"The Custer Myth is a living thing, which refuses to die despite the efforts of careful historians to reduce it to uncontraverted facts. Almost everything about it is in some degree disputed." The Custer Myth, W.A. Graham, 1981,xi
In the summer of 1876, in the valley of the Greasy Grass, the Lakota name for the course of the Little Big Horn River, a contingent of the 7th cavalry of United States Army troops under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer fought, and were defeated by, a large force of Native American warriors. This provided “the groundwork... for one of the most universal and enduring legends of all time” (1). Subsequently, in the United States, “300 books, 45 movies and 1000 paintings” have been produced to describe or explain what happened.(2) No other single event in American history has captured the public imagination more completely. The legend gave rise to such contortions as Custeriana, and Custerphiles. In such circumstances can the ‘truth’ ever be discovered?
Where better to start than with the medium which hyped up western myths to create exciting epics which guaranteed box office success: the Hollywood movie. Generally lauded as an action film "
They Died With Their Boots On
," is carried by its battle scenes in which director Raoul Walsh excels. Thundering cavalry charges in the Civil War are a backdrop to the presentation of George Armstrong Custer as an heroic dude, who with a boyish sense of fun is not afraid to “stand up and be counted”. It loosely depicts Custer’s life to present him as the all action hero, who sets out to save his country/the Union, in some ways a welcome antidote to the treacly Dixie worship of so many westerns.
The film catalogues Custer’s meteoric rise from second lieutenant of cavalry at the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861, to his appointment two years later as brigadier general of volunteers and commander of the Michigan brigade. The movie accurately shows the promotion was not based on Custer’s military performance but puts it down to a mistake which was a reflection of “Custer’s Luck”. It was more likely the result of political connections, although he does appear to have fought with courage subsequently, his brigade performing effectively at Gettysburg. Although he was entitled to be addressed as ‘general’ in the field, as it was a ‘brevet’ rank: he was not actually in post as a general. Nevertheless his approach to war was the sort to attract admirers looking for a hero to eulogise. Hence the casting of the swashbuckling Robin Hood/ Captain Blood figure of Errol Flynn, with a liberal dose of medieval chivalry, could only ensure the durability of the myth for years to come.
There is some truth in the film, for Custer is rightly depicted as a failure in the classroom, he was bottom of his class at West Point military academy, and prone to disobey orders, something for which he was suspended. However these traits are depicted so they are not detractions but part of his charisma, his charm, as indeed is his empathy for the plight of the ‘Indians’.
So what is the “truth” about this mercurial character?
• He was disliked by his men, including officers. During April 1867 85 men deserted from the 7th Cavalry, and Albert Barnitz wrote in his journal, referring to Custer resentfully and sarcastically :”the ‘Brevet Major General commanding’ is fast losing whatever little influence for good he may have once had in the Regiment, and… he ………will eventually come to grief , as a consequence of his tyrannical conduct.” (3) He drove his men too hard, according to Corporal Jacob Horner, who served under him: “He was too hard on the men and the horses. He changed his mind too often. He was always right. He never conferred enough with his officers. When he had a notion we had to go”.
• He liked to promote his image, in the words of Robert M Utley “a flattering self-portrait for all to admire”. (4). He did this by posing for photographs, either in the studio or out in the field. His wife Libby was a society woman, and Custer had his photo taken with the Tsar’s son Alexis in buckskin clothes when they hunted together in 1872. On the Yellowstone expedition in 1873 on one occasion he pulled rank to claim he had killed a Grizzly Bear and on another he posed with his ‘Indian’ scouts with Bloody Knife pointing at a map. Both times a photo shoot recorded the event.
• He was suspended from duty. On October 11, 1867, at Fort Leavenworth, a court martial found Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, Lieutenant Colonel, 7th U.S. Cavalry guilty of seven charges, including deserting his command, ordering deserters to be shot, damaging army horses, failing to pursue Indians attacking his escort and not recovering bodies of soldiers killed by Indians. He was sentenced to suspension from rank and command and loss of pay for one year.
• His ‘understanding’ of native Americans did not stop him lying and cheating and going back on his word. Riding out in March 1869 Custer managed to make contact with the bands of Southern Cheyenne led by Little Robe and Medicine Arrows. Their villages consisted mainly of the members and families of the ‘dog soldier’ warrior society which led the people in warfare. Custer treacherously captured four warriors under the flag of truce. He threatened to hang three of them, and the other was sent to the villages to communicate their plight. In this way Custer extracted promises that the dog soldiers would come in to the reservation at Camp Supply. Understandably they never complied with their ‘promise’ but, being men of honour themselves; they must have held Custer in contempt.
• He never fought in a successful engagement against native Americans. The sole occasion when Custer actually fought an opposing force was what he called the Battle of the Washita. This was a winter attack upon an unprepared village containing women and children as well as men. Once warriors began to arrive from other camps along the river Custer beat a hasty retreat, so hasty that the men in the charge of Major Elliot were left behind. It did not suit his superiors to reprimand him, but the trust of Custer’s officers and men was severely undermined.
• An error of judgment led him to become embroiled in politics which resulted in him being summoned to the regiment at the eleventh hour before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In March 1876, he went to Washington and testified against William Belknap, the Secretary of War, over corruption in the Indian Affairs Department. The previous month the New York Herald had demanded an enquiry into the initial allocation and subsequent profitable resale of traderships in Indian country. President Grant’s brother Orvil was also implicated in The ‘Indian Whisky Ring frauds’. The newspaper contrasted the impoverishment of the Indians to the corrupt profiteering of these politicians. Custer bravely testified against Belknap, but his choice to do so was extraordinary, given that he had little hard evidence to offer the congressional committee. He had a personal antipathy to Belknap which had resulted from a spat over the prices charged by the sutler (storekeeper) at Fort Abraham Lincoln when Custer was there in 1874. Belknap had supported the sutler. Following his testimony, President Grant’s response, on April 28, 1876, was to replace Custer as leader of the expedition out of Fort Lincoln, informing Sheridan via Sherman and the Secretary of War. After Custer was released by the Committee, on May 2 Grant ordered him to remain in Chicago. He reversed this decision three days later, but not before humiliating Custer, firmly putting him in his place.
• He was overconfident to the point of arrogance and failed to listen to reason. During the forced march to the valley of the Little Big Horn in 1876 as they neared the native American encampment the trail widened, and the poles of the travois being dragged by the ponies had formed deep ruts which gave the appearance of a ploughed field. Not only did he ignore the evidence of his own eyes but his Crow and Arikara scouts told him of the vast numbers of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors who lay ahead. Bloody Knife, an Arikara, even warned him that there were more of them than bullets in the belts of the troopers.
The Custer Myth was partly created by the traits of the man himself, a soldier who lived the legend. It was also the consequence of the real generals placing him in the position where he could become one. Like us all Custer was a flawed character, but he had more flaws than most and failed to learn from what little experience he had of fighting native Americans. A more intelligent man would have learned from that alone. In general the native Americans were only engaged in battle when they wished it to happen. In keeping with the US military generally Custer misinterpreted the normal native American practice of strategic withdrawal as an unwillingness to fight, when in fact they were protecting their families. Custer should have realized this when he escaped by the skin of his teeth at the Washita River when he was caught out attacking a peaceful village nearly ten years before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The engagement at the Washita was Custer’s only previous engagement with native Americans before his ‘Last Stand’. It is difficult to contemplate how his superiors could put a man in charge who had as many suspensions from duty as ‘Indian’ engagements to his name.
He believed his own legend and even refused to take mountain howitzers on his last expedition. Interestingly, directly against orders he took a reporter, Mark Kellogg of the Bismarck Tribune, with him. Kellogg wrote "I go with Custer and will be at the death," which was accidentally prophetic since, of course, he was expecting a grand Custer victory, not his own demise. This preoccupation with publicity makes an interesting comparison with one of his contemporaries, William Cody: Buffalo Bill. Some sources, such as David Nevin suggest that Custer’s lust for publicity came from political ambitions, but given his character it is difficult to see Custer in that role, however much his wife, Libby may have wanted it. (5)
I have not seen the following explanation so I must claim originality and suffer any consequences which arise from my use of circumstantial – albeit compelling, in my view- evidence which is derived from comparing Custer to William Cody. Custer, showman of the battlefield and self promoter par excellence, was living the myth in a similar way to Cody. George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill had been companions of The Grand Duke Alexis, third son of the Tsar of Russia in January 1872. They had hunted together, and the conversation must have turned to Cody’s plans for the future. A trip to Europe as a celebrity, reenacting his glorious victory would have appealed both to Custer and his society wife, Libbie. It is interesting that Cody eventually engaged Sitting Bull in his travelling show. Buffalo Bill worked hard to create his image. On July 7th 1876 he voluntarily met up with Colonel Wesley Merritt's 5th Cavalry which had been out for a month hunting ‘hostiles’ in Wyoming and Nebraska. Subsequently Cody was to use his heroic deed at the ‘battle’ of Warbonnet Creek as part of his show. His journey was lengthy, and perhaps involved risk. But the hammed up hand to hand fight with Yellow Hair became a celebrated part of the show.
In 1872, at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Custer actually played the part of Cody in "Buffalo Bill and His Bride." Was this a try-out to see if he could successfully ‘tread the boards’? Custer had elaborate photo shoots during his field trips during 1872 and 1873. was this just vanity or was he building an image? He took Mark Kellogg, the reporter, to the Little Big Horn contrary to specific orders. Did Custer plan to profit from exhibiting his achievements in a public display of some kind, perhaps even in association with Cody himself? Given the nature of this arrogant, superior, obsessive egomaniac, showman was a more likely career path than politics.
A much less exciting conclusion, and one we should make until evidence shows otherwise, is that George Armstrong Custer was just an arrogant, superior, obsessive egomaniac who finally overreached himself at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, carried too far by his self belief. He was then to be mythologised by a nation that could not blame itself by questioning his suitability for the post and could not take defeat by a bunch of savages.
1. Robert M Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. University of Oklahoma Press: 2001. page 6
2. Gerard F Kreyche, Visions of the American West,1989
3. Life in Custer’s Cavalry,A. & J. Barnitz, Robert M Utley, Ed, page 51, 1977
4. Robert M Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. University of Oklahoma Press: 2001. page 206
5. David Nevin, The Soldiers: The Old West, 1974