The last day of George Armstrong Custer. Civil war general radical brash reckless courageous yet with incredible luck that had left him victorious more than one time during his career as an army cavalry officer.
June 24th Custer made a forced march of 60 miles with his regiment in 1 day. The 7th encampment was observed from nearby thickets of trees by 2 indian braves who observed Custers encampment. The encampment was roused into a song of he’s a jolly good fellow by one of Custers officers. The Indians there they thought it was white mans medicine. The encampment arose early and a battalion of 3 companies under Captain Frederick Benteen made a sweep and reconnaissance while a battalion of 3 companies under Custers exec moved toward the indian encampment in the center. Custer with 5 companies moved along the ridgelines toward the indian encampment. Finding nothing Benteens battalion returned. Reno charged toward the indian encampment and halted and formed a skirmish line which opened fire on the end of the village. Increasing return fire and observing the indians were moving along the trees to outflank him Reno began a hasty withdrawal and retreated up onto the high ground of the ridgeline. Benteen arriving at the ridgeline just as Marcus Renos retreating element was scrambling up the ridgeline. Custer further toward the north divided his column and sent 2 companies to attack toward the village while he pushed further up to attack the center of the indian village. The 2 dispatched companies were rapidly engaged and forced to retreat back and they tried forming into skirmish lines against hundreds of indians coming up through the brush and grass on foot. Custers attack was forced back and he was forced into a defensive scenario of his skirmish lines and Myles Keoughs L company in reserve. The indian warriors came up through the arroyo behind and quickly surprised and began to overwhelm Keoughs company. Custers skirmish lines began to collapse and men began on horse and foot to hastily move toward the grassy knoll where Custer and 40 to 50 men were. Putting down the horses there they made a desperate last stand and fought till the last man was killed. Captain Weir with 1 company made his way from the Reno Benteen position and witnessed the final stages of the Custer Battle. From a hill about 3 1/2 miles distant he observed the indians and a great cloud of dust and that they were firing into something. The indians observed his position and he withdrew to the Reno Benteen position where an engagement soon ensued for the remainder of the day and throughout the night and the following day until the afternoon when the indian encampment moved. The 2nd cavalry discovered the Custer last stand site the next day. The only survivor being the horse of Captain Myles Keough Comanche which stumbled back with arrow and bullet wounds to it. Gen.Crook had been beaten at the Rosebud and Custer at the Little Big Horn and operations stalled until massive reinforcements arrived and operations began again in August. Thus the Legacy of George Armstrong Custer moved into immortality. He had continued to think offensively up until he realized that he was in big trouble and under attack by numerically superior numbers that he initially assumed were retreating. The confusion of the initial moments of Renos attack and the frantic attempts to recover the pony herd that Custers scouts partially ran off created the perception of an encampment running. Failure to run off the pony herd and Renos failure to carry the momentum of his charge into the village instead halting and forming a skirmish line 1/4 mile from the village were contributory factors into what rapidly turned into a disasterous engagement. Dividing his regiment into 3 columns and at the last moment 4 was a tactical blunder of the worst sort.
Terry’s intent was to trap the Indians between Custer and Major General John Gibbon in the Little Big Horn Valley. Custer would pass all the way down the Rosebud and cross over to the Big Horn Valley and move north, thereby preventing their enemy from escaping south. In the past, the Sioux could use their superior mobility to avoid decisive engagement, and Terry’s plan was to force a fight on 26 June in the valley of the Little Bighorn River.
Custer marched with approximately 700 soldiers on 22 June. They moved south for several days identifying Indian camp signs along the way. After making visual contact with Indians on 23 June, Custer ordered the column to turn west towards the Little Big Horn. On 24 June, Custer’s Arikara and Osage scouts identified a party of Sioux shadowing them. The Sioux fled when approached-they had been discovered and Custer didn’t want the Sioux encampment to escape. That night he gave the attack plans for 25 June. One battalion (D, H, and K Companies), led by CPT Frederick W. Benteen, was to circle wide to the south to follow General Terry’s directions. A second battalion (A, G, and M Companies), led by MAJ Marcus A. Reno, would cross the Little Big Horn due west, make a turn, and sweep north. CPT Thomas M. MacDougall, with B Company, would guard the regimental trains. Custer led a reinforced third battalion (C, E, F, I, and L Companies) to make a frontal attack on the Sioux encampment, by staying on the east side of the river, moving north, then attacking from the north.
Benteen found nothing in his sweep. Reno had limited intelligence information, and attacked into a hornet’s nest of warriors. Reno was forced to withdraw in disarray and establish a strongpoint defense in a depression on a ridgeline. Benteen’s column later joined them and Benteen took over command over the defense. They were able to hold out until relief arrived on the 27th. Custer, however, was not so lucky. Functioning under the same vague intelligence, that there was a “heap big injuns” in the valley, Custer assaulted the largest single encampment of North American Plains Indian in history, estimated between 1500 and 6000 warriors. Never before, and never again, would the Sioux amass such a large force. Custer’s command was annihilated in the attack.
The only living thing found at the last stand was Comanche, the I Company Commander’s horse. Five members of the Custer family died at the last stand (George Armstrong Custer, CPT Thomas W. Custer, Brice C. W. Custer, Arthur Reed (a nephew), and LT James Calhoun (Custer’s brother-in-law). Sioux warriors had stripped bodies of clothing and mutilated them to prevent fallen warriors from going to the Happy Hunting Grounds in the afterlife. Many troopers were so mutilated that no positive identification could be made.
Custer’s body, however, was left intact, out of respect to his position and reputation. Custer had two bullet wounds in his body, one in his left side, the other to the temple of his head. It was common practice for soldiers to keep one round (q.v. the last verse of the traditional cavalry poem “Fiddler’s Green”) for themselves if they risked capture by the Indians. Could Custer have committed suicide? According to Native American reports passed down from generation to generation, the soldiers presumably began shooting themselves to avoid being captured. This may never be known. Reno’s and Benteen’s battalions waited and fought all night and the next day and watched as the Sioux pulled up camp and left just prior to the late arrival of Generals Gibbon and Terry and their relief column. On the morning of the 27th the Sioux moved out.
Custer’s last stand and defeat is one of the most famous military blunders in history, yet compared with most events in military history it is a very small affair with a mere 250 dead, but it is as well known to most people as the D Day landings, or the battle of Waterloo. Custer was born 5th December 1839 near New Rumley Ohio and entered the West Point military academy in July 1857. In a shadow of things to come his West Point career was filled with demerits and near dismissals. With many of his class mates heading south for commissions in the Confederate cause (American Civil War) he passed out last in his class of 34 in June 1861 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US 2nd Cavalry.
Civil War service
He was present at the First Battle of Bull Run but did not see action. He transferred in August to the 5th Cavalry and was promoted to a 1st Lieutenant in July 1862. Since the June he had been an aide to General McClellan with the acting rank of captain and he remained as the Generals aide until March 1863. In June 1863 he was made Brigadier-General of volunteers while he was only 23. He distinguished himself while in command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade at the battle of Gettysburg and leading a cavalry charge 2 days later with the 7th Michigan Cavalry. In typical Custer style he described this by saying “ I challenge the annals of war to produce a more brilliant charge of cavalry” Custer served with the Army of the Potomac throughout 1864 and gained further renown during the battles of the Shenandoah Valley. He ended the civil war as a major general of volunteers leading a cavalry division. He was an over the top character who loved publicity and gained more than other more accomplished officers, the press for their part loved him a young showman with long red hair and a taste for velvet jackets with gold braid he would not have been out of place in Napoleon’s cavalry of half a century earlier. Already he was autocratic and a dictatorial leader, who had risen so quickly through the ranks he had had little time to learn from his mistakes, although his incredible arrogance would have probably prevented him recognising any mistakes as his own.
Post War service
Custer’s first post war command ended when his Michigan Cavalry was disbanded after a mutiny, which was partly caused by his heavy-handed discipline. Many volunteer units were pushing for disbandment but Custer had reintroduced the lash as a form of discipline. He mustered out of voluntary service in Feb 1866 and reverted to his army rank of captain but he still liked to be referred to as General Custer. He made some moves to becoming the Commander of the Mexican cavalry and was offered but refused command of the 9th Negro Cavalry and in July 1866 took command as a Lt-Colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry, its Colonels being mainly on detached duties.
In early 1867 while on a recon mission Custer’s behaviour led to a courts martial and he was found guilty of absenting himself from his command, and using some troopers as an escort while on unofficial business, abandoning two men reported killed on the march and failing to pursue the Indians responsible, failing recover the bodies, and ordering a party going after deserters to shoot to kill which resulted in 1 death and 3 wounded, and finally unjustifiable cruelty to those wounded. He was sentenced to suspension from rank and pay for a year, but a lack of a replacement meant he was returned to duty early. The incident caused much bad feeling among the regiment’s officers for several years. The regiment saw minor skirmishes against the native Indians for the next few years. Custer didn’t see any action but published exaggerated accounts of the 7th cavalry’s actions. In November 1868 the 7th cavalry fought at the battle of Washita during which over a hundred Indians were killed including some women and children which the Cheyenne nicknamed Custer ‘Squaw killer” for. Custer’s incompetence led to some deaths during the campaign, which also increased ill feeling towards him.
In spring 1873 the Regiment was moved to Dakota under command of Col D.S Stanley at fort Rice. While protecting some railway engineers the regiment skirmished with local Indians and during these Custer was charged with insubordination but his friends persuaded the Col to drop the charges. In 1874 a ‘Scientific’ expedition was sent to the Black Hill country with Custer leading the escort of ten companies of the 7th, some infantry and scouts and a detachment of Gatling guns. He was charged with recon of a site for a new fort by the size of his force suggests another agenda. Some have accused Custer of spreading stories of a gold find and although the force was too strong the Indians attacked the gaggle of lawless prospectors that followed. In 1875 the government tried to get the Indians to sell the area but by 1876 this had been abandoned and a military campaign was planned. The attacks on the trespassing prospectors were used as an excuse and the campaign was under General A Terry with Custer commanding the whole of the 7th Cavalry 600 men.
Custer had command only because of Terry’s support; he was in disgrace again having offended President (former General) Grant, Army Commander General William Sherman and his division commander Sheridan. The allegations are complex but centred around irregularities in trading post allocation. Custer always looking for publicity had repeated rumours and hearsay to the press but was found to know nothing under oath. The battle of Little Big Horn will be covered in detail elsewhere but basically Custer was ordered specifically to continue south to prevent any break out of Indian forces under Crazy horse as two main armies tried to trap them. On 24th June Custer found the enemies trail lead towards Little Big Horn and typically he choose not to follow orders. On the 25th he could see the Indians in the valley below probably around 15,000 strong, he then decided to split his force into 3 and attack the encampment from three directions. Considering the size of the enemy force this was pure lunacy. The other two parts of his attack were driven back but made it to the safety of high ground to be relieved by the main force the next day. Custer’s force was cut off and slaughtered by Crazy Horse’s Sioux.
Custer’s actions that day were typical of one of the worse commanders in history, and typical of his glory seeking, arrogant incompetent character. He had risen to a position of power due to friends and supporters at a time when in the aftermath of the American Civil war the press wanted a hero and the Army had a shortage of good commanders. Custer would have been pleased his name went down in history but this is little comfort to the families of those that died to serve his glory.