June 25th is one of those days that is permanently in my memory because of a historical event. Today, it is the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the battle during the Great Sioux War of 1876 in which Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under his command were wiped out by a much larger force of Native Americans. Since my teenage years, my view of the battle has been largely shaped by a (somewhat) obscure book called Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell.
It is largely because of Libbie Custer that her husband’s reputation and his memory in general did not suffer as much, at least for the first century or so after his death. And frankly, it probably should have suffered. Custer was brash, egotistical, vain, stubborn, and reckless with the lives of those who he led. There is a reason he graduated dead last in his West Point class of 1861. He was a controversial figure while he was alive, much less afterward. It is largely because of Libby Custer that the view of Custer as a tragic hero perpetuated for so long (see the movie They Died With Their Boots On, with Custer portrayed by Errol Flynn).
But what actually happened at Little Bighorn is much more complex than what was portrayed in popular culture for so long. And Son of the Morning Star (the book AND the movie) does a much better job than anything before or since in portraying the battle and what happened. That’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth. Here’s a clip of the opening titles and scene, where the column under General Alfred Terry (played by Terry O’Quinn!) arrives on the battlefield to see they have missed the fight. Note also Captain Frederick Benteen played by David Strathairn. Also note that the story is largely narrated by the two women.
I don’t know if this film will ever find its way to DVD, much less Blu-Ray, but it should.
Today is the 154th anniversary of the day that slavery ended in the state of Texas, the last part of the Confederacy where slavery had survived. On June 19th, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, the commander of the District of Texas for the Union Army, stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa on Galveston Island and read aloud “General Order No. 3” to the crowd that had gathered. The order began:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
On this day in 1811, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born to prominent minister Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana Foote Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was the seventh of an eventual thirteen children.
Harriet Beecher was fortunate in that she received a thorough classical education at a time when most women did not. She would meet widower Calvin Ellis Stowe in the mid-1830’s after she moved to Cincinnati. They would marry in 1836.
By 1850 the Stowes were living in Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin taught at nearby Bowdoin College. Harriet was inspired to write something after the new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in early 1850. She wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, publisher of the antislavery newspaper The National Era, and told him she wanted to write something in serial form to be published in his paper. Stowe was paid $400 (a not-inconsiderable sum for its time) for the story, which was published from June 1851 until April 1852. The story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly, was published in book form soon afterward. The book became a bestseller, selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over 1,000,000 copies in Great Britain in less than a year, thus becoming the second most-popular book in English in the 19th century (its sales were exceeded only by the Bible).
By current standards the book portrays a lot of offensive racial stereotypes of African-Americans. But it is hard to overstate the influence of the book on attitudes of the 19th century public towards slavery. In the South, negative reaction to the novel was widespread, and the book was banned and burned in many places. People caught with copies of the book in the South were at best ostracized by their peers, and at worst they became victims of mob violence and vigilante justice, like a bookseller in Mobile, Alabama who was driven from the city. But many Southerners instinctively recognized the power of Stowe’s story, and so the novel inspired an entire genre of Southern literature that became known as anti-Tom literature or plantation literature. But even the bestsellers of this genre never came remotely close to the popularity of the original Stowe novel.
In the North and in other countries, the book was hailed as an agent for social change. Within five years the book had been published in twenty languages. In addition to its political themes, the book was a popular culture phenomenon. One of its characters inspired many parents across the Northern United States to name their daughters Eva. The book inspired numerous plays and dramatic readings. It would eventually inspire a number of film adaptations as well.