George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend

By Louis Kraft
9/1/2006 • American History, Battle of Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse, Manifest Destiny

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

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