George Armstrong Custer

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George Armstrong Custer
Custer Bvt MG Geo A 1865 LC-BH831-365-crop.jpg
Born (1839-12-05)December 5, 1839
New Rumley, Ohio
Died June 25, 1876(1876-06-25) (aged 36)
Little Bighorn, Montana
Place of burial initially on the battlefield
later reinterred in West Point Cemetery
Allegiance  United States of America
Union
Service/branch  United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1861–76
Rank Union army maj gen rank insignia.jpg Brevet Major General
Commands held

Michigan Michigan Brigade
3rd Cavalry Division
2nd Cavalry Division

7th Cavalry Regiment
Battles/wars

American Civil War

American Indian Wars

Spouse(s) Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Relations

Thomas Custer, brother
Boston Custer, brother

James Calhoun, brother-in-law
Signature George Armstrong Custer signature.svg

George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars. Raised in Michigan and Ohio, Custer was admitted to West Point in 1858, where he graduated last in his class. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Custer was called to serve with the Union Army.

Custer developed a strong reputation during the Civil War. He fought in the first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Run. His association with several important officers helped his career, as did his success as a highly effective cavalry commander. Custer was eventually promoted to the temporary rank (brevet) of major general and promoted major general of Volunteers. (At war's end, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain.) At the conclusion of the Appomattox Campaign, in which he and his troops played a decisive role, Custer was present at General Robert E. Lee's surrender.

After the Civil War, Custer was dispatched to the west to fight in the American Indian Wars. Custer and all the men with him were killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, fighting against a coalition of Native American tribes in a battle that has come to be popularly known in American history as "Custer's Last Stand." Custer and his men were defeated so decisively in this battle that the Battle of the Little Bighorn has overshadowed all his prior achievements.

Family and ancestry[edit]

Custer's ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, emigrated to North America around 1693 from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatine refugees whose passage was arranged by the English government to gain settlers.[1][2]

According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout father's hope that his son might join the clergy.[3]

Birth, siblings and nicknames[edit]

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882).[4] He had two younger brothers, Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, who both died with him on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. His other full siblings were the family's youngest child, Margaret Custer, and Nevin Custer, who suffered from asthma and rheumatism. Custer also had several older half-siblings.[5]

Throughout his life Custer was known by a variety of nicknames. He was called "Autie" (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name) and Armstrong. During the Civil War, Custer was frequently termed "The Boy General" in the press, reflecting his promotion to brigadier general at the age of 23; during his years on the Great Plains in the American Indian Wars, his troopers often referred to him with grudging admiration as "Iron Butt" and "Hard Ass" for his physical stamina in the saddle and his strict discipline, as well as with the more derisive "Ringlets" for his vanity about his appearance in general and his long, curling blond hair in particular.[6]

Early life[edit]

USMA Cadet George Armstrong "Autie" Custer, ca. 1859

Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school. Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio. While attending Hopedale, Custer, together with classmate William Enos Emery, was known to have carried coal to help pay for their room and board. After graduating from McNeely Normal School in 1856, Custer taught school in Cadiz, Ohio.[7]

Custer entered West Point in June 1858 as a member of the class of 1862 which subsequently graduated out as a class one year early because of the outbreak of the American Civil War. He graduated last in a class of 34 cadets.[8] His cadetship remains renowned (to the layman, almost apocryphal) in West Point history. As practiced throughout his life, Custer tested boundaries and rules. In his four years, he amassed a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the academy’s annals. A fellow cadet recalled Custer as declaring there were only two places in a class, the head and the foot, and since he had no desire to be the head, he aspired to be the foot. A roommate noted, It was all right with George Custer, whether he knew his lesson or not: he simply did not allow it to trouble him.[9] Under ordinary national conditions, Custer's low class rank would represent a ticket to an obscure posting, but Custer had the ironic fortune to graduate as the Civil War broke out. Custer's tenure at the Academy had been rocky, as he came close to expulsion in each of his three years due to excessive demerits, many from pulling pranks on fellow cadets.[citation needed]

Civil War[edit]

McClellan and Pleasonton[edit]

Second Lieutenant George A. Custer had his photo taken with ex-classmate, friend, and captured Confederate prisoner, Lt. J.B. Washington, an aide to General Johnston, at Fair Oaks, Virginia, 1862

Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle, he was assigned to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, with which he served through the early days of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862.

It was as a staff officer for Major General George B. McClellan that Custer was promoted to the rank of captain. On May 24, 1862, during the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, when General Barnard and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped, and Custer overheard his commander mutter to himself, "I wish I knew how deep it is." Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river and turned to the astonished officers of the staff and shouted triumphantly, "That's how deep it is, Mr General!" Custer then was allowed to lead an attack with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, resulting in the capture of 50 Confederate soldiers and the seizing of the first Confederate battle flag of the war. Major General McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, termed it a "very gallant affair", congratulated Custer personally, and brought him onto his staff as an aide-de-camp with the temporary rank of captain. In this role, Custer began his life-long pursuit of publicity.[10]

Custer (extreme right) with President Lincoln, George B. McClellan and other officers at the Battle of Antietam, 1862

When McClellan was relieved of command in November 1862, Custer reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. Custer fell into the orbit of Major General Alfred Pleasonton, who was commanding a cavalry division. The general was Custer's introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant became his protégé, serving on Pleasonton's staff while continuing his assignment with his regiment. Custer was quoted as saying that "no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me." After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Pleasonton became the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and his first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. In his first command, Custer affected a showy, personalized uniform style that alienated his men, but he won them over with his readiness to lead attacks (a contrast to the many officers who would hang back, hoping to avoid being hit); his men began to adopt elements of his uniform, especially the red neckerchief. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Station and Aldie.

Brigade command and Gettysburg[edit]

Captain Custer (left) with General Alfred Pleasonton on horseback in Falmouth, Virginia.
Union Cavalry Generals George A. Custer (left) and Alfred Pleasonton in Autumn 1863

On June 28, 1863, three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, General Pleasonton promoted Custer from captain to brigadier general of volunteers.[8] Despite having no direct command experience, he became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Two other captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—were promoted along with Custer, although they did have command experience. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Major General J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.[citation needed]

Custer's style of battle was often claimed to be reckless or foolhardy, but military planning was always the basis of every Custer "dash". As Marguerite Merrington explains in The Custer Story in Letters, "George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemies [sic] weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the 'Custer Dash' with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time."[11] One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was what Custer wrote of as "luck" and he needed it to survive some of these charges.[citation needed]

Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick against the brigade of Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the enemy and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by Norville Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot Custer's nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.[citation needed]

One of Custer's finest hours in the Civil War occurred just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett's Charge to the west, Robert E. Lee had dispatched Stuart's cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg directly in the path of Stuart's horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault. Custer's brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade.[12] "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry", Custer wrote in his report.[13]

Marriage[edit]

George and Libbie Custer, 1864

Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon (1842–1933) (whom he first saw when he was ten years old)[14] on February 9, 1864. He had been socially introduced to her in November 1862, when home in Monroe on leave. She was not initially impressed with him,[15] and her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, disapproved of Custer as a match because he was the son of a blacksmith. It was not until well after Custer had been promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general that he gained the approval of Judge Bacon. He married Elizabeth Bacon fourteen months after they formally met.[16]

In November 1868, following the Battle of Washita River, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have unofficially married Mo-nah-se-tah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock in the winter or early spring of 1868–1869. (Little Rock was killed in the Washita battle.)[17] Mo-nah-se-tah gave birth to a child in January 1869, two months after the Washita battle. Cheyenne oral history tells that she also bore a second child, fathered by Custer in late 1869. Some historians, however, believe that Custer had become sterile after contracting gonorrhea while at West Point and that the father was, in actuality, his brother Thomas.[18]

The Valley and Appomattox[edit]

In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac reorganized under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer (now commanding the 3rd Division) led his "Wolverines" to the Shenandoah Valley where by the year's end they defeated the army of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. During May and June, Sheridan and Custer took part in cavalry actions supporting the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which Custer ascended to division command), and the Battle of Yellow Tavern (where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded). In the largest all-cavalry engagement of the war, the Battle of Trevilian Station, in which Sheridan sought to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the Confederates' western resupply route, Custer captured Hampton's divisional train, but was then cut off and suffered heavy losses (including having his division's trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the enemy) before being relieved. When Lieutenant General Early was then ordered to move down the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington, D.C., Custer's division was again dispatched under Sheridan. In the Valley Campaigns of 1864, they pursued the Confederates at the Third Battle of Winchester and effectively destroyed Early's army during Sheridan's counterattack at Cedar Creek.

Sheridan and Custer, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April 1865 the Confederate lines finally broke, and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lee's retreat on its final day and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force. Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to him as a gift for his wife by General Sheridan, who included a note to her praising Custer's gallantry. She treasured the gift of the historical table, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution.[19]

Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier general and major general in the regular army (March 13, 1865) and major general of volunteers (April 15, 1865).[8] As with most wartime promotions, even when issued under the regular army, these senior ranks were only temporary.

Reconstruction duties in Texas[edit]

In June 1865, at Sheridan's behest, Custer accepted command of the 2nd Division of Cavalry, Military Division of the Southwest, to march from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Hempstead, Texas, as part of the Union occupation forces. Custer arrived at Alexandria on June 27 and began assembling his units, which took more than a month to gather and remount. Accompanied by his wife, he led the division (five regiments of veteran Western Theater cavalrymen) to Texas on an arduous 18-day march in August. In October he moved the division to Austin, when he became Chief of Cavalry for the Department of Texas, succeeding Major General Wesley Merritt.

During his entire period of command of the division, Custer encountered considerable friction and near mutiny from the volunteer cavalry regiments who had campaigned along the Gulf coast. They desired to be mustered out of Federal service rather than continue campaigning, resented imposition of discipline (particularly from an Eastern Theater general), and considered Custer nothing more than a vain dandy.[20][21]

Custer's division was mustered out beginning in November 1865, replaced by the regulars of the U.S. 6th Cavalry Regiment. Although their occupation of Austin had apparently been pleasant, many veterans harbored deep resentments against Custer, particularly in the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, because of his attempts to maintain discipline. Upon its mustering out, several members planned to ambush Custer, but he was warned the night before and the attempt thwarted.[22]

American Indian Wars[edit]

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, US Army, 1865

On February 1, 1866, Custer was mustered out of the volunteer service and returned to his permanent rank of captain in the 5th Cavalry. Custer took an extended leave, exploring options in New York City,[23] where he considered careers in railroads and mining.[24] Offered a position (and $10,000 in gold) as adjutant general of the army of Benito Juárez of Mexico, who was then in a struggle with the Mexican Emperor Maximilian I (a satellite ruler of French Emperor Napoleon III), Custer applied for a one-year leave of absence from the U.S. Army, which was endorsed by Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. Sheridan and Mrs. Custer disapproved, however, and when his request for leave was opposed by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was against having an American officer commanding foreign troops, Custer refused the alternative of resignation from the Army to take the lucrative post.[24][25]

Following the death of his father-in-law in May 1866, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he considered running for Congress. He took part in public discussion over the treatment of the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War, advocating a policy of moderation.[24] He was named head of the Soldiers and Sailors Union, regarded as a response to the hyper-partisan Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Also formed in 1866, it was led by Republican activist John Alexander Logan. In September 1866 Custer accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a journey by train known as the "Swing Around the Circle" to build up public support for Johnson's policies towards the South. Custer denied a charge by the newspapers that Johnson had promised him a colonel's commission in return for his support, but Custer had written to Johnson some weeks before seeking such a commission. Custer and his wife stayed with the president during most of the trip. At one point Custer confronted a small group of Ohio men who repeatedly jeered Johnson, saying to them: "I was born two miles and a half from here, but I am ashamed of you."[26]

Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment,[27] headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas.[28] As a result of a plea by his patron General Philip Sheridan, Custer was also appointed brevet major general.[27] He took part in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition against the Cheyenne in 1867. On June 26, 1867 Lt. Lyman Kidder's party, made up of ten troopers and one scout, were massacred while en route to Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was to deliver dispatches to Custer from General William Sherman, but his party was attacked by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne (see Kidder massacre). Days later, Custer and a search party found the bodies of Kidder's patrol.

Custer (left) posing with Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia, 1872

Following the Hancock campaign, Custer was court-martialed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for being AWOL, after having abandoned his post to see his wife. He was suspended from duty for one year. At the request of Major General Philip Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne, Custer was allowed to return to duty in 1868, before his term of suspension had expired.

Under Sheridan's orders, Custer took part in establishing Camp Supply in Indian Territory in early November 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry in an attack on the Cheyenne encampment of Black Kettle—the Battle of Washita River on November 27, 1868. Custer reported killing 103 warriors; estimates by the Cheyenne of their casualties were substantially lower (11 warriors plus 19 women and children);[29] some women and children were also killed, and US troops took 53 women and children prisoner. Custer had his men shoot most of the 875 Indian ponies they had captured. The Battle of Washita River was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Southern Plains War, and it helped force a significant portion of the Southern Cheyennes onto a U.S.-assigned reservation.

Custer and his wife at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, 1874

In 1873, Custer was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Lakota. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Lakota. Only one man on each side was killed. In 1874, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custer's announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. Among the towns that immediately grew up was Deadwood, South Dakota, notorious for lawlessness.

Grant, Belknap and politics[edit]

Further information: Trader post scandal (1876)
Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, 7th U.S. Cavalry, ca. 1875

The expedition against the Sioux was originally scheduled to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln on April 6, 1876, but on March 15, Custer was summoned to Washington to testify at Congressional hearings regarding the kickback scandal involving U.S. Secretary of War William W. Belknap (who had resigned March 2), President Grant's brother Orville, and traders at Army posts in Indian Country who were charging troops double what they would have paid for the same goods in Bismarck. Soldiers were required by regulations to purchase goods from the traders. Belknap sold trading post positions for kickbacks.[30] After Custer testified on March 29 and April 4 before the Clymer Committee, Belknap was impeached and sent to the Senate for trial. Custer left Washington on April 20, but instead of immediately returning to Fort Lincoln, he visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and planned to travel to New York to meet with publishers.[citation needed]

Custer's testimony was a sensation because of what he said and because he was the one saying it. Custer was sharply criticized by the Republican press and praised by Democratic editors.[31] President Grant held up Custer's departure from Washington. Grant and Custer did not get along. Earlier Custer had arrested Grant's son, Fred Grant, for drunkenness. Now Custer was accusing Grant's brother and Secretary of War of corruption. Custer was writing magazine articles criticizing Grant's peace policy towards the Indians. Brigadier General Alfred Terry determined there were no available officers of rank to take command, but Sherman refused to intercede. Stunned that he would not be in command, Custer approached the impeachment managers and secured his release. General Sherman advised Custer not to leave Washington before meeting personally with President Grant. Three times Custer requested meetings with Grant, but was always turned down. Custer gave up and took a train to Chicago on May 2, planning to rejoin his regiment.[32]

On May 3 a member of Sheridan's staff greeted Custer in Chicago. President Grant had ordered Custer's arrest for leaving Washington without permission. President Grant had designated General Terry to command the expedition in Custer's place. Custer took a train to St. Paul to meet General Terry.[31]

Brigadier General Terry met Custer in Fort Snelling, Minnesota on May 6. He later recalled, "(Custer) with tears in his eyes, begged for my aid. How could I resist it?"[citation needed] Terry wrote to Grant attesting to the advantages of Custer's leading the expedition. Sheridan endorsed his effort, accepting Custer's "guilt" and suggesting his restraint in future. Grant was already under pressure for his treatment of Custer. His administration worried that if the "Sioux campaign" failed without Custer, Grant would be blamed for ignoring the recommendations of senior Army officers. On May 8 Custer was informed at Fort Snelling that he was to lead the 7th Cavalry, but under Terry's direct supervision.

Before leaving Fort Snelling, Custer spoke to General Terry's chief engineer, Captain Ludlow, saying he would "cut loose" from Terry and operate independently from him. Custer presented Bloody Knife, his Rhee scout with several gifts. Custer told Bloody Knife and some Arikara scouts that this would be his last Indian campaign. Custer further stated that if the scouts helped him win a victory, he would become president and look after the Arikaras from the White House.[33]

Battle of the Little Bighorn[edit]

By the time of Custer's expedition to the Black Hills in 1874, the level of conflict and tension between the U.S. and many of the Plains Indians tribes (including the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne) had become exceedingly high. Americans continually broke treaty agreements and advanced further westward, resulting in violence and acts of depredation by both sides. To take possession of the Black Hills (and thus the gold deposits), and to stop Indian attacks, the U.S. decided to corral all remaining free Plains Indians. The Grant government set a deadline of January 31, 1876 for all Lakota and Arapaho wintering in the "unceded territory" to report to their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered "hostile".[34]

The 7th Cavalry departed from Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876, part of a larger army force planning to round up remaining free Indians. Meanwhile, in the spring and summer of 1876, the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull had called together the largest ever gathering of Plains Indians at Ash Creek, Montana (later moved to the Little Bighorn River) to discuss what to do about the whites.[35] It was this united encampment of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians that the 7th met at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Custer and Bloody Knife (kneeling left), Custer's favorite Indian Scout

On June 25, some of Custer's Crow Indian scouts identified what they claimed was a large Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River. Custer divided his forces into three battalions: one led by Major Marcus Reno, one by Captain Frederick Benteen, and one by himself. Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train. Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians, Reno was sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment, and Custer rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs, and planning to circle around and attack from the north.[36][37]

Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village, but halted some 500–600 yards short of the camp, and had his men dismount and form a skirmish line.[38] They were soon overcome by mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who counterattacked en masse against Reno's exposed left flank,[39] forcing Reno and his men to take cover in the trees along the river. Eventually, however, this position became untenable and the troopers were forced into a bloody retreat up onto the bluffs above the river, where they made their own stand.[40][41] This, the opening action of the battle, cost Reno a quarter of his command.

Custer may have seen Reno stop and form a skirmish line as Custer led his command to the northern end of the main encampment, where he apparently planned to sandwich the Indians between his attacking troopers and Reno's command in a "hammer and anvil" maneuver.[42] According to Grinnell's account, based on the testimony of the Cheyenne warriors who survived the fight,[43] at least part of Custer's command attempted to ford the river at the north end of the camp but were driven off by stiff resistance from Indian sharpshooters firing from the brush along the west bank of the river. From that point the soldiers were pursued by hundreds of warriors onto a ridge north of the encampment. Custer and his command were prevented from digging in by Crazy Horse, however, whose warriors had outflanked him and were now to his north, at the crest of the ridge.[44] Traditional white accounts attribute to Gall the attack that drove Custer up onto the ridge, but Indian witnesses have disputed that account.[45]

"Hurrah boys, we've got them! We'll finish them up and then go home to our station."

—Famous words reportedly said by General Custer shortly before being killed.[46]

For a time, Custer's men appear to have been deployed by company, in standard cavalry fighting formation—the skirmish line, with every fourth man holding the horses, though this arrangement would have robbed Custer of a quarter of his firepower. Worse, as the fight intensified, many soldiers could have taken to holding their own horses or hobbling them, further reducing the 7th's effective fire. When Crazy Horse and White Bull mounted the charge that broke through the center of Custer's lines, pandemonium may have broken out among the soldiers of Calhoun's command,[47] though Myles Keogh's men seem to have fought and died where they stood. According to some Lakota accounts, many of the panicking soldiers threw down their weapons[48] and either rode or ran towards the knoll where Custer, the other officers, and about 40 men were making a stand. Along the way, the warriors rode them down, counting coup by striking the fleeing troopers with their quirts or lances.[49]

Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall's rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota-Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors.[50] Historian Gregory Michno settles on a low number around 1000 based on contemporary Lakota testimony, but other sources place the number at 1800 or 2000, especially in the works by Utley and Fox. The 1800–2000 figure is substantially lower than the higher numbers of 3000 or more postulated by Ambrose, Gray, Scott, and others. Some of the other participants in the battle gave these estimates:

  • Spotted Horn Bull – 5,000 braves and chiefs
  • Maj. Reno – 2,500 to 5,000 warriors
  • Capt. Moylan – 3,500 to 4,000
  • Lt. Hare – not under 4,000
  • Lt. Godfrey – minimum between 2,500 and 3,000
  • Lt. Edgerly – 4,000
  • Lt. Varnum – not less than 4,000
  • Sgt. Kanipe – fully 4,000
  • George Herendeen – fully 3,000
  • Fred Gerard – 2,500 to 3,000

An average of the above is 3,500 warriors and chiefs.[51]

As the troopers were cut down, the native warriors stripped the dead of their firearms and ammunition, with the result that the return fire from the cavalry steadily decreased, while the fire from the Indians constantly increased. The surviving troopers apparently shot their remaining horses to use as breastworks for a final stand on the knoll at the north end of the ridge. The warriors closed in for the final attack and killed every man in Custer's command. As a result, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand".

Death[edit]

Some eyewitness reports state that Custer was not identified until after his death by the Native Americans who killed him.[citation needed] Several individuals claimed personal responsibility for the killing, including White Bull of the Miniconjous, Rain-in-the-Face, Flat Lip and Brave Bear.[52] In June 2005 at a public meeting, the Northern Cheyenne broke more than 100 years of silence about the battle. Storytellers said that according to their oral tradition, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Northern Cheyenne heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud, struck the final blow against Custer, which knocked him off his horse before he died.[53]

A contrasting version of Custer's death is suggested by the testimony of an Oglala named Joseph White Cow Bull, according to novelist and Custer biographer Evan Connell, who relates that Joseph White Bull stated he had shot a rider at the riverside wearing a buckskin jacket and big hat when the soldiers first approached the village from the east. The initial force facing the soldiers, according to this version, was quite small (possibly as few as four warriors) yet challenged Custer's command. The rider who was hit, mounted next to a rider who bore a flag, had shouted orders that prompted the soldiers to attack, but when the buckskin-clad rider fell off his horse after being shot, many of the attackers reined up. The allegation that the buckskin-clad officer was Custer, if accurate, might explain the supposed rapid disintegration of Custer's forces.[54] However, several other officers of the Seventh, including William Cooke and Tom Custer, were also dressed in buckskin on the day of the battle, and the fact that each of the non-mutilation wounds to Custer's body (a bullet wound below the heart and a shot to the left temple) would have been instantly fatal casts doubt on his being wounded or killed at the ford, more than a mile from where his body was found.[55] The circumstances are, however, consistent with David Humphreys Miller's suggestion that Custer's attendants would not have left his dead body behind to be desecrated.[56]

During the 1920s, two elderly Cheyenne women spoke briefly with oral historians about their having recognized Custer's body on the battlefield, and had stopped a Sioux warrior from desecrating the body. The women were relatives of Mo-nah-se-tah, who was alleged to have been Custer's one-time lover. In the Cheyenne culture of the time, such a relationship was considered a marriage. The women allegedly told the warrior to "Stop, he is a relative of ours," and then shooed him away. The two women then shoved their sewing awls into his ears, to permit Custer's corpse to 'hear better in the afterlife' because he had broken his promise to Chief Stone Forehead never to fight against Native Americans again.[57]

When the main column under General Terry arrived two days later, the army found most of the soldiers' corpses stripped, scalped, and mutilated.[58] Custer's body had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one just above the heart.[59] Capt. Benteen, who inspected the body, stated that in his opinion the fatal injuries had not been the result of .45 caliber ammunition, which implies the bullet holes had been caused by ranged rifle fire.[60]

Following the recovery of Custer's body and that of his brother Tom, the remains were buried on the battlefield side by side in a shallow grave, after being covered by pieces of tent canvas and blankets.[61] One year later, Custer's remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back east for reinterment in more formal burials. Custer was buried again with full military honors at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877. The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.

Controversial legacy[edit]

George A. Custer in civilian clothes, ca. 1876

After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that he had sought on the battlefield. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and exemplary gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer's wife, Elizabeth, who had accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, did much to advance this view with the publication of several books about her late husband: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1891). Lt. Col. Custer wrote about the American Indian Wars in My Life on the Plains (1874).

The deaths of Custer and his troops became the best-known episode in the history of the American Indian Wars, due in part to a painting commissioned by the brewery Anheuser-Busch as part of an advertising campaign. The enterprising company ordered reprints of a dramatic work that depicted “Custer's Last Stand” and had them framed and hung in many United States saloons. This created lasting impressions of the battle and the brewery’s products in the minds of many bar patrons.[62]

Custer has been called a "media personality",[63][64] and he valued good public relations in addition to using the print media of his era effectively. He frequently invited journalists to accompany his campaigns (one, Associated Press reporter Mark Kellogg, died at the Little Bighorn), and their favorable reporting contributed to his high reputation, which lasted well into the 20th century. He paid attention to his image; after being promoted to brigadier general in the Civil War, Custer sported a uniform that included shiny cavalry boots, tight olive-colored corduroy trousers, a wide-brimmed slouch hat, tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver piping on the sleeves, a sailor shirt with silver stars on his collar, and a red cravat. He wore his hair in long ringlets liberally sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil. Later, in his campaigns against the Indians, Custer wore a buckskins outfit, along with his familiar red tie.[65]

The assessment of Custer's actions during the American Indian Wars has undergone substantial reconsideration in modern times. Documenting the arc of popular perception in his 1984 biography Son of the Morning Star, author Evan Connell notes the reverential tone of Custer's first biographer Frederick Whittaker (whose book was rushed out the year of Custer's death.)[66] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an adoring (and often erroneous) poem.[67] President Theodore Roosevelt's lavish praise pleased Custer's widow.[68] Connell concludes:

"These days it is stylish to denigrate the general, whose stock sells for nothing. Nineteenth-century Americans thought differently. At that time he was a cavalier without fear and beyond reproach."[61]

President Grant, a highly successful general, bluntly criticized Custer's actions in the battle of the Little Bighorn. Quoted in the New York Herald on September 2, 1876, Grant said, "I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary."[69] General Phillip Sheridan likewise took a harsh view of Custer's final military actions. General Nelson Miles (who inherited Custer's mantle of famed Indian fighter) and others praised him as a fallen hero betrayed by the incompetence of subordinate officers. Miles noted the difficulty of winning a fight "with seven-twelfths of the command remaining out of the engagement when within sound of his rifle shots."[70] The controversy over blame for the disaster at Little Bighorn continues to this day. Major Marcus Reno's failure to press his attack on the south end of the Lakota/Cheyenne village and his flight to the timber along the river after a single casualty have been cited as a causal factor in the destruction of Custer's battalion, as has Captain Frederick Benteen's allegedly tardy arrival on the field and the failure of the two officers' combined forces to move toward the relief of Custer.

"When writing about Custer, neutral ground is elusive. What should Custer have done at any of the critical junctures that rapidly presented themselves, each now the subject of endless speculation and rumination? There will always be a variety of opinions based upon what Custer knew, what he did not know, and what he could not have known..."

—from Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer by Louise Barnett.[69]

In contrast, some of Custer's critics, including General Sheridan, have asserted several clear tactical errors.[citation needed]

  • While camped at Powder River, Custer refused the support offered by General Terry on June 21, of an additional four companies of the Second Cavalry. Custer stated that he "could whip any Indian village on the Plains" with his own regiment, and that extra troops would simply be a burden.
  • At the same time, he left behind at the steamer Far West on the Yellowstone a battery of Gatling guns, knowing he was facing superior numbers. Before leaving the camp all the troops, including the officers, also boxed their sabers and sent them back with the wagons.[71]
  • On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command, despite being faced with vastly superior numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne.
  • The refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.[72]

Custer's defenders, however, including historian Charles K. Hofling, have asserted that Gatling guns would have been slow and cumbersome as the troops crossed the rough country between the Yellowstone and the Little Bighorn.[73] Custer rated speed in gaining the battlefield as essential and more important. The additional firepower had the potential of turning the tide of the fight, given the Indians' propensity for withdrawing in the face of new military technology.[citation needed] Other Custer supporters[who?] have claimed that splitting the forces was a standard tactic, so as to demoralize the enemy with the appearance of the cavalry in different places all at once, especially when a contingent threatened the line of retreat.

Monuments and memorials[edit]

Custer Memorial at his birthplace in New Rumley, Ohio
Monroe, Michigan, Custer's childhood home, unveiled the George Armstrong Custer Equestrian Monument in 1910

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wert, Jeffry D. (1996). Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-81043-3. , p. 15.
  2. ^ Connell, Evan S. (1984). Son Of The Morning Star. San Francisco, California: North Point Press. ISBN 0-86547-160-6. , p. 352.
  3. ^ Merington, Margurite (1987). The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-8138-2. 
  4. ^ Custer in the 1850 US Census in North Township, Ohio.
  5. ^ Wert (1996), pp. 17–18.
  6. ^ Welch, James; Stekler, Paul (2007). Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. W.W. Norton & Co. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-393-32939-1. 
  7. ^ "General George Custer Biography, US 7th Cavalry". Custer Lives!. Retrieved 16 May 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c Eicher, John H. and David J. Eicher (2001). Civil War High Commands. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.  p. 196.
  9. ^ "George Custer: Facts Summary Information". Retrieved 2014-03-31. 
  10. ^ Tagg, Larry. (1988). The Generals Of Gettysburg: Appraisal Of The Leaders Of America's Greatest Battle. Savas Publishing Company, ISBN 1-882810-30-9, p. 184.
  11. ^ Marguerite Merrington, The Custer Story In Letters|University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
  12. ^ Tagg, p. 185.
  13. ^ Robbins, James S., Last in their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point (2006), p. 268.
  14. ^ Connell (1984), p. 113.
  15. ^ Barnett, Louise (1996). Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc. ISBN 0-8050-3720-9. , p. 22.
  16. ^ Connell (1984), pp. 113–114.
  17. ^ Utley, Robert M. (2001). Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, revised edition. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3387-2, p. 107.
  18. ^ Wert (1996), pp. 287–288.
  19. ^ Wert, p. 225.
  20. ^ Wert (1996), pp. 232–238.
  21. ^ Richter, William L. "It is Best to Go Strong-Armed: Army Occupation of Texas, 1865–66", Arizona and The West (Summer 1985), Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 121-122.
  22. ^ Richter, "It is Best to Go Strong-Armed: Army Occupation of Texas, 1865–66", p. 135.
  23. ^ Utley 2001, p. 38.
  24. ^ a b c Utley 2001, p. 39.
  25. ^ Wert (1996), p. 241.
  26. ^ Utley 2001, pp. 39–40.
  27. ^ a b Utley 2001, p. 40.
  28. ^ Utley 2001, p. 41.
  29. ^ "The Story of the Battle of the Washita". National Park Service (USA). November 1999. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  30. ^ Stephen E. Ambrose. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. Los Angeles: Premier Digital Publishing (1996). eISBN 978-1-937624-45-3, Kindle locations 6840 -- 6849.
  31. ^ a b Stephen E. Ambrose. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. Los Angeles: Premier Digital Publishing (1996). eISBN 978-1-937624-45-3, Kindle location 6963 -- 6972.
  32. ^ Stephen E. Ambrose. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. Los Angeles: Premier Digital Publishing (1996). eISBN 978-1-937624-45-3, Kindle location 6503, 6945 -- 6963.
  33. ^ Stephen E. Ambrose. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. Los Angeles: Premier Digital Publishing (1996). eISBN 978-1-937624-45-3, Kindle location 7002.
  34. ^ 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The Cheyenne were not part of this treaty and had no designated agency. The reservation was for the Lakota and Arapaho.
  35. ^ Marshall 2007, p. 15.
  36. ^ Welch 2007, p. 149.
  37. ^ Ambrose, Stephen E. (1996). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-47966-2, p. 437.
  38. ^ Marshall 2007, p. 2.
  39. ^ Goodrich, Thomas (1997). Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865–1879. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, p. 242, testimony of scout Billy Jackson.
  40. ^ Marshall 2007, p. 4.
  41. ^ Ambrose 1996, p. 439.
  42. ^ Vern Smalley, More Little Bighorn Mysteries, Chapter 14.
  43. ^ Grinnell, 1915, pp. 300–301.
  44. ^ Marshall 2007, pp. 7–8.
  45. ^ Michno, Gregory F. (1997). Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat. Mountain Press Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87842-349-4, p. 168.
  46. ^ Windolph, Charles. I Fought with Custer: The Story of Sergeant Windolph, Last Survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn as told to Frazier and Robert Hunt. p. 86. 
  47. ^ Michno (1997), pp. 205–206.
  48. ^ Welch 2007, p. 183; cf. Grinnell, p. 301, whose sources say that by this time, about half the soldiers were without carbines and fought only with six-shooters.
  49. ^ Michno (1997), p. 215.
  50. ^ Michno (1997), pp. 10–20.
  51. ^ Vern Smalley, Little Bighorn Mysteries, p. 6.
  52. ^ Dee Brown, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Vintage, 1991, ISBN 978-0-09-952640-7, p.296-297.
  53. ^ Kidston, Martin J. (June 28, 2005). "Northern Cheyenne break vow of silence". Helenair.com. Retrieved October 23, 2009. 
  54. ^ Connell (1984), pp. 413–414.
  55. ^ Wert, 1996, p. 355.
  56. ^ David Humphreys Miller, Custer's Fall: The Indian Side of the Story. University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
  57. ^ Smithsonian Magazine, November, 2010, "How Little Bighorn was won" by Thomas Powers
  58. ^ Marshall 2007, p. 11; Welch 2007, pp. 175–181.
  59. ^ Welch 2007, p. 175.
  60. ^ Connell (1984), P. 410.
  61. ^ a b Connell (1984), p. 411.
  62. ^ Griske, Michael (2005). The Diaries of John Hunton. Heritage Books. pp. 78–79. ISBN 0-7884-3804-2. 
  63. ^ Ravage, John W. (1997). Black pioneers: images of the Black experience on the North American frontier. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-87480-546-8. 
  64. ^ Adams, Michael C.C. (2006). "George Armstrong Custer". In Hall, Dennis G.; Hall, Susan. American icons: an encyclopedia of the people, places, and things that have shaped our culture. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 186. ISBN 978-0-275-98429-8. 
  65. ^ Frost, Lawrence A. (1990). The Custer album: a pictorial biography of General George A. Custer. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 179. ISBN 978-0-8061-2282-3. 
  66. ^ Connell (1984), p. 287.
  67. ^ Connell (1984), pp. 380–391.
  68. ^ Connell (1984), p. 325.
  69. ^ a b Barnett (1996), p. 540.
  70. ^ Barnett (1996), p. 311.
  71. ^ "William Slaper's Story of the Battle", Personal account by a trooper in M company 7th Cavalry.
  72. ^ Goodrich, Scalp Dance, 1997, pp. 233–234.
  73. ^ Custer and the Little Big Horn: A ... – Google Books. June 1985. ISBN 978-0-8143-1814-0. Retrieved 2010-11-04. 
  74. ^ http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060928/NEIGHBORS04/609270311
  75. ^ "Fort Custer National Cemetery". United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved 2008-12-22. 
  76. ^ "The Free Library". The Free Library. 2006-11-01. Retrieved 2010-11-04. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Ambrose, Stephen E. (1996 [1975]). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 0-385-47966-2.
  • Barnett, Louise Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer (1996) New York, Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
  • Boulard, Garry "The Swing Around the Circle – Andrew Johnson and the Train Ride that Destroyed a Presidency" (2006) isbn=978-1-4401-0239-4
  • Connell, Evan S. (1984). Son Of The Morning Star. San Francisco, California: North Point Press. ISBN 0-86547-160-6. 
  • Eicher, John H. and David J. Eicher. (2001). Civil War High Commands. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3. 
  • Goodrich, Thomas. Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865–1879. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.
  • Gray, John S. (1993). Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Remembered. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-7040-2. 
  • Grinnell, George Bird (1915). The Fighting Cheyennes. The University of Oklahoma Press reprint 1956. pp. 296–307. ISBN 0-7394-0373-7. 
  • Longacre, Edward G. (2000). Lincoln's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac. Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-1049-1.
  • Mails, Thomas E. Mystic Warriors of the Plains. New York: Marlowe & Co., 1996.
  • Marshall, Joseph M. III. (2007). The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History. New York: Viking Press.
  • Merington, Marguerite, Ed. The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General Custer and his Wife Elizabeth. (1950)
  • Michno, Gregory F. (1997). Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat. Mountain Press Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87842-349-4.
  • Perrett, Bryan. Last Stand: Famous Battles Against the Odds. London: Arms & Armour, 1993.
  • Scott, Douglas D., Richard A. Fox, Melissa A. Connor, and Dick Harmon. (1989). Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3292-2. 
  • Punke, Michael, "Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West", Smithsonian Books, 2007, ISBN 978-0-06-089782-6
  • Robbins, James S. The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2014, ISBN 978-1-62157-209-1
  • Tagg, Larry. (1988). The Generals of Gettysburg. Savas Publishing. ISBN 1-882810-30-9.
  • Urwin, Gregory J. W., Custer Victorious, University of Nebraska Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-8032-9556-8.
  • Utley, Robert M. (2001). Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, revised edition. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3387-2.
  • Vestal, Stanley. Warpath: The True Story of the Fighting Sioux Told in a Biography of Chief White Bull. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1934.
  • Warner, Ezra J. (1964). Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7. 
  • Welch, James, with Paul Stekler. (2007 [1994]). Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. ISBN 0-684-83275-5.
  • Wittenberg, Eric J. (2001). Glory Enough for All : Sheridan's Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station. Brassey's Inc. ISBN 1-57488-353-4. 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]