George Armstrong Custer -- Hero or Nut-job?

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
4,005
Texas
#31
Well, an indian village was not having superior forces to his but warriors from other villages surrounded him and also killed a separated detachment of 20 men. Custer would have had some losses without human shields but his force was over 600 and I don't believe that Indians would have overwhelmed such moving cavalry force.

I've read in a book Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee that he was hunting an indian warrior on a horse for hours because he was a good rider and very stubborn and he got a special nickname Iron Butt. Or was it given to him by his poor soldiers because he used to ride with his unit without a rest also for hours.
We had a thread on the Washita battle here at historum that you might find interesting. http://historum.com/american-history/50186-washita.html
 
Jun 2015
5,574
UK
#33
from what I understand, he didn't think natives were inferior. He just loved the fight. the campaign at Little Big Horn was misguided, and he didnt' really plan it. So he ot his comeuppance, but it wasn't really his fault. He just gambled and lost.
 

macon

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
3,539
Slovenia
#34
I read that he was publishing articles in newspapers about a mission of white people, about inferiority of natives and such.
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,651
#35
The 7th Cavalry's Regimental Adjutant, Lieutenant W W Cooke, sported a pair of dundreary whiskers:



Cooke wrote out the "bring packs" order to Benteen. He was found at Last Stand Hill with his whiskers scalped.



"Benteen. Come On. Big Village. Be quick. Bring Packs. P.S. Bring packs."

There are several things to consider when Cooke sent this order.
* This was not a despairing cry from a cut off force about to be overrun. At that point, Custer hadn't even made contact with the enemy and he was advancing confidently.
* Cooke's handwriting was so bad that I'm surprised Benteen could decipher it.
* The order is self-contradictory. Benteen could 'bring packs' or 'be quick', but he could not do both.
* Since 'Bring packs' is repeated, it appears that Cooke thought that was the most important part.
* It is vague. Messenger John Martin (Giovanni Martino) could tell where he had last seen Custer and what direction Custer was heading, but the message gave no information about Custer's intentions or planned locations. * It's poorly worded enough that I'm not sure if Cooke meant for Benteen to move to Custer's position, to advance directly on the village, or if Cooke thought that Custer's position would be inside the village by the time Benteen arrived.
* It does not inform Benteen that Reno's force had been detached from Custer's force, nor tell where Reno is or what Reno is supposed to be doing.

Martin's lack of fluency in English makes him an odd choice for a messenger. There are enough accounts that it appears Martin did say the Indians were 'skedaddling'. The slang term meant 'running away', which is how Benteen understood it, but it seems clear that Martin meant to say that the Indians were running towards Custer.
 
Dec 2011
3,549
#36
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.
Flawed hero, one of those men whose genius is only appreciated in wartime but bit off more than he could chew.
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,651
#37
I've just got to Reno's "retreat." Philbrick is not kind here. Reno comes across as a drunkard, indecisive and a coward. Philbrick notes whiskey on a hot day is not a good thing (it dehydrates you) and Reno's judgment was probably more addled than it normally would have been even while intoxicated.

Philbrick seems to accept every accusation of Reno drinking as the truth. If I've calculated correctly, this would have Reno drinking an entire bottle of whiskey before his charge into the village, an entire second bottle before Benteen arrived, and was halfway through a third bottle by the time the pack train arrived. If this were true it raises the question of why could Reno still stand and why hadn't Custer already relieved him from duty?
 
Oct 2015
332
Belfast
#38
I'd say Custer was a maverick. A Gettysburg in July 1863, he fought three cavalry actions against JEB Stuart and won two of them. In fact before Gettysburg he was brevetted to the rank of Brigadier General by the time he was 23 years old.


Family background - German. From the Rhineland.
 
Last edited:

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
4,005
Texas
#39
Philbrick seems to accept every accusation of Reno drinking as the truth. If I've calculated correctly, this would have Reno drinking an entire bottle of whiskey before his charge into the village, an entire second bottle before Benteen arrived, and was halfway through a third bottle by the time the pack train arrived. If this were true it raises the question of why could Reno still stand and why hadn't Custer already relieved him from duty?
One of my original positive reactions to the Brininstool book was his defense of Reno. I have no trouble believing a few pulls on the bottle. Those guys were hard drinkers and Reno was personally known for it. But I don't see drunkenness in his actions, just in a couple of the accusations. Accusations that came from somewhat questionable sources. Here is a quote from Brininstool that summarizes testimony at Reno's court martial of January 1879.

"Twenty-three witnesses were examined - officers of the 7th cavalry, scouts, teamsters, packers, and two or three non-commissioned officers. With the exception of two packers, all the witnesses came out in defense of Major Reno. The two packers testified that Reno was drunk and assaulted one of them. Major Reno and Capt. Benteen both testified that they had continually to drive skulkers out from the packs. Several witnesses were placed on the stand after two packers had testified. These all declared that Major Reno was not drunk nor showed any signs of having taken liquor; that at no time he played the part of the coward or anything of the sort, but that he did his full duty as an officer and a soldier during the engagement." BRININSTOOL continued to signal that in his very clear opinion, Reno was neither drunk nor cowardly but had been "greatly maligned" for the past 76 years.
 
Last edited:
Feb 2017
425
Minneapolis
#40
One of my original positive reactions to the Brininstool book was his defense of Reno. I have no trouble believing a few pulls on the bottle. Those guys were hard drinkers and Reno was personally known for it. But I don't see drunkenness in his actions, just in a couple of the accusations. Accusations that came from somewhat questionable sources. Here is a quote from Brininstool that summarizes testimony at Reno's court martial of January 1879.

"Twenty-three witnesses were examined - officers of the 7th cavalry, scouts, teamsters, packers, and two or three non-commissioned officers. With the exception of two packers, all the witnesses came out in defense of Major Reno. The two packers testified that Reno was drunk and assaulted one of them. Major Reno and Capt. Benteen both testified that they had continually to drive skulkers out from the packs. Several witnesses were placed on the stand after two packers had testified. These all declared that Major Reno was not drunk nor showed any signs of having taken liquor; that at no time he played the part of the coward or anything of the sort, but that he did his full duty as an officer and a soldier during the engagement." BRININSTOOL continued to signal that in his very clear opinion, Reno was neither drunk nor cowardly but had been "greatly maligned" for the past 76 years.
Still, Reno made some dubious decisions: Halting his mounted charge to form a picket line, giving the otherwise surprised Indians time to get their act together. The order to retreat that turned into a bloody rout. Unwillingness to go with Benteen to try to hook up with Custer then deciding to follow him after Benteen left with his companies. Philbrick paints a picture that Reno's behavior was erratic and indecisive.

I've gotten to the point in the narrative where Custer apparently dwaddles for 45 minutes after Reno has engaged the Indians. It's a mystery as to why. Testimony from three Crow scouts suggests he was deliberately letting Reno get chewed up so he could ultimately claim the victory all to himself. Philbrick is noncommittal. It doesn't seem right to me, however. Custer may have despised Reno but it doesn't seem like he would deliberately leave the men under Reno's command to be slaughtered. And even if Reno were successful, the victory would still be Custer's as it was his overall command. My guess is that he thought Reno could hold his own and he was waiting for the Indians to commit themselves before he attacked.
 

Similar History Discussions