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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Disputed Legacy Of George Custer

On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer and his cavalry were wiped out by a force of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and nine other Native American Nations at the Little Big Horn. Many know the popular story, but few know the full truth as no soldiers survived.
Custer remains to this day a “shadowy legend.” Few characters in American history are as well known and yet still unknown. There have been more books written about George Custer than any other American of the 19th Century, except Abraham Lincoln. He was a man of many talents and many more faults, depending on your point of view. The Indians called him Long Hair, Creeping Panther, and Son of the Morning Star. Journalists called him “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.” His men called him Hard Ass and Iron Butt.

Some historians contend that Custer was awarded his appointment by an Ohio Congressman to keep him away from the man’s daughter. He attended West Point, Class of 1861, and graduated dead last in his class. Many believed he wouldn’t have graduated at all if there hadn’t been an urgent need for officers in the Union Army, the Civil War having just begun. Custer was held up as an example to future cadets on how not to behave. He was “profane, libidinous, and alcoholic.”

One rare positive aspect of his time at West Point is that he is credited with begining the tradition of standing for the future National Anthem (officially designated years later). He encouraged fellow students loyal to the Union to stand when it was played as a show of unity.

For showing daring under fire, he was promoted to Captain in 1862. Then his meteoric rise to fame began. Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, liked this young officer. Just two years after his West Point graduation Custer was promoted directly from Captain to Brigadier General in 1863; he was 23 and the youngest General in the Union Army. While he was arrogant and vain, he was also totally fearless. He always led his troops from the front, never the rear. Victories piled up.

Custer became a national hero for his daring exploits at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Yellow Tavern, Winchester, Five Forks, and Appomattox. He even accepted the surrender of the Confederate Flag and was in the room when Lee surrendered to Grant.

One week after Lee’s surrender, Custer was promoted to Major General, still today the youngest man ever appointed to that rank in U.S. Army history.

Only months after the war ended, Custer was tried by Court Martial for forcing his troops to extreme marches and causing the death of alleged deserters. He had showed complete disregard for his troops’ welfare while pursuing his own personal interests. He was found guilty and removed from command. The newspapers gave sympathetic coverage to Custer and his friend (and commanding officer) Gen. Philip Sheridan had his conviction overturned, returning him to command.

Custer, being a career officer, was first reverted to the rank of Captain, then up to Lt. Colonel to become commander of the 7th Cavalry. The U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment was organized at Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1866. It patrolled the Great Plains for 15 years and participated in warfare against the Native American Nations from the Washita River to Wounded Knee. The Regiment consisted of 12 companies of troopers armed with Colt .45 revolvers and single-shot Springfield rifles. They are frequently depicted carrying sabers but these were left at their compound when they were on a field campaign. While the 7th Cavalry has been made legendary by Hollywood, in the 1870’s most of his troopers were young immigrants and farm boys who were not prepared for combat.

Their nickname was the “Garry Owen” regiment, named in honor of the Irish tune that they adopted as their march music. You can hear their song below (audio only)

Beginning in 1873, the Regiment was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory and was conducting reconnaissance and escorting geologists into the Black Hills when gold was discovered there. Custer himself reported that “there was gold just below the grass.” Civilian miners and merchants flooded this Indian owned land which led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-77.

While having continued problems with his superior officers, Custer redeemed himself with the military by defeating a band of Cheyenne at their Washita River village. Today that raid is considered cold-blooded murder of unarmed and friendly Indians consisting mostly of old men, women, and children.

Curiously, Custer lived with a Cheyenne woman named Meotzi in 1868 and 1869 and fathered two children with her. His troops had killed her father in battle just before they met.

Libby Custer his wife at home, with whom he never had any children, always denied this. While gossip got back to her about Meotzi, Libby went west to see the child. She said she saw no resemblance to her husband. There was little doubt about the second child however. He had white skin and streaked yellow hair. He was called “yellow bird.” Libby out-lived George by 50 years and spent her life defending him, and presenting his legacy as being a “refined and cultured man, a patron of the arts.” Few believed her.

Custer was completely disrespectful of Native Americans, and he believed that they would never stand and fight him. He was wrong.

On June 22, 1876, Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate a suspected large village of Sioux and Cheyenne, scout the terrain, and wait for the rest of the Army to arrive. His men were armed with single shot rifles (the Indians, he would find out, were armed with Winchester repeating rifles). Custer declined taking the gattlin guns (early machine guns) that were available to him which might have evened the odds. He believed they were too heavy to transport and would slow him down.  

Three days later, instead of waiting and without further reconnaissance, Custer divided his troopers even further into three parts to attack this unknown number of warriors. This was against orders and a grave military misjudgment.

He sent two of the groups off to the east and north. Then unbelievably, he attacked the village with his remaining 231 men. He had hastily estimated the number of braves in the village at about 800. Upwards to 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors stormed out of their village and counter attacked, driving Custer back to a small bluff. They surrounded his command and killed everyone in uniform. It took about 30 minutes to complete the devastation.

In addition to himself, George Custer had two brothers, one brother-in-law, and one nephew killed in the battle as well. His brother, Thomas Custer, is one of only 18 others in American military history to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor twice, both times before the battle.

The Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull, warned his warriors not to take anything from the battlefield as it would be a bad medicine. Nevertheless, almost all the soldiers’ bodies were stripped naked, horribly mutilated, and their uniforms taken. Eyes were removed (so that their spirits could not see their way back to the Sioux) and feet were cut off (so their spirits could not walk back either).

Shortly after the battle, additional U.S. troops arrived. “We moved to the scene of General Custer’s fight, but the sight was too horrible to describe. We buried 204 bodies and encamped near General Terry. But the smell forced him to move his camp several miles away,” Lt. George Wallace.

Who killed Custer? This controversy has gone on for many years. Several Indians attested that he had shot himself, but this was not in his nature. When his body was found it had received three bullet wounds, but no arrow wounds. While there were head wounds on the right side (he was right handed), there were no powder burns present. In 1909, the Sioux Council of Elders decided to settle the matter by naming Chief Brave Bear as the man who ended Long Hair’s life.

Sitting Bull once said, “They tell me I killed Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death.”

The Sioux and Cheyenne won the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but ultimately lost the war. Within a week, the nation had heard all the news about the battle. Most reports were highly biased. The thirst for revenge was strong. General Sheridan flooded the area with troops and soon subjugated the Indian Nations. Ironically, elements of the 7th Cavalry, not part of the Little Big Horn, were present at the Native American’s last stand at Wounded Knee in 1890.

The Seventh Cavalry had a long and storied history after the Little Big Horn. It fought, without horses, in the Pacific Theatre during WWII and was part of the U.S. occupation force in Japan. During the Koran War it fought behind enemy lines with rapid strikes against supply lines. It was utilized again in Vietnam, now moving by helicopter. The 7th also served in Desert Storm (1990-91) and in Iraqi Freedom (2003-05). Forty-five troopers from the 7th Cavalry earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, 24 for the Battle of the Little Big Horn (posthumously).

Continued interest in Custer today is puzzling. His life-long behavior was arbitrary, cruel, and self serving. He was certainly not an innocent victim of Indian savagery.

While Custer showed great courage, he was led by his hunger for glory. He was a superior cavalry commander, and sometimes brilliant. He did not forget the lessons he learned during the Civil War, but his hubris compelled him to take unnecessary chances. Ultimately it cost his life and the lives of his men.

He was an object of extreme admiration to some, but a psychotic killer to others.

“I have seen enough of him to convince me that he is a cold-blooded, untruthful, and undisciplined man. He is universally despised by all his officers excepting his relatives.” General David Stanley, Commander, Yellowstone Expedition.

Why are we still so intrigued by this man and his story 135 years later? Did his death symbolically absolve us of our sins against the Native Americans?

Custer has his immortality.

To learn more about the Battle of the Little Big Horn, check out the following segments of the History Channel’s Battlefield Detectives - Custer’s Last Stand:

part 1 (15 min):

part 2 (15 min):

part 3 (13 min):

part 4 (3 min):

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