George Armstrong Custer’s controversial life ended in an equally controversial death at the Little Bighorn.
By Michael D. Hull
At daylight on April 9, 1865, the hard-pressed infantry of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia advanced against the Union Army’s 3rd Cavalry Division near Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Supported by artillery, the Confederate soldiers came on for a final time–proud and defiant. Once invincible, the Southern ranks had been severely thinned by desertion and death, and they were now no match for the Federals.
Federal infantry that had reached the front during the night opened fire, while blue-clad cavalry regiments repulsed an enemy sortie and prepared to charge. The cavalry commander watched from a nearby ridge as his troopers wheeled into formation. His name was George Armstrong Custer.
The 25-year-old brevet major general had commanded the 3rd Division since the previous autumn, and under his leadership the 3rd had become one of the finest combat units in the Union Army. Personally fearless, Custer had instilled an aggressiveness into his cavalrymen that had placed them in the forefront of numerous battles.
The renowned “boy general” of the Union Army was where he had always wanted to be, where he had dreamed of being since his youth. He had been in the Union debacle at First Manassas, when the Yankees had fled in disarray from the Confederates. Now he would be in at the end. Behind Custer, his troopers insolently carried a cluster of captured Rebel battle flags, a flamboyant gesture typical of the general.
At one time, Custer was the youngest general in the Union Army, and his name had become a household word in the North. The fame he enjoyed was reserved for few others in the Union Army.
For Custer, however, there was no acclaim without controversy, no middle ground. His men were devoted to him, and his superiors praised his dash and fighting spirit, but his fellow officers resented or envied his fame, his showmanship and his well-publicized “luck.”
Much has been written about Custer, certainly one of the most controversial soldiers in American history, but in this evenhanded, authoritative and revelatory biography, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer (Simon& Schuster, New York, 1996, $27.50), author Jeffry D. Wert provides fresh insight into both the man and the soldier. The result of a careful examination of its subject’s entire life, his strengths and weaknesses, Custer is a masterwork of comprehension, scholarship and narrative power.
The author of several other Civil War studies, Wert has produced a book that should satisfy the most discriminating Custer buffs. His research is meticulous, and his storytelling skill is first-class. He makes the man and his various wars come alive.
Using recent scholarship and archival research, Wert has succeeded in presenting a re-examination of Custer by focusing on both the Civil War and the postwar years, for both eras define him. More has been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn than about the Battle of Gettysburg, says Wert, and Custer is best remembered today for the annihilation of his 7thCavalry command on June 25, 1876, by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in southern Montana. The mythic “Last Stand” has become part of American folklore.
Yet Custer was the victor of many cavalry engagements in the Civil War. Fearless in battle and always leading the charge, he played an important role in the Virginia theater of operations, including the Shenandoah campaign, and distinguished himself at Gettysburg, Haw’s Shop, Trevilian Station, Winchester, Cedar Creek, Waynesboro and Appomattox. He was highly regarded by Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Philip H. Sheridan, and some historians have rated him as the finest cavalry officer in the Union Army.
Custer remains a disturbing and controversial presence, according to Wert. In life, he fascinated the nation; in death, he haunted its soul. If his career had ended on the ridge near Appomattox Court House, he would be remembered as one of the country’s great horse soldiers, Wert writes. But his passage into history was to come instead on a nondescript ridge in Montana on another Sabbath Day.
Wert has painted a detailed and balanced portrait of “Autie” Custer’s life, from West Point–where he graduated last in his class, with cavalry tactics, ironically, his worst subject–through his service in the Indian wars, which changed his life drastically. A harsh climate, poor rations and discipline problems plagued his troops, and his harsh reaction to them earned him a court-martial and the hatred of many of his men.
Custer’s career suffered, but there were long lulls in the fighting during which he could lavish attention on his devoted wife,Elizabeth (“Libbie”). Custer was a romantic, as Wert makes amply clear, and the two great loves of his life were Libbie and West Point.
Wert has succeeded admirably in placing Custer’s life and achievements into an intelligent and entertaining context. Hollywood and political activists have depicted him one-sidedly as a vainglorious fool or a butcher of American Indians, says the author,and Custer the loser at the Little Bighorn has overshadowed Custer the valiant Civil War general. He has become the singular symbol of American guilt over its tragic decimation of the Indian nations.
The author has peeled off layers of myth to present the real George A. Custer in this eloquent study–a complex man who coveted fame, embraced glory, and strove to fashion an enduring image. In that, Custer succeeded greatly, but at a terrible price to himself and others.
From the January 1997 issue of America’s Civil War: