On this day in 1876, just a week before the nation celebrated its centennial, George Armstrong Custer, along with more than 200 men of the Seventh Cavalry, died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Or, if you prefer, the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Or, perhaps, the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Whatever. On the one hand, the history of the fight is so well known that I feel silly blogging about it. On the other, the particulars are unknowable and there’s still so much mythology and hagiography surrounding Custer that both his career and demise remain shrouded in mystery.

That’s where Michael Elliot, a professor of English at Emory, enters the fray. His new book, Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer, is an easy read and one of the finest recent works in the field of memory studies. At its best, it hearkens back to some of the canonical literature in the discipline of American Civilization: books by Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and, most aptly, Richard Slotkin. I should note, so there’s no confusion, that this is just about the highest praise I can lavish on a scholar. Well, short of saying that they remind me of Richard Hofstadter (kindly take note of the last paragraph).

As Elliot’s title suggests, he sets his sites on the people who have studied Custer, individuals for whom, in many instances, the Little Bighorn is an ongoing concern. Elliot hits the predictable targets (reenactors, Park Service personnel, history buffs) and all the hot spots (Custer’s hometown, the Crazy Horse memorial, the battlefield itself). But he’s at his very best when he ventures into Indian country, where he considers the meaning of Long Hair and the Battle of the Greasy Grass for the Native people — and their descendants — who fought with Custer and those who killed him. Elliot’s portrait of Crow and Northern Cheyenne country, its people, and their simmering conflicts over history and cultural sovereignty is remarkable.

If I have a complaint about the book — and I suppose I have to come up with something, otherwise you people might think I’m not very smart — it’s that Elliot’s argument is somewhat predictable. Memory is contested in the New West, he says. To which I reply: um, yeah. Still, in this case, because Elliot works across huge cultural divides, and traverses so much time and space, he can be forgiven a thesis that’s something of a cliché in a field that’s still struggling to find its raison d’etre.*

[Author’s Note: Thanks to commenter Levi Stahl for sending me a copy of Custerology. I’m sorry it took me so long to read it. But I’m glad that I finally did.]

* Ooh la la, thees sintence ees vedy French, non?