George Armstrong Custer -- Hero or Nut-job?

Feb 2017
423
Minneapolis
#1
I'm going on a trip in a couple of weeks to do some hiking in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains and on my way back I'm going to visit the Little Big Horn battle site in Montana. I've read quite a bit about the plains Indian wars but, to bone-up a bit, I bought Nathaniel Philbrick's "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn." I'm about a third of the way through. So far so excellent with lots of nice detail giving a nuanced view of events leading up to the battle.

I've tended to lean toward the nut-job view of Custer but Philbrick characterizes him (with plenty of primary source quotations) as someone who's not quite the psychotic megalomaniac he's often made out to be, though certainly ambitious and bull-headed. Custer appeared to even have mixed thoughts about his scout up the Rosebud River (that ultimately led to disaster). Philbrick argues that the battle and its results were a confluence of many events but he does indicate if he were to pin the blame on someone, it would probably be Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry.

According to Philbrick, Terry hedged his bets when he sent Custer up the Rosebud, drafting orders that Custer was to stay on the river until he was well south of the last known Indian camp and not to follow the Indians' trail. But there was some wiggle-room in the orders allowing for "hot pursuit" if the enemy were in close proximity. Also, Philbrick cites accounts that Terry indicated that he knew Custer was unlikely to follow the orders. Basically, the orders were written so if Custer was successful, Terry could say he deliberately set Custer loose to do his thing. If Custer met disaster, it was because he didn't follow orders. Custer apparently recognized the hedging which didn't sit well with him.

I'm guessing Philbrick will flesh this out a bit more later in the book. In any case, it's always fun get some fresh perspective on events.
 
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Jan 2018
171
San Antonio
#2
History tends to run in trends and sometimes a person is held in too high a regard which then causes a reaction with the person held in too little regard. So it is with Custer.

Custer was a very capable soldier soldier during the Southern Rebellion but less successful on the Plains (obviously). Under his leadership (though the formal commander of the 7th on paper, Sam Sturgis, didn’t actually command the 7th until after Custer’s death) the 7th was clique ridden with many resentful officers and was also evidently not very well disciplined and Custer himself lacked discipline. These faults helped lead to the defeat at the Little Big Horn; that the 7th was not capable of carrying out Custer’s plan was Custer’s fault. I think Ranald Mackenzie, who had a firm grip on his regiment, the 4th Cavalry, could’ve won in the same situation. But Custer wasn’t crazy or anything like that.

So my <opinion> is that Custer was a good soldier when operating under a firm hand such as under Sheridan&#8217;s in the Valley and Appomattox campaigns; a good subordinate. When left to his own devices his performance was uneven.
 
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Jan 2018
171
San Antonio
#4
Both. Good Officer, charismatic leader. Made one big blunder, content to attack women and children .... that weren’t white.
Well to be fair because the Indians of what became the United States didn’t have a division of labor between civilian and soldier it was pretty hard to attack an Indian base, so to speak, without attacking women and children.
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,061
Dispargum
#5
I don't know about his sanity one way or the other. He didn't fight that last battle very intelligently - allowed his command to become faction-ridden, declined reinforcements when offered, pushed his men and horses on long marches for several days so that they went into battle exhausted, did not conduct a pre-attack reconnaissance, divided his force in the presence of a superior enemy, etc.
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,639
#6
In order to understand the Battle of the Little Bighorn, you need to understand the Battle of the Washita. After a forced march, Custer reached Black Kettle's camp on the Washita. Though other Native American camps nearby meant that Custer was outnumbered, he split his force into 4 parts and attacked. Custer's men were able to take about 50 women and children prisoner, so the Indians didn't counterattack. It was considered a great victory, though marred by a small group of 7th Cavalry soldiers under Major Elliot being too aggressive, getting cut off from the rest, and all being killed.


At Little Bighorn, Custer tried the same strategy that had worked at Washita.
 
Likes: unclefred

M9Powell

Ad Honorem
Oct 2014
4,250
appalacian Mtns
#7
Didn't insure a new issued weapon system was working correctly before action. Their trapdoor Springfields were no good & they went into the field with faulty untested ammo. Their rifles were useless, their colt revolvers were the only reliable weapons. They left their sabres in the rear on a baggage cart..
 
Jan 2018
171
San Antonio
#8
Didn't insure a new issued weapon system was working correctly before action. Their trapdoor Springfields were no good & they went into the field with faulty untested ammo. Their rifles were useless, their colt revolvers were the only reliable weapons. They left their sabres in the rear on a baggage cart..
Note that the theory about the Springfield&#8217;s malfunctioning is a controversial one and not all agree with it. I&#8217;m not taking a stand on it, just making that known.

The lack of sabers indicates to me a poor cavalry mindset; had Reno&#8217;s troops been armed like cavalry and Reno thought like a true cavalry soldier, like a Polish lancer or British hussar say, Reno&#8217;s attack might have plowed through the Indian town spreading confusion rather than stalling. The same might be said of Custer&#8217;s main attack though Custer was well aware of the effect of the saber in the shock role from his experience in the Southern Rebellion.

After all, the Light Brigade did take the guns. Couldn&#8217;t hold them of course, being unsupported. And the 19th Lancers did plow through the Dervishes in the wadi at Omdurman. And the amazing Poles at Somosierra. Oh well, easy for me to say, eh?
 
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Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#10
I'm going on a trip in a couple of weeks to do some hiking in Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains and on my way back I'm going to visit the Little Big Horn battle site in Montana. I've read quite a bit about the plains Indian wars but, to bone-up a bit, I bought Nathaniel Philbrick's "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn." I'm about a third of the way through. So far so excellent with lots of nice detail giving a nuanced view of events leading up to the battle.

I've tended to lean toward the nut-job view of Custer but Philbrick characterizes him (with plenty of primary source quotations) as someone who's not quite the psychotic megalomaniac he's often made out to be, though certainly ambitious and bull-headed. Custer appeared to even have mixed thoughts about his scout up the Rosebud River (that ultimately led to disaster). Philbrick argues that the battle and its results were a confluence of many events but he does indicate if he were to pin the blame on someone, it would probably be Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry.

According to Philbrick, Terry hedged his bets when he sent Custer up the Rosebud, drafting orders that Custer was to stay on the river until he was well south of the last known Indian camp and not to follow the Indians' trail. But there was some wiggle-room in the orders allowing for "hot pursuit" if the enemy were in close proximity. Also, Philbrick cites accounts that Terry indicated that he knew Custer was unlikely to follow the orders. Basically, the orders were written so if Custer was successful, Terry could say he deliberately set Custer loose to do his thing. If Custer met disaster, it was because he didn't follow orders. Custer apparently recognized the hedging which didn't sit well with him.

I'm guessing Philbrick will flesh this out a bit more later in the book. In any case, it's always fun get some fresh perspective on events.
What a wonderful trip you have planned. I have wanted to do the Little Big Horn for years. I have not personally read Philbrick's book but he is a good author/historian and likely does a nice job. I started my LBH study a few years back with a (then brand new) book by James Donovan called "A Terrible Glory". After some 20+ other books, I still think it is a real treat. Well written and well researched. https://www.amazon.com/Terrible-Glo...&qid=1528363392&sr=1-4&keywords=James+Donovan

But for someone who already got the good basic story elsewhere, I really should direct you to E A Brininstool. He was a Custer historian and collector from the early 20th century and had opportunity for live interviews. There is a wonderful little book by him called "Troopers with Custer" that I fully believe should be read by anyone looking to get beneath the surface and dig into the analysis of individual controversies at LBH. https://www.amazon.com/Troopers-Cus...28363084&sr=8-1&keywords=troopers+with+custer

In talking about Terry's orders, I have also seen it observed that most of the army officers of the day considered it near cowardice not to disobey orders and attack the Indians, once discovered. I don't know how prevalent such an attitude really was but certainly more than a few followers, including Custer and his associates. Custer had proven before and I feel fairly confident that Terry believed it would happen again that, once Custer discovered the enemy, he would not back away but launch immediate assault. So, given that, Terry provided orders that would make himself look good while allowing escape should it go wrong, as it did. While I don't really fault Terry for the defeat, I do believe he gave Custer the equivalent of a wink and a nod with those orders.
 

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