John Carter, George Custer, and Edgar Rice Burroughs by Thomas R. McGurk

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I am pleased to report that there has been another Thomas R. McGurk sighting.  Our 82 year old Burroughs interlocutor has appeared once again, surfacing briefly via a friend’s email account,  and has conveyed his greetings to the forum, and his appreciation for comments on his previous two articles, which you can read here and here.   He offers a third commentary, this one a rumination on the role that George Armtstrong Custer may have played in the development of the character of John Carter by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Enjoy!

John Carter, Custer and Edgar Rice Burroughs

by Thomas McGurk

One day, my buddy who I knew since grammar school, asked me what the big attraction with General George Armstrong Custer was.  I had to think awhile about that, myself. since I hadn’t until he gave me the thought.  And suddenly, I had it.  Of course, I should have guessed it instantly.  John Carter.  Custer was John Carter, my hero since 10 years old who I had been trying to emulate the rest of my life.  I had found the real live copy of Edgar Rice Borroughs’ as far as I was concerned, the fictional hero who found greatness as a warrior, bar none, on the crimson, dried out surface of the planet Mars.

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Not long after, a second thought came to me. about something that only Edgar Rice Borroughs would know.  Doing some research on this famous writer, I began to wonder if he had gotten the idea for my hero John Carter from the real warrior, Custer–a reverse conception.

Could Custer really match up to John Carter to be considered a replica of him?  To be so, one must have first the heart of a lion and few mortal men can lay claim to that enough to be close.  Still, close is some accomplishment.  George Armstrong Custer was as near as any man will ever get.  GAC was not only a spectacular soldier and cavalry general in the Civil War, adored then by the Northern populace, but better yet, by the fighting men he led.  As for Custer fouling up at the battle of the Little Big Horn, commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand, we can forget all that nonsense conjured up by his major and senior captain who stood on a hilltop with two-thirds of the regiment doing nothing, while Custer and 210 brave men fought and died waiting for them to follow orders to come quick.

But was Custer really the reason for John Carter coming to life from the pen of ERB?  Edgar Rice Burroughs was growing up as Custer was still a god of war, a dashing superknight, always at the front of his cavalrymen, always first sword to strike, splattering whole divisions of Confederate troops in glorious charges on horseback, Long blonde hair flying in the wind.  Adorned in a brilliant colored uniform.  Shouting, “Follow me men!”and they would go into the Hell of battle in over a hundred charges and love doing it.  Certainly, Custer deserves a place close to John Carter.

Very little is known about GAC in modern times.  His magnificent deeds in the Civil War faded with time and misinformation.  Almost everything about him was centered on his death at the LBH.  Most never heard of his stunning victory at Gettysburg, the battle that changed the course of the entire War, or the many other huge battles that he triumphed in, or that he blocked Lee’s army with his division at Appo- mattox to force the surrender and the end of the war.

Evidently, the coverup for his death and his brave troopers, that cruelly placed the blame on him, was the cause in later years by people, who no longer cared, accepting it without question, until one of our greatest heroes, ever, was seen as a racist, butcher, glory hunter and anything else vile they could pin on him.  Its a wonder Columbine and the Trade Centers weren’t also blamed on GAC even if he was dead all those years and devoured by wolves and carrion on that dusty ridge in Montana.

As far as the implication by me that Custer became John Carter, although I had always been awed by the battle of the Little Big Horn, I had never taken much interest in GAC, thinking he was just another military leader who simply had the bad luck to get jumped by 3,000 Indians.  Roal Walsh’s film released in 1941, “They Died With Their Boots On” had always been one of my favorites.  Still, I thought Custer’s superhuman accomplishments just Hollywood glory enhancement.

Only JC could be that good in my eyes.

Finally in 1994, I took a look at this ex-Civil War general out of curiosity, and WOW!  All this time, and here was JC again (though I did not connect the two as one–after all, Mars and Earth are roughly 50 million miles apart).  I began a 19 year search for answers. When the dawning came, I then realized very few know the truth about this great soldier once idolized by America.   History was letting him slide into obscurity.  And the Civil War was long past.

Walsh had tried to right this during the start of WW2 when heroes were in again, of course, but was not taken too seriously. and the film strayed from fact, though the characterization was well done. Errol Flynn made a great Custer, flamboyant, fearless and a twin copy of John Carter.  If anything, the film underplayed GAC’s road to glory.

Though I give great credit to any man on any battlefield, we have to give special due to the hero who dares to defy the Reaper with fearless abandon.

Military experts and researchers give an example of how few men are worthy of being called fighters much less warriors: Out of every 100 men in battle, 10 shouldn’t even be there, 80 are just targets and 10 are the fighters.

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher had a different opinion of the latter 10 and claimed: 9 are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them for they make the battle.   Ah, but that final one. the one out of 100 is a Warrior, and he will bring the others back.

John Carter and Custer certainly fit the last, though in the case of each, I think we must say, here we have the one not in a hundred but a million

A perfect example of how Custer could influence a man to greatness, was Teddy Roosevelt.  He was a boy when Custer was creating may-hem on the Confederacy.  Certainly, Teddy rose to fame with similar enthusiasm leading his charge on San Juan Hill, Custer style. TR was 18 when his hero fell at the Little Big Horn in tragic glory and his reply then was, “Bully for Custer.”  As president, later, he would proclaim:  “General Custer’s name is a shining light to all the youth of America.”

Certainly it worked for him.  Oddly, ERB might have been with TR in that glorious charge.  ERB wrote to him, asking to join his Rough Riders but was rejected due to the ranks being already filled, though some think it was ERB’s previously quitting the Army that Roosevelt frowned on.  Here it is evident that ERB saw a chance for real battle brewing and wanted back in.

Originally, I thought ERB was just a dreamer and a fiction writer and certainly a great one, enough of a success to please the most ambitious of men.  I was surprised to find that he was more than that, a man driven by lust for adventure and fame as much as GAC, the manhe admired so much that he joined the 7th Cavalry. the regiment Custer took into legend.  What better proof? It was now that I saw him for the amazing man he really was.  He didn’t want to just follow the path of GAC, he wanted to be him.  The Sioux and Cheyenne were on reservations then, so he took on the Apaches instead.

ERB did have the spirit necessary in a good soldier, noted for his daring, and at times, reckless nature. It was mentioned that he was also a fine horsemen and a crack shot.  A swordsman, I can’t say.  Of course, to become Custer or Carter takes a lot more.  Still, Edgar had had the desire, enough to risk his life to become them.

Why else would he volunteer for the most dangerous outpost in the Arizona territory?  There he was sure of getting battle and he gave it his best, chasing Apaches all over the far western terrain. Unfortunately, bringing them to battle was not so easy.  GAC had run into that same problem with the plains Indians, the Sioux and the Cheyenne.  GAC was lucky enough to find them occasionally…he also, ultimately, paid a heavy price.

ERBzine 3482 mentions that there was a LT. Howard Bass Cushing who fought and died fighting the Apaches, was a fearless and bold young man, who ERB got some of the JC idea from.  He does fit into the book and the movie in the beginning, but I think later on, GAC, who had rocked the nation with his stunning victories, took over. ERB originally wrote the book after being dissilusioned by the boredom on the frontier, leaving when he saw he had no chance of becoming Custer, especially being a private and running after an enemy that his commanders themselves could not catch.

He returned home and started his book “A Princess of Mars (Then called “Under the Moons of Mars) for his own entertainment.  If he couldn’t be a military hero, he could at least experience it as JC, living it the way he wanted it in his own mind.  JC was mostly his dream, he, the fearless, fighting man who would never know defeat. Custer may have given him the idea but ERB was John Carter.  It wasn’t until later that he found a break, and actually then, became one of the true greats of something else–a writer. Later, he admitted being very content with his life.  He found fame denied to most and lived to a respectable age, which he may not have had he plunged into battle as did the two men he admired so much.

And here is a thought:  The name Carter.  A five letter name like Custer with C beginning, and ter ending.  Only the second and third letters differ.  Was ERB aware of this or is it just coincidence?  Being a writer myself, I wonder.

ERBzine 3626 does imply Custer had significance to ERB.  In the Mad King, ERB came up with the hero, Barney Custer.  The first name was from Barney Oldfield, a race car driver ERB admired, and of course we can easily figure, then, where the last name originated.  Whether I’m right or wrong, there certainly is enough evidence of this.

Quite a man, that ERB.  And ever more in my life did the words of JC stay with me with longing, that I could one day be somehow like him, to feel what he must have as with sword in hand and his princess safely behind him on the dais:

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 With my back against a golden throne, I fought once more for Dejah Thoris.

That sentence and that famous picture in the book has stayed forever in my mind whenever I think of men of great courage. The film omitted this, but snaring her from the sky as she fell and then fighting for her, was just as compelling

Now, of course, I’m waiting for the next 10 sequels at least, and at 82, I can’t wait another 70 years.


  • If you are interested in Custer, let me recommned Robert Utley’s CAVALIER IN BUCKSKIN. It’s a compact biography that offers a well considered account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In all liklihood, there was no “Custer’s Last Stand” involved in the fight. While Custer has never been a hero to me, I do agree with Robert Utley’s summation: Custer is remembered for the one day when everything went wrong and gave him a reputation that he hardly deserves.

  • I wonder if Custer’s Last Stand was the inspiration for John Carter’s near suicidal stand against the Warhoons?

  • Thank you, Thomas, for sharing your many insightful thoughts and interesting stories about Burroughs and his tales. You are part of a remarkable generation of Burroughs fans who have carried the torch with singular affection and exceptional dedication.

    And thank you, Michael, for sharing your appreciation of this band of brothers and sisters and your ongoing recognition of their awe-inspiring contribution to the Burroughs legacy.

    These posts are welcome gifts both to us and to the many who will follow.

  • We Civil War reenactors do remember what Brig. Gen. George A. Custer achieved during the Civil War and what he accomplished at Gettysburg. Remember, this week is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Thank you for this article.

  • Custer hasn’t been forgotten in speculative fiction. Harry Turtledove features Custer in a number of his alternate history novels, identifying him as a figure at the cross roads of numerous alternate time lines.

    While the General’s history after Little Big Horn is speculative, the character is entirely based on the man’s real career; the esteem in which he was held and the influence he once enjoyed are accurately depicted.


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