On Tuesday at 7 p.m., Montana viewers will get a first look at a new biography of Lt. Col. George A. Custer on “American Experience,” an acclaimed history series produced for PBS.
The premiere of “Custer’s Last Stand” presents a balanced and nuanced view of one of the most complex and controversial figures in the history of the West.
“American Experience” tells the story through the voices of some of the nation’s leading historians, including Paul A. Hutton, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico and editor of The Custer Reader. Another of its narrators is Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the recent best-seller “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.”
It also features sweeping camera work of the road to Little Bighorn, as well as a treasure trove of old photographs and newspaper clippings, some written by Custer himself.
At the start of Custer’s career, he seemed a man perfect for his time. At 23, he was the boy general — a fearless and talented Civil War hero credited with playing a major role in Union victories.
Craving for excitement
He was glory-minded and glamorous and knew how to use the emerging medium of photography to his best advantage. Program narrators tell of his craving for excitement and his ambitious belief that he would be somebody important.
But when the war ended and he became a captain instead of the brevet rank of general he held in the Civil War, the excitement and glory seemed to fade.
By 1876, Custer was 36 and having trouble maintaining his standing as a brash young hero. He’d angered President U.S. Grant, implicating Grant’s brother in scandal during a congressional hearing into government corruption.
Grant, in retaliation, tried to prevent Custer from joining the 7th Cavalry on a spring campaign to force the Sioux onto reservations in the Dakotas. He relented only because Custer’s immediate superiors intervened on his behalf.
Custer took most of a generation of his family along as he rode from Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck on his way to a rendezvous in Montana — two brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew. None of them came back.
The “American Experience” program tries to put it all into the perspective of the time. The nation had just survived the Civil War and was celebrating its 100th anniversary. People were moving ever westward, many of them headed for the Black Hills, where miners who accompanied Custer on an expedition there in 1874 had discovered gold.
When the miners moved west, Sitting Bull forged an alliance of Sioux, Cheyenne and others who resisted the government’s plan to put them on reservations. The Lakota moved west, too, into the Yellowstone country the Crow claimed as homeland.
The Crow might not agree with former Little Bighorn Battlefield Superintendent Gerard Baker, one of the narrators, that the Sioux and Cheyenne were fighting for their homeland. From the Crow perspective, enemy tribes from the east were the invaders. It’s a perspective that is often missed in the struggle to make sense of what happened 1876. Shades of gray complicate this story.
The two-hour program was produced and directed by Stephen Ives, an independent documentary filmmaker.
His 1996 series “The West” was seen by 38 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched PBS programs of all times.
Since 2003, Ives has directed seven films for “American Experience” — “Seabiscuit,” “Las Vegas,” “New Orleans,” “Kit Carson,” “Roads to Memphis,” “Panama Canal” and the upcoming “Grand Coulee Dam.” “Seabiscuit” won an Emmy award.