General George Armstrong Custer had more enemies than just the combined Indian nations
George Armstrong Custer by all accounts was reportedly a fearless if not obsessed US Army officer. His brilliance in battle both won important victories for the Union Army during the Civil War but apparently also created enemies among his own comrades and envious leadership. The story of George Armstrong Custer is a study in what ambition, courage, envy, and arrogance can do to the career and life of a great field officer. It is a classic case of the tragic hero.
Unfounded historic interpretation
There have been some stupidly written conspiracy theories in tabloids and some fictional histrionics penned by history teachers, but the truth about Custer is even more distressing and controversial than these ridiculous efforts at capitalizing on a United States and Native American tragedy. A conspiracy most definitely did unfold prior to Custer’s engagement at Little Big Horn, but let us go back in history prior to that fateful appointment with destiny and understand just how a brilliant and courageous military leader could have stirred so much animosity toward himself from those who should have been indebted to him and acted as a comrade to the rising military star.
Building a reputation that proceeded him
Early in his career during the Civil War George Armstrong Custer was already acquiring a mystique of fearlessness and the ability to succeed in battle where others would have failed. Resentment began to mount toward him as officers who were not as brave envied his heroic leadership, but that was not all. Custer could also be very ruthless in battle sometimes sacrificing his men in order to win the engagement. Custer’s methods did not sit well at a time when President Lincoln was having to fire certain generals for being reluctant to take the war to the confederates. As some Union officers cringed at the prospect of leading campaigns against the superior generals of the south who had demonstrated better tactics even though they were at an industrial disadvantage with the Union’s northern manufacturing districts, the battles proved bloody and costly for the North.
Prelude to legendary proportions
In one engagement Captain George Armstrong Custer practically saved the Union from losing Washington DC. At one point early in the war the South had won several victories that had allowed their armies to move up into Virginia, dangerously close to the nation’s capital. Onlookers could literally watch both armies fighting in the early days of the Civil War from the hills of Washington DC. Soon it became quite apparent that the war would not end quickly and neatly for the Union as the Confederates were better led and out fought the Union troops who lacked top down leadership.
One day a battle forced the Union back across the Potomac River which was all that stood between the General Lee’s Confederate Army and occupying the nation’s capital. Only a thin defensive perimeter of cavalry and ground troops stood in the way of the South who outnumbered them. Captain Custer became legendary in this engagement as he rode up and down the ranks of his embattled skirmish line imploring his soldiers to fight on and not to give up as the Confederates continually attacked and attempted to break through. There was clearly no leader capable of rallying the Union defense as did Custer who with a sabre in one hand and the reigns of his horse in another commanded his men to stop the Southern troops at any cost! It was a bloody nightmare. The fighting was ferocious. Captain Custer led his men with seeming fearless abandon as bullets struck down Americans on both sides of the two armies and swords pierced men leaving them to bleed to death on the grasses of the Potomac River shore. The battle went on for hours with the Confederates frustrated that they could not decisively penetrate the skirmish line established by the North and strenuously defended by Captain Custer and his fledgling force of Union soldiers. By night time the killing had finally stopped and the Confederates withdrew disheartened at not being able to dislodge Custer’s defensive position and proceed to take Washington.
Saving the nation’s capital
That battle earned George Armstrong Custer a legendary reputation in the ranks of the army, but it had all come at a cost. The Union with their backs to the wall on that fateful day had taken 70% casualties against the might of the Confederate attack, and had the South known just how close they had come they might have attacked again and made one final thrust, but it was not to be, and the valiant Cavalry Officer considered by many to be brilliant was also looked upon as even suicidal and obsessive by other officers less courageous. Even the general staff of the US Army was hesitant about giving Custer a larger command of his own. For fear of two things, 1) that Custer might put a larger number of much needed troops in jeopardy or 2) that he might continue to make the rest of the officers look bad and even cowardly.
Recognized for his impulsiveness
It was not until President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as his Supreme Commander that the war for the North began to turn around, and it is said that even Grant considered Custer to be a reckless officer, but this kind of spirit was what had been lacking among the Union command. Few field officers had been inspirational in the heat of battle and the blood baths that had ensued up to that point, and it was clear that the US owed a debt of gratitude to the fiery cavalry officer that was now promoted and decorated for his leadership at the Potomac.
Courage or obsessive ambition?
During the course of many battles during the Civil War, Custer rode in front of his advancing commands with his sabre fixed on the enemy as he led his men into the grim face of battle. Some officers and troops thought that either George Armstrong Custer was ambitious, foolish, or had a death wish as some marveled at his exploits while others resented him! By the end of the Civil War Custer had done much to insure his future in high command and even further. There was talk that some wanted Custer to run for the presidency as to the public he was considered a national hero known only to them for his renown courage. Once support began to develop for encouraging Custer to seek a possible career in politics, more resentment was fueled toward this legendary warrior.
Where Custer sees opportunity perhaps he was a pawn
There were two sides to Custer though as the Indian campaigns wore on and as the now General pushed his men with little sympathy to pursue the retreating nations of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux, it appeared there were two sides to the great General. On one hand Custer had married and was said to have been deeply in love with his wife and with her he had found the only peace he knew in life, but on the other hand was his driving ambition to attain success and a reputation by striving for more conquests in the Sioux Indian Wars of 1876. As the federal government continually violated its treaties with the Indian nation pushing them further from their native hunting grounds and familiar territories, more atrocities against settlers were committed and more retaliation by the US Cavalry became necessary in the eyes of Washington leadership.
Forensics studies of the remains of Custer’s troopers along with battle detective findings have changed many perceptions about not only Custer’s last stand at the Little Big Horn, but also about the enlistment practices of the US Army and the care they extended to the hard riding cavalrymen who were pushed to their limits as they were ordered to never-endingly chase the Indians though rough country and in exhausting heat.
A reputation earned
Even though General Custer was a great fighting leader, he had little empathy for his weary men. He was known to have deserters shot. He was known to refuse giving his men much needed rest as he pushed them as hard as he pushed himself in his relentless pursuit of the Native American warriors and their families. Custer earned respect from the Indians and they nicknamed him as such. Custer was known by two names. They called him “Yellow Hair” due to his blonde locks and also as “Iron Pants” as the long hours and days that Custer spent on horseback even made the Indians weary in their retiring tactics in withdrawal from the incessant advance of the US Army 7th Cavalry.
Unseen forces moving against him
Not only was George Armstrong Custer ruthless among his men. It is unclear whether he was following orders or was using generally accepted tactics of attacking unattended Indian villages often massacring the women and children which may have been in reprisal for deaths of American settlers during Indian raids. There is no doubt that Custer would be a prized target of opportunity by the bitter Indian Nation warriors led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Gall. As the time drew near for Custer to venture closer to his appointment with fate many unseen actions were underway. Much as any ruler such as Julius Caesar, prior to his assassination by members of his own Senate and military command, George Armstrong Custer did not anticipate the subtle forces moving against him either.
When General Custer was ordered to take his 7th Cavalry into combat against the combined force of the Indian Nations had he been alerted to the fact that the supposed fragmented tribes that were thought to be in disarray had actually united and had pooled their forces? The question remains to this day whether or not the US Army that was a day’s ride behind Custer’s regiments had fully briefed him on the potential threat. There were questions about the Indian scouts that Custer depended upon to recognize potential tactics and maneuvers of the Indian Tribes if the warriors were experienced with the particular tribes they were supposed to interpret, or whether they were competent at all.
Plans moving against him?
Was it possible that General Custer’s enemies within command of the trailing Army reinforcements intentionally lagged behind as the glory seeking and illustrious hero of the Civil War sought to outshine his contemporaries once again? In Washington there was a genuine fear of George Armstrong Custer running for president and winning an election once he returned again triumphant with yet another succesful military campaign! Were those who foresaw Custer’s prominence with contempt withholding vital intelligence from the flamboyant general? Were they lagging behind Custer’s pincer maneuver on purpose? Had “Yellow Hair” been provided with inept Indian scouts? Had these scouts been sympathetic to the cause of Sitting Bull? Some have speculated on these points being a certainty instead of mere doubts.
Willingness to negotiate?
To make matters even more puzzling for those trying to portray General George Armstrong as being a single dimensional psychopath obsessed with his career ambitions at the cost of his troopers, his objective, the Native American tribes, and to the chagrin of his contemporaries who envied and resented him, “Iron Pants” did something uncharacteristic of his reputation. George Armstrong Custer did the unthinkable. He met with Chief Sitting Bull and made overtures to the Indian leader to surrender and to remain within the allotted reservation boundary limits that would have kept the need for a cavalry confrontation with the Indian nation from being a necessary evil, but as we now know and history will tell us, Sitting Bull and his counsel did not accept Custer’s offer, who then warned the Native American leader that he would have no chance against the relentless pursuit by the US Cavalry. Custer left the meeting determined to achieve his objectives. An offer had been refused and a door to the inevitable had been opened.
We will further examine the telling circumstances that led to an outcome that could very well have been avoided, but for the events that altered Custer’s plan. In Part II we will explore either destiny or conspiracy that materialized it.