since boyhood.

"In November 1868, I found Chief Black Kettle and Cheyenne Indians camped at the Washita River in the dead of winter and destroyed them in one of the greatest battles of the Indian Wars."

"Wait, a minute, "I said. "Black Kettle was a renown peace chief. His village was at peace and there were few warriors. You killed women, children and noncombatants."

"So my critics say."

"You also left Maj. Elliot and his company behind," I said. "They were all killed."

"We were endangered of being surrounded. When you are a commander you have to make tough choices sometimes. We all knew the dangers. We had to get in and then we had to get out."

I started to say something, but the general raised his right hand. "Think what you think but time is limited. We will have to return before the cock crows.

"I then led the expedition that found gold in the Black Hills. Thousands of miners flocked to the Black Hills, lands sacred to the Lakota.

"We were on a collision course with the Northern Plains Indians. Corrupt Indian agents starved and cheated the Indians on the reservations prompting Indian leaders like Sitting Bull and Crazy to call for resistance.

"Did you have any problems with the Indian policy?"

"As a soldier no but as a man yes. I had many Indian friends. They are men like we are. They love their wives and children. I admired their free spirit, bravery, spirituality and sense of honor. The Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho fought for their land and way of life. But don't forget that they tried to destroy the Crow and Arikira. I testified before Congress about the corruption of the Indian agents, even implicating the president's brother Orville.

"President Grant was so furious that he stripped me of my command. But for Gen. Phil Sheridan and Gen. Alfred Terry I would not have returned to my command.

"But I am also an American and a soldier. Was the Mexican War fair? We needed to settle the Great Plains. The Indians stood in the way of progress. Stretching from sea to sea was America's destiny. It comes down to whether you are man enough to fulfill your destiny."

General Custer adjusted his gloves. His intense eyes flashed thinking of the past. He took a sip of his Irish coffee, savoring the taste before swallowing.

"On May 17, 1876, we set out west from Fort Abraham Lincoln. The band played "Gary Owen" and then the final song "The Girl I Left Behind." My officers and noncoms were experienced soldiers. However, many of my privates were new recruits were under aged and inexperienced in battle. Forty percent of men were immigrants.

General Terry led the larger command. I led the six hundred seventy men of the Seventh Calvary. It was a family affair. Tom here was my aid–de–camp. Our youngest brother Boston and nephew Auntie Reed were with us. My brother–in–law Lt. Calhoun commanded a company.

"Libby rode with me for the first day. She saw a vision as she looked back at the column as the sun rose above the mist. When Libby returned to Fort Lincoln, I stood in my stirrups, turned and waved to her. This is the last we ever saw of each other. She was never more beautiful than that day." The general wiped his eyes. "Libby,"he said quietly and sighed. He drained his Styrofoam cup.

"My brothers and I oftentimes left the column to hunt and explore. There was no harm in it. We were just Custers being Custers. But Gen. Terry got angry. But I have no regrets. We were boys again.

"After Gen. Terry admonished me, he sent Maj. Reno with half my men to scout the enemy. Reno picked up the trail of Sitting Bull but then turned back. " 'Reno if you found the trail of the Indians why didn't you pursue them?' " I said. The man was yellow, always hungrily envying me from the shadows.

"The remnants of an abandoned winter village of the Sioux, next to a sacred Indian burial site, lay in our path. We found the burnt remains of a U.S. soldier who had been beaten and tortured. When the Indians got a hold of you, they did not just kill you. They scalped you, and then their women cut you into pieces and stuffed your genitals into your mouth while you were alive.

"My brothers and I took souvenirs from the Indian burial site. Our Indian scouts said that was bad medicine and many of our men thought it was sacrilege. But as Cassius said: 'The fault that we are underlings lies not in the stars but in ourselves.' Flights of birds and sheep guts don't determine our fate. We do.

"On June 21 at the juncture of Yellowstone and Rosebud Rivers. Gen. Terry held a meeting. The plan was set. General George Crook would march northwest from Wyoming with a thousand men. I would force the Cheyenne and Lakota north with my column of men where Gen. John Gibbons and Gen. Terry would destroy the Indians.

"As we broke up the next day, Gen. Gibbons told me 'Now Custer don't be greedy, save some for us.' I replied 'No, I will not.' Who would have thought just a few days later our mutilated corpses would found in the yellow grass near the Little Bighorn River?"

"A giant group of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors defeated Gen. Crook and his column. Gen. Crook retreated but failed to warn us of the tens of thousands of Indians who had gathred into one giant village. We were walking into a trap.

"I forced marched my army west deep into a night so dark that you could only see the man ahead of you. We camped in the Wolf Mountains, near the Indian camp. At first we could only see the horses grazing on the hills. But when we got closer we saw how large the camp was. I released my Indian scouts. A few like Mitch Boyer and Bloody Knife insisted they stay with us.

"I sent Captain Benteen south with three companies and the pack train. I ordered Maj. Reno to attack the village from the east. I swung my column of 261 men north. We feared the Indians would escape. We did not expect them to stand and fight.

"On June 25, Maj. Reno began his assault on the village. The angry warriors fought back. Bloody knife was shot in the head, his brains spattering all over Reno's face. Reno lost his mind. He ordered his men to mount and then to dismount and then to remount and dismount again. Finally he shouted 'For those who wish to remain alive follow me' and then he fled on horseback across the river.

"Half of his command was killed when they tried to follow him into the river and then scramble up its high banks. The Sioux warriors shot them down like buffalo.

"I sent a message by rider to Benteen to join me as soon as possible with his men and pack train. When Benteen met the fleeing Reno, Reno ordered Benteen and his men to stay with him. Benteen told Reno that I had fled and left them to die.

"Meantime, I again split my command. Capt. Keough aand Lt. Calhoun formed skirmish lines to protect our left flank as we prepared to attack the village from the north.

"A mass of screaming warriors attacked Keough and Calhoun, mortally wounding Keough. One soldier grabbed a Sioux warrior by his ponytails and gnawed on his nose. The warrior finally freed himself and shot the soldier in the head. Many good and brave men died that day.

"After initial fighting, the sheer numbers of Indians caused the skirmish lines to collapse. We retreated from the river to Last Stand Hill with the Indians on or heals.

"Only twenty men from the Keough and Calhoun's companies made it to Last Stand Hill. We shot our horses to use them for cover. The Indians showered our position with arrows, wounding and killing many of our men.

"I was shot in the chest and lay mortally wounded. My last thoughts were of Tom, Libby, Boston and my men — Indian and white. I did not want to be taken while still alive so Tom shot me in the left temple. Tom and Boston died with me on Last Stand Hill.

"A small group of survivors ran down to Deep Ravine where the Indians finished them off. Mitch Boyer died running down the hill.

"Maj. Reno and Capt. Benteen fought off the Indians for two days before they were rescued by Gen. Gibbons and Gen. Terry.

"They found our mutilated bodies where we lay and buried us. They wrapped Tom and I in blankets and buried us on Last Stand Hill. Later, they moved my remains to West Point where they lie today."

"Did death do anything to change your views about life, particularly about war."

"No." he said. "Having said that now that I am dead I can be a little more honest about things. I extolled glory to motivate myself and my men. Men during war can be sublime, throwing down their lives to save a brother in arms and for God and country. It is natural to want to live and unnatural to want to die.

"War is terrible. No one knows this more than a solder. You see good men suffer and die from the most frightening wounds. The brave and the cowardly, the good and the bad, die and suffer alike. How many limbs are lost, faces marred and minds scarred? Living so close to death's embrace makes you appreciate life more."

General Custer began whistling "Imagine." "The sun will be up soon. I still like "Gary Owen" better," he said.

The wind and snow stopped. The sun rose. I blinked my eyes and they were gone.

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