Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer

Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer

by Louise Barnett

Paperback(New Edition)

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For more than a century, Americans have been captivated by the legend of General George Armstrong Custer. But the various truths of Custer’s life and last stand prove elusive. Why are we so taken with the myth and the so-called mystery behind the man?

In a field teeming with highly partisan and wildly speculative treatments of Custer, Louise Barnett enters with a volume widely acclaimed by both military and cultural historians as the most balanced account of his life and legend. Custer's life spans two great eras of American history, and Barnett's commanding work pushes beyond the existing literature to a comprehensive view of this controversial figure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803262669
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 10/01/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 540
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Louise Barnett is a professor of English and American studies at Rutgers University and the author of a number of books, including The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism, 1790–1890, and Ungentlemanly Acts: The Army’s Notorious Incest Trial.

Read an Excerpt

Touched by Fire

The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer

By Louise Barnett

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-6266-3


In 1991, when I came as a tourist to what was then called the Custer
battlefield, I had no thought of writing a book about George Armstrong
Custer. As my son Rob and I tried to make sense of what
had happened on that ground in 1876, he casually asked, "How
many people were killed in the Battle of the Little Bighorn?" "Two
hundred and sixty-five," I answered, responding to his question as I
thought he meant it, that is as referring to the U.S. side (the number
of Indian dead has always been in dispute). Upon hearing my answer
he appeared stunned, even disbelieving. Then he said, "Why is
this battle so famous when so few people were killed?"

To answer Rob's question to my own satisfaction I had to immerse
myself in Custer and his world for a period of years-and
write Touched by Fire. I can't say that I immediately decided to write
a book, but a year after Rob's and my visit I took a leave from my
job, threw my laptop and a few other things into my car, and headed
back to southeastern Montana, this time not as a tourist but as a
researcher. That impulsive turn from standard academic projects
proved happy, leading me to engage a figure whose achievements
and personality havecontinued to fascinate and provoke controversy
more than a century after his death.

From Montana, I went to Berkeley and a waking life devoted to
Custer. I began each weekday before dawn, thinking of Custer as I
jogged. I waited on the Bancroft Library steps for the building to
open at nine, left when it closed, and then read at home the books
I could check out. I traveled to places Custer had been-Monroe,
Michigan; a series of nineteenth-century army posts; the Washita
battlefield-and places that had preserved documents or other records
of his life. I can recall staring at some dried grass purportedly
picked from Custer's first burial spot on Last Stand Hill to be given
to his widow. What must she have felt when looking at this token-proximity
to her husband or an incalculable distance?

Custer's buckskin wardrobe has been parceled out among various
institutions, along with other of his personal effects. So much
has been saved from time and so much, such as the watch he was
wearing when he died, has been lost-artifacts that would be worth
a fortune to collectors today. Yet the greatest loss is always the unrecorded
thoughts of history's actors, which are neither spoken aloud
nor written down.

In the decade that separated the first publication of Touched by Fire
from this edition I had a number of memorable "Custer experiences,"
too many to take note of here. Three of them stand out because they
gave me new perspectives on Custer in our own time: a medical
conference whose subject was Custer, an army staff ride to the battlefields
of the Sioux Wars, and an Indiana University Law School
moot court addressing Custer's actions at the Little Bighorn.

The medical conference concentrated my attention as never before
on Custer's fascinating personality. Every year a group of medical
faculty in the Baltimore area holds a conference in which data is
presented about the illness of a famous person. Experts analyze information
culled from historical sources and arrive at a diagnosis. In
the year Custer was chosen as an appropriate figure for a psychological
workup, I and another Custer historian, Brian Pohanka, were
asked to take a battery of standard psychological tests: the Minnesota
Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2, the Millon Clinical Multiaxial
Inventory-II, and the Beck Depression Inventory. We did
this one time individually, as ourselves, and one time together, as
Custer-that is, we did not answer on the basis of our own views of
Custer but as we thought he himself would answer the questions. I
wondered in advance if even a biographer's knowledge of a subject's
life would be enough to perform such a task, but amazingly, going
through hundreds of multiple-choice questions, Brian and I agreed
on the proper response to all but two or three (and agreed on those
after a brief conversation). We knew, for example, that Custer was
exceptionally self-confident and courageous. These two keys-ego
strength and absence of fear-suggested the correct answer in many
cases. To imagine Custer afraid of rats, snakes, or spiders, as various
questions asked, was laughable. Ultimately, we didn't even take the
test designed to measure one's degree of depression because nothing
in it applied to Custer.

In short, artificial as it might have been to put ourselves in Custer's
shoes to take these tests, Brian and I believed that we had answered
the questions pretty much as Custer would have-if he had had the
patience to subject himself to such a procedure. It would have been
hard for him to have taken some of the questions seriously (such as
one requiring a yes or no answer: "I do not have now, nor have I ever
had, any hair on any part of my head or body"). Taking the personality
inventories as myself, confronting my fears and inadequacies after
taking the tests as Custer, was a chastening experience, one that
reminded me of the gulf between an ordinary person and an exceptional

The experts reviewing the psychological data and Custer's history
came to a familiar if disappointing conclusion: Custer had "reckless
disregard for personal safety and the safety of others." His score on
the tests indicated a "narcissistic-histrionic-antisocial profile," all of
which sounded negative but correlated with a confident, dramatic,
and competitive personality. Some of Custer's contemporaries would
easily have recognized him in the elaboration of this diagnosis:

Such individuals typically view themselves as superior to most

They have a tendency to exaggerate their abilities, emphasizing
past achievements, and deprecating those who do not accept their
inflated self-image.

They are usually seen as having an air of conviction and self-assurance.
This is the typical "superiority complex" profile.

Such people view most situations as competitive and are, by nature,
mistrustful and suspicious. They feel they have to be tough
to survive and view compassion and warmth as both weak emotions
and signs of inferiority.

This personality type does not respond well to confrontation and
has a strong desire to be admired.


Excerpted from Touched by Fire
by Louise Barnett
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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