"Desperate, Custer appealed for help to Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, who had assumed overall command of the Dakota column. When Sheridan added his endorsement, Grant relented, and Custer quickly headed west to report for duty." Louis Kraft June 2006.

George Armstrong Custer


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Battle of the Little Big Horn

Was he confident and brave, showing courage, or was he immature, reckless and irresponsible?

Civil War
Gettysburg: One of his aides confided in a letter: "To say that General Custer is a brave man is unnecessary. He has proved himself to be not only that but also a very cool and self possessed man. It is indeed difficult to disturb his mental equilibrium." He earned respect from his men by leading from the front.
The end came at Appomattox on April 9. During a truce between the armies, before Grant and Lee met, Custer rode into the Confederate lines and demanded the surrender of the army from Lee's senior officer, James Longstreet. It was a brazen act, and Longstreet evidently berated the young Union general. After the surrender ceremony, however, Sheridan confiscated the table Grant had used and had it delivered to Libbie Custer. In an accompanying note, Sheridan wrote in part, "permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband."

After the Civil War
Congress reduced the size of the Army and curtailed its role to what were basically two policing assignments -- keeping the peace in the defeated South during Reconstruction and protecting westward expansion from Indians who objected to the invasion of their land. Given the reduction in force, many Regular Army officers were reduced to ranks lower than those they had attained during the rebellion. Custer's war record, however, had garnered him several strong backers and preferential treatment. Sheridan stood by him and, therefore, instead of being demoted from his regular rank of captain at war's end, Custer received a promotion to lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry. (Louis Kraft George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend American History Magazine June 2006.)

Frederick Benteen served with distinction in the Civil War fighting for the Union against the Confederacy. A gallant and bold officer, he was decisive in battle and earned the respect and trust of those around him.
On January 30, 1867, Benteen made a customary courtesy call to the quarters of George Armstrong and Elizabeth Custer. While no one can be sure exactly what transpired during that visit, it is apparent that at some point, Custer made comments that greatly offended Benteen (many historians believe that the slight regarded the Civil War record of Benteen's mentor, James H. Wilson, but no one can be absolutely sure). From that day on, their relationship consistently bordered on conflagrant.

Hancock burns Cheyenne village 1867
On April 14, 1867, Hancock ordered his troops to surround a large village of Cheyennes and Sioux north of Fort Dodge on the Pawnee Fork of the Arkansas River. But in the darkness, the natives escaped and Hancock sent Custer's 7th Cavalry in pursuit.
During the pursuit, Custer delayed the command to send Benteen and two companies after what he believed to be fleeing natives in the distance. The "natives" proved to be nothing more than grazing wildlife -- elk, deer, antelope and buffalo. A full day was lost. When Custer's eight companies approached the Smoky Hill Road near Fort Hays on 19 April, they found stage stations burned, settlers butchered, and livestock run off.

June 29 1867 Lt. Lyman Kidder left Fort Sedgewick , carrying dispatches for Custer from General Sherman escorted by Red Bead, a Lakota scout, and ten troopers. Custer had been dispatched to engage Indians out of Ft. Wallace. Rather than wait for Kidder's arrival, Custer went off on his own toward Colorado while the Indians were able to ravage the plains of Kansas. Kidder and his men were attacked on 2 July by Lakota warriors led by Pawnee Killer and Cheyenne led by Tobacco. Custer learned of Kidder’s mission on July 12 when telegraphed Fort Sedgewick for further instructions. The victims’ stripped and mutilated bodies were found by Custer's scout, Will Comstock, and Delaware scouts later that day. It seems that Kidder had mistakenly followed tracks of wagons towards Fort Wallace instead of Custer’s command. Custer ordered the bodies to be placed in a mass grave.

Deserts command July 1867
Following the Hancock expedition Custer camped near Fort Wallace. A cholera epidemic raged across the Great Plains. On July 14 he left for Fort Hays with three officers, 72 men and an illustrator from Harper’s Weekly. “just east of Downer’s station, a trooper disappeared and Custer ordered Sergeant James Connelly and six men to pursue this deserter. The missing man was captured but the party was attacked by Indians on the way back , suffering one man killed and another wounded; the rest took refuge at the station. Connelly reported the incident to Custer, who – even at the urging of Captain Hamilton- refused to delay his march to rescue the beleaguered men, who were only about three miles away. An infantry detail later found the victims and only the wounded man survived.” Thom Hatch, The Custer Companion p 64
July 18 Custer arrived at Fort Hays but left for Fort Harker where he expected to find Libbie. He was accompanied by two officers (brother Tom and Lt William Winner Cooke ) and the Harper’s Weekly illustrator Theodore Davis. When he discovered that Libbie had left for Fort Riley Custer boarded a train in his desperation to see her. Colonel A J Smith, commander at Fort Harker telegraphed an order him to return whereupon Custer was arrested for deserting his post at Fort Wallace.
Custer was court-martialed and found guilty on eight counts, including ordering several deserters to be summarily shot without benefit of a hearing and being "absent without leave from his command" by going to find his "Libbie." He was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the Army without pay. In the light of the seriousness of the charges this could be considered a light sentence. (Louis Kraft George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend American History Magazine June 2006.)

The Washita 1868:
Custer's report to Sheridan made light reference to casualties, failing to note that he had abandoned Major Joel Elliot and 16 others on the battlefield. According to Benteen, Custer made no attempt to locate the bodies. The bodies were found together, in a tight circle, when the regiment returned to the battlefield on December 11.
In a letter to his friend William J. DeGresse, Benteen accused Custer of abandoning Elliot.

Yellowstone Expedition 1873.
On July 31, Custer ordered Benteen to remain behind at what became known as Stanley's Stockade, a supply point on the Yellowstone some 20 miles upriver from the mouth of Glendive Creek. As winter descended upon the expedition, Benteen received word that baby "Fan" was very ill at Fort Rice. He immediately requested leave to return to the post, a leave that Custer promptly denied. Before Benteen could resolve the issue, his daughter was dead.
Six times Gen. David S. Stanley ordered Custer to get rid of a personal stove and was irritated by Custer taking an in-law, Fred Calhoun, to act as his publicist. Stanley had Custer arrested for allowing Calhoun, a civilian, to use a government horse. For two days Custer was relegated to riding at the rear of the column until, with Custer's roommate at West Point former Confederate Major General Thomas L. Rosser acting as a mediator, Stanley relented.

Belknap incident 1876
On February 10 1876 the New York Herald published a story which accused the Secretary of War William W Belknap and Orville Grant, the president’s brother, of receiving illegal payments from traders. Traders at forts were willing to pay “kickbacks” in order to receive a license, something which Robert Siep confessed to Custer at Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1874. The traders then commonly sold whisky to native Americans and charged soldiers inflated prices for supplies. Belknap resigned on March 2 1876 without admitting guilt, and later that month Custer was called before a Congress Committee to give evidence. President Ulysses Grant was furious and refused to dismiss Custer so it appeared he would miss the Little Bighorn campaign. Generals Sherman, Sheridan, and Terry pleaded with the president. Grant humiliated Custer by having him hang around waiting to see him, but at the last moment, on 8 May gave into pressure and reinstated Custer.

Desperate, Custer appealed for help to Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, who had assumed overall command of the Dakota column. When Sheridan added his endorsement, Grant relented, and Custer quickly headed west to report for duty. (Louis Kraft George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American LegendAmerican History Magazine June 2006.)

Little Big Horn 1876
Custer's command was part of Sheridan's tri-column policing action to round up non-reservation Indians (roamers) and force them back onto the reservations. "None of Sheridan's columns [Brig. Gen. George Crook, Colonel John Gibbon, or Terry, under whom Custer now served] feared or expected an attack," historian Robert Kershaw wrote. The military's greatest fear was not being able to encircle its foe and therefore prevent him from escaping. (Louis Kraft George Armstrong Custer: Changing Views of an American Legend American History Magazine June 2006.)

Custer ignored his scouts as to the numbers of Indians present. The night before he camped at a site which itself indicated the total numbers against him. Godfrey wrote: June 24th we passed a great many camping places, all appearing to be of nearly the same strength. One would naturally suppose these were the successive camping-places of the same village, when in fact they were the continuous camps of several bands. The fact that they appeared to be of nearly the same age, that is, having been made at the same time, did not impress us then. We passed through one much larger than any of the others. The grass for a considerable distance around it had been cropped close, indicating that large herds had been grazed there.

Some assert that Benteen allowed his personal prejudice in his relationship with Custer to influence his response to Custer's call for his advance, no evidence exists to substantiate such a claim. Benteen's arrival on Reno's besieged position northeast of the village signaled a turning point in what could well have resulted in the destruction of the entire regiment. Reno was visibly shaken and disoriented and his battalion was on the verge of total collapse. Benteen quickly organized defenses for the two battalions. He personally directed construction of breastworks, "in full view of the Indians, making no effort whatever to seek shelter."

General Terry’s Report
I submitted my plan to General Gibbon and to General Custer. They approved it heartily. It was that Custer with his whole regiment should move to the Rosebud till he should meet a trail which Reno had discovered a few days before, but that he should not follow it directly to the Little Big Horn; that he should send scouts over it and keep the main force further to the south so as to prevent the Indians from slipping between himself and the mountains ………………………………………………………….
the wide sweep which I had proposed Custer should make would require so much time that Gibbon would be able to co-operate with him in attacking the Indians that might be found on that stream. ……………………………………….
I offered Custer the battery of Gatling guns, but he declined it, saying that it might embarrass him, that he was strong enough without it. ………………………… The proposed route was not taken, but as soon as the trail was struck it was followed.
(Signed) A. H. Terry
Major-General Commanding.

The Fatal Attack
To prevent their escape he determined to march at once to the attack.
Custer divided his regiment into three squadrons; one, of five troops, he commanded himself, the other two, of three troops each, were commanded by Reno and Benteen respectively. Reno had the advance, and he was ordered "to move forward at as rapid a gait as he thought prudent, and charge the village afterwards, and the whole outfit would support him." He directed Benteen to move off to the left and south until he could see the valley of the Little Big Horn—to attack anything he found, and to send him word.
About three-quarters of a mile from the Little Big Horn Custer swung off the trail to his right, evidently intending to support Reno's attack by striking the Indians in flank.

After the Battle
To protect itself, the military scrambled to find a scapegoat on which to pin the blame for the disaster. As a result, fingers were pointed in many directions. Custer was accused of dividing his command prior to battle, even though this was the accepted mode for attacking villages, and of attacking early. Subordinates Major Reno and Captain Benteen were accused of disobeying Custer's orders and not supporting him. Indian agents were accused of under-reporting the number of warriors off the reservations. But, for some, it was easier to blame a man who could not defend himself.

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1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn

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© Chris Smallbone July 2007