You could see them in the morning, their tents pitched on opposite sides of the open grassy avenue that led up the hill from the parking lot to the sutlers’ row at the battlefield’s edge. They’d be there at dawn, seated in folding wooden field chairs, one in a pair of 1861 Federal pattern sky-blue kersey wool cavalry trousers, and the other sporting the olive-colored corduroy ones the General had favored back in his Civil War days. Atop these, both wore a pair of red suspenders over hand-stitched poplin shirts cut sailor-style, with stars on their collars. They had both arisen precisely ten minutes after sunrise, that being the General’s preferred hour for his morning ablutions, and set about trimming their moustaches and beards with a pair of period scissors, regarding the results in folding mirrors set beside identical enameled tin washbasins, set atop identical pine camp stools.
One might not, at first sight, suppose that theirs was anything but a friendly rivalry. As the day progressed, each would add to his respective apparel, the Civil War model donning his non-regulation blue velvet jacket with gold lace galloons (the very ones that had once prompted a fellow officer to call him “a circus rider gone mad”), while the Plains Indian War model would put on his buckskins; to which each of course then added Custer’s signature red bandana. The hats were different too: a dark wide-brimmed slouch hat for one, a broad cream-colored hat, with the right side hooked up, for the other (this modification was adopted in order to make it easier to use his telescope, a vital tool in a land where one’s enemies had to be discovered before they could be engaged).
At around this time, the day crowd would start to file up from the parking lot, while those of the other regiments who weren’t yet scheduled for battle would wander about, demonstrating the realities of camp life, or perhaps relaxing with a period-specific cheroot or—if none were available – chewing on a twig. The strange mingling of young men and women in their nineteenth-century garb with tourists in their t-shirts and jeans was one of those things about which neither group was meant to remark, though occasionally, when pressed, a soldier might inquire of a civilian what kind a place this was where women as well as men walked about in dungarees and underwear. The Custers took little notice of this; they were not there to engage with the common folk of today any more than with the common folk of yesterday—with the sole exception, that is, of photographers.
There were two kinds of shutter-bugs at these kinds of events—the period fellows with the large wooden cameras on tripods, who for a premium would record one’s likeness on a tintype or glass plate—and the modern folks, most of them tourists, most carrying a point-and-shoot camera that knew nothing of f-stops, exposure times, or developing. The Custers had little to do with the first, seeing them as competitors—they preferred to sell the curious a period-replica carte-de-visite—but they could hardly resist the interest of the others. Their rates and rules were somewhat different; for ten dollars, the Civil War Custer would pose for a photograph only while seated— either on his horse or in his field-chair—and only by himself; the Plains War Custer would, for twenty dollars, pose with whoever could be fit into the frame; a signature was five dollars extra from either man.
The mornings usually commenced with some photographs, and each Custer would for a time mount his horse. How gallant they both looked! Then, as the Generals accepted the accolades of the crowd, they would answer questions. The Civil War ones were usually about whether he was the youngest Major-General ever (he was); whether he’d outwitted J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry (he had); and whether he’d been wounded at Gettysburg (he hadn’t). With the other Custer, though, there was a problem: the most common question, especially from children, was whether or not he’d been scalped. This is a tricky question for any re-enactor, I suppose, but the more so for a Custer; it would have been a violation of his character to speak of any event that occurred after June 25th, 1876 when—being dead—he could not have been a witness to events. This particular Custer had several ways of getting out of that tight spot; he’d describe men he’d seen scalped at other battles, change the subject, speaking of his admiration for the Red Man, or simply try to ignore the question. If the youthful querent persisted, he’d get a stern look from the General and be asked, “Son, would you care for a demonstration of the technique?” That usually put an end to it.
There were other indignities, as well. Much like a pair of department-store Santas, both Custers were often subject to the pulling of their beards and moustaches, to “see if they were real.” Younger children sometimes snuck inside the Generals’ tents, and absconded with whatever they could lay their hands on; this the Generals addressed by storing most of their possessions in locked ammunition crates, or outside where they could keep an eye on them. But the worst of all—and, to be fair, it was the 1876 Custer who got most of it—there were always people asking the General whether or not it was right to try to rub out the Plains Indians, whether he’d killed women and children at the Battle of the Washita River, and whether, in the sum of things, he was in fact a bad man. Custer, of course, did not break character; he divided the Indians into peaceful ones and “hostiles,” and swore he’d never done anything to harm the peaceful ones; he suggested that he was merely the delegate or representative of the will of the people of the United States, and if anyone wanted to complain about Indian policy they should apply to President Grant; and finally he insisted that he had always followed the rules of engagement, and neither would have harmed women or children nor tolerated any of his men doing so.
It was a good act. And for a long time, it worked well, and predictably—at least, as far as everyone on the outside could see. And yet there was one problem, one difficulty that was much more than merely historical — one might say it was almost existential. The Custers’ devotion to their character, and to staying in it no matter what, was a thing they shared in equal measure, and held to be an absolute rule. And the toughest, the most intractable and to-be-avoided- at-all-costs danger to the rule was that there were two of them. Now General Custer himself, unless he’d been in possession of a time machine (a proposition that ran contrary to the very idea of re-enactments and their necessity) would never have had occasion to encounter himself, either as a younger or an older man—that was clear enough—but what to do with the increasingly palpable resentment that had, ever so slowly, begun to grow, each against the other. It could not be tabulated, or readily compensated for, because its source, the fountain from which it trickled and later poured, was the one thing, the one person, who could not possibly be acknowledged to exist.
It was at the hundred-and-forty-first Gettysburg that things came to a head. The Generals went about their business as usual, and no passer-by, however curious and interrogative, would have suspected that the least follicle of hair upon the chins and cheeks of either man, was so much as a fraction of an inch out of place. They nodded politely, shook the hands of children and adults, and answered every question, even the difficult ones, with aplomb. But as the sun began slowly to decline in the West, the Indian Wars Custer was startled to see a young man in the dress of an infantry corporal standing outside his tent with a letter upon a silver platter. But of course, being Custer, he nodded, received the letter, and returned the lad’s slightly belated salute. It must be a message of some kind, he thought, from one of my fellow officers here on the field of battle.
And it was. It was a letter, in fact, from himself. It was not lengthy. The text, in its entirety, was as follows:
To: Lieut. Col. George A Custer, 7th Cav. USA ‘76
From: Major Gen. George A. Custer, Michigan Brigade, ‘63
It is with deepest regret that I am obliged to convey to you my intention to challenge you to a duel at sun’s set, this 3rd of June inst. Each of us will be allowed to choose our weapons and our seconds. Honor demands our presence, and I am confident that neither of us will disappoint.
Geo. A. Custer
What he was to make of that, he could not precisely fathom—I doubt any man could, in such circumstances—but there was no question of refusing this challenge. It was not in Custer’s nature to refuse; indeed it would have been very gravely out of his character to do so, and to break character was the moral and ethical equivalent of death. And so he wrote quickly in return, stating that a pair of 1861 Navy revolvers with ivory grips—the weapon he’d favored in the war between the states—would be agreeable, and nominating me as his second.
I will say only a few words here about myself—for this is not my story. My rank is a humble one, that of Private in company H of the 25th Massachusetts Volunteers. I would not have been here at all, except that my Captain, a man of good sense and character, had decided that it might be to my advantage to serve General Custer, and left it to me which man I would follow. And I will say, without hesitation, that I followed the better man, though I cannot say precisely why. And so it fell to me, that evening, to accompany my General to the field of honor, and stand as he selected and tested his weapon. The other General conducted himself with no less honor—indeed, had it not been for the tiny grain of rashness which his making the challenge first disclosed, I might have said equal honor. The weapons were chosen; the duel was to be at forty paces, and each man was to turn upon the count of three.
They advanced to their positions, and the count was made—myself and the other General’s second, the corporal who had delivered the letter, calling out the numbers together: “One. . .Two. . .Three!”
There were shots. There were puffs of smoke. And the other General fell, the ball having passed (as we later discovered) almost precisely through his heart, and lodged in one of his vertebrae. My Custer, true to form, summoned his personal doctor and ambulance, but the good man could only remove his hat from his head, and place it over his heart.
“I’m sorry sir. The General is dead.”
This had a most peculiar effect upon my General. He leaned, sorrowfully, over the body, and with his buckskin-gloved hand reached forth and gently closed his rival’s eyes. And then, he rose up, just as a man with white hair, wearing the uniform of a Captain and a straw hat, drew near. He, too, removed his headgear, and his white hair flowed in the twilight breeze, almost as freely as the General’s. And then he turned, and spoke in the plainest matter-of-fact tones.
“If you are ready, then we should go.”
And the General turned, and followed the man, and they mounted their horses. And then, as the last rays of the setting sun spread over the sky, they rode slowly together over the top of the grassy hill at the edge of the field.
I never saw them again.
Russell Potter’s novel PYG: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig, was published by Penguin in 2012. His short fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in the The Ocean State Review, The New Orleans Review, The Goddard Review, and Nomad.
Photo: George A. Custer and J.B. Washington, 1862