Rewarded with rapid promotions, he became the youngest brigadier general at 23) and, later, major general in the Union Army. During the final six months of the war, Custer's men captured 111 artillery pieces, 65 battle flags, and 10,000 prisoners. It was he who accepted the whitefringed towel as a flag of truce from Maj. William Simms of Gen. James Longstreet's Confederate forces at Appomattox. Sheridan, who witnessed the formal surrender, bought the table on which the document was signed and asked Custer to give it to Libby. The accompanying note stated: "... There is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband."
Custer was accused of being arrogant, a glory hunter, showoff, clothes horse, braggart, risk-taker, and one who "cooked the books" on his achievements. All except the latter were true, though his record benefited from occasional exaggeration. Can he be condemned for these characteristics? One might ask about Douglas MacArthur with his 50-mission cap, sunglasses, corncob pipe, penchant for public relations, and eventual insubordination; George Patton with pearl-handled revolvers running his tanks until out of fuel and slapping a soldier he thought was a coward; or Mark Clark's unnecessary decimation of historic Monte Cassino. The fact is, they were all winners, as was the Custer of the East.
With the ending of the Civil War, Custer was reduced to the rank of captain. What could this man of action do during the time of the South's reconstruction? For a while he drank and gambled in civilian life, despite Libby's efforts to "Christianize" him and served army administrative roles i Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky. He wa offered a 16,000 position with Mexico's military, but the Army refused to give him leave. However, military opportunity was to come his way once more.
The Indian Wars
West of the Mississippi River, "the Indian problem" became increasingly bothersome to settlers moving to the plains in growing numbers. While liberal-minded Easterners regarded the Indians as children of nature, Westerners knew differently and emphasized the Indians's savagery in pleading for more protection. The official report of Col. Henry Carrington, the post commander at a Bozeman Trail fort, describes the carnage of some 80 soldiers killed: "Eyes tom out and laid on the rocks; noses cut off; ears cut off, chins hewn off; teeth chopped out; joints of fingers; brains taken out and exposed; arms taken out from sockets; private parts severed and indecently placed on the person.... All this does not approximate the whole truth."
The 1860s and 1870s brought what were known as the Indian Wars. Although there were few big battles, there were constant skirmishes, leading up to the massacre at the Little Big Horn.
For instance, in 1862, there was the Minnesota Uprising in which Sioux killed some 600 whites, largely precipitated by corruption in the Indian Agency there. Whites were terrorized and 38 Indians were hanged. The cavalry forces at Ft. Phil Kearney in Wyoming suffered a loss of more than 80 men at the hand of Red Cloud's warriors. In between, settlers were raided, killed, and mutilated; Pony Express and stage stations robbed; etc.
Treaty Indians were difficult to distinguish from non-treaty ones. The former were under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department; the latter, under the War Department. A pattern developed whereby Indians fought whites in summer and returned to reservation sanctuary in winter, being fed and armed by the Federal government. Sheridan was furious at this, complaining, "General Hazen feeds them and we fight them."
Custer was called west in 1866 to train and lead the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment at Ft. Riley, Kans. Appointed to the rank of lieutenant colonel at age 27, he took part in the campaign headed by Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, which was a dismal failure. A year later, he was accused of "several indiscretions," among which was going AWOL to see his wife, whom he thought was ill. This brought him a court martial, and he was suspended without pay for one year.
Hancock was replaced by Sheridan, and he and Custer made plans for a winter campaign against the Indians, who were then most vulnerable. About 125 whites had been killed by them in Kansas, and Sheridan was under pressure to do something. The result was the Battle of the Washita in the Oklahoma Panhandle in November, 1868. Sheridan's briefing to Custer was: "I rely upon you in everything, and shall send you on this expedition without giving you any orders, leaving you to act entirely on your judgment."
After surrounding the village, Custer attacked through a foot of snow at the break of dawn. He wrote beforehand that some squaws and children would be killed, as many of them often were combatants. A number were slain, and Custer was villified by the East and dubbed Squaw Killer. Yet, farmers' foodstuff and possessions and Kansas mail were found in the Washita camp. A white prisoner was gutted by a squaw, and the notorious Dog Soldiers, who warred on whites, also were present.
More controversy followed as Maj. Joel Elliot pursued Indians downstream and ran into other encampments. Custer felt he had to return to protect his supplies, and Elliot and 18 troopers were left to fare on their own. All were killed. It was a command decision, but brought considerable criticism. Militarily, the Battle of the Washita was highly successful as, for the first time, the Army demonstrated it could go anywhere at any time to bring the battle to the Indians. Sheridan congratulated Custer, as the latter did what he was ordered to do.
Custer's other assignments included exploration of the Yellowstone and Powder River areas, providing protection for the railroad, leading visiting dignitaries on tours, and making a foray into the Black Hills - an action that was allowed under a treaty. In assessing his reputation, it must be realized that the makeup of the Army of the West was different from the East, and Custer felt he had to instill discipline in unmotivated and largely untrained troops. Of the approximately 25,000 soldiers assigned to the West, some were former Union officers waiting out their pension, often reduced to enlisted man rank; others were opportunists who found the army a convenient way to get to the gold fields; and still others foreigners who wanted to learn English and the American way of life. Desertions took a toll of about one-third of the troops and suicide another eight percent.
Custer put spit and polish to the troops, ordered deserters shot, and pushed his men to the extreme to make them become an envied fighting unit that was recognized as elite. This provoked a love/hate relationship. Outsiders and many insiders regarded him as nothing less than a tyrant. His second in command, Maj. Marcus Reno, a distinguished Civil War hero himself, hated Custer, and the two leaked reports to the press criticizing each other. The troops knew of this dissension.
As if not controversial enough, Custer, a talented writer, penned articles exposing the sad plight of the Indians. He also fanned the flames of politics when he testified before Congress about the corruption in Indian Agencies, implicating Ulysses S. Grant's brother, Orvil. Custer always made sure his own name was in the news.
By 1875-76, the Indian Wars were coming to a climax. All Indians were ordered to their reservations, and those who did not return were to be regarded as hostiles. Indian agents lied to the army about the number who presently were on the reservations. A false high count produced surplus supplies for the agents, who thereby profited.
A master plan for a three-prong cleanup of the hostiles was made. Generals George Crook, Alfred Terry, and John Gibbon were to converge in the Valley of the Little Big Horn, where the Indians supposedly had gathered. Custer was under Terry's command and proceeded from Ft. Abraham Lincoln. He had about 650 in his regiment, which was at 60% strength, about one-third new recruits. Their weapons were sidearms and single-shot Springfield carbine rifles that fouled easily. Ejection problems often required one man to repair his weapon while three others continued firing.
The generals believed the number of hostiles to be around 800, largely on the basis of false reports from the Indian Agencies. A scout under Reno's command indicated agreement with this figure. The Army's fatal presupposition was that the Indians wouldn't fight a pitched battle, but, as usual when attacked by a major force, would disperse and run away, hence the enclosing pincers movement. Terry's orders were "to preclude the possibility of the escape of the Indians." The fast cavalry would force them to flee, thus confronting the infantry, and a cordoning maneuver would effect their surrender.
Plans go awry, however. On his way to converge with the other columns, Crook ran into a fierce encounter with the Sioux at the Battle of the Rosebud. He retreated after a standoff and never met the other troops. Neither Terry nor Gibbon knew of this situation at the time.
Terry told Custer that "It is impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and, were it not impossible to do so, the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to impose on you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy."
The rest is history. Custer split his regiment into three groups and was killed along with about 230 of his men. His strategy was to have Reno ride through the village creating havoc. Before the Indians had a chance to regroup, Custer and Maj. Frederick Benteen would come to Reno's aid from other directions.
It is true that his scouts told him of a huge encampment ahead, saying the horse herd was so numerous they looked like worms. Custer couldn't see them himself, and so had to make his own judgment. He knew, though, that Indian scouts were superstitious and often unreliable in their reports when encountering omens.
(...) The minimum number of warriors probably was around 2,000.
In retrospect, Gen. Nelson Miles, a battle-seasoned veteran of East and West, thought Custer acted correctly. Pres. Grant excoriated Custer, and the nation mourned its "Boy General" in the year of its centennial. Out of respect for Libby, many who wanted to speak out against Custer decided to wait until her death to do so. Ironically, she outlived almost all of them, surviving until 1933 and never ceasing to extol her husband's virtues. The Indians told confusing stories, worried about retaliation. Enough is known, however, not to make absolute judgments about the Custer of the West.
Today, George Armstrong Custer, the tragic hero, lies buried under a weeping beech next to his ever-loving wife. Perhaps we can agree with Shakespeare's observation, "The evil that men do lives on long after them, the good is oft interred with their bones."
source: USA Today (Magazine) | Date: 5/1/1994 | Author: Kreyche, Gerald F.
Heroes are like the phoenix; when they die, they always are resurrected out of their own ashes. Subsequently and inevitably, their lives become legend and, in them, history and myth merge so as to become almost indistinguishable. A prime example is the case of George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Little Big Horn in southeast Montana, June 25, 1876. About 300 books, 45 movies, and 1,000 paintings have centered on him. Custer has had a city, county, highway, national forest, and school named in his honor.
Controversial in life, he is more so in death. Even his grave marker at West Point was changed at the insistence of his wife, Libby. The original was that of a cavalryman astride a charger; the second, a more simple obelisk. Did his widow, who lived for 55 years after his death, shape the image of both the real-life and mythical Custer?
Custeriana continues to generate controversy. One might say it even thrives on it. Examples are Congress' rescinding Maj. Marcus Reno's court martial verdict a few decades ago. Another is the renaming of The Custer Battlefield that was the site of a national military cemetery and given national monument status by Pres. Harry Truman in 1946. Political correctness, at the urging of Native Americans, won out, and the national monument was renamed the Little Big Horn Battlefield. Apparently, Custer's name was anathema. Directorship of the monument also changed. Whites were replaced and the previous and present Monument Director both are of Indian ancestry. To complete the purge of Custer influence, the Custer Battlefield Association, which ran the book store and previously contributed time, material, personnel, and money, was ousted in 1993.
A prominent encyclopedia that, when published in 1975, told of the Indians slaughtering Custer's troops at the Little Big Horn accuses Custer in its new revised edition of effecting a massacre at the western engagement at Washita in the Oklahoma Panhandle. It is instructive that the 1941 Errol Flynn movie, "They Died with Their Boots On," glorified Custer and received rave reviews as a classic. Of course, it served wartime ardor, coming out when the nation was confronting World War II. In the anti-Vietnam War era, Dustin Hoffman's 1970 film, Little Big Man, portrayed Custer as a raving maniac.
A major fire on the battlefield in August, 1983 (possibly set by disgruntled Indians), exposed the area, and a subsequent two-year archaeological dig with forensic and anthropology experts took place in 1984-85 85. More than 1,000 additional artifacts were discovered, offering new grist for the interpretation mill, and Custer's Last Stand was fought all over again in a spate of books on topics as diverse as time/motion studies and new archaeological explanations. Opinions as to Custer's blame for the defeat became doubted.
Why is Custer of such perennial and controversial interest? Was Custer a Janus? Were there two George Armstrong Custers - one, the Custer of the East, a distinguished and honored breveted Civil War general; the other, a maniacal regular rank Lt. Col. Custer of the West? Was the first a hero and the second a goat?
George Armstrong Custer was born in 1839 in New Rumely, Ohio. His father was a blacksmith and a staunch Democrat. The family moved to Monroe, Mich., where they joined other relatives. How Democrat Custer got an appointment to West Point from diehard Republican Congressman John Bingham remains a mystery.
After a probationary period, Custer received full cadet status in 1857. Always a prankster and bon vivant, he graduated at the bottom of his class and his record of demerits (mostly for minor infractions) was the highest at the Point. Cadets sympathetic to the South, many who were friends of Custer, already had left the academy. They would be met later on the field of battle. Upon graduation, he married Elizabeth Bacon, known always as Libby, who as well-connected politically and became more so as Custer's career flourished.
He served on the staff of or had contact with famous generals who favored him, including Winfield Scott, George McClellan, Irvin McDowell, Alfred Pleasanton, and the feisty, profanity-spouting Phil Sheridan. It is easy to understand why. Fiercely loyal, Custer was flamboyant, optimistic, brave, impetuous to the point of recklessness - and he was lucky! Nearly a dozen horses were shot from beneath him, but he never was wounded seriously.
A man of incredible energy, needing only a few hours of sleep a night, he led his troops into battle with fearsome saber charges, riding four horse lengths ahead and always on the attack. The press latched onto him, for he was a colorful figure as he led his Michigan troops, their orange-red bandannas flying in the wind, calling, "C'mon, you Michiganders!"
That he was a genuine Civil War hero is disputed by no one. For his leadership and many victories in that conflict, he was praised by the press, generals, and Pres. Abraham Lincoln.
His army career in the East found Custer serving variously as staff officer, spy, balloonist, courier, engineer, and especially as a cavalryman. In the early days of the war, the saying had it that "no one ever saw a dead cavalryman." Custer changed this, and his cavalry charges reminds one of the German Panzer units with their blitzkrieg strikes.
He bested the elite of the South's cavalry units headed by J.E.B. Stuart and Jubal Early. Custer actively was involved in such battles as Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, Yellow Tavern, Beverly Ford, the Wilderness, Waynesboro, and Winchester.