Letter by RCOI chairman

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 Inspired by a love of history and its amazing accounts of human endeavor, model making and dramatic representations of the people, places and things that have shaped our culture.

The recorder of the Inquiry on Little Bighorn confirmed his opinion on the betrayal to Elizabeth Custer
JESSE LEE'S LETTER TO MISS CUSTER


source: "A Very Real Salmagundi; or Look What I Found This
Summer"
, ed. by John M. Carroll, 1980, edited by custerwest.org member Jeff Veach



"Madison Barracks
  Sacketts Harbor, N.Y.
  June 27, 1879

  Mrs. Elizabeth B. Custer,
  New York City

  My Dear Madam:

  Among the agreeable surprises of my life none I appreciate more fully than in receiving your kind and touching letter of the nineteenth instant. I have also received the photograph of your distinguished husband. Such tokens of esteem I shall ever cherish because you honor me with them and because they relate to one whose name and fame will shine with unceasing splendor while jealousy and prejudice shall be surely relegated to oblivion.

  I want to say to you in all frankness, that at one time I was in some degree influenced by the prejudiced opinions of those whose motives I did not then understand, and whose sources of information I then had no means of testing. 

But soon after I was brought into close contact with thousands of Indians- the Sioux, Cheyennes and others; and in Jan'y 1879 I was Recorder of the Reno Court of Inquiry; a year later I visited the field of battle. Now, I tried to be honest and fair minded and allow nothing but facts to make an impression on my mind. So it came about in the light of long and confidential talks with Indians under my charge; in the light of what was said to me by witnesses before they went on the stand, and in the light of much of that testimony on the stand; and finally in the light of my visit to the field, my judgment could no more escape the conclusion of facts than to deny that I am penning these lines. 

That conclusion I referred to in my letter to General Miles and I am glad you consider it "generous and fair"- it is true! I do not believe any unprejudiced mine- any one whose heart is free from the (unreadable) jealousy could with a knowledge of all the facts come to any other conclusion. When I got to the facts, it was then easy to understand how self interest influenced opinions- how jealousy being unopposed- could unmask its horrid front and loosen its tongue of calumny- with none to answer- how the living could extol themselves for prudence and delay, and condemn the dead as rash and impetuous, how authority though inexperienced, sought to evade responsibility through a loophole of escape. 

Had someone blundered? Then how easy to censure those who could not answer. It was both cruel and unjust for any one to send that dispatch: "Orders were disobeyed but the penalty paid." This dispatch reveals both weakness and incompetency. The sender, I believe, knew but little if anything about Indians, but he did know General Custer, and it verges on imbecility to suppose that anyone would expect those Indians to be held in position several days by one column waiting and making it convenient for another column to attack them.

I was glad to see that [US Supreme Commander] General Miles [who accused Benteen and Reno of having betrayed Custer] had gotten at all the material facts, and of course there could be but one conclusion. I think Capt. Philo Clark, in his life time, got the facts, and the conclusion was the same. Major Godfrey, when Captain in the 7th Cav'y, wrote a very fair article on this subject. 

There has been so much misrepresentation, so much from personal and interested motives that it would seem that the truth is hard to separate from the chaff, but I believe that the impartial historian will do justice to your distinguished husband. 

My opinion, as such, is of but little moment one way or the other, but I believe as an unprejudiced person I have had better opportunities to get at the facts than almost any other person. These facts show beyond successful contradiction:

  1st. That General Custer was not disobeying General Terry's orders in attacking the Indians. Any other course under the circumstances would have been ridiculous and absurd.

  2nd. Major Reno- according to General Gibbon's testimony- left abandoned a splendid position where he threatened the entire village, and thus enabled the entire force of Indians to concentrate on General Custer who was thus compelled to meet them with less than 2/5 of the effective force of his regiment.

  3rd. Major Reno's disastrous retreat resulted in keeping out of the battle at a critical period fully 3/5 of the effective force, and in doing this all chance for victory over the Indians was lost.

  I had not the honor of a personal acquaintance with General Custer. I saw him but once in my life, but I feel that I would be recreant to truth were I to fail to say and write on appropriate occasions that which I know is in accord with his great reputation.
  Should I ever come to New York it would be a pleasure for me to call upon you. I am a poor writer as you no doubt perceive, but I have given much thought and taken so much interest in these subjects, that I would be delighted to talk with you about them- if agreeable to you- because they are of such great historical interest.
  
With my best wishes, and thank you most cordially,

  I am , most truly yours,
  J.M. Lee"

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