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George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer

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George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio. Graduating from West Point in 1861, he saw service during the First Battle of Bull Run and Gettysburg. Later, he attracted national attention for his relentless pursuit of Robert E. Lee`s troops from Richmond to Appomattox, where he accepted the Confederate flag of truce on April 9, 1865.

After reaching the rank of major general in the volunteers, Custer was mustered out of volunteer service in 1865 and returned to his permanent rank of captain. However, when the Seventh Cavalry was organized later in the year, Custer was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command.

Custer took part in the disastrou Indian campaign that General Hancock waged against the Indians in 1867 and was court-martialed for disobeying orders. He was suspended from the army for a year, but soon was recalled by General Sheridan and defeated Chief Black Kettle`s Cheyennes in the battle of the Washita River in 1868.

In 1874, Custer published My Life on the Plain, a description of his explorations of the Yellowstone River and his periodic battles with Indians. Before leaving on an assignment to serve on General Terry`s expedition against the Sioux and Cheyennes under Sitting Bull , Custer testified before Congress on corruption in the Indian Bureau. This angered President Grant, who relieved Custer of his command. Loud outcries against this decision forced Grant to reinstate him and he rejoined the 7th Cavalary in Montana.

During the campaign, Custer split his forces and then encountered a large force of Indians, numbering about 2500 to 4000. In the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer and his entire force of more than 260 men died on June 25, 1876.

George Armstrong Custer - History

Skeletal analysis of troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn suggests a very different outcome.

Their skin was dark. Their languages were foreign. And their world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white men’s comprehension.

Their skin was dark. Their languages were foreign. And their world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white men’s comprehension.

The ferocious Battle of the Little Big Horn has been ennobled as Custer’s Last Stand, but in truth, Custer and his men never stood a fighting chance.

George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876)

Custer&rsquos last stand and defeat is one of the most famous military blunders in history, yet compared with most events in military history it is a very small affair with a mere 250 dead, but it is as well known to most people as the D Day landings, or the battle of Waterloo. Custer was born 5th December 1839 near New Rumley Ohio and entered the West Point military academy in July 1857. In a shadow of things to come his West Point career was filled with demerits and near dismissals. With many of his class mates heading south for commissions in the Confederate cause (American Civil War) he passed out last in his class of 34 in June 1861 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US 2nd Cavalry.

Civil War service

He was present at the First Battle of Bull Run but did not see action. He transferred in August to the 5th Cavalry and was promoted to a 1st Lieutenant in July 1862. Since the June he had been an aide to General McClellan with the acting rank of captain and he remained as the Generals aide until March 1863. In June 1863 he was made Brigadier-General of volunteers while he was only 23. He distinguished himself while in command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade at the battle of Gettysburg and leading a cavalry charge 2 days later with the 7th Michigan Cavalry. In typical Custer style he described this by saying &ldquo I challenge the annals of war to produce a more brilliant charge of cavalry&rdquo Custer served with the Army of the Potomac throughout 1864 and gained further renown during the battles of the Shenandoah Valley. He ended the civil war as a major general of volunteers leading a cavalry division. He was an over the top character who loved publicity and gained more than other more accomplished officers, the press for their part loved him a young showman with long red hair and a taste for velvet jackets with gold braid he would not have been out of place in Napoleon's cavalry of half a century earlier. Already he was autocratic and a dictatorial leader, who had risen so quickly through the ranks he had had little time to learn from his mistakes, although his incredible arrogance would have probably prevented him recognising any mistakes as his own.

Post War service

Custer&rsquos first post war command ended when his Michigan Cavalry was disbanded after a mutiny, which was partly caused by his heavy-handed discipline. Many volunteer units were pushing for disbandment but Custer had reintroduced the lash as a form of discipline. He mustered out of voluntary service in Feb 1866 and reverted to his army rank of captain but he still liked to be referred to as General Custer. He made some moves to becoming the Commander of the Mexican cavalry and was offered but refused command of the 9th Negro Cavalry and in July 1866 took command as a Lt-Colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry, its Colonels being mainly on detached duties.

In early 1867 while on a recon mission Custer&rsquos behaviour led to a courts martial and he was found guilty of absenting himself from his command, and using some troopers as an escort while on unofficial business, abandoning two men reported killed on the march and failing to pursue the Indians responsible, failing recover the bodies, and ordering a party going after deserters to shoot to kill which resulted in 1 death and 3 wounded, and finally unjustifiable cruelty to those wounded. He was sentenced to suspension from rank and pay for a year, but a lack of a replacement meant he was returned to duty early. The incident caused much bad feeling among the regiment&rsquos officers for several years. The regiment saw minor skirmishes against the native Indians for the next few years. Custer didn&rsquot see any action but published exaggerated accounts of the 7th cavalry&rsquos actions. In November 1868 the 7th cavalry fought at the battle of Washita during which over a hundred Indians were killed including some women and children which the Cheyenne nicknamed Custer &lsquoSquaw killer&rdquo for. Custer&rsquos incompetence led to some deaths during the campaign, which also increased ill feeling towards him.

In spring 1873 the Regiment was moved to Dakota under command of Col D.S Stanley at fort Rice. While protecting some railway engineers the regiment skirmished with local Indians and during these Custer was charged with insubordination but his friends persuaded the Col to drop the charges. In 1874 a &lsquoScientific&rsquo expedition was sent to the Black Hill country with Custer leading the escort of ten companies of the 7th, some infantry and scouts and a detachment of Gatling guns. He was charged with recon of a site for a new fort by the size of his force suggests another agenda. Some have accused Custer of spreading stories of a gold find and although the force was too strong the Indians attacked the gaggle of lawless prospectors that followed. In 1875 the government tried to get the Indians to sell the area but by 1876 this had been abandoned and a military campaign was planned. The attacks on the trespassing prospectors were used as an excuse and the campaign was under General A Terry with Custer commanding the whole of the 7th Cavalry 600 men.

Custer had command only because of Terry&rsquos support he was in disgrace again having offended President (former General) Grant, Army Commander General William Sherman and his division commander Sheridan. The allegations are complex but centred around irregularities in trading post allocation. Custer always looking for publicity had repeated rumours and hearsay to the press but was found to know nothing under oath. The battle of Little Big Horn will be covered in detail elsewhere but basically Custer was ordered specifically to continue south to prevent any break out of Indian forces under Crazy horse as two main armies tried to trap them. On 24th June Custer found the enemies trail lead towards Little Big Horn and typically he choose not to follow orders. On the 25th he could see the Indians in the valley below probably around 15,000 strong, he then decided to split his force into 3 and attack the encampment from three directions. Considering the size of the enemy force this was pure lunacy. The other two parts of his attack were driven back but made it to the safety of high ground to be relieved by the main force the next day. Custer&rsquos force was cut off and slaughtered by Crazy Horse&rsquos Sioux.

Custer&rsquos actions that day were typical of one of the worse commanders in history, and typical of his glory seeking, arrogant incompetent character. He had risen to a position of power due to friends and supporters at a time when in the aftermath of the American Civil war the press wanted a hero and the Army had a shortage of good commanders. Custer would have been pleased his name went down in history but this is little comfort to the families of those that died to serve his glory.

Was George Custer’s body mutilated after the Little Big Horn battle?

Was George Custer’s body mutilated after the Little Big Horn battle?

Paul Hughes
Vacaville, California

Historians still struggle to corroborate or disprove this claim.

Some 50 years after the fight, two Cheyenne women asserted they had pierced George Custer’s ears with needles so he could hear better in the afterlife. Reports also circulated that George’s penis had an arrow rammed up it, a detail kept secret to protect his widow, Libbie.

Mutilation of the enemy dead was a common practice among Plains Indians because they believed it would render one’s foe incapable of doing battle in the next world. Yet I’m skeptical of both tales they came out long after the battle, without corroboration.

Many reports state the Boy General—who suffered gunshot wounds to the chest and left temple—was not badly mutilated. Why not? Practically every other soldier’s remains were ravaged. Brother Tom’s body was so badly mutilated, he was identified by a tattoo.

Some historians theorize that the Indians likely did not recognize George, given that his golden locks had been shorn prior to going on the campaign (he was also one of several soldiers wearing buckskin).

The only thing we know for certain is that hot afternoon saw a lot of confusion, a reality anybody who has ever seen battle up close and personal would understand.

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How many Indians died at the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn? Vanessa Grandos Scottsdale, Arizona&hellip

How many Indians died at the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn? Vanessa Grandos&hellip

George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend

On June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry attacked a massive Lakota-Cheyenne village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. Custer lost not only the battle but also his life, and in so doing achieved immortality. In the 130 years since, the death of Custer and every man in the five companies of his immediate command has grown to mythic proportions. ‘This demand for information and answers to ‘why’ and ‘how’ resonate down to us today, wrote historian Bruce Liddic. Except for the result, exactly what happened to Custer and his five companies will never be known with certainty….It has been the subject of more controversy, dissension, [and] dispute than almost any other event in our history.

Not that controversy was anything new to Custer by the time he died. He had already experienced many ups and downs, and yet had made a dashing mark in American history.

Shortly after the Civil War began in April 1861, Custer graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In the coming years, he exploded across the American scene like a skyrocket. From the beginning, he exhibited his desire for action while showing no fear against the enemy. If a task needed to be accomplished, Custer was the man. His attitude brought him to the attention of his superiors, and in May 1863 Custer became aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the 1st Division of the Union Cavalry Corps. The following month, the young aide was photographed sitting astride his horse. Mustachioed, with collar-length hair, Custer struck a swashbuckling pose. Although not yet a household name, he had begun to carefully craft an image uniquely his own, that of a cavalier from days of yore.

On June 9, 1863, when his commanding colonel was killed during an attack on Confederate Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s camp at Brandy Station, Va., Custer took command of the regiment and led a saber charge through the surrounding Confederate forces. Pleasonton recognized his subordinate’s common sense in hot situations, and his fearlessness and enthusiasm — all of which were in short supply in the Cavalry Corps. After Custer rallied faltering troops at Aldie, Va., in mid-June 1863, Pleasonton recommended him for a general’s star.

Custer received his appointment as brevet brigadier general on June 29, 1863. Unimpressed with his uniform, he jettisoned the standard-issue cavalry jacket and trousers, replacing them with a loose-fitting velvet coat that had golden braids adorning its sleeves, and velvet pants he tucked into knee-length top boots. He had a silver star sewn onto each lapel of a light-blue, broad-collared Navy-issue shirt. To complete the refashioning, he looped a scarlet cravat about his neck and donned a black hat with a lower crown and wider brim than those of standard-issue hats.

With long golden-red curls falling to his shoulders, the Custer image was complete — wherever he now appeared, everyone knew who he was. Still only 23, the newspapers dubbed him the boy general. Always at the front of his command, his blazing necktie marking him as a recognizable target, Custer found himself the darling of not only his men but also the artists sketching the conflict. As historian Gregory Urwin wrote, That was the key to all the Boy General’s foppish affectations — he made himself conspicuous on purpose, deliberately courted danger to allay his soldiers’ fears and to always let them know where he was in a fight.

Commanding the Michigan Brigade for the first time, Custer attacked and forced Stuart’s cavalry brigade from the field east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. During the war, Custer had been promoted to captain in the Regular Army and eventually was breveted to the rank of major general, commanding the 3rd Cavalry Division. Although the cost of his bravura was high in the number of men who died serving under him, he had forged a glorious public record. By war’s end Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who commanded the Cavalry Corps, considered Custer his ablest man.

After the Civil War, Congress reduced the size of the Army and curtailed its role to what were basically two policing assignments — keeping the peace in the defeated South during Reconstruction and protecting westward expansion from Indians who objected to the invasion of their land. Given the reduction in force, many Regular Army officers were reduced to ranks lower than those they had attained during the rebellion. Custer’s war record, however, had garnered him several strong backers and preferential treatment. Sheridan stood by him and, therefore, instead of being demoted from his regular rank of captain at war’s end, Custer received a promotion to lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry.

Custer took pride in his revived career and new command, but the situation had drastically changed. During the Civil War, soldiers fought and died by the thousands, and though there were desertions and discontent, most willingly fought for what they viewed as a cause, a crusade. The new Indian-fighting army, however, had little sense of crusade. The recruits came from recent immigrants, many of whom couldn’t speak English, and the dregs of society —

an unhealthy mixture of drunks, thieves and murderers. These were men looking for a meal, clothing, weapons and a horse, and many of them soon had thoughts of deserting at the first opportunity. Sculpting them into any type of cohesive unit took bullying and brutality, which many noncommissioned officers joyfully performed, creating an atmosphere of fear, loathing and indifference.

The soldiers of this Indian-fighting army faced another problem: They had no understanding of their new foe — the free-roaming Indians of the northern and southern Plains, mainly the Lakotas (or Sioux), Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Kiowas. Unlike the military, which fought pitched battles, Plains Indians almost always scattered when a village was threatened unless escape had been cut off. Most military men viewed the aborigines with scorn and disdain, and felt their superior numbers, strategy and firepower would awe their poorly armed adversaries into capitulation.

While in pursuit of an enemy that scattered whenever he drew near during the Army’s 1867 Plains campaign, Custer re-created himself as a buckskin-clad Indian fighter — a persona that would far eclipse his image as boy general. He also made several ill-advised decisions that would have far-reaching consequences. Facing mass desertions, he dealt with runaways harshly. Then, when a cholera epidemic raged across the Great Plains, fearing for his wife Elizabeth, Custer himself went AWOL, racing off to see her. Ultimately, Custer was court-martialed and found guilty on eight counts, including ordering several deserters to be summarily shot without benefit of a hearing and being absent without leave from his command by going to find his Libbie. He was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the Army without pay.

As the Indian wars heated up again the following year, Sheridan, as commander of the Department of the Missouri, planned a winter campaign. He lobbied for and obtained an early end to Custer’s suspension. On November 27, 1868, Custer was back in the saddle, attacking and destroying a Cheyenne village on the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma. Custer’s official report claimed 103 Indians killed, more than 40 of them women and children. Custer’s fame and popularity as an Indian fighter soared and continued to grow as the years passed.

In 1870 Secretary of War William Belknap created a monopoly when he implemented a regulation that required soldiers to buy supplies from only the post trader even though they could be purchased elsewhere for less money. As part of the political patronage system, applicants for the trader positions paid large sums of money to government officials to secure these lucrative jobs that allowed traders and agents to line their pockets with cash and retire early. To protect the scam, Belknap created another regulation in 1873, calling for all Army complaints to be channeled through his office, effectively eliminating any public exposure.

With Republican President Ulysses S. Grant pushing for a third term, the Democratic press called for an investigation into the criminal activities of his administration, and Pennsylvania Congressman Heister Clymer chaired the House Committee on Military Expenditures that oversaw the investigating. To escape prosecution, Belknap resigned on March 8, 1876, before the hearings began that spring. Even though he was preparing to command the Dakota column, which would soon take the field, Custer (who earlier had complained of the corrupt practices instituted by Belknap) was summoned to Washington to testify. His testimony on March 29 and April 4 implicated several government officials and Grant’s younger brother Orvil. Although much of Custer’s attestation was hearsay, history has proved him correct on all counts.

Trapped in Washington by the hearings, Custer wrote Libbie on April 17: The Radical papers continue to serve me up regularly. Neither has said one word against Belknap. He probably was referring to failed Republican attempts to prove he had committed perjury during his testimony before the committee. Custer had also earned the enmity of President Grant, who retaliated, as was reported in an article in the May 2 issue of the New York Herald headlined: Grant’s Revenge. He Relieves General Custer of His Command. The General’s Reward for Testifying Against the Administration.

Desperate, Custer appealed for help to Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, who had assumed overall command of the Dakota column. When Sheridan added his endorsement, Grant relented, and Custer quickly headed west to report for duty.

Custer’s command was part of Sheridan’s tri-column policing action to round up non-reservation Indians (roamers) and force them back onto the reservations. None of Sheridan’s columns [Brig. Gen. George Crook, Colonel John Gibbon, or Terry, under whom Custer now served] feared or expected an attack, historian Robert Kershaw wrote. The military’s greatest fear was not being able to encircle its foe and therefore prevent him from escaping. Continuing, Kershaw wrote: Like modern peace-keeping armies conducting expeditionary police operations, the U.S. Army saw itself as restoring’sanity’ and ‘civilization’ in its support of continental westward expansion.

There is little doubt that Custer was aware that more warriors were off the reservations than reported by the Indian agents. He saw the signs as the trail he followed to the Little Bighorn grew. Interpreter Fred Gerard sat with Custer just before the night march of June 24-25. When Custer asked how many warriors were to their front, Gerard replied, not less than 2,500. The morning of the 25th, scout/interpreter Mitch Boyer told Custer: Well, general, if you don’t find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw together, you can hang me. Still, Custer never anticipated the massive size of the village or the number of warriors ready to fight for their freedom. Not a fool, Custer certainly listened to the warnings, but a village of this immensity probably hadn’t existed in the past, and it would never exist again. Fearing the Indians might scatter, he attacked immediately and, as he had done at the Battle of the Washita, he split his force so his columns could attack the camp from two sides at once. Contrary to his expectations, the warriors in the village didn’t flee. They counterattacked.

The results of the Battle of the Little Bighorn are well known. Many of the troopers who attacked from the south in Major Marcus Reno’s command escaped with their lives by retreating and taking up a defensive stand on a hilltop, where they were soon joined by Captain Frederick Benteen’s command. Custer and the roughly 210 men in his immediate command did not live to fight another day. The results of Custer’s Last Stand would shock the nation.

In the 100 years since the United States had declared independence, it had grown from a hodgepodge of 4 million people scattered thinly throughout 13 colonies to a nation of more than 40 million. Great increases in wealth, expansion of territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the growth of industrial centers such as New York, Chicago and St. Louis marked the passing of the nation’s first century. The future seemed boundless. With the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as the center for the grand celebration, excitement gripped the nation as July 4, 1876, approached.

The Exposition was designed to show that the ‘American experiment’ had produced a society that was not only morally and ethically superior to that of the Old World, historian Richard Slotkin wrote, but economically more potent as well. Mechanical symbols dominated the halls in pseudo-Gothic temples proclaiming America’s emergence as the country leading the world into the 20th century. To honor their recent — and fast vanishing — frontier past, many states built pavilions resembling huge log cabins.

On July 5, a day after the official opening of the celebration, the shocking news of Custer’s demise reached Bismarck, Dakota Territory. The War Department had unconfirmed reports of the disaster by July 6, but Sheridan stated they arrived without any marks of credence. No one in his wildest dreams could imagine this happening. Custer was indomitable. The famed Civil War general and Indian fighter par excellence represented the nation’s pride, the preservation of the Union and the opening of an expansive frontier to a population ready to reap the benefits of a new fertile land.

Custer’s defeat was viewed as incomprehensible and tragic, and it left the public with a gaping wound. As news spread, the Little Bighorn debacle cast a dark shadow on the nation’s hopes for a glorious second century. Partially to regain the honor and prestige lost at the Little Bighorn and partially to fulfill Manifest Destiny once and for all, the U.S. Army redoubled its efforts to overwhelm the Plains Indians. Waging total war, soldiers destroyed Indian homes, food, clothing and supplies. They did not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. Although the so-called Great Sioux War was over by the spring of 1877, one last major action took place more than 14 years after Custer’s defeat. On December 29, 1890, elements of the 7th Cavalry surrounded a group of mostly Minneconjou Dakotas and killed about 150 of them at Wounded Knee Creek in Dakota Territory. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, which had ushered in this new era of fierce westward expansion, immediately created a firestorm of controversy that continues today.

At least two of Terry’s reports, written soon after Custer’s defeat, found their way into newspapers. In one of those reports, Terry stated: I do not tell you this to cast any reflection upon Custer. For whatever errors he may have committed he has paid the penalty and you cannot regret his loss more than I do, but I feel that our plan must have been successful had it been carried out….In the action itself, so far as I can make out, Custer acted under a misapprehension. He thought, I am confident, that the Indians were running. For fear that they might get away he attacked….

Although Terry attempted an explanation for Custer’s actions, he appeared to accuse Custer of disobeying orders by attacking too soon, and indeed Sheridan commented to Commander in Chief of the Army William T. Sherman after reading it: Terry’s column was sufficiently strong to have handled the Indians, if Custer had waited for the junction. President Grant, perhaps still seething at Custer for helping expose the corruption in his administration and his brother, declared in September, I regard Custer’s Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary — wholly unnecessary.

To protect itself, the military scrambled to find a scapegoat on which to pin the blame for the disaster. As a result, fingers were pointed in many directions. Custer was accused of dividing his command prior to battle, even though this was the accepted mode for attacking villages, and of attacking early. Subordinates Major Reno and Captain Benteen were accused of disobeying Custer’s orders and not supporting him. Indian agents were accused of under-reporting the number of warriors off the reservations. But, for some, it was easier to blame a man who could not defend himself.

Later statements by Sheridan and Sherman that Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians marked a change in the public portrayal of Custer, as historian Craig Repass pointed out: Prior to his involvement in the Belknap Affair, Custer was not publicly referred to as ‘reckless’ or ‘imprudent.’ After his demise those labels were continually applied to him in the army’s efforts to discredit him. Still, Custer was buried with full military honors at West Point on October 10, 1877.

For many, in death Custer became an instant hero for a nation, a patriot who fought valiantly to the end. As W.A. Graham explained in his book The Custer Myth, As Terry’s language…compelled the inference that he had accused the popular Custer of that heinous military sin — the disobedience of orders — his partisans and admirers — and they were legion — immediately started the hue and cry in their search for a scapegoat on the one hand, and proof that their hero had been maligned, upon the other. Soon after the battle, Frederick Whittaker began writing A Complete Life of General George A. Custer. When it was published in December 1876, it proclaimed Custer’s heroism to the public. And that proclamation of heroism continued for decades, due in large part to the steady efforts of his wife. In the 57 years after her husband’s death, Libbie Custer penned three classic books — Boots and Saddles, Tenting on the Plains and Following the Guidon — that jealously protected and embellished her beau sabreur’s image. But soon after her death on April 4, 1933, detractors renewed the attack. Frederick F. Van de Water’s 1934 biography, Glory Hunter: A Life of General Custer, ravaged Custer’s image, accusing him of being a celebrity-seeking martinet.

By that time Custer had been portrayed in many Hollywood films — the first in 1909 — and would appear in many more over the coming years. Most of these early movies presented Custer as an out-and-out hero. In 1941, with America on the verge of entering World War II, Warner Bros. produced an extremely positive film biography of the fallen cavalier, They Died With Their Boots On. As Custer, Errol Flynn’s performance set a standard to which all Custer portrayals are still compared. While riddled with inaccuracies — problems pointed out by numerous critics — the film adeptly intertwines Custer’s struggle with the government, his view of American Indians and his love for Libbie.

But it is Flynn’s portrayal of Custer that is of the utmost importance. Flynn once said, [I will] be…remembered for Robin Hood, but [feel] Custer was one of [my] best characterizations. He was right, for he captured the spirit of Custer, inspiring a number of historians to begin studies of Custer and the American Indian wars. Paul Andrew Hutton, author of Phil Sheridan and His Army and editor of The Custer Reader, has said that after seeing They Died With Their Boots On for the first time, it quickly became my favorite film. Premier Indian wars historian Robert Utley claimed: I am a Custer nut because of Errol Flynn….He so stirred my imagination by his portrayal of General Custer in [the film], my career ultimately turned from law to history. Like Hutton and Utley, Flynn’s Custer became the spark that eventually led me to become a writer interested in race relations on the frontier.

The Custer image reached a crossroad during the mid-20th century when a new wave of negativity surfaced. Martinet and egotist still stuck, but in the 1950s and 󈨀s, bloodthirsty racist bent on genocide and adulterer were added to his résumé. Mari Sandoz, in the 1953 history Cheyenne Autumn, claimed that Custer sired a child with Monahsetah, whom he captured at the Washita. There is one major problem with this claim — Monahsetah delivered her child in early January 1869, less than two months after she was captured by Custer and his men.

In 1957 David Humphreys Miller based Custer’s Fall: The Indian Side of the Story on statements of aged Indian veterans of the Little Bighorn that he interviewed beginning in 1935. Unfortunately he provided no corroborative documentation. According to Miller, while riding to determine if he could see the village on the morning of June 25, Custer told Arikara scouts Bob-tailed Bull and Bloody Knife, If we beat the Sioux, I will be President of the United States — the Grandfather. In 1968 Sandoz, in The Battle of the Little Bighorn, embellished Miller’s earlier report by claiming that Custer had rushed to attack the Indians on the 25th because he needed a victory to secure the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis on June 27.

Since news of the tragedy didn’t surface until July 5, it is highly unlikely that word of a victory would have had any chance of reaching the convention in time to affect its outcome. There is no firm proof anywhere that Custer craved the White House. One of the few known Custer quotes regarding politics came in a letter he wrote to Libbie in the fall of 1864: I believe that if the two parties, North and South, could come together the result would be a union closer than the old union ever was. But my doctrine has ever been that a soldier should not meddle in politics. Nevertheless, the damage had been done: Custer’s image had forever changed and the anti-Custer propaganda would continue, often becoming more and more negative.

Although TV’s 1968 Legend of Custer portrayed him as true hero, in Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man and the movie it spawned in 1970, Custer appears as a genocidal raving lunatic. Soon after the Berger and Sandoz books, Vine Deloria Jr. catapulted to the forefront of the American Indian Movement (AIM) with the publication in 1969 of Custer Died for Your Sins. A passionate — if biased — statement of the Anglo-Indian conflict, it became the battle cry for native people across America, as well as non-Indians who rallied to their cause. Deloria’s declaration that Custer was the Adolf Eichmann of the Plains pounded another nail into the coffin of Custer’s heroic legend. The Berger-Sandoz-Deloria image couldn’t be denied, and it turned Custer, the long-haired hero of the idealized West, into a representation of all the evils of Manifest Destiny — an image the media readily embraced.

Into the 1970s, Custer’s name continued to be smeared: He came to represent bitter racial hatred. Poverty dominated Indian reservations and emotions ran high, leading to an armed confrontation between AIM members and the FBI near Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. Two agents and a native died. In his 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen claimed to document the FBI’s war on AIM. And the tarnishing of the myth of Custer continued in what is perhaps the most accurate Custer film to date, the 1991 television miniseries Son of the Morning Star. Based on the biography by Evan S. Connell, it presents Custer as a bombastic, uncharismatic bore.

In addition, although purporting to be factual, Turner Films’ 1994 Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee, which dramatized the 1973 AIM-FBI 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, added another lie to the negative Custer myth. Two minutes into the film, the main character, talking about the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee, states, Custer’s men shot down 300 Lakota men, women, and children. Custer had been dead for 14 years by the time of that massacre, and Indian casualties were half that number.

Yet Custer seems to live on in the national consciousness, and even the Custer experts seem hard-pressed to explain why. Historian Utley has commented: Everyone has heard the name Custer. For most, the name summons at least a fleeting image of a soldier who died fighting Indians. His true role in history cannot account for the nearly universal name recognition. For that explanation, one must probe the murky realms of mythology and folklore. Beneath the layers of legend, however, a living human being, possessed of a remarkable range of human faults and virtues, made his brief mark on the history of the United States.

This article was written by Louis Kraft and originally published in the June 2006 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today

Custer&aposs Last Stand and Legacy

The Battle of Little Bighorn was a stinging embarrassment to the U.S. government, which redoubled its efforts and quickly and cruelly defeated the Lakota.

For his role in the battle, Custer earned himself his place in American history, though certainly not in the way he would have wished for. During her final years, Custer&aposs wife wrote accounts of her husband&aposs life that cast him in a heroic light, but no story could overcome the debacle that became known as Custer&aposs Last Stand.

In 2018, Heritage Auctions announced that it had sold a lock of Custer&aposs hair for $12,500. The lock came from the collection of artist and American West enthusiast Glen Swanson, who said that it was preserved when Custer saved his hair following a trip to the barber, in case he needed a wig. 

George Custer In The Civil War

A cavalry commander in the United States Army, Custer fought in both the Indian Wars as well as the Civil War. He was raised in Ohio and Michigan and West Point admitted in 1858. During the Civil War, he gained a reputation that was strong because of whom he associated with. The Battle of Bull Run was his first major engagement. He had a temporary promotion to major general but returned to captain at the end of the war. He played an important role at Appomattox and was there when Robert E. Lee surrendered.

George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio December 5, 1839. He was appointed to West Point in 1857 and graduated last in his class in 1861. During the Civil War his bravery and flamboyant style attracted the attention of his superiors and earned him rapid promotions. By war&rsquos end he was a brevet major general. &ldquoBrevet&rdquo was a temporary, wartime promotion. Once the war ended, all those who earned a brevet rank reverted to their actual rank. In Custer&rsquos case, he reverted to captain.

When the Seventh Cavalry was formed at Fort Riley in 1866, Custer was appointed the lieutenant colonel of the regiment. He did not have to wait long to get experience with the Plains Indians. His regiment accompanied General Winfield Scott Hancock&rsquos &ldquopeace commission&rdquo to southern Kansas in the spring of 1867. Rather than creating peace with the Indians, however, Hancock&rsquos mishandling of the talks resulted in &ldquoHancock&rsquos War.&rdquo The Seventh Cavalry spent the next three years at Forts Hays, Dodge, Larned, and others in pursuit of Indians throughout Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Custer was court-martialed in the summer of 1867 for force-marching his troops from Fort Wallace to Hays without orders. This and other charges led to his being relieved from duty for one year. But before his year was up, he was called back by General Philip Sheridan to lead his regiment in a winter campaign against the Cheyennes. This would become his first major engagement against the Indians when he attacked Black Kettle&rsquos village along the Washita River in what is now Oklahoma. While it was a victory for Custer and his Seventh Cavalry, some considered it a massacre and many of his officers grew to distrust his judgment.

Custer was a brilliant strategist and had experience leading large groups of men into battle but did not know how to deal with the individual soldier and see to his daily needs. As a result, his treatment of the enlisted men under his command was often unnecessarily harsh. This resulted in many of his men deserting.

In 1870 the Seventh Cavalry was transferred to Kentucky where they performed reconstruction duty, primarily suppressing Ku Klux Klan activities. In 1873 they were again transferred, this time to Dakota Territory. Here he led an expedition to the Black Hills where gold was discovered. This unleashed a barrage of miners swarming over country that had been set aside for the exclusive use of the Sioux Nation. This led to all-out war between the Indians and whites. In 1876, the Seventh Cavalry was part of a campaign sent to &ldquoround up&rdquo the Indians and confine them to reservations. The Seventh Cavalry met a vastly superior force of Indians along the Little Bighorn River in Montana on June 25, 1876. Of the nearly 600 Seventh Cavalry soldiers involved in the battle, 268, including Custer, were killed.

George Custer has had more written about him than any other soldier of the Indian Wars and he is often epitomized as all that was wrong with the clash of cultures that was the Indian Wars. It may be more accurate to say that Custer and most other officers of the period sympathized with the Indians' plight and felt Indian agents, who were a generally corrupt lot who robbed and cheated the Indians, were to blame for many of the problems. He said, &ldquoIf I were an Indian I often think that I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people who adhered to the free open plains, rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation.&rdquo But he also saw them as &ldquosavage in every sense of the word.&rdquo He did not advocate extermination, as some have said, but felt Indians would eventually have to give way to the advancing white civilization. Overall, George Custer was a complex man who was given a difficult job to do in an equally complex and difficult period of American history.

Entry: Custer, George Armstrong

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: November 2011

Date Modified: March 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.

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George Armstrong Custer in Command

George Armstrong Custer’s command was the second brigade of the third division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, consisting of the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh regiments of Michigan cavalry and a battery of artillery. These were the men he led into battle at Gettysburg with the cry: “Come on, you Wolverines!”

His first charge at Gettysburg, on 2 July 1863, was repulsed by Wade Hampton’s men. But Custer, whose horse was shot from beneath him, was cited for gallantry by his commander, Brigadier General Judson “Kill-Cavalry” Kilpatrick. On the next day, the day of Pickett’s charge, Kilpatrick’s men were ordered to shield the flank at Little Round Top. Custer, however, was detached to the command of General David McMurtrie Gregg whose men were in place to protect Meade’s rear from Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, the “Invincibles,” who had the same undefeated aura about them as did the infantry of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The fighting had already grown hot when George Armstrong Custer was given the orders he wanted, to lead a charge into the enemy. The honor fell to the 7th Michigan, Custer’s most inexperienced troops. The blue-coated cavalry charged into Confederate shot and shell and crashed into an intervening fence, which didn’t inhibit hand-to-hand fighting with sabers, pistols, and carbines between Virginians and Michiganders. The Federals were driven back but reformed themselves to meet a Confederate countercharge. Now at the head of the First Michigan, his best regiment, Custer thrust his sword in the air and shouted, “Come on, you Wolverines!” The clashing opponents collided with such fury that horses tumbled over each other—and this time, though the gun smoke, the point-blank discharges, and the clanging, bloodied sabers, it was the Confederates who pulled back. The invincible Virginians had been stopped. “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry,” wrote Custer in his official report. This wasn’t bragging—though Custer was often, wrongly, accused of that—it was boyish enthusiasm.

Indeed, the key to understanding George Armstrong Custer is that he pursued all his endeavors with boyish ardor, spirit, and pluck. He was tough, of course. He was proud of being able to endure any hardship. But he also thrived on action. He rejoiced in the field (and later on the Great Plains) surrounded by fast horses, good dogs (dogs recognized him as one of their natural masters), a variety of other animals (such as a pet field mouse), and an assortment of hangers-on, including, during the war, a runaway slave named Eliza who became his cook (she said she wanted to try “this freedom business”), a ragamuffin boy servant named Johnnie Cisco and another named Joseph Fought, who repeatedly deserted his own unit to be with George Armstrong Custer. Later in the war, Michigan troops petitioned en masse to serve under the golden-haired general.

George Armstrong Custer maneuvered friends and family onto his staff or into his units, including his brother Tom. And if it was cronyism it was cronyism that rewarded the brave, for all the Custers were gallant. His brother Tom won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Saylor’s Creek (he was shot in the face, and survived to fight again).

A lot of people wanted to be with Custer. That included his bride, Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon, whom Custer married in February 1864 after her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, could no longer keep the Boy General from his daughter. The George Armstrong Custers were the Bacon’s social inferiors, and Custer had a reputation as a ladies man. But, well, at least that ringleted fellow was a general, and not a blacksmith. And if Judge Bacon had strong doubts before the marriage, he should by rights have quickly buried them (though apparently he never did), for few couples in history seem to have been happier than Libbie and Armstrong. Indeed, his charming, well-bred, pious wife followed her vibrant enthusiast of a husband to camp whenever it was considered safe to do so. And on one occasion, after the war, while on the Great Plains, he was court-martialed and suspended from duty for a year, because he decided to swing by and visit his wife while on a campaign.

Jeb Stuart kept his wife away from camp, thinking it no place for a lady. George Armstrong Custer welcomed his wife, and thought Stuart’s flirtations with other women along the campaign trail was no behavior for a husband. But then again, Stuart employed his banjo players for evening entertainments of dancing and singing, and it seemed only right and proper to that cavalier that ladies be invited. Custer kept a band too—but he used it to for purely martial purposes: to inspire the men, to prepare a charge. There’s something admirable about the Custer way.

The Changing Image of George Armstrong Custer

Lt. Col. George Custer was once considered “the model of a Christian warrior.” In the 1870s, poets called him heroic, splendid and glorious. One magazine editor called him “chief among our nation’s knights,” and in popular opinion Custer was a martyr who fell defending the frontier.

How did a man so lauded by his contemporaries later become the subject of lasting ridicule and disgrace? In the Spring 2014 issue of Nebraska History, Brian W. Dippie discusses the factors involved in the changing image of George Armstrong Custer among historians and in popular culture.

Born in 1839, Custer became famous as the “Boy General” in the Civil War, and carried that fame with him when he joined the Seventh Cavalry after the war. But what ensured his lasting fame was his death. On an 1876 expedition to confine “hostile” Lakota to their reservation, Custer chose to attack an Indian camp that proved much larger than his forces. He and all 212 men under his direct command were killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn, or “Custer’s Last Stand.”

On July 6, 1876, just two days after the United States’ 100 th birthday, the nation received news of Custer’s defeat. Dippie explains how this timing was crucial – Custer’s defeat clashed with the centennial celebrations of American progress. Writers, poets and politicians romanticized Custer’s death, painting him as a hero to aspire to. As magazine editor E.M. Stannard wrote,

“Custer fell! But not until his manly worth had won for him imperishable honor. Pure as a virgin, frank and open-hearted as a child, opposed to the use of tobacco, liquors, and profane language, free from political corruption, cool and courageous in the midst of the fiercest battle, he has left to us the model of a Christian warrior.”

Not everyone thought of Custer in such noble terms, but these dissenters were fairly quiet until the 1930s when criticism of Custer became more mainstream. The Great Depression made it hard to believe in glowing tales like the legend of Custer. In 1934, one year after Custer’s widow died, Frederic F. Van de Water published the biography Glory-Hunter, which portrayed Custer in an extremely unfavorable light. Van de Water saw Custer as a proud, immature and foolish man “with little to recommend him beyond a headlong bravery and a picturesque appearance. He’d have made a damned spectacular United States Senator, but he was a deplorable soldier.”

Perceptions of Custer were mixed for several decades. The 1941 movie They Died with Their Boots On once again portrayed a heroic, charismatic Custer and was released just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. However by the 1960s, growing empathy for Native Americans and backlash from the Vietnam War caused Custer to be perceived more than ever as a foolish villain.

Popular opinion has not seen Custer as a hero ever since. And in Dippie’s opinion, it probably never will again. “His champions have never given up – doomed Last Stands are in their blood – and they still fight a rearguard action in his defense," Dippie writes. "But they have no purchase in popular culture. His detractors hold the field.”

George Armstrong Custer

Major General December 5, 1839 — June 25, 1876

Despite graduating last in his class at West Point, George Armstrong Custer rocketed to fame during the Civil War, becoming the youngest general in the Union army and playing major roles at the Battle of Gettysburg, during Sheridan’s Shenandoah Campaign, and in the final pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s army that would end at Appomattox.

Born in 1839 in Ohio, Custer attended West Point and graduated last in the class of 1861. While he had a lack-luster performance in the classroom his career on the battlefield was quite the opposite.

Custer fought ably as a cavalry officer and in June 1863 was promoted from captain to brigadier general due to heroism exhibited during an engagement in Aldie, Virginia, on June 17. At the age of twenty-three Custer became the youngest general in the Union Army. Custer then played a leading role in the cavalry action in the “East Cavalry Field” during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863, when Union forces turned back the celebrated Confederate cavalry Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

During Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Campaign, Custer commanded a brigade and later a division of cavalry. During the Third Battle of Winchester, September 19, 1864, Custer led his brigade south on the Valley Pike to attack the Confederate left flank at Fort Collier, part of the enormous cavalry charge that broke the Confederate line. “Officers and men seemed to vie with each other as to who should lead,” Custer remembered of the final, thunderous attack. “The enemy upon our approach turned and delivered a well-directed volley of musketry, but before a second discharge could be given my command was in their midst, sabering right and left.”

At the Battle of Tom’s Brook, on October 9, 1864, Custer led the successful flanking attack that routed forces led by his old friend, Confederate Gen. Thomas Rosser. Spotting Rosser before the attack, Custer rode out in front of the battle lines and doffed his hat in salute. “It was like the action of a knight in the lists,” one of Custer’s officers recalled, “a fair fight and no malice.”

And at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864, Custer commanded a division of cavalry and was part of the crushing Union counterattack that helped turned the disastrous defeat of morning into a decisive, campaign-winning victory at day’s end. As the Confederate withdrawal became a rout, “The road was full of charging cavalry,” Confederate private George Q. Peyton recalled. “And I saw Custer with his long curls hanging down his back.”

After Sheridan’s Campaign, Custer remained in Winchester for several months where he was joined by his wife Libbie. At the Battle of Waynesboro on March 2, 1865 – the last significant battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley – Custer led the flank attack that collapsed the Confederate line. During the final month and a half of the war in Virginia, Custer went east with Sheridan to help bring about the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and was present when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. For his many gallant services Custer was promoted to the rank of major general of U.S. Volunteers on April 15, 1865.

A national sensation, Custer went west after the Civil War and became one of the United States’ ablest Indian fighters. But he met his match at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, when he led the 7 th Cavalry in an attack against the largest gathering of Plains Indians ever seen, and was killed in what became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

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