People often ask me—in fact, Austin Ruse asked me in these very pages—why I write novels, especially when “the world is going to hell” and the political stakes facing our country are so high. After all, I’ve been involved in politics in one way or another, including as a speechwriter, my entire life. I’ve written far more successful books on the history of the Catholic Church (Triumph) and on military history (including The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War). But, as I told Austin, the world is too much with us. We all need a break. We need laughter. More than that, we need an antidote to despair.
When public discourse is reduced to arguing over “What is a woman?” or whether mastectomies for “gender-questioning” girls are a good thing, or why crime is spiking in the wake of “defund the police,” or why military enlistments are plummeting after the Afghanistan fiasco and the tearing down of monuments to military heroes, I’m afraid I’m left a bit slack-jawed. What is the point of trying to reason with people for whom reason has no purchase? So, I speak in parables.
My most recent parables are based on the premise that George Armstrong Custer survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn to become an undercover knight-errant in the Old West, adopting the nom de guerre of Marshal Armstrong Armstrong.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Beneath the comic adventure surface, though, the books amount to a running theological argument that reaches its climax in the third book of the trilogy, Armstrong and the Mexican Mystery, where—spoiler alert—Custer makes a rather extraordinary conversion to Catholicism.
Custer, somewhat to my surprise, has become almost as controversial a hero as Nathan Bedford Forrest. I don’t want to relitigate Custer’s reputation here, but suffice it to say that Errol Flynn was closer to the mark in the movie They Died with Their Boots On than was the leftist historical revisionism of the movie Little Big Man, which offers a sort of black legend about Custer and the American West.
Catholics, of course, are well familiar with the many black legends lodged against the Church. Similar black legends are being spun from American history—especially as regards the Civil War, where Custer was the Union Army’s celebrated “Boy General,” as dashing and aggressive as he was chivalric, remaining on friendly terms with his Confederate foes.
Back in 1950, Henry Steele Commager, a prominent liberal historian, could write of the Civil War:
It has furnished our standards of patriotism, of gallantry, and of fortitude; it has given us our most cherished military heroes—Lee and Jackson, Grant and Sherman, Sheridan and “Beauty” Stuart, and a host of others, and it has given us, too, our greatest national hero and our greatest sectional one, Lincoln and Lee…. Nor is it by chance that the cause lost on the battlefield should be celebrated in story and in history, or that the whole people, victors and vanquished alike, should exalt its heroism and cherish its leaders. Lee is only less of a hero than Lincoln, and the Federal Army boasts no figure so glamorous as Stonewall Jackson. Novelists have been kinder to the Confederacy than to the Union, and so, too, in our own day, the moving pictures and the radio. There is no literary monument to any Union general comparable to those erected to Lee and Jackson, and for a generation Northern historians found themselves apologizing for Appomattox. Southerners everywhere accept the verdict of the war, and even are thankful for it, but there are none so lacking in filiopietism that they would change a line of history.
He could have added that even such distinguished foreign statesmen as Lord Acton (a Catholic) and Pope Pius IX sympathized with the Southern Confederacy.
When Commager wrote those lines, we had a much healthier culture. Today how many soi-disant conservatives would take such a positive, patriotic, unifying view of the Civil War, rather than thinking it politically advantageous to echo New Left arguments about the war being a struggle between Indian displacers (Lincoln and the Union) versus hateful racists (Jefferson Davis and the South). But with this kicker: the racists were all Democrats, neener-neener-neener.
This sort of asininity nearly defies belief, and anyone with any feel for American history and our mystic chords of memory must walk away shaking his head. The Armstrong novels are meant to redress this rift in our culture, our historical self-understanding, and the larger theological rift that lies behind it. I make no pretense that the novels will succeed, but they should provide better exercise for our imaginations than arguments about pronouns, drag queens, systemic racism, and intersectionality.
Caelum adiuva nos omnes.