I’ve come to what I believe are solid conclusions regarding everything but the way General Custer died. How he died at the Battle of Little Big Horn is undisputed but the issues of who killed him and was he the last man standing will never be confirmed; of course in many movies Custer was shown as the heroic last man standing. General Custer often used war correspondents and he had one with him at the Battle of Little Bighorn but the Associated Press reporter was killed along with everyone else so the real story was never told.
George Custer was born in Ohio in 1839 and died at the young age of 36. He had a humble beginning with a dad who was a blacksmith and farmer; his mother passed away when he was young. He was a good but not great student so he needed help to get into West Point. He did not perform well at the academy receiving more demerits then anyone in the history of West Point. He was almost kicked out every year he was there and he ended up finishing last in his class. His saving grace at the academy were his skills in all things war oriented (i.e. horses, strategies/tactics, weapons, etc.) along with his charisma. He had a look about him and charm that made it very difficult to not like him so his superiors kept bailing him out of trouble.
Because the Civil War was breaking out his class was able to graduate West Point a year early. Being able to jump right into war was just what Custer wanted. It took him very little time to distinguish himself on the battle field. If there was a river to cross he was the first one in to make sure everyone knew how deep the water was. When a battle started he was the first one charging towards the enemy. His bravery and success was awarded when at the age of 23 Captain George Custer was promoted to General of the volunteer army and became known as the“Boy General”.
Custer’s fame helped him finally get approval from Elizabeth (Libby) Bacon’s father who was a judge in their hometown, to marry her. General Custer knew Libby when they were kids (she was three years younger) but she was in upper-society while George was part of the blue collar crowd. They never had children but their love was practically fairytale in nature. Often times Libby would travel with George and stay in his tent near the front lines. Sometimes she would ride with him as his Calvary was leaving town and then peel back for home. The letters they’d write one another were sometimes over twenty pages. Custer even got court-martialed once because he left his Calvary and took several men and travelled two and half days non-stop (a few horses even went lame), just to be with Libby for one day. She hated that her husband got court-martialed but she always considered it the most romantic thing he’d ever done.
Libby never remarried after General Custer died and lived sixty years after his death (she died at 93). She wrote a few books which became best sellers including the original biography on General Custer that she and a historian wrote. It was finished a year after Custer died and it’s considered one of the best biographies ever written because of the eyewitness testimonies and the amount of research material that was available (i.e. articles, journal, letters, news reports, etc.).
Anyhow, once Custer had his own volunteer army division out of Michigan he turned out to be a brilliant military strategist (i.e. scouting the terrain, going over the enemies’ strengths and weaknesses, best line of attack, etc.). Even though he did these things he still had many detractors (officers in other divisions) who said General Custer was reckless; my guess is that it had more to do with jealously. Just as in business it’s all about results and General Custer was delivering results to the great pleasure of his senior officers. If there was something challenging to get done, General Custer was the one they sent.
One of his greatest battles occurred near Gettysburg before the big battle broke out. There was a big clash between the Confederate and Union armies as they were fighting for position. The Union Armydecided there was too much heat so they decided to give up their line and move back and establish another line of defense. General Custer asked his superior if he could take his men and attack the Confederates in order to give the other units an easier opportunity to pull back. Approval was given so Captain Custer told his Michigan Brigade what they were going to do. Before he led the charge he yelled to his men: “Let’s go wolverines!” They charged the Confederate Army and not only held them back but also made them retreat. Because of this move by Custer and his men the Union Army was able to not only gain their position back but move forward and take what was the Confederate’s ground.
General Custer’s men loved him because he was always the first one to attack the enemy line and he was a warrior when he did. This wasn’t typical of how most commanders managed battles. They were usually positioned in the back of the battle and they didn’t wear their usual uniform because they didn’t want to put a bull’s eye on their backs. General Custer wore a flamboyant uniform because he wanted the enemy to know who he was. The uniform he wore and being the first one to attack had a couple of great strategic advantages. First of all, it’s much easier to get your men fired up to
fight when you’re in front of them versus behind them. The other thing is when the Confederate soldiers saw what appeared to be the leader of the Union Army charging towards them it was intimidating. Soldiers looked at warriors like Grant, Jackson, Lee, etc., as heroes regardless of what side they were fighting on.
The way Custer charged into battle gave him a tremendous amount of positive press. People (including his own men) could not figure out how he continued being uninjured or killed. One time he was charging towards the enemy’s line of defense and his horse was shot out from under him. He still didn’t get shot and one of his men rode up and got him out. Of course he grabbed another horse and got right back into the action. The “Boy General” was the darling of the media and you could just imagine how his peers felt about this. I admit if I were one of them I’d be jealous.
General Custer had an extraordinary career during the Civil War. His commander even took the time after the war to write Libby a special letter saying that her husband was a huge factor in the Union Armies’ victory. Unfortunately though, war was the only place Custer was happy. After the Civil War the troops were cut down from over 100,000 men to around 30,000. No longer having a volunteer army which General Custer was commissioned to lead, he was reduced back down to Captain. He became depressed not fighting and having to deal with administrative matters instead. This led him to get heavily involved in gambling and he spent a lot of money on business deals that went bad. He found that he was a superstar in war but not in everyday life.
Then Captain Custer caught a break because his superiors needed his help in backing the Indians off from interfering with the Pacific Railroad’s expansion towards the west. Custer was told to use whatever means necessary to get the job done.
He was excited about the opportunity but it didn’t take long for him to realize it wasn’t the war he was hoping for; his men were disappointed as well. The Indians were in small groups and they didn’t engage his men but instead rode off. But what he did find is he had a great appreciation for the frontier. He began hunting big game and the reporter who was with him took pictures and wrote stories as to Custer’s skill on the plains. Captain Custer began wearing a beautiful buckskin jacket which made the pictures going to the various newspapers all the more popular. Custer also started writing articles for an outdoor magazine; kind of like the Field and Stream magazine we have today. From a military perspective though it was an ineffective campaign; something Custer was not used to.
When Captain Custer went home he found himself in the same situation he was in after the Civil War. He went back to gambling and trying different business ventures to where he was getting himself in financial trouble again. Then he made things much worse by getting into a war of words with President Grant’s brother. The President was furious and busted Captain Grant down a rank and he ordered that Custer be taken off active duty for a year.
The now Lieutenant Custer’s situation was very upsetting to his superiors as they couldn’t stand what President Grant did because Custer was their star performer. A very serious problem with the Indians was brewing in the Dakotas so they disregarded President Grant’s decision and reinstated Custer to active service. This was a very bold and possible career ending move on their part but it goes to show how much they thought of Custer.
Part of Custer’s assignment was to investigate resources the Sioux Indian’s had in the Dakota Black Hills. The land belonged to the Lakota/Sioux Indians because we gave it to them in a treaty (nice of us to give them their own land). While surveying the area some of Custer’s men found gold. A reporter from the Associated Press was with Custer and he ran the story which led to a gold rush. It didn’t take long for over 16,000 miners to arrive and encroach upon the Indian’s territory. As you can imagine tensions ran extremely high as the Indians were trying to figure out a way to get rid of the miners. At the same time the U.S. government was trying to find a way to get out of the treaty in order to get this valuable land back (they didn’t know how valuable the land was when they made the treaty with the Indians).
Close to the time Captain Custer and his men were to head home they came across horse tracks and they followed the tracks to a small Indian village. It was their first chance for action during their trip so the men surrounded the village and attacked killing children, men, and women (they did take some prisoners back to the fort).
Two very terrible things occurred from this massacre: one is they found out the village they wiped out was settler friendly; their Chief had signed a peace treaty and was known to be a non-combatant. The other terrible issue is that other tribes found out what the Union Army had done so not only were they furious they also felt there was no need to sign any more peace treaties because they meant nothing. This attack although terrible wasn’t looked at as a mistake because Captain Custer had no knowledge of friendly tribes being in the area. Of course the newspapers didn’t report it as a savage attack and instead hailed Captain Custer as a heroic Indian fighter.
During this battle Custer did something that historians thought was one of his best strategic moves. Most of the chief’s tribe was further down the river and they got word from a scout as to what happened so they came charging towards Custer’s men. Instead of retreating Custer ordered his men to attack hoping it would cause the Indians to retreat. It worked and as soon as it turned dark Custer ordered his men to retreat towards home because he knew they were by far outnumbered.
Because of the way the Indians fought in the past, our U.S. Military wasn’t too concerned about fighting the Indians. Their tribes generally didn’t have a lot of warriors so they were more inclined to move away from the Calvary rather than fight. What we didn’t know is that Chief Sitting Bull was building his own military force by bringing in the Arapaho, Lakota, and Northern Cheyenne tribes. He didn’t believe in dealing with the white man as he didn’t understand why they should negotiate for their own land.
Chief Sitting Bull was the great Indian leader and visionary of his time and unlike other Indian Chiefs he refused to sign the peace treaty and move to the reservation. He wasn’t going to allow settlers to take away their way of life. He was known to have visions and one of his visions was the future influx of settlers into their territory so he tried to convince other tribes to join him and fight. He didn’t have much luck until Custer’s attack on one of their tribes along with the gold rush. Tensions reached an all-time high and several other tribes decided to join Sitting Bull and his Lakota/Sioux Indians.
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was allowed to join the 7th Calvary but not be in charge. This duty was given to Brigadier General Alfred Terry who helped get Custer off of President Grant’s blacklist. In May of 1876 General Terry was given the mission to attack Indian hostiles (those who weren’t living on the reservation) and force them into reservations. The 7thCalvary didn’t think they’d encounter too much action and instead figured they’d be involved in some small skirmishes. Neither Custer nor anyone else knew that many of the tribes were no longer scattered but instead in the same camp with Sitting Bull.
General Terry divided his Calvary into three columns. He wanted Custer to stay with him because he was more of an administrator than soldier so he needed Custer’s skills. They were planning on moving in from the north. Colonel John Gibbon and his men were to approach from the east. General Crook and his soldiers were to come in from the south. Everyone’s goal at this point was to corral the Indians and keep them from scattering.
General Crook’s men made it south and were camped by a river when a bunch of Indians began charging down a hill towards them; their screaming made it even more intimidating to the soldiers. If it weren’t for the fierce fighting by their Crow Indian Scouts they might not have made it out. His men retreated south shocked as to what happened. General Crook had never been proactively attacked by Indians before. This became one of the first major mistakes that occurred because General Crook wrote a letter to General Sherman in Chicago as to what he saw but he didn’t let his own commander know about it.
A little later on, Custer began knowing there might be thousands of Indians. They came across a good vantage point and although he couldn’t see how many Indians were there, the amount of smoke coming from the camp was intimidating. At this point the Crow scouts warned Custer that his men wouldn’t have enough bullets to fight so many Indians. Custer began getting worried because his men were worn out from pushing so hard to get there. Not the best scenario when a major battle was getting ready to happen.
Custer was put in charge to attack from the north while Major Reno was to approach from the south and Captain Benteen from the east. Before they left Custer promised his support to both commanders.
Major Reno attacked from the south and as he got closer to the camp he saw thousands of Indians. This of course scared him because he knew his battalion didn’t have enough ammunition to put up a fight. They broke out their rifles and began shooting into camp. When a pause occurred Chief Sitting Bull sent his nephew and another warrior to negotiate with the soldiers but they were both shot and wounded; Chief Sitting Bull’s horse was killed. He loved this animal.
This was a terrible move on the Army’s part because more and more Indians came pouring out of the camp. The soldiers who got off of their horses couldn’t shoot fast enough so the Indians swarmed on top of them. Major Reno and some of his men took off on a fast retreat. The Indians stayed in pursuit, shooting Reno’s men with guns they had taken off dead soldiers.
Several of the men including Major Reno came up on the Little Big Horn River and found themselves in front of a ten foot embankment. They didn’t want to get killed so they jumped the embankment with their horses and made it safely to the other side. Once on the other side Reno and his men went looking for Captain Benteen who was supposed to be attacking from the east. He got there right before Benteen’s group was ready to attack and Reno told him about the thousands of Indians and what they did to his battalion. He strongly recommended that Benteen abort his mission which is what Benteen
decided to do.
Benteen and Reno stood around talking when another officer approached them and asked where Custer was. They told him he was probably safe well north of the tribe. He was mad at their cavalier attitudes so he took some of Benteen’s men (of which Benteen was shamed into joining them) and went looking for Custer’s squad. Their scouting party came up on a hill where they saw dead bodies all over the place. Because of Custer’s unique attire they quickly found him. He had a bullet hole in his chest and another one in his left temple. They figured he was probably injured during the battle and then the Indians came through and finished the soldiers off.
One thing that bothers me is that some people have said Custer screwed up and that’s why he and his men were killed. First of all, no one could’ve realistically known how many Indians there were. Never before had Indians come together like this. Even though they had great Indian scouts they were limited in what they could do. This was due to them having to stay a safe distance away from the Indian’s camp because a lot of Indians were out hunting and doing some scouting of their own. With this in mind, it was too easy to be spotted and ruin the element of surprise. That’s exactly what Custer thought had happened.
The other thing is that Custer continued his attack even knowing the odds because he wasn’t going to leave his other two battalions hanging; he promised them he’d have their backs. Unfortunately he and his men were the ones who were left hanging. Since the Indians weren't being attack from the east by Captain Benteen, the Indians were able to focus their fight against Custer and his men. Benteen and Reno were both reprimanded over their actions during the battle but that was no concillation to the wifes of the soldiers lost.
Word began to spread regarding what was termed: “Custer’s Last Stand.” A couple of military officers showed up at Custer’s home where they found both Libby and her sister-in-law. What the women didn’t realize is that both of them were to receive bad news as George and his brother-in-law were killed along with Custer’s nephew and two brothers. Libby played her role of supporting the multitude of women who lost their husbands but after doing this she moved away and fell into a bout of depression. The project of writing her husband’s biography is what pulled her out of her condition.
General George Armstrong Custer was definitely a very ambitious man who some characterized as egotistical and reckless. The way he used the media and his flamboyant attire well ahead of its time. Although a lot of people don’t give him credit for it, his use of war reporters was bold because he brought in a third party that might not portray the battle in a great light. I read nothing that said he tried to influce the reporters in any way in reference to battle figures.
There were certainly a number of General Custer’s peers who didn’t think highly of him but the fact is he consistently delivered what his superiors wanted. He was a heroic leader who inspired his troops by his warrior spirit. He definitely wasn’t a perfect man especially when it came to those times when he wasn’t at war, but his contribution to our nation’s success speaks for itself. He was a loving husband and family man. His brothers thought the world of him.
My personal opinion is that it was probably good that Custer died when he did because there were no more wars that he could’ve fought. Civilian life wasn’t for him because he was a warrior and warriors never rest. He lived his life like each day would be his last so he got a lot out of his 36 years. Someone once said: “The length of your life is less important than its depth.” How fitting for General Custer.
A side note: Chief Sitting Bull survived the war but he and his family were captured and forced to live on a reservation. He was asked to perform in Wild Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and became a very popular attraction (not many people had seen an Indian before). When the tour was over the Chief returned to the reservation where he was a rebel just as he’d been when he was free. The police became concerned at his anti-government talk and went to Remove him from his home. Gun fire broke out when the Chief’s supporters tried to stop the police from taking him. One of the officers shot and killed Chief Sitting Bull during the skirmish even though he had no weapon. Chief Sitting Bull was 59 when he died and he was considered one of the greatest Indian Chiefs who ever lived.