Tag: military


Auld Lang Syne

January 17th, 2020 — 4:43pm

(An earlier and shorter version of this post appeared in the Military Spouse Book Review: Happy New Year! Let’s Read!)

Well, friends, 2019 was the year I became a crazy person (or perhaps a crazier person?). This fiction writer, who spent a lifetime cultivating a cool indifference to military history, suddenly became rabidly obsessed with the life and times of General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I joined niche Facebook pages (full of lovely, brilliant people) and paid dues to associations, covered the walls of my office with photographs and maps, and have bought, at my last count, more than one hundred and twenty-five books that deal with the particulars and participants of the battle.

And the reason I became so disturbingly hooked?

Because of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the feisty, charming, smart, and tiny spouse to the above mentioned general. I happened upon the Wikipedia account of her devoted life, went down every conspiracy theory rabbit hole surrounding the hotly contested accounts of what happened at the Little Bighorn, and am currently working on a novel about her life and times. The three books pictured above illustrate why I have become so obsessed, and why I just can’t stop reading Little Bighorn related materials…

Libbie and George Armstrong Custer in 1864

Libbie followed her husband from the outskirts of Civil War battlefields to icy prairies, proud to be one of the only spouses allowed to always travel with the men. From drafty, inhospitable, barren forts, she watched grasshoppers eat every green thing for miles, learned to put gun shot in the hem of her skirts to keep them from whipping around her head, and wrapped herself in fabric, head to toe, to keep out vicious mosquitoes during hot summers. She met Presidents, Russian counts, Native American chiefs, was shot at, and helped save drowning soldiers during an apocalyptic Kansas flood. At a time when the Army gave no allowances for spouses and food was scarce, she found a way to scrape together and create festive dinner parties, plays, musicals, and military balls. 

When her husband died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 (with more than 300 men in his command), Libbie was determined to defend his reputation and did so until her own death, nearly fifty-seven years later (she never remarried). Part of that effort included writing three memoirs (THREE MEMOIRS!!!), the first of which, Boots and Saddles, is my favorite. Self-deprecating, funny and brilliantly insightful, bringing to life a military world that feels closer to Little House on the Prairie than any base I have ever seen, the woman was a natural-born writer.

If you are curious to read the flipside of Libbie’s idyllic memoirs of life with her fun-loving husband, as well as insight into life on the plains long before U.S soldiers built their ‘war houses’ or settlers homesteaded (and often trespassed), I recommend Monasetah: The Life of a Custer Captive by Peter Harrison, edited by Gary Leonard.

In November, 1868, George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Calvary attacked a village of Southern Cheyenne on the banks of the Washita River in Oklahoma. They took fifty-eight women and children captive in an effort to leverage other Cheyenne and Native American tribes to move into the reservations. Harrison and Leonard present a very compelling case that Custer chose one of the captives, Monasetah, the daughter of a chief killed during the Washita Battle, as his lover. Monasetah stayed with the Seventh Cavalry for the duration of the time these Cheyenne were held by the U.S Army (from November 1868 until April 1869), accompanying them for a long winter scout to Texas, and helping negotiate the freedom of two white female hostages from a Cheyenne village. She is mentioned and noted for her beauty in both Custer’s own memoir, My Life on the Plains, as well as in Libbie’s books (though any intimate relationship with Custer is not, of course).  But more than allotting Monasetah a mere footnote in white American history, she is developed as a bold and capable woman, offering insight into the day to day life of the Southern Cheyenne before their roaming ways were taken from them.

Lastly, Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles, is the perfect bridge to the books above. The Pulitzer prize winning author’s sweeping biography not only reveals Custer to be heroic, contradictory and deeply flawed, but also illuminates how fraught and at odds the United States of America were during the bloody years between the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Covering our government’s many failures during Reconstruction and our shifting policies and ‘treaties’ with Native Americans, lit through with gorgeous writing and anecdotes that breathe, I felt like I relearned a vital but often overlooked period of my country’s history.

Siobhan Fallon is the author of You Know When the Men Are Gone and The Confusion of Languages. For more on her current Custer craziness, please follow her on Facebook and Instagram, or check out her website at www.siobhanfallon.com

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Fun with War in Colorado…

October 14th, 2010 — 1:14pm

It seems like my first official on-site blog should address another first: attendance at a conference. Granted, it was a little bit like the rest of my life– half military, half civilian. It was the War, Literature, and the Arts Conference, held at The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Perhaps it was a strange introduction to writers’ conferences, but, as an army wife, everything bizarre about it was absolutely ordinary to me.

We had a rigid schedule; after showing identification and having our names checked off a list, we boarded a bus that took us through the guard gates and onto the Air Force Academy grounds. There were young, smiling cadets in their shiny dress blues, who made sure we crazy artists didn’t stumble off on our own and get lost on the parade grounds. We were not allowed to leave the main area of the conference EVER, unless guided by one of those cadets. Every sort of military uniform was represented among the attendees, from your current desert-ready Marine, Navy, and Army camouflage, to the snazzy dress blues that those Air Forcers shined up, to the office greens of the West Point English Department professors, to the strange little Star Trek outfits of even more of those adorable cadets. (Do I spot a trend? Am I in love with cadets? Perhaps. College students all over the world are doing keg stands and these cadets get up at 5 a.m, don uniforms, get into formation, debate Just War Theory, make out their wills, AND knowingly face deployments soon after graduation. From a gal who stupefied half of her brain cells in college, how can I not think these kids are super?)

 While some of the writers maybe have done a double-take at all the uniforms and rules, this is the world I am most comfortable in. The in-between life of military and ordinary. The guard gates, the imposing face of military buildings, even the awkward mouthfuls of acronyms, make me feel safe. As do the salutes and disciplined ‘yes, sirs’ overheard at every turn. And I always feel relieved talking to people whose daily lives have been impacted by deployments, who feel lucky to spend Thanksgiving and Christmases with their spouses and kids: after a few short sentences we know that we share many experiences. We understand so much about each other immediately.

Cadets sat in the back of the lecture halls, drinking their Gatorades and chewing their gum like students who spent the previous night cramming everywhere else in the world. There was a sprinkling of more weathered military faces in the crowds, with rows of medals on their chests. There were a lot of men, yes, but also a lot of women. Women who were Air Force professors or Air Force students. Women who were instructors at small mid-western colleges and taught War Literature courses. Women poets. Women writers who had nothing to do with the military, and women writers who were military spouses like me. Sometimes the presenters wore uniforms, most often they did not. And while the themes might have been related to war, there was no topic that was off limits. Here we were, standing on official military property, near huge American flags and a hallway lined with paintings of American Air Force Deans who kept their students in tip-top order, yet everyone, from cadets timidly raising their hands, to poets reading anti-war comedic riffs, were able to speak their mind. Even within the rank and file world of the military, all types, religions, and political parties, were represented.

Ultimately, military-themed or not, I had the time of my life.  Like I imagine most other conferences to be, there was a well defined delineation between the Famous and the Unfamous. The Famous were the key notes who dabbled in war: from Benjamin Busch, war photographer, ex-marine, actor and director; Mark Boal, previously embedded journalist-turned-screenwriter of Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker; Dexter Filkins, renowned foreign correspondent from The New York Times and author of the book The Forever War; and Brain Turner, Army veteran, of Here, Bullet and other acclaimed books of poetry. They had an entourage of dress-blued majors and colonels showing them around, they went to nice restaurants that required reservations, they did not take the bus with the rest of us, they did not stay at the Embassy Suites but somewhere rumored to have leather couches and personal Jacuzzis.

The Unfamous lapped up the “manager’s special” at the Embassy Suites and listened to spastically bad karaoke at the hotel bar afterwards (except for that dapper older gentleman who sang Sinatra. Thank you, handsome septuagenarian with your gold cuff links and suave twirling of your microphone!). But we Unfamous had fun, dammit. I hung out with a brilliant non-brat pack: Matt Gallagher of the electrifying war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck of a Savage Little War, poet Victor Inzunza, literary critic Matt Hill, poet and English professor Bradley Johnson, Australian iCinema researcher Timothy Barker, fiction writer James Moad. We talked war and writing, MFA programs and literary magazines, new books and old, and, most informative for me, even after my third glass of Chardonnay, we took notes as Matt Gallagher, whose book came out a few months ago, told us about his book tour and what worked best when he gave a reading.

Reading an excerpt of You Know When the Men Are Gone.

On the final day of the conference, I shared a panel with Matt Gallagher and James Moad. I hadn’t read any of my fiction in almost a decade, but I managed to stand up, read an excerpt, and I didn’t die. People even made eye contact with me afterwards and claimed that they just might order my book.

When the conference was finished, we Unfamous hopped on our bus and rode away from the military installation, the Air Force Academy and its strange nuclear silo-looking cadet chapel safely disappearing behind its check points and mountains. We grabbed our bags from the hotel, shared a long cab ride to the airport, talked excitedly about the conference, swapped business cards, promised to find each other on Facebook. We went through security, stripping off our shoes and belts and lap tops, forgetting perhaps, that all of these new security measures are a result of recent wars (no one had given a lecture about TSA).

We went directly to the airport gift shop, buying Colorado themed stuffed animals and t-shirts, admitting sheepishly that we were excited to fly home to our families. We did not run into any of the Famous when we boarded Economy Class.

And I? Well, I returned, very happily, to my mostly civilian world.

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