Sunday, May 4, 2008

Temple art professor adds color to history

Telegram Staff Writer

They're both dead, but the story of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and foe Sitting Bull, leader of the Cheyenne tribe, isn't over.
Maps of the Battle of Little Bighorn are giving new insight to the infamous brawl, said Michael Donahue, local historian.
'Each map tells a story,' Donahue said. 'It's according to the person who drew it, how the map maker saw things happen.'
He's spent the last seven years sifting through and examining every map he could find that concerned the Battle of Little Bighorn. His work culminated two weeks ago with the publication of a four-inch thick book entitled, 'Drawing Battle Lines: The Map Testimony of Custer's Last Fight.'
'There's a biography of people who made the maps, the soldiers and Indians,' Donahue said. 'Then there's their maps, their account of what they saw, and then there's my analysis of that.'
More than 30 of the featured maps have never before been published.
'Some contained misinformation, but others have revealed new facts,' Donahue said.
One suggests that Custer wasn't as foolish as the history books think.
'Instead of Custer the idiot riding pell-mell into 2,000 angry warriors with 200 men, you see that Custer was smart like a fox,' Donahue said. 'He realized from experience the best way to win a victory was with minimal casualties - but his plan backfired.'
The maps in Donahue's book come from a variety of resources.
'Some were at the battlefield, some were privately owned, some I had to hunt for,' he said. 'This book is the result of old-fashioned research.'
Donahue's role as U.S. Park Ranger has helped him in the writing of his book. He's a veteran tour guide of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana.
'I have the benefit of knowing what every line on the map means,' Donahue said. 'I know it because I've seen it, I've lived there every summer for 19 years. Not a lot of historians can say that.'
His flair for the arts gives him another advantage. As an art professor at Temple College, he's trained in evaluating images.
'Pictures communicate,' Donahue said. 'When you had an Indian who couldn't speak English, he'd get a pencil and sit down and draw what he couldn't communicate. There's records everywhere, you just might not recognize it.'
'Drawing Battlelines' is Donahue's first book about the Battle of Little Bighorn, but it is his second time to tell the story.
He was the consultant and narrator for 'The Wild West: Custer's Last Stand,' a TV docudrama that aired last year in Europe via the British Broadcasting Co.
'It also aired in some U.S. cities by satellite on the Discovery channel,' Donahue said. 'It doesn't look like it's going to be on regular TV.'
But Central Texas residents aren't out of luck.
The Bell County Museum plans to show the docudrama at 6 p.m. Thursday. Donahue will be on site to sign copies of his new book and answer any questions the audience might have.
His second book, 'Under the Magnifying Glass,' is in the works.
'It'll be a narrative story of the battle through my point of view,' Donahue said. 'Based on research.'
He's painted the image for the cover, but he said it'll be a few more years until it's published.

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