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The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn - Nathaniel Philbrick ”You ask me if I will not be glad when the last battle is fought, so far as the country is concerned I, of course, must wish for peace, and will be glad when the war is ended, but if I answer for myself alone, I must say that I shall regret to see the war end.”
George Armstrong Custer

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George Armstrong Custer at West Point

George Armstrong Custer was last in the graduating class of 1861 at West Point. They were graduated a year early due to the pressing need of the Union for officers, any officers, even the man at the bottom of the class was needed immediately. His class rank is deceptive. Custer was not dumb. He just was in trouble all the time for too many demerits. When he would run out of the number of demerits that he was allowed he would buckle down and pull himself back from the brink of being expelled.

Custer was tailor made for the Civil War.
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Or should I say he always knew a good tailor
He rose quickly through the ranks and reach the temporary rank of Major General (after the war he was reverted to the rank of captain). He was brave without question even his detractors could not say different. He was at times perceived as foolhardy, but was saved time and time again by the notorious Custer luck. He was a dramatic leader, loved by his men, who led from the front and as a result had several horses shot from under him during the war. His most famous cavalry charge was at the Battle of Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee had dispatched Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to hit the Union forces from behind. Custer led his 1st Michigan Cavalry into the teeth of that charge and broke the back of the assault preserving victory for the Union in what became the pivotal battle of the war. Custer's brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. ”I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry”, Custer wrote in his report.

Modesty was not a trait found among Custer’s characteristics.

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"At one point, Custer abandoned his regiment and dashed to Libbie, covering more than 150 miles on horseback in just sixty hours. From Libbie's standpoint, it was all wonderfully romantic and resulted in what she later remembered as a 'long perfect day,'but it almost ruined Custer's career. He was court-martialed and sentenced to a year's unpaid leave."

After the war General Philip Sheridan awarded the table on which Grant and Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox to Custer’s wife Libby. Included with the gift was a note: ”Permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring this desirable result than your gallant husband.” This really struck me because when you think about all the powerful players involved with the ending of the war for Custer to be presented with such an important gift is frankly mind boggling. Layered beneath the braggadocio nature of George Armstrong Custer was merit that was recognized by his superiors.

You can’t really be neutral about Custer. He forces you to either like him or hate him. I’ve read several biographies over the years of Custer starting with the The Story of General Custer when I was a kid. My parents bought me a handful of these Grosset and Dunlap biographies which also included Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull. I read them to pieces. I then discovered the public library also had more of them and I read all that they had as well. Out of all these great people I was most enamoured with GAC.
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I’ve had an uneasy relationship with him. He is flawed. He did not take his cues from General Washington who hid his ambitions under a cloak of humbleness. Custer was raw with his desire to not only be successful, but to be adored. He created as many enemies as friends and one of those enemies just happened to be Captain Frederick Benteen. At the Battle of Washita an engagement against the Cheyenne in 1868 a friend of Benteen’s, Major Joel Elliott was left behind and was killed. Benteen felt that Custer had an opportunity to save Elliott and the resentment he felt over this incident was a scab he couldn’t quit picking.

President Ulysses S. Grant didn’t really care for Custer. He thought he was brash (true) and undisciplined (very true) and when the campaign against the Indians resumed in 1876 he wanted to make sure there was a steady hand guiding events out west. He put General Alfred Terry in command of what became known as the Centennial Campaign. General Terry may have also been under the glamour of Custer’s persona.

”General Terry, like Sheridan before him, had told Custer to do whatever he thought best once he came in contact with the Indians.”

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General Alfred Terry

Terry had orders to engage the enemy and who better to send down the throat of an enemy than George Armstrong Custer.

”As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn. But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces. Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.”

Okay I agree with Philbrick that Terry had his fair share of responsibility for the disaster at the Little Bighorn, but to put the finger on him as most responsible is hard to justify in my mind. I guess if you believe as Harry Truman so famously said: “The Buck Stops Here” then you could make a case that Terry was ultimately responsible. He wasn’t at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and he had complete faith in Custer’s ability to fight Indians. Custer had a few bobbles here and there, but overall he had proved himself a capable field commander.

To me there are several points in the series of events at the Little Bighorn where things could have went differently. Custer splitting his command was a critical miscalculation, but it was based on actual solid strategic thinking. He felt he could flush the Indians forward and keep them from escaping a pitch battle. The much maligned Major Marcus Reno had a golden opportunity to change the course of events when his group of 142 men charged toward the Indian encampment. Most of the warriors were elsewhere and it would have been a critical pendulum swinging moment in the conflict if he could have captured the women and children. He halted the charge about 600 yards from the encampment and formed a skirmish line giving the Indian fighters time to assemble. Major Reno, by many accounts, was drunk and intent on getting even more so if the bottle of whiskey seen in his hand during the battle was any indication. They were driven back losing a large portion of his command and during the ensuing pell-mell retreat Reno did not provide the necessary leadership that his men needed so desperately. Just as things are getting dire suddenly the Indians flow away from them like water. Reno’s command did not know this but they were heading to help finish off Custer’s command.

Frederick Benteen with his 100 men receives a written message from Custer sent via courier.
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”Benteen, come on, big village, be quick. Bring packs." Benteen did not go; in fact, he dawdled even took time to water his horses. He then led his men down to join up with Reno which was a very good thing for Reno’s men because Benteen was an able commander and quickly shaped things up for the coming siege. He didn’t give a thought to joining up with Custer as requested. He resented Custer and I believe this may have been a bit of rebellion on his part. He certainly had put up with a lot of ostracization from the Custer sycophants. He had not been quiet about his feelings about Custer even sending those thoughts in writing to a newspaper. I also believe that he was somewhat under the spell of the Custer mystic. It would have been hard for him to believe that Custer, the brilliant dashing Custer, was in any real trouble. Could he have saved Custer? I’m not sure. He would have increased the chances and if Custer was hit fairly early in the battle, as some have speculated, he would have been a steadying influence on the troops and maybe would have come out a hero instead of a scapegoat.

208 men died with Custer that day. They were battling a force of Indians estimated to be about 3,500. Certainly more than what Custer could have even believed possible. His brothers Tom and Boston, his nephew, and his brother-in-law all perished with him. His intention to capture the women and children and end the battle quickly was daring and was almost accomplished.

”Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool. But as Sitting Bull, Runs the Enemy, and many other Lakota and Cheyenne realized that day, he came frighteningly close to winning the most spectacular victory of his career.”

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Sitting Bull

I love the way Nathaniel Philbrick organized this book. He gives us some background on Custer and then takes us through the politics, the personalities of the principle players Indian and soldier, and their movements during the battle. Most of what happened with Custer’s command comes down to speculation as there was only “one survivor” and that was horsed named Comanche. (He didn’t talk.)

I personally feel it was just a lost battle and as happens with losses a few things go wrong that contributed to defeat. Reno and Benteen both made decisions that may have ultimately cost Custer and his command their lives. Custer was too brash, maybe trusting too much in that Custer luck and the ability of his men. If he had captured the village he might have ended up President of the United States. Whether you believe him to be foolhardy or courageous, he accomplished something in death that he always wanted while living...to be immortalized. Philbrick doesn’t contribute anything new, but this book was so damn pleasurable to read.