My Favorite Historical Person: George A. Custer

My favorite historical person is George Armstrong Custer. My introduction to Custer came in the second grade when I first saw the movie, They Died With Their Boots On. Although highly entertaining, the film is steeped in myth and thus it naturally captivates the imagination. For Custer, the myth is inescapable, sometimes suffocating, but also motivating. The constant analysis of him and his story is something I find enjoyable. I certainly will not say, however, that he was perfect. Despite Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling portrayal, Custer was human and had many, many flaws. Through those issues there has been one thing that has stood out to me about Custer, which like the myth, is even more appealing.

Custer pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. His actions during the Peninsula Campaign and as a staff officer earned him an opportunity for advancement. At the same time, he was at a disadvantage. Prior to his promotion to Brigadier General in June 1863, he had not held a field command.

Custer also had not benefited from the tutelage of a senior officer. The two men closest to him at the time of his promotion were Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, head of the cavalry corps and his direct superior, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. Although Custer had served on his staff, Pleasonton had been more of a father figure to him. Pleasonton’s questionable intelligence gathering methods, one the primary responsibilities of the mounted arm were quite dubious. Although Pleasonton offered Custer advice to always fight his command and not himself, it is far from lending an expert hand. Kilpatrick’s rash behavior at Gettysburg and Falling Waters had probably kindled suspicion on Custer’s part.  Whatever faith Custer had in him was gone by the end of the engagement at Buckland Mills in October, 1863.

Custer essentially had to teach himself and learn on the fly by watching others. In doing so, he later emerged as one of the more successful cavalry commanders of the war. He accomplished it through hard work and perseverance. This aspect of Custer’s life is only one of many elements which continue to draw me to his story.

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14 Responses to My Favorite Historical Person: George A. Custer

  1. John C. Fazio says:

    Dan:

    It is, of course, your prerogative to lionize whomever you wish, but let me suggest to you, with respect, that Custer has too many negatives to be anyone’s hero, not least of which is his serious error of judgment at the Little Bighorn, which resulted in the complete destruction of his command 141 years ago tomorrow. No one who knows anything about him doubts his bravery and his fighting qualities, but against these are many downsides, including:
    1. He loved war and considered a day wasted if he saw no combat in it. I don’t know about you, but I have a low regard for lovers of killing and maiming.
    2. He graduated last in his class at West Point in 1861.
    3. He led a brilliant charge at Gettysburg, true, which kept Stuart from supporting Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s famous charge on July 3, 1863, but less than a year later allowed his 5th Cavalry to be cut off at Trevillian Station and suffered heavy losses as a consequence.
    4. Shortly after the war, he stole a prize horse (Don Juan), worth hundreds of thousands in today’s money, and refused to comply with Grant’s order to return it to its rightful owner.
    4. He went AWOL when he was stationed at Ft. Leavenworth.
    5. He became embroiled in the Belknap controversy during Grant’s presidency and was almost retired from service because of it. In retrospect, it would have been better for him if he had been.
    6. His actions at the Washita River were atrocious. It was not a battle, but a massacre, with many women and children killed without mercy and many more taken hostage. In addition, by withdrawing prematurely, he abandoned Major Joel Elliott’s detachment, which was soon wiped out by the enemy, an act that caused much resentment in his 7th Cavalry and that earned the undying hatred of Frederick Benteen, who commanded part of his force at the Little Bighorn.
    7. It has been reported that he had an affair with the daughter of a Cheyenne chief, after Washita, and that he sired a child with her in 1869, despite having been married to Libby Custer for more than 4 years.
    8. At the Little Bighorn, he badly underestimated the size of the Indian encampment and then divided his command into three parts, a decision that resulted in a disaster for the army, his death and the making of a lot of widows at Ft. Abraham Lincoln.

    This Son of the Morning Star is not a hero in my book.

    • Daniel Davis says:

      Hi John,
      Thank you for reading. I do agree, Custer had many flaws. There are blemishes on his record, his court martial in 1867 being the biggest one. He was certainly cut from another cloth and a man made for war. But over time I believe his experiences in combat began to catch up with him from a mental and spiritual perspective to the point that by the fall of 1869 he is actively looking first to get out of field command then later on to get out of the army entirely.
      That’s not to say he wasn’t an accomplished soldier. While his class standing at West Point is one of the more interesting episodes of his life, it certainly did not have any bearing on his or others’ military career. George McClellan, for instance, graduated at the top of his class but was eventually relieved of command.
      Gettysburg is also another interesting aspect. Custer certainly played a role in the Union victory on what becomes East Cavalry Field. But I think recently his role has been overemphasized to the point where the actions of David Gregg and John McIntosh are almost completely overlooked. The battle was David Gregg’s and not Custer’s. Custer was acting under the direction of Gregg.
      I think we also cast the lens of 1876 back to Trevilian Station. I believe that event has to be looked at within the scope of June 11, 1864. Custer probably should have kept a closer eye on Williams C. Wickham’s brigade that morning. But at the same time, he had orders to proceed to the station. Custer was surely aware of the famous feud between Phil Sheridan and George G. Meade at Spotsylvania, one in which Sheridan, the junior came out on top. I doubt Custer wanted to do anything to upset Sheridan, for if he could take on an army commander and win, he could surely ruin the career of a brigade commander. Moreover, Custer had finally just received his official confirmation as Brigadier General. He did not want to do anything to jeopardize that. Also, Trevilian Station occurred in the early stages of the Custer and Sheridan relationship when it was just beginning to grow. It was not the type of relationship they had later on where Custer may have had some leeway with Sheridan’s directives.
      I still have a difficult time coming around to the theft of Don Juan. He was requisitioned for war time purposes. Despite Lee’s surrender, there were still other Confederate armies operating in the field and the real possibility that the Third Cavalry Division would see another campaign and horses were an invaluable commodity.
      Too often I think the Washita has been confused and colored by what happened to the same village of Southern Cheyenne at the hands of John Chivington at Sand Creek in 1864. Custer gave explicit orders not to fire on non-combatants. After the village was captured, Custer had all of the non-combatants gathered in the center. Those that did perish more likely came at the hands of the Osage Scouts accompanying the regiment.
      I don’t know if Custer could have done more for Elliot, but I don’t believe he abandoned him. Once Custer found out that Elliot was missing, he dispatched Edward Myers’ company to search for him. But Custer still had to contend with the captured village and the noncombatants. He was also dealing with the threat of warriors materializing from the surrounding villages. Also, responsibility for Elliot’s actions must be placed on the shoulders of Elliot. What is lost with the Washita is that Custer was able to successfully extricate his inferior force in the face of an enemy with superior numbers.
      Monaseetah or Meotzi was captured at the Washita. There is some question still in my mind as to whether Custer had an affair with her. We know today, through the efforts of Dr. Lawrence Frost, that he did not father a child by her. Meotzi was pregnant at the time of the Washita battle. Further, Custer was likely sterile as a result of a venereal disease contracted in his teens.
      Custer himself did not want to become involved with the impeachment of Secretary of War Belknap. His summons to appear before the Congressional committee interfered with preparations for the upcoming spring campaign. He even consulted his direct superior, Alfred Terry who was a lawyer in civilian life as to whether he could get out of testifying. Unfortunately, there was no way around it. Given that Custer’s testimony was hearsay, he still had to completely answer the committee’s questions.
      I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Little Bighorn. Still, I am motivated to continue that study. Interpretations are constantly changing and evolving. I don’t think Custer underestimated the size of the warrior force. Nor do I think the entire warrior force was involved in the various phases of the engagement. What Custer did not know was that the Sioux and Cheyenne were riding an incredibly high wave of morale. Their victory on the Rosebud and that summer’s Sun Dance was an incredible inspiration. It was the first time that a Plains Indian village, when attacked, actually stood and fought. Looking at the situation more closely, Custer was responding to intelligence and reacting to something that was spiraling out of his control. I don’t necessarily fault him for dividing his regiment. After crossing the divide from the Rosebud Valley, the terrain is one series of hills and bluffs followed by another. Custer dispatched Benteen there to cover his left flank. Even the valley that Custer used to reach the Little Bighorn is deceptive. Closed in by hills on either side, there is actually a point where it appears the hills come together to shut off the valley. His dispatch of Reno was in response to information that contradicted his analysis and belief of earlier intelligence before he left the Rosebud Valley.
      Again, thank you so much for reading and following Emerging Civil War.
      All the best!

  2. Bob Ruth says:

    Dan:
    Excellent original post and response. I especially liked your remarks on the topography at the Little Big Horn. I’ve visited the site twice. Before viewing the site first-hand, I too thought Custer blundered badly. But after gazing over all the hills and dales, I understood Custer’s dilemma. You’re absolutely correct. The topography is incredibly deceiving, almost like a series of optical illusions.

    Custer’s big mistake, I believe, was a failure to more thoroughly scout the area before attacking. However, I have read that his own scouts believed – wrongly, as it turned out – that his troops had been spotted by the Indians. So, to keep the element of surprise, he ordered an immediate assault without much – if any – recon. What do you think?

    • Daniel Davis says:

      Hi Bob,
      Yes indeed, Custer was operating under the false assumption when he crossed into the Little Bighorn Valley that the regiment had been detected by the Sioux. This is detailed in a letter that Lt. Charles Varnum, who had charge of the scouts and guides, wrote to historian Walter Camp in 1909.
      Custer’s inability to conduct any type of reconnaissance of the valley and the camp was incredibly detrimental. This was something that he had indicated to his officers that he wanted to to do before launching any type of offensive.
      It is interesting that he does not personally have eyes on his objective until just before or shortly after Reno opens the engagement. Despite this, a reading of the accounts of the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors do carry a common theme that they were in fact surprised. There was no expectation of a battle that day. They were slow in reacting to Reno’s threat and even to Custer’s presence.
      Many thanks for reading!

  3. Dale Fishel says:

    Thought provoking posts. I’ve visited and researched Little Bighorn too. Studied the Washita battle also. I wonder if Custer’s motivation at LBH was in part influenced by his “success” at Washita having captured enough women and children to discourage further attack by warriors. If he could accomplish the same thing at LBH he might have won the day. Our collective fascination with all things Custer have been influenced (whether we like it or not) by the efforts of widow Libby to lionize her deceased husband. He will always remain a subject of interest given his courageous record during the Civil War and failure during the Sioux war. A study in human nature of Greek proportions!

    • Daniel Davis says:

      Hi Dale,
      The theory of Custer attempting to capture the noncombatants has gained a lot of steam over the years. It is definitely a valid one. Doing so would have changed the entire complexity of the battle and shifted the initiative back to him. I do think Custer was planning a more concerted attack with his and Benteen’s battalion.
      Thank you for reading and following ECW.

  4. Dan Walker says:

    I enjoyed the above discussion immensely–and learned from it. It makes me marvel, as I often have, at the complexity of relationships between a commander’s character and his battlefield performance–at least for CW officers. There’s certainly little relationship to class rank at the Point–Grant and TJ Jackson being two more examples of academic mediocrity. Sometimes what makes the man successful–or not–in personal relationships elsewhere, or in analyzing fluid and amgiguous factors, risk vs. reward, etc. doesn’t translate to the battlefield, and sometimes it does. Wasn’t it Napoleon who, when asked what kind of generals he liked, said “lucky ones”?
    Has there been a good study of these connections?

    • Daniel Davis says:

      Hi Dan,
      None that I can think of off the top of my head but I will open it up to our readers for any thoughts. Even the famous West Point professor of engineering and tactics, Dennis Hart Mahan, was confounded by the success of middle of the road cadets and the failures those that were top notch.

  5. John C. Fazio says:

    Dan Davis:

    Thank you for your response. It is apparent that you are quite knowledgeable on the subject. Accordingly, you have, in my judgment, made some telling points, particularly about Custer’s role at Gettysburg and the circumstances surrounding Trevilian Station and the Belknap impeachment.
    As for Don Juan, may I suggest that his need for a mount to continue the fight against Johnston, Mosby, Taylor, Smith and any other Confederates who still hadn’t laid down their arms did not require that he steal a prize horse worth hundreds of thousands in today’s money. I am quite sure the army would have made a fine animal available to him for the purpose. The theft, therefore, strikes me as an act of vanity and apparently Grant also saw the matter so. Fittingly, the beast bolted during the victory parade, which made his rider look somewhat foolish, and died soon thereafter.
    I have been to Sand Creek, a desolate piece of real estate in desolate country (eastern Colorado). Comparisons with Washita are, I believe, strained. Chivington wasn’t a soldier; he was a cold-blooded killer. He even held two children aloft, whom he referred to as knits who would make lice, and then blew their brains out. It is a travesty that a town out there is named for him. He, Champ Ferguson and Bloody Bill Anderson were cut from the same cloth and are hopefully rotting somewhere, Custer spared a number of women and children only for the purpose of holding them hostage. That didn’t keep his men from the cold-blooded, merciless slaughter of many others, besides the warriors. Though some historians continue to call it a battle, others put it in the same category as Gnadenhutten, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. As for Elliott, all I can say is that many in the 7th Cavalry, particularly Benteen, held Custer responsible for the annihilation of his detachment. We cannot be unmindful of the fact that they were about 140 years closer to the event than we are.
    I agree with you that the business about Custer’s affair and siring a child with the chief’s daughter is entirely too cloudy for any meaningful conclusion to be drawn. I read two of Libby’s three books and do not recall her addressing the matter. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.
    As for the Little Bighorn, you make some good points. But even if he did not underestimate the size of the entire Sioux and Cheyenne encampment, he surely underestimated the number and/or location of those who were prepared to directly oppose him. Dividing one’s force in the face of a numerically superior enemy is hazardous business. Lee got away with it at Chancellorsville, but the shell that caused Hooker to lose his bearings may have had something to do with it. In any case, it is most decidedly not recommended.
    Thanks for continuing my education.

    • Daniel Davis says:

      Hi John,
      Thank you for your response and the ongoing discussion. I think it is beneficial for us but appears we will continue to agree to disagree on some of the finer point. There is a lot to the Don Juan story that requires examination and then, continued examination. I am still of mindset that the horse was not stolen or that the event fully encapsulates Custer’s personality.
      The Washita, and for that matter, the Campaign of 1868-69 is very fascinating. Certainly there were noncombatant casualties in the early stages of the attack. Due to the Army’s methods at the time, it was something that was unavoidable and especially tragic. But, the available primary accounts and evidence just does not support the notion that the 7th Cavalry engaged in the indiscriminate killing of noncombatants.
      That battle and its impact on the officer corps of the regiment has been a subject of debate since. If the event and its aftermath lingered as long as it did, Custer, as commanding officer, should have done more to mitigate it. Correspondingly, Benteen is just as culpable.
      His public criticism of Custer after the Washita, however, was insubordinate and he could have been brought up on charges. I don’t think Custer did so because he recognized Benteen’s talents and his regiment was in the midst of a major campaign. Custer would need his services.
      I am glad you brought up Benteen again. He fascinates me. I think, despite his flaws, that he was a good soldier with a personality just as complex as Custer. There is a really good biography of Benteen by Charles Mills that I would recommend if you are interested. Karol Asay has also written a treatise that focuses specifically on the Custer-Benteen relationship. Benteen’s letters were published a number of years ago. If you are able to find them, they are excellent, but also rare. Lastly, Benteen’s correspondence with Theodore Goldin, a former trooper in the Seventh has also been published.
      I think there has been a great discussion on this thread regarding Custer’s mistake or mistakes at the Little Bighorn. A lack of reconnaissance is certainly one. I think Custer hoped that his dispatch of Benteen and then Reno would accomplish that to a certain degree. I do think Custer has a very, very good idea as to the location of the village. Due to the number of people and horses, it will be located along the river for the water supply. Moreover, Sitting Bull had been moving from one tributary of the Yellowstone throughout the spring and summer just for that purpose. I actually addressed the Chancellorsville/LBH similarity briefly in an earlier post that I would invite you to read: https://emergingcivilwar.com/2011/08/22/some-general-thoughts-on-major-general-george-a-custer/
      Again, thank you for taking the time to engage in this discussion. Our deepest thanks for your support and continuing to follow ECW.
      Dan

  6. David Corbett says:

    Well, Autie certainly received a number of responses ! It never fails to amuse me when non-military criticize warriors like Mosby, Arnold, Patton and …Custer. Thanks for the article

  7. John C. Fazio says:

    Dan Davis:

    Thank you for your follow-up. Thank you too for the recommendation of the Benteen bio. I read your 2011 article re Custer and the Chancellorsville- Little Bighorn comparison. Excellent piece.

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