General Custer is famous for his “heroic” actions at the Battle of Little Bighorn. On June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry attacked a massive Lakota village on the Little Bighorn River in Southeastern Montana. Custer lost not only the battle but also his life, and in so doing achieved immortality.[i] By looking at General Custer’s actions at the Battle of Little Bighorn, we can see that General Custer can be either described as a great general that stuck with his men even in the face of defeat, or an egotistical general who believed fame was the main trait in becoming a leader; this is important because many Americans have a different view on how they portray General Custer.
George Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio. He served in the Civil War with General George B. McClellan. He became a brevet brigadier general, and his pursuit of General Robert E. Lee helped to bring an end to the Civil War.[ii] On the early summer of 1876, Custer and the 7th cavalry were part of a huge army sent to force the Sioux and their allies onto the reservations. Putting Custer in charge of this operation showed that the American government was not messing around. During the events leading up to the battle, tensions on where to approach the Indian camps forced some of Custer’s men to question his leadership.
When the smoke cleared on the evening of June 26, 1876, 262 were dead and 68 were wounded. Custer’s entire battalion was wiped out, but the majority of the seven other companies survived. The biggest controversy that was carried by Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen was that Custer disobeyed General Alfred Terry’s order, who was the mastermind behind the entire operation. The only evidence we need is Terry’s written instructions to clarify the situation. Terry wrote that he “places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.” Terry gave Custer suggestions that he should attempt to carry out, “unless you shall see sufficient reason for departing from them.” In addition to the written orders, Terry entered Custer’s tent before he left on his final march, and told him, “Use your own judgment and do what you think best if you strike the trail.”[iii] In terms of judgement and leader instincts, Custer followed strict orders. However, arguments can be made for the tactics used against the Sioux-Lakota which ultimately led to his demise.
Cultural and iconic views differed between Americans, especially those who lived in the late 19th century and those who have access to archives. During his service in Civil War, Custer began the war as a low-ranked second lieutenant and ended the war as a twenty-five year old Major General. After the war, George Armstrong Custer was regarded as a hero, and he loved every minute of it. During the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington D.C., Custer paraded twice. Within the culture of the Civil War, however, Custer was perceived as a self-seeking, glory-wanting man who placed his own needs above those of his own soldiers and the needs of the Army as a whole. He frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns, and their favorable coverage contributed to his high reputation that lasted well into the twentieth century. It is believed that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer. [iv] During his time in the 7th cavalry, Custer’s attitude had not changed. According to his men, Custer developed an attitude that was deemed egotistical to the point of frustration. After the Civil War had ended, General Custer was promptly placed under arrest and charged with: absence without leave from his command, conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, as well as for ordering deserters shot without trial and refusing them medical attention. The court-martial found him guilty of all charges and he was sentenced to one year of suspension from rank without pay.[v]
After his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer achieved the lasting fame that eluded him in life. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, who accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, did much to advance this view with the publication of several books about her late husband. However, the assessment of Custer’s actions during the Indian Wars has undergone substantial reconsideration in modern times. For many critics, Custer was the personification and culmination of the U.S. Government’s ill-treatment of Native American tribes. Recent films and books including Little Big Man and Son of the Morning Star depict Custer as a cruel and murderous military commander whose actions today would warrant possible dismissal and court-martial.[vi] Custer was forced into “a damned if you do damned if you don’t” scenario. Custer had no choice but to split up into three different battalions because it was the plan that was set before heading into the operation. This tactic was the one that ultimately got him killed and caused to retreat Reno and Benteen and survive. If Custer had kept his battalion altogether, Custer would have suffered more casualties and eventually become a shamed General with nothing left to his name. You either die a “hero”, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. In the end, Custer was regarded as a selfish general who functioned off fame. Even though he was selfish, he did his part as a general and ultimately died following orders.
[i] Louis Kraft, George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend (Historynet.com, 2006)
[iii]James Schneider, FOR THE RECORD: An attempt to answer the most frequently-asked questions
concerning the Battle of the Little Big Horn (May, 2011), 8-9
[iv] Mark Weaver, War Stories: The American Civil War, Remembered by Those Who Were There (2012), 33-35
[v] Mary Ann Park, Lt Col George Armstrong Custer: A Story Within the Story (June, 2009) 24-34
[vi] Nathaniel Philibrick, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (April, 2011) 98