In Search of Custer

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A group of 9th- to 12th-grade students in Rochester, N.Y., will soon be heading for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to search for clues to what kind of student the Civil War cavalry officer and Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer was.

The students' trip continues what has become a marathon research project that began when they discovered at Rochester's Rundel Library last year six little-known letters written by Custer to his cousin Augusta Frary.

The students unearthed the letters--bought by the library in the 1930's but ignored since then--while researching Custer's life as part of a project for their "clash of cultures" class at the city's School Without Walls.

Charles Benoit, who teaches the class, says his students are the first to make use of the letters, including writing an article that was published in the New York-Pennsylvania Collector.

Mr. Benoit came up with the idea for the project after returning last summer from a trip to Montana, site of Custer's attack on Sitting Bull's encampment on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. Because research alone does not fit into the school's curriculum, he decided to focus on Custer as embodying the clash of Native American culture with Western expansionism.

Mr. Benoit does none of the actual research himself, but supervises his students' work.

"When the project started, the students were doing the research because the work was important," he notes. "Now it is historically relevant and this has made them enjoy doing it. It's not just a class project. I have some kids now that I can't keep out of the library."

The next step in the research is to fill in some missing gaps, Mr. Benoit says, such as locating the obituary and gravesite of Mrs. Frary's husband. The class trip to West Point will provide them with information about what kind of student Custer was when he was enrolled there around 1859, Mr. Benoit said.

"They're constantly on the project," he says. "I think I slow them down sometimes."--vlj

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