One of 19th-century America’s most famous – or infamous – figures is coming to Oxford later this year to help celebrate one of the 20th-century’s most iconic fictional characters.
U.S. Calvary Commander George Armstrong Custer will ride into town to take part in the annual Lone Ranger Parade and Festival on Saturday, Aug. 5. He’ll appear at the Orion Township Public Library for a speaking engagement the day before.
“I’m looking forward to coming up there and having fun. It sounds like a hoot,” said Richard E. Williams, a living historian and Civil War reenactor from Martinsville, Ohio, who portrays Custer.
The 60-year-old has been appearing as Custer since 2003. Every year since 2007, he’s played the flamboyant military leader at the Battle of Little Bighorn Reenactment in Hardin, Montana.
Custer and 267 of the men under him were killed by Native American warriors in that June 1876 battle. This famous rout, commonly referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand,” is what usually springs to mind for many Americans whenever his name is mentioned.
Williams, who began Civil War reenacting in 1999, didn’t set out to bring Custer back to life. People kept telling him what a striking resemblance he bore to the historical figure, so he decided to go with it.
“It just kind of fell in my lap,” he said. “I didn’t apply for this job. It came after me.”
Unlike the fictional Lone Ranger, who was created for radio, television and film to be the quintessential good guy, Custer was a “very complicated character,” as Williams put it, with both “faults” and “good qualities.”
“He was human – just like anybody else,” he said.
Some herald Custer as an American hero for his distinguished service in the Union Army during the Civil War, which included his forces blocking Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s escape at Appomattox Court House, Virginia in April 1865, forcing the South to surrender.
Some vilify him as an agent of genocide for his active role in the brutal and bloody Indian Wars during which Native Americans and white settlers clashed over land and natural resources in the Old West.
Some praise Custer as a bold leader with a head for tactics and a keen instinct for reading a battle and seizing opportunities when they presented themselves.
Some criticize him for being an egotistical and ambitious commander who was needlessly reckless with his men’s lives, a trait that ultimately brought about his demise at the age of 36.
Some argue he was a mix of all these things.
“I think it’s all this combined that still serves today to make him one of the more famous and controversial generals that we’ve ever had,” Williams said.
Say what you will about Custer, but Williams said there’s no denying “the man did enjoy fighting” and was never one to run whenever the bullets flew and sabers clashed.
“Bravery was certainly something he was not in short supply of,” Williams said.
During the course of the Civil War, Custer’s courage and success on the battlefield led to his promotion from second lieutenant to captain to brigadier general, at the age of 23, and finally, to major general two years later.
He was nicknamed the “Boy General.”
While most generals stayed at the rear of battlefields and ordered their troops forward, Williams said, “Custer would ride to the front, draw his saber and say, “Follow me!’”
“Custer had 11 horses shot out from under him during the Civil War,” he added.
Twice during the war, Williams said Custer made the cover of Harper’s Weekly, a widely-read American political magazine. “He was a celebrity in those days,” Williams said.
Custer was hard to miss as he donned flashy uniforms, always wore a red scarf around his neck and perfumed his long, golden locks with cinnamon oil. Williams said one of the officers in the Michigan Brigade (a calvary brigade during the Civil War) once remarked his new commander looked like “a circus rider gone mad.”
Native American response to Williams’ portrayal of Custer varies.
Some, obviously, don’t like it, so he’s been chased, protested against and injured by Native American warriors who got “a little too exuberant” during battle reenactments.
On the other hand, Williams has been asked by Native American women to pose for photos with their babies.
He noted he was adopted as a tribal son by the late Dr. Joe Medicine Crow, a World War II veteran and the last member of Montana’s Crow tribe to become a war chief.
“That was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had,” Williams said.
However Custer is viewed in modern times, the fact remains, nearly 141 years after his death, people are still talking about him and his deeds. If they weren’t, Williams would probably be out of a job.
Every year, he portrays Custer at about 10 to 12 events, including reenactments, Civil War round table discussions and school programs.
Williams appears twice a year at Custer’s birthplace in New Rumley, Ohio. Every September, he’s booked for a gig at Fort Riley, Kansas, where Custer, as a lieutenant colonel, commanded the 7th U.S. Calvary.
Williams has also appeared on programs that have aired on the History, Discovery, Outdoor and Smithsonian TV channels.
“I think it’s important for people to learn about history, period,” he said. “History is not being taught (in schools) like it used to (be), especially when it comes to the Civil War.”
To Williams, he and his fellow reenactors are trying “to fill that gap” by showing modern audiences how folks in the 19th century lived and the hardships they endured, particularly those who settled the western frontier.
“These people roughed it,” he said. “There were no 7-Elevens. There were no truck stops. There were no motels. You were on your own out there, trying to find what you needed to survive.”
Modern life, with its over-dependence on technology, has caused people to lose certain basic and vital skills possessed by their forefathers, in Williams’ opinion.
“Right now, if our food (supply) were suddenly disrupted by a major conflict or something like that, you’d have a lot of people starving because they don’t know how to survive,” he said. “Everybody has smartphones and you touch your faucet and water comes (out), but what are you going to do when the power goes out? None of those devices are going to work.”
One of the great thrills of reenacting for Williams are those occasions when he feels as though he’s actually been transported through time to the era he is portraying.
“The smoke, the gunfire, the cannons, the horses, the yelling – for a brief moment, you can get caught up in it,” he said. “I’ve experienced this.”
Williams also enjoys re-creating a more “gallant” period in American history.
“Honor meant so much more then than it does today,” he said. “I think they had a lot of qualities in their characters back then that we have lost today. It would sure be great if we had them back because I think people would behave a lot better.”
Although he enjoys being Custer, Williams said it’s a lot of work. That’s why he relishes those times when he plays a simple soldier at Civil War reenactments.
“When I’m not doing Custer, I’m a member of the 5th U.S. Calvary and we’re based just outside of Hillsboro, Ohio,” he said. “When I ride with the 5th, I’m a private. I don’t have to worry about giving orders or anything else. I just go out and ride and fight and have fun.”
To learn more about Williams and his alter ego, visit www.general-custer.com.