The real man has long since been overwhelmed by his myth.
When fame reduces a man to caricature, his story is at the mercy of every succeeding generation, and few men in American history have been more famous or more caricatured than George Armstrong Custer. No one knows exactly when, how, or even where he died in his last battle with the Sioux on the banks of Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876; no one knows what really happened that fateful day or why Custer made the decisions he did that led to the deaths of 263 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry. Yet almost everyone in the United States, and probably most people in the world, has heard of Custer’s Last Stand. More books have been written about the Battle of Little Bighorn than the Battle of Gettysburg; more than 1,000 illustrations of the Last Stand have been produced in the years since, including one that was a fixture of barroom walls for a generation or two of Americans after Anheuser-Busch printed a million chromolithograph copies as an advertising promotion. As depicted in Wild West shows, novels and Hollywood, Custer and the Last Stand became a symbol of everything from undaunted courage to unmitigated folly, selfless sacrifice to mad vanity, heroic tragedy to genocidal mania.
Even those who remembered Custer’s Civil War career—the career that had catapulted him into national prominence in the first place—found those recollections increasingly colored by the garish hues in which the Last Stand was rendered. And then the Army brass and Custer’s many rivals in uniform, more than happy to make a dead man the scapegoat, added to the distortions, to the point that even Custer’s past triumphs came to seem an anomaly, the product of luck, chicanery, bluff or delusion. After all, how could a wild, impetuous man with such abysmal military judgment have rocketed through the ranks in just two years to rise from the bottom of his graduating class at West Point to become the Army’s youngest general at the time of his promotion; how could a man so foppish as to wear his hair in long girlish yellow curls and a custom-made velvet uniform that one officer likened to a “circus rider gone mad” have commanded the regard of his superiors and the loyalty of his men; how could a deranged glory-seeker with no regard for the lives of even his own men have become a figure of national veneration?
The answer is, of course, that Custer was none of these things. There was no doubting his vanity, or his ambition, or his brashness. But the war proved Custer was simply the greatest cavalry tactician of the Union Army, perhaps the greatest of either army North or South. The fame and rewards he gained were more than earned by not just his boldness and courage but his military acuity. The caricatured hues that still color our images of Custer nearly a century and half after his death remain the product more of romance, jealousy and a vast industry of speculation about the day he met his end than about the years he proved his mettle. “How can you judge a man,” as one historian has aptly put it, “when you devote your entire attention to the last day of his life, about which you know almost nothing?”
Undeniably, there was much to dislike about the man.
As a cadet at West Point, Custer had promptly raced to the bottom of the academic standings not because he couldn’t master the material but because he couldn’t give a damn. He had the easy charm of a natural slacker; he made himself popular with his classmates by playing coarse practical jokes on the underclassmen; he was full of bonhomie and high spirits and good fun to the friends who worshiped him and somewhat of a bastard to everyone else. Most of his biographers write about his “pranks” and “antics” and “boyish frolics” at West Point, but in truth there was a nasty edge to it all. He broke into an instructor’s room to steal a copy of a test, he led clandestine after-hours excursions to taverns, he mocked the teachers, he was always skating right on the edge of being booted out of the academy for the number of demerits he had accumulated. On a furlough he contracted gonorrhea, probably from visiting a prostitute in New York City; he was a spendthrift and a gambler and, despite a sanctimonious pledge to his wife-to-be a few years later that he would give up poker and betting on horse races, he continued to be so his whole life.
And then there was his personal ostentation, which even his admirers couldn’t help laughing about. He was said to have had more photographs taken of himself than any other officer in the Army. His 1864 wedding was a splendid show that left even his proud new father-in-law privately muttering that “a good deal was useless and largely extravagant.” His “circus rider gone mad” general’s uniform had to be seen to believed. Whatever the stories about its having been a hasty improvisation thrown together by his orderly the night Custer was surprised with the news of his promotion, the truth was he must have had it ready for quite some time—especially the black velvet jacket elaborately trimmed with five cascades of gold loops covering the sleeves from elbow to cuff, the matching trousers with twin stripes of gold running down the seam of each leg, the gilt cord encircling his rakishly floppy soft black hat, the startlingly red necktie.
Even in an age when army politics was the norm, Custer was notable for his ability to insinuate himself into the good graces of the right people—while quietly sticking the knife into potential rivals. He developed a more than suspiciously opportune hero worship for General George McClellan, who appointed the young lieutenant to his staff in what seemed no time at all; and then for the boastful, self-promoting commander of the Cavalry Corps, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, to whom he became aide-de-camp. Most of those who served under Pleasonton had nothing but contempt for their commander; Charles F. Adams Jr. dismissed the general as “pure and simple a newspaper humbug” who was always getting his name in the papers but was nothing but “a bully and a toady.” Custer so slavishly copied his commander’s dress, bombast and aptitude for self-aggrandizement that his fellow officers started calling him “Pleasonton’s pet,” and Custer himself soon was boasting in a letter to his sister, “I do not believe a father could love his son more than Genl. Pleasonton loves me.” It was Pleasonton who would secure Custer’s promotion to brigadier general of volunteers just two months later.
After the war Custer shamelessly curried the favor of President Andrew Johnson, angling for further U.S. Army promotion by traveling with Johnson on his politically tendentious “swing around the circle” and denouncing black suffrage as an affront to the dignity of the white race—just as he had earlier sought to assuage political opposition to his promotion to general by swearing to Republican senators that despite his Democratic party affiliation and close ties to McClellan, he fervently approved of Lincoln’s war policies in general and the Emancipation Proclamation in particular.
And even in an age of immodesty, it would be hard to beat the language of Custer’s own dispatches and letters, which regularly described his own feats in superlatives: they were “glorious” and “brilliant,” “unequaled” in “daring or success.” After one action he reported, in his official dispatch, “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.” After another he clapped one of his majors on the shoulder and proclaimed, “This is the bulliest day since Christ was born.”
And then there was the disturbingly bloodthirsty, and glory-seeking, observation he made in a letter he wrote home early in the war: “I must say I shall regret to see the war end. I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life.”
And yet: he was a phenomenon.
In an army that drove its commander in chief to distraction with its ponderous caution and strategic obtuseness, Custer was a fighter. At First Bull Run he had kept his cool; a preternatural cool amid heavy fire, chaos, demoralization and retreat all around. Keeping his company together as one of the last rear guards, personally taking charge of a potentially disastrous situation to clear a bridge jammed with panicked Union troops along the main line of retreat to Centreville, he was one bright spot of heroic determination amid a day of dark despair. At Gettysburg, in command of a brigade one week after receiving his general’s commission, he galloped to the head of the 7th Michigan, waved his saber and led the regiment right into J.E.B. Stuart’s “Invincibles,” proving for the first time that they were not—and so destroyed the Confederate cavalry’s threat to strike at the Union rear in concert with Pickett’s frontal charge on Seminary Ridge. Near Brandy Station, Va., during the October 1863 Bristoe Campaign, he saved the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade from certain capture or destruction, breaking out of its encirclement by Stuart’s troopers with a charge of two regiments right into the enemy’s lines, during which he had two horses shot out from under him within 15 minutes.
It was no “newspaper humbug” that Custer was always out in front, in every action he commanded. Later detractors would disparage even this as a sign of mental instability and egomania, a “death wish,” but they were never able to explain the manifest fact that he so consistently managed to cheat death. And it wasn’t just dumb luck, either: When he led a reconnaissance or was out on a skirmish line, he was always on the move, never still, “going just to the identical place where he was least expected,” observed one of his officers. When he sat unflinching on his horse as bullets cracked by, it was a display of raw courage; it was equally a display calculated to inspire his own men and disconcert the enemy. He shared with Ulysses S. Grant the instinctive grasp of moral ascendancy in battle that ever escaped McClellan. Rather than worrying about what the enemy might do to him, he wanted the enemy to worry what he might do to them.
The men of the Michigan Cavalry that he led from Gettysburg to Winchester simply idolized him; there was no doubt of that. “Our boy-general never says, ‘Go in men!’” one of them recounted; “He says, with that whoop and yell of his, ‘Come on, boys!’ and in we go, you bet.”
The other quality of Custer as a commander that rightly marked him for distinction was his relentlessness in pursuit—another quality whose absence in McClellan and other Union generals drove Lincoln to despair more than once. “Unlike many equally brave and skillful officers, he was rarely content to hold a position or drive his enemy,” remarked one of his officers. “He regarded his real work as only beginning when the enemy was broken and flying.” At the Battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, Custer’s 3rd Cavalry Division retrieved a seemingly hopeless situation when he spotted a small gap in the line of the Confederate juggernaut that had caught the blue infantry literally sleeping with a surprise attack on the Union flank and rear. As Jubal Early’s five divisions broke under the hammer blow of the charging Union cavalry, Custer led two of his regiments on a five-mile gallop through the fleeing Confederates, picking up 45 guns, five battle flags and scores of prisoners along the way. “It seemed like Custer was bent on capturing the whole of Early’s army, and only darkness put a stop to our pursuit,” wrote one Indiana trooper in his diary. For his heroic performance that day, Custer received his second general’s star at the War Department three days later.
What his later critics disparaged as egotistical recklessness was to those who better understood the nature of cavalry operations rather the acute military instinct and lighting-quick reflexes that mounted warfare required. As historian Gregory J.W. Unwin noted in his classic reassessment of the boy-general’s Civil War career, Custer Victorious, cavalry operations demanded a feel for terrain and the mind of the enemy, a readiness to seize chances as they presented themselves, “swift movement and swifter thinking.” In all Custer excelled. That those same skills did not transfer to battling Indians on the Plains cost him his life, as perhaps in justice it should have for a soldier who made battle his career; but it also cost him his reputation—for which there was no justice at all.
Stephen Budiansky is the author of The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War and the forthcoming Perilous Fight, about the 1812 war at sea between Britain and America, as well as a blog, liberalcurmudgeon.com.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.