Wednesday, July 1, 2015

WAR SHORT STORY READALONG: "Chasing the Major-General"

Chasing the Major-General” is a short story by the famous artist Frederic Remington.  Remington is the artist most associated with the West of the Indian Wars.  His paintings of cowboys, Indians, and the cavalry helped establish our image of the Old West.  Most people do not know that he also fashioned himself a writer.  This particular short story was for Harper’s Weekly.  Remington’s presence was requested by Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles.  Miles was one of the more well-known Indian fighting generals.  He had made a name for himself in the Nez Perce (Chief Joseph) campaign and the capture of Geronimo.  The story is set in a mission by Miles to escort an Indian commission to negotiate with the Northern Cheyennes.  Miles had a dream of becoming President and saw Remington as a means to that end.  He had to put up with Remington’s excessive drinking which ironically held up the commission on occasion, but the flattering story was worth the trouble. 

                The story is about Remington trying to keep up with the gung-ho general.  Although not meant to be comical, the image of the portly general galloping ahead of his column is the big take-away from the story.  Miles is the model of a general who leads from in front – far in front.  The weird thing is that Miles was not conducting a campaign to catch and defeat hostile Indians.  So what was the hurry?  Personality is the key.  Speaking of which, we get a good impression of Remington from the story.  He was known as “The Soldier’s Artist” because he idolized the cavalry and lionized them in his paintings and writings.  (He later would justify Wounded Knee as the soldiers defending themselves.)  He has some very interesting opinions that come through in the story.

                Remington declares that there are two types of cavalry generals in the West – wagon-men and horse-men.  Wagon-men rely on wagons for logistics and horse-men travel more quickly by packing supplies on horse-back.  Or rather mule-back.  Miles was a horse-man.  Obviously Miles also believed in a general riding on horse and setting the standard for his men.  This could be dangerous especially at night.  One unlucky step into a gopher hole or one unseen ravine could result in death.  Riding like a maniac brings questions as to Miles fitness to lead a nation, but apparently Remington and Miles felt the story bolstered his chances.  One also wonders about the attitude of Miles toward the horses.  Remington describes the horses as inferior.  He criticizes the military for paying $125 for $60 horses.  It’s clear that the profligacy of the Pentagon is not new.  And these horses were expected to gallop sixty miles in a day!  And in the case of Remington, carry a 215 pound artist attempting to ride in the “European style” with legs tucked to his chest.  He humorously describes trying to ignore the catty comments of the Westerners.  Remington does seem to know horses.  He offers the interesting opinion that “while you can teach a horse anything, you cannot unteach him.” 
when you do a self-portrait,
you can trim some pounds

                Remington also has some interesting things to say about the Army.  He is scathing in his comments about the reason for the poor support from Washington.  His theory is that by the time a soldier reaches the higher ranks and go off to the capital, they feel they have earned the right to slack off.  This results in the leadership of the Army being conservative and cheap.  He specifically had some opinions on the Battle of Little Big Horn when they visited the site.  Not surprisingly, Remington blamed the defeat on the lack of initiative of Reno and Benteen.  He opines that the role of these subordinates should have been to march to the sounds of the guns.  When in doubt, go in and fight until you drop.  Best to end up a “dead lion” than a live survivor.  He has insights on the officers as well.  He describes them as being cogs in the machine except when their individuality comes out in battle and before breakfast.

                The piece is well-written.  I did not expect Remington to be competent as a writer.  I was very familiar with his paintings as I am a big fan, but I was only vaguely familiar with his literary endeavors.  He has a booze-flavored style to his writing.  I did not find about his fondness for the bottle until after I read the story, but it makes sense.  The story has a sense of humor typical of a genteel toper.  He doesn’t mind poking fun at himself.  The story is excellent at portraying the personalities of two famous men.   Although nothing particularly exciting happens, the story is charming and worth reading. 

GRADE  =  B-

Next month's story:  The Colonel's Ideas

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