of history dispatches University patrolman to Custer's aide
Police patrolman Brian Del Vecchio, center, portraying Capt.
Myles Moylan, re-enacted the 1865 surrender of the University
in July 1998 with Steve Alexander, right, portraying Gen.
George Custer, and Jacques Mann, left with flag, portraying
Del Vecchio could be the poster boy for the power of a library.
a youngster back in Troy, N.Y., he had an elementary school class
that met in the town's public library. There, he found himself
drawn to military books, especially biographies of great military
volume in particular caught his attention: a biography of Gen.
George Armstrong Custer, the flamboyant central figure of one
of the most-discussed American military defeats in history. On
June 25, 1876, Custer -- for mysterious reasons still hotly debated
almost 125 years later -- led approximately 210 troops into a
slaughter at the hands of a huge encampment of Lakota Sioux and
Cheyenne Native Americans on the banks of the Little Bighorn River
in the Montana wilderness.
"If Little Bighorn hadn't happened, Custer would have been remembered
as a great cavalry officer in the Civil War," Del Vecchio said.
The battle's enduring mystery sparked a lifelong fascination in
Del Vecchio. Today, the University
Police patrolman and his wife, Peggy, are active members of
the Little Bighorn Associates (www.lbha.org), a group of enthusiasts
who gather at least annually to debate all things Custer and re-enact
events surrounding his life.
focus on Custer becomes a window through which to view life in
the West in that era, he said.
Vecchio gushes Custer history. He has visited the Little Bighorn
site; he has pored over research and kept current with new findings.
He enthusiastically recounts historical events with the flair
and polish of a film narrator.
In the living history re-enactments, the Del Vecchios usually
portray Capt. Myles Moylan, a company commander who survived Little
Bighorn, and his wife. Del Vecchio owns three different styles
of period uniforms, many items of camp equipment, and four saddles
(and a horse to wear them).
Custer, Del Vecchio even keeps pet prairie dogs. He notes that
the first local resident to do so was none other than Thomas Jefferson,
who received his from Lewis and Clark.
thing Del Vecchio makes clear is that his group does not give
Custer a free pass when it comes to history. The man has become
a lightning rod for those who decry the U.S. government's treatment
of Native Americans during the Indian Wars that raged in the West
in the years after the Civil War. The LBHA includes both critics
and admirers, he said.
"Custer did not agree with how the government was treating the
Indians at all," Del Vecchio said, adding that he often persuaded
Indians to surrender rather than fight. But he also followed orders.
was human," Del Vecchio said, "not the mythical god he was after
his death, or the horrible guy he was made out to be later." A
lanky 6-footer with red hair, he was an inveterate practical joker
and often stuttered when he was excited, he said.
Vecchio's interest in Custer was rekindled after he joined the
University Police Department in 1978. Leafing through a book on
University history while visiting the Rotunda, he discovered that
the University had its own Custer connection.
read that in 1865, Charlottesville Mayor Christopher H. Fowler
-- elected just three days earlier -- and the chair of the University
faculty, Socrates Maupin, chose to surrender the University to
Custer's advancing cavalry rather than risk its destruction, a
fate that Virginia Military Institute had suffered some months
earlier. They met near where the University Chapel now stands.
"I could look up and see where it happened!" Del Vecchio
the years since, he has discovered other Custer-U.Va. connections.
The University Library holds the papers of one Thomas Lafayette
Rosser, a Confederate general and later Charlottesville postmaster
who defended his former Civil War adversary's actions at Little
Bighorn. The papers include grateful correspondence from Custer's
in 1966, George A. Custer III, a descendant of Custer's brother,
graduated with a degree in nuclear engineering from the very institution
that his ancestor spared.
LBHA marked the sparing of Charlottesville and U.Va. in July 1998,
holding its annual meeting here. Del Vecchio served as the project
director for that conference, which drew more than 200 LBHA associates
and their families to the area for two days of meetings, tours
and re-enactments. "They were thrilled to death with Charlottesville
and the University of Virginia," he said.
it happened, Custer might have been able to use Del Vecchio on
that fateful day when he was surprised by the Indians at Little
Bighorn. One of his police duties is to serve as the department's
disaster planning coordinator.
Hours" chronicles the interesting and varied off-Grounds
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