CUSTER’S LAST BAND
a short story
Years before any of the Seventh Army’s soldiers had heard of the Little Bighorn, immediately following the Civil War, to be precise, Custer and his men spent some time in the capitol of Texas. This was 1866, 1867. As far as their official duties were concerned, the army had little to do in Austin. It passed the time by waiting around for an assignment that would take them elsewhere, a place more worthy of the skills for which it was trained. As it was, all that was required of the cavalry was to keep an eye on the conditions of the city to make certain that the Confederacy, or anything like it, wasn’t taking shape again right under its nose. This allowed Custer the run of the town, with only his imagination as his guide. Custer did the same as many people with an excess of leisure time did. He attended classes. The general enrolled in The Texas School For The Deaf. Under the tutelage of an instructor who had never heard a spoken word, he pursued the study of sign language. Later, much later, well before approximately four thousand antagonists at the Little Bighorn would render Custer’s existence moot, he would apply his sign language ability in communicating with the tribes of the western plains. The natives appreciated and respected the fact that the visitor in their territory had taken the trouble of learning, if not their actual dialect, at least a rudimentary method of putting across his point. The Indians, like Europeans, hated it when guys showed up, shouting in English, expecting to be understood by sheer volume. Custer, instead of merely shooting the Indians, was able to lay down his terms beforehand.
“Surrender, and come with me to the outpost, and I mean right now,” the general would tell them. “Otherwise, I’ll kill you where you stand.”
Sometimes, the Indians would accompany Custer, not to Austin, but back to the fort out west somewhere, to be shipped out from that place to their eventual fate in the foreign lands of reservations. And at other times, Custer would have a fight on his hands, the outcome of which was never predetermined.
But back to Austin, around 1866, 1867, when the general was learning sign language: it was Custer’s army, and by definition, Custer’s band. The musicians within the Seventh Cavalry were a solid, accomplished unit, as proficient in its particular skills as any of the muleskinners and scouts and sharpshooters were in theirs. As a perk of being in charge, Custer had the band perform whenever the mood struck him. Specific tunes were rendered for the general’s different functions. Lullabyes sent him drifting off to sleep after he had tucked himself in for the night. Minuets accompanied his noon meal, waltzes the background for his reading pleasure. It was rumored that the general’s bowels would seize up without the inducement of a sprightly march, and conversely, that such music unannounced would send Custer running for the latrine.
The commanding officer displayed his orchestra around town, and the citizens of Austin couldn’t get enough of this working band. At least, none of the Texans suggested to the general that the musicians were anything other than first rate. In reality, not everyone seated in front of the bandstand was absolutely thrilled by the recitals. The Seventh Cavalry was an occupational army imposing martial law. Custer in Texas was like MacArthur in Japan. The people who lived there were perfectly willing to wait out the commander with as much patience as required until the day he would move on and leave them alone. Custer wasn’t blind to this, but he did tend to interpret complacency in the populace with affection and the highest of esteem. And he loved the power, knowing that with the snap of his fingers, he could impose a curfew, have a man hanged, or send the strains of Kerry Owen gently through the city’s open windows, across meadows, through the military tent city he had erected on the banks of Shoal Creek.
Custer loved his band to such an extent that it became his talisman, his four-leaf clover. He took the musicians into battle with him, setting them up out of harm’s way in support of his deadly effort. Think of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, careening in over the breakers by helicopter, Wagner blaring from loudspeakers at a deafening pitch. Custer was without helicopters, but the band served a similar purpose, providing inspiration for the unleashed lightning. And those soldiers who played instruments had it easy, in comparison to those who didn’t. Sure, the band had to pack up a cello or French horn on horseback and wagon every day. Setting up for gigs has been a chore always. It comes with the territory.
The band became well known at society dances. It gave concerts in local institutions, at The Texas School For The Blind, for the poor souls confined to the State Asylum For The Insane. Fiddles and flutes and kettle drums were hauled across town at the slightest excuse. It was good PR.
Custer held the reins of his power loosely, proof to himself of his benevolence. He could have lay down the law. And if Edison had been a decade earlier in developing the phonograph, Custer could have lay down some tracks for a recording. It bothered the general that that the sheer physical bulk of his orchestra was so unwieldy. It would have suited him just fine to do away with them, to transport only their musical product into the field. But that actual concept couldn’t form in Custer’s mind, for Edison’s invention was absolutely without precedent. No one, not one person, considered that such a thing was possible. As it was, the band accompanied Custer out west, a fiddle tucked beneath the chin in place of a rifle butt. The musicians played in the clear open skies, the compounds and forts and campsites as full of spirit as any city park’s bandstand, coyotes tuning up in the night for harmony.
The band did accompany Custer on his last campaign. But the musicians lagged behind, slowed down by the tools of its trade. The wilderness was tough going for a man on horseback, and considerably tougher on a small orchestra negotiating footpaths and unmapped trails. Some of the musicians began to despair their lot in life. They climbed mountains and crossed rivers, virtually undefended in their efforts to catch up with the main body of the army. The cavalry was on a forced march, and the orchestra would reunite with its comrades only long enough to collapse into their bedrolls before turning out before dawn once again. Their salvation would have been a helicopter. And Edison did piddle around with the concept of that aircraft in 1885. The inventor described the escapade as “playing with dynamite,” resulting in badly burning one of his assistants, and losing most of the hair from his own head to flames as well. Two decades before the Wright brothers, Edison set aside his own designs on conquering gravity.
The orchestra encountered a river in the summer of 1876. It became obvious that only a raft could traverse it. The musicians bemoaned their circumstances. Not only would their trained fingers be reduced to chopping down trees and lashing together logs, but they would miss out on supper for a couple of days. They would subsist on hardtack and prairie dog, knowing that Custer’s mood upon their arrival would be foul from the absence of music in the camp.
And the orchestra survived because they were shooting rapids instead of Indians. As it turned out, Custer and the remainder of the Seventh weren’t shooting many Indians either, A great many of the soldiers, surrounded, preposterously outnumbered, shot their own comrades in the head at point blank range, many of them turning their weapons on themselves as well. The soldiers knew, should they be taken captive, that the Indians would torture them in unspeakable ways. The Seventh preferred to die on its own terms, by its own hand. The Indians had never seen such a thing. They were so astonished at the sight of their trapped quarry committing mass suicide that they stopped the fight momentarily to watch. Their astonishment turned to rage. They had never conceived of such cowardice. They were so angry that they rounded up the wounded and the survivors like fish in a finely meshed net, chopped off their arms and legs, bashed in their skulls, and cut off their heads. Which had been the exact fate that the cavalry was trying to avoid by turning their guns on themselves.
Meanwhile, the orchestra was miffed. Dissension riddle its ranks. The very idea of moving through hostile territory, armed primarily with piccolos, flutes, fiddles, and mandolins was especially disheartening. By sheer chance, the musicians stumbled into the arms of Captain Benteen, under whose cautious leadership an entire contingent of the Seventh Cavalry had bypassed Custer’s final battle. The musicians learned that their army buddies were out there, cut to pieces and rotting on the battlefield. More regiments were brought in. The orchestra accompanied their new cohorts to the Little Bighorn, stunned into silence by the sight. They played a respectful rendition of Taps before helping to remove the remains of the officers for burial, leaving the corpses of the enlisted men to rot for years to come.
Within weeks, Edison invented the phonograph. The device, which an assistant mistook for a sausage grinder at first glance, catapulted its maker into prominence. Coincidentally, Edison traveled west the following summer. The twenty-four hour days of phonograph work and light bulb work had taken its toll on the man, and he was indulging in the first vacation of his life. He took a train to Wyoming in order to study a total eclipse of the sun. Scientists from all over the world gathered for the same purpose. While they had a grand old time of it, some were clearly apprehensive about the possibility of an Indian attack. But the only native encounter had been the arrival of a family of Utes, whom a visiting chemist describes as “friendlier than a litter of pups.”
Edison ingratiated himself with his counterparts in a demonstration of the phonograph, explaining that, just as a camera captures an image, he had captured sound. Even with backgrounds in hard science, many on hand considered the invention to be some sort of trick. They threw tongue-twisters, and obscure pronunciations into the megaphone intake, intrigued as the machine duplicated every syllable of MethodistEspicopalmeanderinghopscotch. The scientists knew that Edison was deaf, for all practical purposes, and only guessed that deafness was a requirement to have dredged up such a concept. Equally fascinating to them was their observing of the inventor’s method of listening to his device as he would remove the megaphone speaker, and clamp his teeth onto the instrument, his jaws and sinuses making a circuitous route to his inner ear. It was said he could tune a piano in the same way. The rather absurd spectacle led to the now archaic expression, “Are you hanging on my every word, or are you glad to see me?”
When Edison was very old, a tooth infection became a major setback to his health. He was weak and poisoned as a result. His solution was to have his remaining teeth pulled, and revert to a diet of milk, on the assumption that, if was good enough for babies, he would benefit as well. But it wasn’t good enough. He lost ground and died, unable to hear, unable to distinguish much sound at all with his sore gums. This was 1930, more than half a century after the battle that had rendered Custer moot. By 1930, Edison had made a great many recordings. A dream of his had been to capture the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a studio of seventy-five musicians. This was while the inventor still was in possession of his own teeth, when he was not nearly so deaf as the composer he so greatly admired.
The second violinist on the cylinder recording was Bill McGrew, an army veteran who had pursued his interest in music after playing in support of Custer’s somewhat unpredictable moods. Recruited from a store in West Orange, New Jersey that sold sheet music and lessons and instruments, Bill put in his day at the session just a few streets from the shop where he was employed, in the complex of laboratories dreamed up by Edison. As he studied and rehearsed his part in the proceedings, it occurred to him how many odd turns his life had taken, how many paths he had crossed. As a young man, he would never have thought that playing in Custer’s Seventh would lead to Beethoven’s Ninth.
Bill, who had lied about his age in order to join the army at fifteen, lived until November of 1948. He was walking home from the polls, having cast his ballot for Harry Truman, when he just collapsed in mid-step. Reasonably healthy until that moment, he was ninety-nine years old.
© Michael Zagst