Thursday, June 30, 2016

General George Armstrong Custer - Hero, or Fool?

(from the Cyclorama of General 
Custer's Last Fight, - 1892)
Mention the name George Armstrong Custer and tempers start to flare. Many historians have made Custer out to be a martyr. Others portray him as a monster who sacrificed his troops in the Civil War to satisfy his quest for everlasting glory.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Custer ranked dead last in his class at West Point. But, his timing for attending that institution couldn’t have been better. He graduated in 1861 at the start of the Civil War when the Union Army was desperate for new officers. Nearly 35 percent of his class resigned their commissions to return home and fight for the Confederacy.

Custer’s first assignment was as an aide to General McClellan. Not long after that, he received a commission as a cavalry officer, where he received a series of quick promotions due to his boldness in battle. After the Battle of Bull Run, the New York Tribune reported Custer had “most of the qualities which go to make up a first-class hero.”

What the newspapers didn’t report was Custer loved war. He was invigorated by the sights, sounds, and the smell of battle. While most officers kept to the rear of their troops, Custer led every charge of the Third Michigan—saber in one hand, pistol in the other.


He was reckless with the lives of his men. He didn’t plan; he didn’t scout out enemy positions. When others urged caution, Custer jumped in. During the Peninsula Campaign when McClellan stopped his troops to determine how deep the Chickahominy River was. Custer plunged in and rode out to the center. After proving its depth, he rode back to his place in line.



Rather than choose a strategy that would result in the fewest casualties, Custer threw his men at enemy positions, unworried about the costs in human life. In his book Crazy Horse and Custer, Stephen Ambrose compared it to a Cult of Blood, where Union officers measured their success by how many casualties their troops suffered. He says after General Grant began the Wilderness Campaign the idea was to kill as many Confederates as possible. To hell with the number of Union soldiers killed doing it.

(from the Cyclorama of General 
Custer's Last Fight, 1892)
Custer was just the man for the job. When he was unsure what to do—he charged forward. That was the reason Abraham Lincoln loved Ulysses S. Grant. While other generals stopped to plan, and determine what they should do next, Grant moved from battle to battle. He didn’t let fear of what was over the next hill, or across the next river stop him. He moved forward.

At Gettysburg Custer led a charge against a position of Confederate cannon. After his horse was shot from under him, he grabbed another horse and kept fighting. Later in the battle, he had a second horse shot from under him. The fighting soon became hand to hand—with sabers and pistols drawn. Custer’s brigade suffered 219 casualties.  That night J. E. B. Stuart withdrew his forces and rejoined Lee’s army west of Gettysburg.

Towards the end of the war, Custer defeated Jubal Early’s army at Waynesboro. A few weeks later he cut off Robert E. Lee’s escape route at Appomattox. His men were first to receive a flag of truce from Lee’s forces. For his part in that battle, General Philip Sheridan gave him the table used by Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant to sign the terms of surrender.

At the end of the war, he was returned to the rank of Captain and served in Texas for a short time before being stationed with the Seventh Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas.

That’s where the Custer legend really began.

Custer led a winter campaign in 1868. On November 27th he led an attack against a large village of Cheyenne. The night before the battle he surrounded the village. The next morning he had the regimental band strike up “Garry Owen” as the Seventh Cavalry charged into the village. The sleepy Cheyenne were taken by surprise. In less than three hours over one hundred men, women, and children were killed, including Chief Black Kettle.

The Battle at Washita River was hailed as a victory because it helped to persuade many Cheyenne to move to the reservation. The dark side was Black Kettle, and his followers were friendly Indians under the protection of the commander at Fort Cobb. And, the village was located on the Cheyenne reservation.

The 1868 Treaty of Laramie promised the Black Hills to the Sioux in perpetuity. The problem was Secretary of Interior, Columbus Delano, believed the Black Hills were a rich source of minerals and riches. Riches the United States needed after the panic of 1873. General Alfred Terry ordered the exploration of the Black Hills in June of 1874, and he placed Custer in command.

(from the Cyclorama of General
Custer's Last Figh
t, 1892)
The expedition consisted of over one thousand troops, one hundred and ten wagons, a photographer, newspaper correspondents, engineers, and several miners. One of the miners, Horatio Ross, discovered gold along French Creek during the last week of July. Custer immediately dispatched word of the find to Fort Laramie. In no time word of the gold strike spread around the country and the world. A new gold rush was on smack dab into the Pahá Sápa, the most sacred land of the Sioux.

One outgrowth of the Black Hills gold rush was many Sioux, and Cheyenne left the reservations in a defiant protest of their sacred land being flooded with white miners. They collected in Montana under the leadership of Sitting Bull. The Army sent a large force under the command of General Alfred Terry to drive the Indians back onto the reservations.

Terry split his army into a three-pronged column. Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were the first to make contact with the Indians. Early on the morning of June 25th, 1876 Custer’s scouts spotted signs of a large Indian encampment in the valley of the Little Bighorn. His scouts advised him that the force was too large to attack, but Custer brushed off their warnings. He was determined to make the first strike.

Later that day Custer split his force of six hundred and forty-seven men into three parts. He sent Captain Frederick Benteen to scout along a ridge to the left of the Indian encampment. Major Marcus Reno was to move up the valley of the Little Bighorn where he would attack the village. Custer followed the high ground to the right of the valley.

The plan was to encircle the Indians and take them by surprise. Unknown to Custer, the Indians had been tracking his advance for days, waiting for him to make his move.

Reno’s command was the first to engage in battle. His squadron of one hundred and seventy-five men came under heavy attack at the south end of the village. They quickly withdrew into the timber and brush along the river and moved uphill as that position turned indefensible. The only thing that saved them from total annihilation was the arrival of Custer’s command.

(from the Cyclorama of General
Custer's Last Figh
t, 1892)
As Custer’s men attacked the other side of the encampment, the Indians rushed to meet the new challenge to the north. The main force of Cheyenne and Sioux made a ferocious attack upon his men. As Custer retreated uphill trying to dig his troops in, Crazy Horse and his warriors circled around to higher ground to cut them off.

After less than an hour of fierce fighting, all two hundred and ten men in Custer’s command lay dead. 

The Bismarck Weekly Tribune described the grisly scene in their July 12th issue. Lieutenant Bradley reported to General Terry “He had found Custer with one hundred and ninety cavalry men. They lay as they fell, shot down from every side…General Custer shot through the head and body, seemed to have been among the last to fall.” All of the non-commissioned men were “terribly mutilated…The heads of some were severed from the body, the privates of some were cut off, while others bore traces of torture, arrows having been born into their private parts while still living.”

Cheyenne Chief Two Moon later described the battle to historian Hamlin Garland. “The shooting was quick, quick. Pop, pop, pop. Very fast. Some of the soldiers were down on their knees, some standing. Officers all in front. The smoke was like a great cloud, and everywhere the Sioux went dust rose like smoke…We shoot, we ride fast, we shoot again. Soldiers drop, and horses fall on them.”

Yellow Hair, General George Armstrong Custer was no more.


(Excerpt from my book: History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events That Shaped American History)

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