I take a break today from the depressing nature of our domestic politics and the mayhem in Iran to remember one of my favorite historical figures, George Armstrong Custer.
Custer lost his life 133 years ago today in what the Lakota Indians refer to as “The Battle of Greasy Grass Creek” and many of the rest of us remember as “The Battle of Little Big Horn.” He died as he had lived. All of his personality traits that make him such a compelling, maddening, likable, villainous, enigma-like figure in our history books were on display that day.
Custer is one of my favorites not because of his goodness or greatness but because he is one of the most fascinating personalities I have met in my exploration of American history. For every one of his virtues - and there are many - there is a corresponding trait that negates any admiration we might have for him. I can’t think of any other historical figure in my experience where this is true.
Certainly Franklin and Jefferson had many faults, both living life as hypocrites to some extent. Some giants in our history books were quite unattractive human beings despite their accomplishments. But nowhere will you find such a riotous mix of admirable and disreputable attributes being displayed by a single human being than you will if you get to know George Custer.
His Civil War record as a cavalry officer is considered brilliant. He developed extremely aggressive tactics that turned his troopers into shock troops that probed the enemy lines with razor sharp effectiveness and then, unleashed them in wild charges that usually broke and scattered his foes. General Phil Sheridan trusted him implicitly and used Custer’s command to great effect in the Valley Campaign of 1864 that eventually destroyed Confederate General Jubal Early’s threatening attacks on Washington, D.C.
At the same time, Custer was considered rash, insubordinate, uncaring of the lives of his men, a martinet who demanded spit and polish, and an officer who held most of his fellow commanders in contempt. He eagerly took to heart General Grant’s orders to Sheridan that the Shenandoah Valley, that was supplying Lee’s army at Petersburg, be denuded of food and fodder “so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.”
Not surprisingly, Custer engendered a schizophrenic reaction in the men under his command. Many worshiped him. Several would have killed him if given the chance. Playing a role in his demise 133 years ago today was the disdain felt by some of his officers in the Seventh Cavalry. Although his two underlings, Captains Reno and Benteen, could probably hear the running battle in which Custer was engaged just north of the Indian village and where he and 210 of his command lost their lives, there was apparently no discussion about coming to his assistance. (There was some testimony at Reno’s Court of Inquiry in 1879 that he was drunk during the battle, a not uncommon occurrence in the cavalry among officers. Reno was cleared of the charges but pointedly, the Board refused to offer any praise for his conduct.)
Perhaps the ugliest part of Custer was his disdain, even hate for the Indians. Both played a role in his death as he suicidally underestimated the fighting qualities of his foe while proving in previous skirmishes his eagerness to kill as many Native Americans - men, women children, old folks - as he could. Like Little Big Horn, there are still historical arguments raging about his attack on the village of the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle on the Washita River in 1868 (who the Cheyenne claim was flying an American flag as a signal that he wanted peace.) Custer reported killing more than 100 warriors while the Cheyenne themselves claim many of the dead were women and children. The question of the battle being a “massacre” is also controversial as Custer took several dozen women and children prisoner and he claims the women that were killed took up weapons against his men.
(Note: Unlike Little Big Horn, no archeological excavations are possible in this battle because no one is sure of its exact location. Hence, one must grant equal legitimacy to the account given by both sides - especially given the accuracy of oral histories of the Lakota and Cheyenne about LBH.)
In short, Custer brought out the exact same feelings of admiration and disgust then that we who study him today experience from reading about him in biographies and other histories. And it is hard at this distance to judge him in terms of his morality. He was a man of his times, an army officer who had on more than one occasion witnessed the gruesome ways in which troopers were disfigured post mortem by the Indians - a fate that befell him and his men following their deaths at Little Big Horn. At the same time, his racist attitudes toward Native Americans - friend and foe - pegged him as as much of an Indian hater as his patron and commanding officer Phil Sheridan (”The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”).
But trying to paint Custer as a genocidal maniac is nonsense. Disdainful, yes. Paternalistic and condescending, believing the Indians were better off out of the way, uncaring of their culture and community - all of this is true. But like most Americans of the 19th century, he actually gave little thought to the ultimate fate of Native Americans beyond a date in some distant future where they would be just like any other American - Christianized farmers at peace with the White man; separate but equal. This was also the view of most of the “good White men” who sought to make the reservations to which they were herding Indians into laboratories to turn these hunter-gatherer societies into agricultural communities.
From afar, we can fault them for their callous disregard of Native American culture. And surely, if the number of Whites who really did wish to see all Indians dead was small, there was a much greater number who wished to commit a cultural genocide just as ruinous to the Indian as if they had all been killed. To my mind, this is the real tragedy in this Clash of Cultures - a tragedy that has played out hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in human history when, as Jared Diamond points out, a culture with superior organization, more lethal germs, and a more advanced technology met up with hunter-gatherer societies. The result was never pretty and always ended up the way our own clash with Native American culture eventually played out.
No excuses for Custer then, but perhaps an explanation - a context that is usually missing from the one-dimensional portrayals (good and bad) that dot our public libraries. The number of myths about Custer’s dark motivations are now as many as myths about his image as a hero on horseback.There is no evidence Custer was angling for the presidency (he could barely speak two sentences in public without fleeing the stage in terror). There are some indications that after this campaign he was going to retire with his beloved wife Libby and move to Philadelphia.
It is not true he hoped to strike it rich in the Black Hills, although he used the expedition for his personal aggrandizement. Nor, as my brother Jim points out in the comments (#4) to this post I did a few years ago about the Battle of Little Big Horn itself, was Custer disobeying General Terry’s orders by attacking the Indian village nor was his plan of attack “reckless” or unrealistic, although as previously mentioned, he wildly underestimated both the number of warriors he would be facing as well as their fighting capabilities when confronted with protecting their women and children.
The battle itself is the most written about military event in American history, surpassing even the Battle of Gettysburg. And more biographies have been written of Custer than all but a handful of Americans. Perhaps our fascination with Custer rests on a combination of our romanticized image of the Indian coupled with the equally facile way in which we immortalize the US cavalry during this period in American history. Rouseau’s noble savage and the heroic manner in which we believe the west was “opened” to white settlement are an incendiary mix that causes Custer to explode in our imaginations as the perfect embodiment of American civilization; moving mountains, carving trails out of the wasteland, hacking a civilization out of the wilderness. These are powerful images and when you place Custer in that idealized portrait, he becomes larger than life.
Custer is us - as we are today and as we used to be. The good, the bad, the whole smash of American traits that makes our history so fascinating. They will be writing about him, the battle that claimed his life, and the people he sought to displace long after the rest of us have passed on.