George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend | HistoryNet MENU

George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend

By Louis Kraft
9/1/2006 • American History Magazine

On June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry attacked a massive Lakota-Cheyenne village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. Custer lost not only the battle but also his life, and in so doing achieved immortality. In the 130 years since, the death of Custer and every man in the five companies of his immediate command has grown to mythic proportions. ‘This demand for information and answers to ‘why’ and ‘how’ resonate down to us today, wrote historian Bruce Liddic. Except for the result, exactly what happened to Custer and his five companies will never be known with certainty….It has been the subject of more controversy, dissension, [and] dispute than almost any other event in our history.

Not that controversy was anything new to Custer by the time he died. He had already experienced many ups and downs, and yet had made a dashing mark in American history.

Shortly after the Civil War began in April 1861, Custer graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In the coming years, he exploded across the American scene like a skyrocket. From the beginning, he exhibited his desire for action while showing no fear against the enemy. If a task needed to be accomplished, Custer was the man. His attitude brought him to the attention of his superiors, and in May 1863 Custer became aide-de-camp to Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the 1st Division of the Union Cavalry Corps. The following month, the young aide was photographed sitting astride his horse. Mustachioed, with collar-length hair, Custer struck a swashbuckling pose. Although not yet a household name, he had begun to carefully craft an image uniquely his own, that of a cavalier from days of yore.

On June 9, 1863, when his commanding colonel was killed during an attack on Confederate Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s camp at Brandy Station, Va., Custer took command of the regiment and led a saber charge through the surrounding Confederate forces. Pleasonton recognized his subordinate’s common sense in hot situations, and his fearlessness and enthusiasm — all of which were in short supply in the Cavalry Corps. After Custer rallied faltering troops at Aldie, Va., in mid-June 1863, Pleasonton recommended him for a general’s star.

Custer received his appointment as brevet brigadier general on June 29, 1863. Unimpressed with his uniform, he jettisoned the standard-issue cavalry jacket and trousers, replacing them with a loose-fitting velvet coat that had golden braids adorning its sleeves, and velvet pants he tucked into knee-length top boots. He had a silver star sewn onto each lapel of a light-blue, broad-collared Navy-issue shirt. To complete the refashioning, he looped a scarlet cravat about his neck and donned a black hat with a lower crown and wider brim than those of standard-issue hats.

With long golden-red curls falling to his shoulders, the Custer image was complete — wherever he now appeared, everyone knew who he was. Still only 23, the newspapers dubbed him the boy general. Always at the front of his command, his blazing necktie marking him as a recognizable target, Custer found himself the darling of not only his men but also the artists sketching the conflict. As historian Gregory Urwin wrote, That was the key to all the Boy General’s foppish affectations — he made himself conspicuous on purpose, deliberately courted danger to allay his soldiers’ fears and to always let them know where he was in a fight.

Commanding the Michigan Brigade for the first time, Custer attacked and forced Stuart’s cavalry brigade from the field east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. During the war, Custer had been promoted to captain in the Regular Army and eventually was breveted to the rank of major general, commanding the 3rd Cavalry Division. Although the cost of his bravura was high in the number of men who died serving under him, he had forged a glorious public record. By war’s end Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who commanded the Cavalry Corps, considered Custer his ablest man.

After the Civil War, Congress reduced the size of the Army and curtailed its role to what were basically two policing assignments — keeping the peace in the defeated South during Reconstruction and protecting westward expansion from Indians who objected to the invasion of their land. Given the reduction in force, many Regular Army officers were reduced to ranks lower than those they had attained during the rebellion. Custer’s war record, however, had garnered him several strong backers and preferential treatment. Sheridan stood by him and, therefore, instead of being demoted from his regular rank of captain at war’s end, Custer received a promotion to lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry.

Custer took pride in his revived career and new command, but the situation had drastically changed. During the Civil War, soldiers fought and died by the thousands, and though there were desertions and discontent, most willingly fought for what they viewed as a cause, a crusade. The new Indian-fighting army, however, had little sense of crusade. The recruits came from recent immigrants, many of whom couldn’t speak English, and the dregs of society —

an unhealthy mixture of drunks, thieves and murderers. These were men looking for a meal, clothing, weapons and a horse, and many of them soon had thoughts of deserting at the first opportunity. Sculpting them into any type of cohesive unit took bullying and brutality, which many noncommissioned officers joyfully performed, creating an atmosphere of fear, loathing and indifference.

The soldiers of this Indian-fighting army faced another problem: They had no understanding of their new foe — the free-roaming Indians of the northern and southern Plains, mainly the Lakotas (or Sioux), Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Kiowas. Unlike the military, which fought pitched battles, Plains Indians almost always scattered when a village was threatened unless escape had been cut off. Most military men viewed the aborigines with scorn and disdain, and felt their superior numbers, strategy and firepower would awe their poorly armed adversaries into capitulation.

While in pursuit of an enemy that scattered whenever he drew near during the Army’s 1867 Plains campaign, Custer re-created himself as a buckskin-clad Indian fighter — a persona that would far eclipse his image as boy general. He also made several ill-advised decisions that would have far-reaching consequences. Facing mass desertions, he dealt with runaways harshly. Then, when a cholera epidemic raged across the Great Plains, fearing for his wife Elizabeth, Custer himself went AWOL, racing off to see her. Ultimately, Custer was court-martialed and found guilty on eight counts, including ordering several deserters to be summarily shot without benefit of a hearing and being absent without leave from his command by going to find his Libbie. He was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the Army without pay.

As the Indian wars heated up again the following year, Sheridan, as commander of the Department of the Missouri, planned a winter campaign. He lobbied for and obtained an early end to Custer’s suspension. On November 27, 1868, Custer was back in the saddle, attacking and destroying a Cheyenne village on the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma. Custer’s official report claimed 103 Indians killed, more than 40 of them women and children. Custer’s fame and popularity as an Indian fighter soared and continued to grow as the years passed.

In 1870 Secretary of War William Belknap created a monopoly when he implemented a regulation that required soldiers to buy supplies from only the post trader even though they could be purchased elsewhere for less money. As part of the political patronage system, applicants for the trader positions paid large sums of money to government officials to secure these lucrative jobs that allowed traders and agents to line their pockets with cash and retire early. To protect the scam, Belknap created another regulation in 1873, calling for all Army complaints to be channeled through his office, effectively eliminating any public exposure.

With Republican President Ulysses S. Grant pushing for a third term, the Democratic press called for an investigation into the criminal activities of his administration, and Pennsylvania Congressman Heister Clymer chaired the House Committee on Military Expenditures that oversaw the investigating. To escape prosecution, Belknap resigned on March 8, 1876, before the hearings began that spring. Even though he was preparing to command the Dakota column, which would soon take the field, Custer (who earlier had complained of the corrupt practices instituted by Belknap) was summoned to Washington to testify. His testimony on March 29 and April 4 implicated several government officials and Grant’s younger brother Orvil. Although much of Custer’s attestation was hearsay, history has proved him correct on all counts.

Trapped in Washington by the hearings, Custer wrote Libbie on April 17: The Radical papers continue to serve me up regularly. Neither has said one word against Belknap. He probably was referring to failed Republican attempts to prove he had committed perjury during his testimony before the committee. Custer had also earned the enmity of President Grant, who retaliated, as was reported in an article in the May 2 issue of the New York Herald headlined: Grant’s Revenge. He Relieves General Custer of His Command. The General’s Reward for Testifying Against the Administration.

Desperate, Custer appealed for help to Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, who had assumed overall command of the Dakota column. When Sheridan added his endorsement, Grant relented, and Custer quickly headed west to report for duty.

Custer’s command was part of Sheridan’s tri-column policing action to round up non-reservation Indians (roamers) and force them back onto the reservations. None of Sheridan’s columns [Brig. Gen. George Crook, Colonel John Gibbon, or Terry, under whom Custer now served] feared or expected an attack, historian Robert Kershaw wrote. The military’s greatest fear was not being able to encircle its foe and therefore prevent him from escaping. Continuing, Kershaw wrote: Like modern peace-keeping armies conducting expeditionary police operations, the U.S. Army saw itself as restoring’sanity’ and ‘civilization’ in its support of continental westward expansion.

There is little doubt that Custer was aware that more warriors were off the reservations than reported by the Indian agents. He saw the signs as the trail he followed to the Little Bighorn grew. Interpreter Fred Gerard sat with Custer just before the night march of June 24-25. When Custer asked how many warriors were to their front, Gerard replied, not less than 2,500. The morning of the 25th, scout/interpreter Mitch Boyer told Custer: Well, general, if you don’t find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw together, you can hang me. Still, Custer never anticipated the massive size of the village or the number of warriors ready to fight for their freedom. Not a fool, Custer certainly listened to the warnings, but a village of this immensity probably hadn’t existed in the past, and it would never exist again. Fearing the Indians might scatter, he attacked immediately and, as he had done at the Battle of the Washita, he split his force so his columns could attack the camp from two sides at once. Contrary to his expectations, the warriors in the village didn’t flee. They counterattacked.

The results of the Battle of the Little Bighorn are well known. Many of the troopers who attacked from the south in Major Marcus Reno’s command escaped with their lives by retreating and taking up a defensive stand on a hilltop, where they were soon joined by Captain Frederick Benteen’s command. Custer and the roughly 210 men in his immediate command did not live to fight another day. The results of Custer’s Last Stand would shock the nation.

In the 100 years since the United States had declared independence, it had grown from a hodgepodge of 4 million people scattered thinly throughout 13 colonies to a nation of more than 40 million. Great increases in wealth, expansion of territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the growth of industrial centers such as New York, Chicago and St. Louis marked the passing of the nation’s first century. The future seemed boundless. With the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as the center for the grand celebration, excitement gripped the nation as July 4, 1876, approached.

The Exposition was designed to show that the ‘American experiment’ had produced a society that was not only morally and ethically superior to that of the Old World, historian Richard Slotkin wrote, but economically more potent as well. Mechanical symbols dominated the halls in pseudo-Gothic temples proclaiming America’s emergence as the country leading the world into the 20th century. To honor their recent — and fast vanishing — frontier past, many states built pavilions resembling huge log cabins.

On July 5, a day after the official opening of the celebration, the shocking news of Custer’s demise reached Bismarck, Dakota Territory. The War Department had unconfirmed reports of the disaster by July 6, but Sheridan stated they arrived without any marks of credence. No one in his wildest dreams could imagine this happening. Custer was indomitable. The famed Civil War general and Indian fighter par excellence represented the nation’s pride, the preservation of the Union and the opening of an expansive frontier to a population ready to reap the benefits of a new fertile land.

Custer’s defeat was viewed as incomprehensible and tragic, and it left the public with a gaping wound. As news spread, the Little Bighorn debacle cast a dark shadow on the nation’s hopes for a glorious second century. Partially to regain the honor and prestige lost at the Little Bighorn and partially to fulfill Manifest Destiny once and for all, the U.S. Army redoubled its efforts to overwhelm the Plains Indians. Waging total war, soldiers destroyed Indian homes, food, clothing and supplies. They did not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. Although the so-called Great Sioux War was over by the spring of 1877, one last major action took place more than 14 years after Custer’s defeat. On December 29, 1890, elements of the 7th Cavalry surrounded a group of mostly Minneconjou Dakotas and killed about 150 of them at Wounded Knee Creek in Dakota Territory. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, which had ushered in this new era of fierce westward expansion, immediately created a firestorm of controversy that continues today.

At least two of Terry’s reports, written soon after Custer’s defeat, found their way into newspapers. In one of those reports, Terry stated: I do not tell you this to cast any reflection upon Custer. For whatever errors he may have committed he has paid the penalty and you cannot regret his loss more than I do, but I feel that our plan must have been successful had it been carried out….In the action itself, so far as I can make out, Custer acted under a misapprehension. He thought, I am confident, that the Indians were running. For fear that they might get away he attacked….

Although Terry attempted an explanation for Custer’s actions, he appeared to accuse Custer of disobeying orders by attacking too soon, and indeed Sheridan commented to Commander in Chief of the Army William T. Sherman after reading it: Terry’s column was sufficiently strong to have handled the Indians, if Custer had waited for the junction. President Grant, perhaps still seething at Custer for helping expose the corruption in his administration and his brother, declared in September, I regard Custer’s Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary — wholly unnecessary.

To protect itself, the military scrambled to find a scapegoat on which to pin the blame for the disaster. As a result, fingers were pointed in many directions. Custer was accused of dividing his command prior to battle, even though this was the accepted mode for attacking villages, and of attacking early. Subordinates Major Reno and Captain Benteen were accused of disobeying Custer’s orders and not supporting him. Indian agents were accused of under-reporting the number of warriors off the reservations. But, for some, it was easier to blame a man who could not defend himself.

Later statements by Sheridan and Sherman that Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians marked a change in the public portrayal of Custer, as historian Craig Repass pointed out: Prior to his involvement in the Belknap Affair, Custer was not publicly referred to as ‘reckless’ or ‘imprudent.’ After his demise those labels were continually applied to him in the army’s efforts to discredit him. Still, Custer was buried with full military honors at West Point on October 10, 1877.

For many, in death Custer became an instant hero for a nation, a patriot who fought valiantly to the end. As W.A. Graham explained in his book The Custer Myth, As Terry’s language…compelled the inference that he had accused the popular Custer of that heinous military sin — the disobedience of orders — his partisans and admirers — and they were legion — immediately started the hue and cry in their search for a scapegoat on the one hand, and proof that their hero had been maligned, upon the other. Soon after the battle, Frederick Whittaker began writing A Complete Life of General George A. Custer. When it was published in December 1876, it proclaimed Custer’s heroism to the public. And that proclamation of heroism continued for decades, due in large part to the steady efforts of his wife. In the 57 years after her husband’s death, Libbie Custer penned three classic books — Boots and Saddles, Tenting on the Plains and Following the Guidon — that jealously protected and embellished her beau sabreur’s image. But soon after her death on April 4, 1933, detractors renewed the attack. Frederick F. Van de Water’s 1934 biography, Glory Hunter: A Life of General Custer, ravaged Custer’s image, accusing him of being a celebrity-seeking martinet.

By that time Custer had been portrayed in many Hollywood films — the first in 1909 — and would appear in many more over the coming years. Most of these early movies presented Custer as an out-and-out hero. In 1941, with America on the verge of entering World War II, Warner Bros. produced an extremely positive film biography of the fallen cavalier, They Died With Their Boots On. As Custer, Errol Flynn’s performance set a standard to which all Custer portrayals are still compared. While riddled with inaccuracies — problems pointed out by numerous critics — the film adeptly intertwines Custer’s struggle with the government, his view of American Indians and his love for Libbie.

But it is Flynn’s portrayal of Custer that is of the utmost importance. Flynn once said, [I will] be…remembered for Robin Hood, but [feel] Custer was one of [my] best characterizations. He was right, for he captured the spirit of Custer, inspiring a number of historians to begin studies of Custer and the American Indian wars. Paul Andrew Hutton, author of Phil Sheridan and His Army and editor of The Custer Reader, has said that after seeing They Died With Their Boots On for the first time, it quickly became my favorite film. Premier Indian wars historian Robert Utley claimed: I am a Custer nut because of Errol Flynn….He so stirred my imagination by his portrayal of General Custer in [the film], my career ultimately turned from law to history. Like Hutton and Utley, Flynn’s Custer became the spark that eventually led me to become a writer interested in race relations on the frontier.

The Custer image reached a crossroad during the mid-20th century when a new wave of negativity surfaced. Martinet and egotist still stuck, but in the 1950s and ’60s, bloodthirsty racist bent on genocide and adulterer were added to his résumé. Mari Sandoz, in the 1953 history Cheyenne Autumn, claimed that Custer sired a child with Monahsetah, whom he captured at the Washita. There is one major problem with this claim — Monahsetah delivered her child in early January 1869, less than two months after she was captured by Custer and his men.

In 1957 David Humphreys Miller based Custer’s Fall: The Indian Side of the Story on statements of aged Indian veterans of the Little Bighorn that he interviewed beginning in 1935. Unfortunately he provided no corroborative documentation. According to Miller, while riding to determine if he could see the village on the morning of June 25, Custer told Arikara scouts Bob-tailed Bull and Bloody Knife, If we beat the Sioux, I will be President of the United States — the Grandfather. In 1968 Sandoz, in The Battle of the Little Bighorn, embellished Miller’s earlier report by claiming that Custer had rushed to attack the Indians on the 25th because he needed a victory to secure the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis on June 27.

Since news of the tragedy didn’t surface until July 5, it is highly unlikely that word of a victory would have had any chance of reaching the convention in time to affect its outcome. There is no firm proof anywhere that Custer craved the White House. One of the few known Custer quotes regarding politics came in a letter he wrote to Libbie in the fall of 1864: I believe that if the two parties, North and South, could come together the result would be a union closer than the old union ever was. But my doctrine has ever been that a soldier should not meddle in politics. Nevertheless, the damage had been done: Custer’s image had forever changed and the anti-Custer propaganda would continue, often becoming more and more negative.

Although TV’s 1968 Legend of Custer portrayed him as true hero, in Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man and the movie it spawned in 1970, Custer appears as a genocidal raving lunatic. Soon after the Berger and Sandoz books, Vine Deloria Jr. catapulted to the forefront of the American Indian Movement (AIM) with the publication in 1969 of Custer Died for Your Sins. A passionate — if biased — statement of the Anglo-Indian conflict, it became the battle cry for native people across America, as well as non-Indians who rallied to their cause. Deloria’s declaration that Custer was the Adolf Eichmann of the Plains pounded another nail into the coffin of Custer’s heroic legend. The Berger-Sandoz-Deloria image couldn’t be denied, and it turned Custer, the long-haired hero of the idealized West, into a representation of all the evils of Manifest Destiny — an image the media readily embraced.

Into the 1970s, Custer’s name continued to be smeared: He came to represent bitter racial hatred. Poverty dominated Indian reservations and emotions ran high, leading to an armed confrontation between AIM members and the FBI near Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. Two agents and a native died. In his 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen claimed to document the FBI’s war on AIM. And the tarnishing of the myth of Custer continued in what is perhaps the most accurate Custer film to date, the 1991 television miniseries Son of the Morning Star. Based on the biography by Evan S. Connell, it presents Custer as a bombastic, uncharismatic bore.

In addition, although purporting to be factual, Turner Films’ 1994 Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee, which dramatized the 1973 AIM-FBI 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, added another lie to the negative Custer myth. Two minutes into the film, the main character, talking about the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee, states, Custer’s men shot down 300 Lakota men, women, and children. Custer had been dead for 14 years by the time of that massacre, and Indian casualties were half that number.

Yet Custer seems to live on in the national consciousness, and even the Custer experts seem hard-pressed to explain why. Historian Utley has commented: Everyone has heard the name Custer. For most, the name summons at least a fleeting image of a soldier who died fighting Indians. His true role in history cannot account for the nearly universal name recognition. For that explanation, one must probe the murky realms of mythology and folklore. Beneath the layers of legend, however, a living human being, possessed of a remarkable range of human faults and virtues, made his brief mark on the history of the United States.

This article was written by Louis Kraft and originally published in the June 2006 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today

16 Responses to George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend

  1. […] in 1964 and in 1989. I’m on the quarter-century plan, so I’m due to go back on 2014. Here is an article about Custer. Here is the website of the battlefield. Posted by Keith […]

  2. Ron Webb says:

    Custer!….you have to ask yourself why does the government continue to try to damage his image…He cannot seriously be taken as a raving, reckless maniac, as Sheridan, Sherman, & Terry, those who had served closest to him, wanted him on the LBH expedition…and believe me, they would not have done so had they felt he would ruin their reputations. As far as Grant, history has proven that Custer told the truth at the Belknap hearings, which is why Belknap resigned before the hearings. As far as Custer hating Indians, he wasn’t out there of his own accord, he was carrying out his assigned orders…as far as being reckless, he ordered that his spare ammunition be sent to him “twice”, once through Kanipe and once through Martin. The Indians are quoted as saying Custer’s shooting dwindled toward late evening…If Benteen and Reno had wanted to cover up what they had intentionally done, they would say #1. nothing they could have done would have saved him (the extra ammo would have) #2. the battle lasted only 30 minutes, not enough time for them to get there (the Indians and Peter Thompson said it lasted almost two hours, #3. they didn’t hear any shooting (everyone but Benteen and Reno did, even those who were partially deaf), and these are exactly the things that they did say. You have to ask yourself why Benteen so nonchalantly felt that he could ignore his orders. He would not have done so had he not known that it was alright to do so from a superior officer, and this officer was not General Terry, as he was documented to be in tears upon arrival at the Reno location. Terry blew his integrity out of the water when he sent in two differing reports to Sheridan, the first being accurate, and the second blaming the dead Custer, once R. Hughes and J. Brisbin had sufficiently influenced him, as Terry certainly did not want Sheridan to blame him….So where would such a conspiracy as befell Custer come from….who had the enmity and who had the motive…..Grant did!…and how would Grant get such an order to the battlefield….certainly not through Sherman, who was known to bow to no man dishonestly, but there was one other general, who while he benefitted from the victories that Custer delivered to him, never fully helped Custer out after the great Rebellion of the Civil War, a general who was always career-climbing by carrying out anything and everything that the angry Grant wanted, and that was Sheridan…..So from Grant to Sheridan, from Sheridan to Benteen…..they knowing full well that Custer would be in the thickest of the fighting….leave him stranded, and how to do that? do not deliver the ammunition! Custer was the only one who did exactly what he was sent out there to do…..he carried out his duty as he understood it with the fullest sacrifice…that which he vowed at West Point….honor, duty, country. All other commanding generals either avoided the Indians, hoping that Custer would deal with them, or in the case of Crook, when the Indians found him (instead of him finding them), he retreated, and was basically afraid, as was Terry to go back out there without many reinforcements.

    Thank you. RWW

  3. Rex Stevenson says:

    The conspiracy theory that I advanced more than 10 years ago is real. Problem is, too many folks appear to resent any theory whatsoever that’s contrary to accepted beliefs … but of course this is what happens when you try to buck the system, or, in this case, so-called military historians, authors, and self-proclaimed Custer experts who have already formed hardened opinions and conclusions about a very famous though obviously lop-sided battle which we actually know so little about.

    As stated, I am of the opinion that a conspiracy was in the works in 1876, and in so far as I can determine, it went all the way to the White House and directly involved several high-ranking government officials who set up GAC in hopes to either embarrass or eliminate him … and it worked out far better than anyone had anticipated because it not only opened the door for railroad and national expansion, but also enabled them to illegally confiscate Indian lands which they had failed to purchase at the Red Cloud Conference in September, 1875.

    As for implicating specific generals and politicians, the reasons are obvious: They are the ones who issued the orders and thus controlled Custer’s destiny. In other words, they pulled the strings on our high-strung, over-zealous, and often-times reckless boy general, but the fact remains that he was one hell of a cavalry commander and the only one in the summer campaign with guts enough to confront the enemy on his home turf.

    As an example, if it were not for Grant, Custer would never have returned to his command. But why would Grant restore Custer’s command in the wake of Custer’s Congressional testimony that all but wrecked his administration and any chance for a 3rd term in office? It makes no sense … unless Grant knew, or at least hoped, that this would be Custer’s last command. And of course General of the Army Sherman and Lt. Gen. Sheridan owed their post-war positions to Grant and were therefore absolutely loyal to his administration … which is why no other officer, of any rank, in the entire U.S. Army, collaborated Custer’s testimony on behalf of the Indians at the Congressional hearings.

    I have always believed that history simply repeats itself and that everything we need, want, require or seek has always been there for us just waiting to be found. Ergo, and with direct reference to my conspiracy theory, that which we seek is hidden in plain view (seen and yet unseen), but to see it we need an open and unpolluted mind.


    Why would the President of the United States personally intervene to deny the transfer of a junior officer? Maj. Lewis Merrill was Custer’s XO and an experienced Indian-fighter, yet he and more than a dozen other loyal officers were transferred during Custer’s absence in Washington. And when, on the eve of battle, Custer requested the return of his XO, Grant personally intervened and denied the request, stating that Merrill was needed in St. Louis for Centennial Celebration. Grant was a military man who well knew the serious and potentially disasterous ramifications of combat with inexperienced officers leading green recruits … and nearly 40% of Custer’s command were freshly mustered in. So what motivated him to do it?

    Custer was repeatedly led to believe that he might encounter first 500-800 poorly-armed hostiles; then as many as 1200-1500; and then back to 800-1000 warriors in the Big Horn Valley … and yet Terry, Sheridan, Sherman and Grant were all well aware of the fact (since September 1875 and as late as June 6, 1876) that Custer would likely be up against at least 3000-5000 warriors (there were 7,000 warriors at the Red Cloud Conference), at least a quarter of whom were armed with Henry and Winchester repeating rifles.

    Gen. Crook commanded a 1,300-man column and was under direct orders to link up with Custer in the Big Horn Valley, and yet he retired from the field after sustaining just 31 casualties (10 dead, 21 wounded) in a brief encounter with Crazy Horse and about 1,500 Sioux and Cheyennes at Rosebud Creek (38 miles south of LBH) on June 17th and supposedly failed to notify anyone about his actions until mid-July. Crook was a Civil War veteran and wannabe Indian-fighter whose battle record is, in my opinion, not only highly questionable but borders on cowardice. My question is: Why wasn’t he courtmartialed for “desertion in the face of the enemy” instead of promoted?

    Military records indicate that Custer was supposed to link up with Terry’s and Crook’s columns on June 26th, and that Custer’s forced march into hostile territory put him at the LBH a day early and therefore without support … and if Crook’s column had continued its advance, they would have arrived 5-6 days before Custer and would have been there waiting for him. And yet Terry didn’t reach the LBH until the afternoon of June 27th, and Crook never showed at all. (Hmmm? Seems to me that he was set up for failure … even at the expense of a regiment of cavalry.) But why then did Custer’s orders stipulate that he was to advance on the LBH, locate and contain the hostiles, and prevent their escape? How could they (the powers that be) know that Custer would find himself alone and cut off?

    Accepted U.S. Army strategy/tactics when attacking a hostile Indian village was a three-pronged pre-dawn attack, just as Custer had done at the Washita in 1868. So why condemn him for dividing his command? After all, one has only to look at an overview of the battlefield (placement of troops) to ascertain the fact that Custer never intended to attack and instead chose to adhere to his orders (he was already in enough trouble) and contain the hostiles until help arrived.
    Consider this: Custer’s scouts tell him that there are more than 2,200 lodges in the Big Horn Valley, thus indicating the presence of at least 12,000 Indians and certainly no less than 3-4,000 warriors. Custer is also told that there are three possible avenues of escape, so Custer dispatches a message to Benteen to return immediately and bring the pack train with him; tells Reno to dig in with his 3-troop batallion and deny the hostiles a river crossing; and then proceeds along the rim of the valley with the remaining 5 troops to seal off Medicine Tail and Deep Coulees. But Reno attacks the village; Benteen ignores Custer’s order and links up with Reno; and Custer, because of Reno’s charge, is caught out of position.

    Remember, Custer is momentarily expecting reinforcements and realizes that his tiny command is no match for the thousands of warriors in the LBH. So he makes a sound military decision, divides his command, and attempts to bottle-up the Indians pending the arrival of the other two columns. This is why he sent dispatch riders to Benteen telling him to come quick and bring packs … and not because he was about to attack the village. After all, no experienced cavalry commander in his right mind would lead a mounted cavalry charge with a 85 pack-laden mules in tow, not even Custer!

    As for Reno, why would he suddenly decide to obey the orders of a man he openly despised, often questioned, and constantly ridiculed, especially when he obviously knew it would be suicide for him and the 140 troopers under his command? Did he have a death wish? No way! The man was a proven coward. So why then did he advance to the attack, stir up the hornet’s nest, and then just as quickly as possible, turn tail and head for the hills?

    Why did Reno and Benteen swear, under oath, at the 1879 Military Board of Inquiry, that they had no idea that Custer was in trouble … that they didn’t hear the sounds of gun-fire … when every enlisted man who testified swore that the sounds of volley-firing were clearly heard by everyone in the command?

    These are just a few of the many unanswered questions surrounding Custer’s Last Stand.

  4. Peter says:

    You may be right on all accounts of a conspiracy. I don’t know, and none of us will ever know for sure. But one thing is certain, beyond any doubts:

    Benteen hated Custer, Reno was intoxicated on the field of battle, and they both literally let Custer and his command die intentionally out of loathing and cowardice. An American tragedy ocurred on June 25th, 1876 because of these two conspiring liars, and the definitive film exposing this fact has not been made yet. Like the Kennedy’s, like FDR’s knowledge of Pearl Harbors imminent invasion, and many other glossed over dark truths, these concealed issues continue to distract Americans from their own true identities as citizens. Custer was the quintessential American sacrifice, and he died for our sins.

  5. John says:

    Awesome. Wonderfully written, and I assume diligently researched, but undeniably well written. I want to have emailed every article Mr. Kraft writes about Gen. Custer. I hope to one day get to talk to him. By the way, I am an Army retiree with three tours in Iraq. I do not share that openly.

    God Speed.

    • John says:

      I believe Dude, writing a book, from a bit of a different angle, but nonetheless, there was something fishy going on around here.

  6. vernon prescott says:

    1. Sometimes the truth hurts. Custer misjudged: 30% of the 7th had never fought a Plains Indian ( this was not the Washita 7th ), ignored his Scouts, split his command to the extent that the three elements could not mutually support each other, and totally underestimated or ignored the fighting ability of his opponents.

    2. He was outgunned. The Hostiles had superior firepower.

    3. The size of the village was misjudged as well. He attempted to enter it from the mid-point.

    4. He had no Plan B : No Exit Strategy as they say in 2014.

    5. And, as Benteen said: They (the Tribes ) were fighting for their hearth and homes – What better motivation ?


    6. Reno: Custer could have left him behind at Fort Lincoln. He did not. So, there must have been some faith in his abilities. Reno was given Mission Impossible : Charge a 5 mile long village with 112 men. Think long and hard on that one. It all fell apart because of the size of the opposing force, the Bloody Knife Incident, and fear ( not cowardice ).

    7. Benteen: Hated Custer, but didn’t fail him on the 25th. He would have had to take the remaining 7 companies and pack train over 4 miles of Montana terrain, to arrive in time with 50% less men and die with his Commander. He saved Reno’s command and the pack train by improving a Hasty Defense, and grit.


    8, A Conspiracy ? No. Simply a poorly planned campaign, based on inaccurate estimates: terrain, hostiles numbers, hostiles intentions, Army capabilities / limitations ( of the 3 major commands ), and a Lieutenant Colonel who was always impatient, had a love /hate personality, and no understanding of the capabilities /limitations of the men he led to their deaths . All very obvious.

    No one: Grant, Sherman, Terry, Sheridan wanted to see the campaign fail. A major cause was the Bureau of Indian Affairs misleading the Army over the number of Reservation Indians, based on Ration /Food Requests – a simple use it or lose it mentality. The Reservations were quite empty. The Plains were quite full.

  7. Barry says:

    I have enjoyed reading the comments above and the piece itself. Clearly, many mistakes were made on the 17th, 25th, and 26th. I would only add the bluffs to the discussion mix. By the time Custer saw the size of the village, it was too late, By then, Reno had fallen back to the cottonwoods, and Custer’s appearance on the bluffs where he was clearly aiming for the non-combatants sent alarm bells throughout the camp that the women and children were in danger. Custer’s command would have been surrounded in a short time, unless he had pulled back immediately. Why didn’t he fall back? His brother Boston’s arrival with word of Benteen’s advance was his downfall. The general waited on help that was not coming, and if it had, it would have been too small and outgunned.

  8. Darrin says:

    I’m a 23 year retired veteran. and studied Custer’s [estimated] tactics on the battlefield that day (along with a litany of other great historic battles) over the years. It’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback our way through the battle and say things like ‘He shouldn’t have divided his forces,’ but the fact is that a superior number of forces, if superior to the extreme, would likely overwhelm any other factors. In combat, you can defeat a superior force (for argument’s sake, let’s say 500 warriors were there) IF you have superior training, motivation, fire power and planning. We can assume that Custer was an excellent battle planner because of his extensive background and education, so we can give him that (if only for the sake of argument). But did he possess superior firepower? (probably not) Training? (Officers, yes, but the average enlisted man of the time probably had little to no actual combat training or experience) Motivation? (It is probably fair to say that the warriors had more to lose initially in the battle, given the close proximity of their families). However, there is a point within the numbers where a deficiency of any one of these factors would probably make your force unlikely to overcome an extremely large number of enemy combatants that you may face. It is unlikely that Custer would have won under even the best of scenarios if he was facing 2500 motivated warriors, given that the warriors were sufficiently armed, motivated and probably trained and experienced to an equal extent. There are other examples in history of this principle, such as the Battle of Thermopolae. Though the 300 Spartans were probably superior in almost every aspect (highly trained, highly motivated and well-armed), they would still eventually yield to the overwhelming superiority of numbers, even if only by means of attrition. Therefore, if Custer were able to bring the full weight of his forces to bear upon the camp (let’s assume that Custer could have fielded about 550 men, with a few in reserve to perform rearguard, hold the horses and protect the pack train), it is likely that he could have won or fought the warriors to a draw, with a well-executed plan, but it’s also just as likely that the entire force would have been annihilated, and we’d be discussing Reno and Benteen’s last stands too. The most favorable scenario would likely be that Custer could have inflicted enough casualties to force the warriors to break ranks and panic, or retreat. Would the addition of Reno’s men have made a difference? Well, if the number of warriors was anywhere near the higher estimates of 2000 warriors, the likely result would have been more dead soldiers. To boil it down: Custer could have listened to his intelligence, employed a more cautious battle strategy (which would be uncharacteristic of him), and/or had a battle exit strategy, he may have been able to avoid losing his command and his life. Hubris probably played a role, but it’s also fair to say that Custer knew of several previous battles where forces had been outnumbered by Indians and had come out on top, so let’s not write this off simply as one of Custer’s character foibles. There simply were few examples at the time of a regular Army unit being defeated by a force of Indians, so the possibility of it happening that day may have been deemed minimal by Custer. We’ll never know. My personal belief is that Custer possessed the same type of attitude toward Indians that most people of the time did (that they were incapable of defeating a mobilized/organized military unit, regardless of the size of their forces), and committed the most egregious sin of any warrior; underestimating his enemy.

  9. frank says:

    There is an unknown truth about the debacle at the Little Bighorn that has been hidden, obfuscated, and covered by layers of half-truths and disinformation. This explains the unrest of the Mass Collective Consciousness in not being fully able to accept the official and unofficial accounts of this event. Until this truth is revealed, there will be no closure in the MCC.

    • Rex Stevenson says:

      If it’s truth you seek, maybe I can help.

      • frank says:

        Yeah, Ronald Reagan made that statement in private letters, in which he was told by an Army officer of unknown truths about the Custer debacle. What I want to know, is how the Sioux got up to, 400 Henry rifles, in time, in addition, to how Custer may have been “left out to dry” by Army brass. I smell Ulysses Grant in the details.

      • steghorn21 says:

        Probably the Russians. I smell Putin.

  10. Rex Stevenson says:

    It was the 9th U.S. Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) who massacred the Indians at Wounded Knee, but only after the Indians had first opened fire on the troopers with weapons smuggled into the compound.

    • frank says:

      I will have to look that up, as I understood that it was the 7th Cavalry who fired on the Sioux at Wounded Knee. I would not doubt though, the Sioux fired first, as they had the motivation and protection of their “ghost shirts” to prevail, but I have not read this either.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

, , , ,

Sponsored Content: