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Custer & Me

More to See >> Read Part of Chapter 2 From Custer and Me | Utley Receives the Spirit of the West Award | Interview with Robert Utley

By Robert Utley

Book Review by Bob Reece, November 2004

Webmaster's Note: A Board of Director of the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Robert Utley, has published his long awaited memoirs aptly entitled, Custer and Me: A Historian's Memoir.

Utley’s memoirs begin,

 “How can a man [Custer] long dead haunt the lives of so many people? How can a man both venerated and abominated in his own time still command so much veneration and abomination in a genera­tion ten times removed from his? How can Japanese who read translations of my writings - or for that matter, French, Italians, Poles, or Czechs - find even a narrow bridge to that distant time, place, and culture that can convert them into Custer addicts?

Of the afflicted, many do not know, or cannot explain, why. Others will offer many and diverse reasons. For myself, I know only how it started and how it is ending. In between, many things happened that may help illumine the question. Whether they do or not, they tell much about Custer and me.”

Throughout Utley’s long lustrous career, both as a writer of history and a risk taking National Park Service leader, he has tried to answer many of those questions and he has done well in the attempt. Writing with confidence and clarity, Utley does not fail his followers. He takes us on a whirlwind tour of his personal life – a most honest tour. Utley imparts his triumphs and discloses the failures – journeys that sometimes took him far from the Little Bighorn, but always brought him back.

We learn how and when Custer began to influence Utley’s life -- it was Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in the film, They Died with Their Boots On. Utley was twelve at the time and four short years later he would take a monumental trip to the Custer Battlefield National Monument. We can all be thankful that the trip was made.

Custer and Me shines best when Custer takes center stage. Utley worked each summer, at Little Bighorn, from 1947-52 as a “historical aide.” Utley witnessed major events at the battlefield -- the 75th, 100th, and 125th anniversaries. At the 75th anniversary, the speakers were Army Lt. General Albert C. Wedemeyer, Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, and Dewey Beard (Horn Cloud). Utley remembers that day,

“For Captain Luce and me alike, however, the awesome attraction was the assemblage of high-ranking brass. All those glittering stars so excited Luce that he drove the government car without releasing the emergency brake, which caught fire.”

The American Indian Movement (A.I.M.), led by Russell Means, disrupted the 100th anniversary events with actions that resulted in some Custer enthusiasts' animosity toward the National Park Service. Utley’s take on the uninvited visit by Means enables the reader to better understand why the National Park Service reacted the way it did.

Utley shares the story behind his first book, Custer’s Last Stand: With a Narrative of Events Proceeding and Following. The costs for publication were a whopping $365. If anyone is fortunate to find a copy today, it will probably cost the buyer more than the publication costs. The book was sold at Mary Jane’s battlefield souvenir shop. About this first work Utley states, “…Is not a work that I now, more than half a century later, look back on with pride.” Utley’s feelings aside, the book sold out at Mary Jane’s store even with the 75-cent price tag!

Far from Custer Battlefield, Utley served the National Park Service well. We can give Utley credit for helping bring Hubbel Trading Post, Fort Bowie, and Fort Davis into the park system. He held positions as NPS Regional Historian in Santa Fe, Chief Historian in D.C., director of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, and deputy executive director at the Advisory Council, which reported directly to the president of the United States.

After retiring from the NPS, Utley was still very vocal with issues inside it – most of them involved Little Bighorn. We are privy to inside information about issues such as the archeological digs of the early 80s, North Shield Ventures, and the Indian Memorial.

People and characters of all kinds, some well known and others unknown, grace the pages for us to enjoy; Norman MacLean, Congressman Morris Udall, LeRoy Hafen, Edgar Stewart, Wallace Stegner, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall,  Paul Hutton, and Charles Windolf (Utley met Windolf, the last white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, only three years before his passing in South Dakota).

But, there are two people that most influenced Utley -- Edward S. Luce, and Utley’s wife, Melody Webb. Utley’s affection for Luce and Webb is openly shared with us; it is heartfelt, and at times very moving. These memoirs are a true love story at all levels. 

Custer and Me is filled with many moments of personal reflection. The reader feels as if he is reading more than a memoir. The experience is more like a one-on-one, come sit down beside me, and let me tell you what I can’t tell anyone else personal account. Custer and Me is a total joy to read.

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Read Utley's Presentation at the First Friends' Symposium

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