George Armstrong Custer: Indian Fighter

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How did you start out and where did your research lead you? Stiles: My starting point was a belief that Custer tried to engage with his changing times but failed to adapt to them.


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That certainly bore out, though the specifics surprised me. For example, most biographers skip over his many months in Kentucky. In the National Archives, I proceeded from post records showing how his men were frequently detailed to assist deputy U. I discovered a massive federal offensive against the Ku Klux Klan in the state, involving the 7th Cavalry. But Custer wanted nothing to do with it, and even scorned it sarcastically in an official report.

Custer’s First Fight With Plains Indians

Army played a role in reshaping the South, and that included Custer. She was killed going to find her mother in a town 23 miles away. For justice the mother went to Custer, the general commanding the occupying federal troops. Stiles: Custer was asked to run for Congress in , but his wife, Libbie , vetoed the idea. She had served as his unofficial liaison to Congress during the Civil War, and she warned him that politics was best left to the professionals.

At the end of his life, she again warned him against throwing himself openly into politics. He was not going to run for president that year. The main fact that raises doubts about it is that he had no children with any other women, though he slept with quite a few, including, of course, Libbie.

As Jeffry Wert speculates, he may have been sterile from a gonorrhea infection during his cadet years, or from the horrid treatments of the era. Stiles: Near the end of his life, Custer began a second serialized memoir in [ The ] Galaxy magazine. He tried to explain the failure of his hero, Gen. George B. McClellan, in part by noting that he was elevated to high rank without an internship at lower levels of command. In wartime his men loved him.

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But he failed as a manager under routine circumstances. He compensated with a high-handed manner, alienating subordinates and superiors. In this he resembles other controversial combat leaders, such as Patton or Col. David Hackworth.

Custer had confidence in himself in battle, but he suffered insecurities that led him to lash out recklessly up and down the chain of command. Like Robert Utley, I think the main factor in the result was the Lakotas themselves and their allies. They presented Custer with different circumstances than he or any other Army officer had encountered before.

The Indians had far greater numbers, militancy, confidence, and leadership than ever before. My research into his battles convinces me that he was not blindly arrogant toward the Sioux but respected them as opponents. I suspect the key factor in his decision-making was the fact that they were attacking a village. He expected his foe to flee to protect the women and children, giving him an advantage. That confidence would explain his dividing the 7th Cavalry, the decision that proved to be his downfall. But we can never really know. Antebellum America had a romantic sensibility, with an attention-getting performative style; Custer shared those qualities, but carried them to extremes.

In other areas, such as his views on race and politics, he reflected the views of many more conservative Americans, but this was also the era when many were challenging old prejudices. Stiles: As I mentioned before, the demands of management baffled him, as did life in a large institution the Army, in his case. The same traits that made him a good combat commander seem to have led him to push his luck and search for the big score.

General Custer and his men are annihilated by the Sioux and Lakota at the Little Big Horn

He played cards, bet on horses, bought racehorses, and speculated on Wall Street. He never demonstrated slow, steady patience, let alone tact. The best thing he did to secure his future was to die at the Little Bighorn.


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Ironically, I think my approach helps to explain why the battle had such a cultural impact. If, for example, Col. Custer himself matters, not just the way he went out.

What Really Happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn?

In terms of the battle, the main point I wish to make is that made by Robert Utley: We should give the Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos credit for their victory rather than putting all the focus on Custer. They earned that victory, not just with numbers but with fighting skill, morale, and exceptional leadership. How do you see it? His expedition to the Black Hills found gold, and thus paved the way for a massive illegal immigration into this piece of Sioux territory.

I think Custer does not bear much of the blame personally, but he certainly served as a willing instrument of federal policy. Everyone expected his expedition to find gold. As far as the campaign goes, Custer joined it late. As in on the Southern Plains, Gen. Philip Sheridan planned for three columns to converge on hostile territory.

Unknown to Custer and his commander, Gen. Alfred Terry, the southern column was driven off at the Rosebud shortly before the Little Bighorn. Custer was sent to attack the big gathering of Lakotas and Cheyennes and drive them north, toward Terry and another force under Col. John Gibbon. Custer found the village, and on his approach divided the 7th Cavalry Regiment into three battalions and a pack train. He and the largest battalion were surrounded and wiped out; the others were besieged on a hilltop through the next day, before Terry and Gibbon rescued them.

The injustice of federal policy toward the Sioux and Cheyennes seems more apparent to most Americans. As a result, the Little Bighorn is much more commonly seen as poetic justice, both for Custer personally and for the frontier Army. Due to lead the 7th Cavalry when it left on its campaign against the Sioux that spring, Custer was instead caught up in the controversies engulfing Ulysses S.

His testimony at a Congressional hearing in Washington, D. Custer did himself further damage by leaking additional details to the press. A furious Grant removed Custer from command, and briefly had him arrested when he tried to return to his troops. Only after several high-ranking generals intervened was Custer allowed to return to his post. In mid-May the U. An estimated 2, were gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River in what is now Montana.

Fearful that the Native Americans would escape, Custer chose to press on with an immediate attack. He divided his troops into three battalions, which were to attack the camp from different directions. Custer and his men headed north, into the Battle of the Little Bighorn , never to be seen alive again. The action of the other battalion commanders has been mired in controversy. Ten years later, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Reno faltered, ordering his men to move to safety at the first sign of Indian attack.

Captain Frederick Benteen, tasked with preventing the Sioux from retreating, soon met up with Reno. Custer was discovered naked, but unscalped, with a bullet to the chest and forehead.

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The battle itself may have lasted for up to two hours, as the Americans faced off against a well-equipped Sioux force armed with powerful and deadly repeating rifles. His death at just 36 made him a martyr, with newspaper stories, articles, books, advertisements and Hollywood movies glorifying his life and career.

Chief among those burnishing his fame was Libbie Custer, who spent her widowhood writing a series of best-sellers about their life, continuing to cultivate his legacy for more than 50 years until her own death in But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! Subscribe for fascinating stories connecting the past to the present. George Pickett was a U. George McClellan was a U. Army engineer, railroad president and politician who served as a major general during the Civil War.

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