Feb. 16, 2001
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After Hours -- Brian Del Vecchio
TOP NEWS

Love of history dispatches University patrolman to Custer's aide

Brian Del Vecchio
Wally A. Quast
University 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 Custeršs guidon-bearer.

By Dan Heuchert

Brian Del Vecchio could be the poster boy for the power of a library.

As 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 leaders.

One 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.

The focus on Custer becomes a window through which to view life in the West in that era, he said.

Del 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).

Like 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.

One 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.

"Custer 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.

Del 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.

He 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 recalled.

In 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 widow.

And 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.

The 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.

As 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.

"After Hours" chronicles the interesting and varied off-Grounds lives of University faculty and staff. If you have ideas for future stories, please share them with us via e-mail at insideuva@virginia.edu.


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