George Armstrong Custer -- Hero or Nut-job?

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#41
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.
Couple of thoughts on Reno stopping the charge come to mind. First, to just charge through the camp (couple of miles long) as fast as 120 men can ride does no good. Just alerts everyone. Even though a fast paced situation, if there is no hesitation for killing and destruction, the charge is just so much of a race to see if the Indians can catch up. Sort of like Reno setting up an alarm instead of being the attacker. If you read the details of cavalry attacks upon Indian villages, it is not just a race through the village counting coup.

But also, the sheer size of the camp will swallow a spread line of 120 riders into itself and fold around those men unless they keep moving fast.

A difficult charge to be certain, this business of attacking while greatly outnumbered.

But, while those are just a couple of my personal thoughts, here is a nice quote from the very famous Custer historian, W A Graham. By 1926, Colonel Graham is the Judge Advocate of the US Army and has quite a reputation for digging into the details and interviewing anyone he could. He had some correspondence with Major Carter who was retired but had been with General Miles during the campaign. Carter had referred to Reno as "cowardly poltroon" in a prior correspondence. Here is part of Graham's reply:

"The truth is - and I think you will recognize it when you think it over - that most of the criticism and condemnation of Reno comes from men who were not there with him in the valley, nd whose ideas upon that matter were based on hearsay - not always too accurate; and upon the natural disdain that arose from his passing of the buck to Benteen, as soon as the latter came up.

I hold no brief for Reno; but I believe in giving even the devil his due; and it is not necessary to attack and condemn Reno in order to account for what happened to Custer.


Don't forget that Reno's 112 wee opposed in the valley by not more than 25% of the Indians at any time. There were never to exceed 800 or 900 of them. The rest - fully 2500 or 3000, were attacking Custer before Reno's retreat got under way. There was no hope for Custer before Reno's retreat got under way. There was no hope for Custer from the moment he abandoned his intention to support Reno from the rear. His command was doomed as soon as it rode down the river. . . . ."


Graham went on to question whether Crook should be considered a 'cowardly poltroon' for his retreat a week before at the Rosebud?


Anyway, quite interesting stuff. Lots of Custer opinions out there from good sources on all sides. I personally find a couple of weak spots in Graham's analysis. For one thing, his timeline of Custer being attacked before Reno retreats may be a bit aggressive as to Custer's movement. Also, the number of Indians may be a bit inflated. However, that is the studied opinion of Colonel Graham. :)
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,639
#42
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.
Agreed. I've liked Philbrick's works, but in The Last Stand, he seems to accept every accusation against Reno or Benteen, regardless of the reliability of the source.

Philbrick also does guilt by implication. For example, on page 203, after Benteen's detachment had watered their horses, Weir set out first. At which point Philbrick writes "Whether or not Weir had shamed him into it, Benteen immediately gave the order to advance." Considering Benteen is the one who had ordered the changed course towards the rest of the 7th Cavalry and he hadn't even heard from Custer yet, Benteen clearly did not need to be shamed into moving towards the rest of the 7th Cavalry.

On the next page, after Benteen gets the 'Bring Packs' order, Philbrick says "The written order had told Benteen, in no uncertain terms, to proceed as fast as possible, but instead of forging ahead, he continued his conversation with Martin." Benteen exchanged a couple sentences while waiting for the rest of his detachment to come up, puzzled out the order as best he could, and then moved out at a fast trot. The order did not say anything "in no uncertain terms" it was vague and self-contradictory. Philbrick says "Benteen claimed to be perplexed by the order", but Benteen noted that it was impossible to 'Be quick' and 'bring packs', choosing to 'be quick'. The order also didn't tell Benteen where Custer was or what he was doing, questions Benteen and others would be asking until they found out Custer was dead.

On page 221, Philbrick says that "When Benteen first received Ciuster's orders to "Come on," he'd decided that he didn't have time to wait for the ammunition packs. But now, even though fighting was obviously occurring to the north, he resolved to wait."

In this, Philbrick ignores that:
* Based on the messengers Kanipe and Martin, Custer was beating the Indians.
* Benteen had half as many men as Custer. If Custer was in trouble, Benteen's detachment was small enough they would probably be wiped out before reaching Custer.
* Reno had directly ordered Benteen to aid him.
* Half of Reno's force was dead, wounded or missing. The rest were demoralized and low on ammo. If Benteen ignored Reno's order, and abandoned Reno's detachment in the face of the enemy, Reno's force would probably be wiped out.
* Abandoning Reno also meant abandoning the pack train to their deaths, while letting most of the 7th Cavalry's ammunition fall into the hands of the Indians.
* Once the pack train did arrive, not just Weir, but Benteen's whole detachment started moving towards Custer.
 
Feb 2017
423
Minneapolis
#43
Couple of thoughts on Reno stopping the charge come to mind. First, to just charge through the camp (couple of miles long) as fast as 120 men can ride does no good. Just alerts everyone. Even though a fast paced situation, if there is no hesitation for killing and destruction, the charge is just so much of a race to see if the Indians can catch up. Sort of like Reno setting up an alarm instead of being the attacker. If you read the details of cavalry attacks upon Indian villages, it is not just a race through the village counting coup.

But also, the sheer size of the camp will swallow a spread line of 120 riders into itself and fold around those men unless they keep moving fast.

A difficult charge to be certain, this business of attacking while greatly outnumbered.

But, while those are just a couple of my personal thoughts, here is a nice quote from the very famous Custer historian, W A Graham. By 1926, Colonel Graham is the Judge Advocate of the US Army and has quite a reputation for digging into the details and interviewing anyone he could. He had some correspondence with Major Carter who was retired but had been with General Miles during the campaign. Carter had referred to Reno as "cowardly poltroon" in a prior correspondence. Here is part of Graham's reply:

"The truth is - and I think you will recognize it when you think it over - that most of the criticism and condemnation of Reno comes from men who were not there with him in the valley, nd whose ideas upon that matter were based on hearsay - not always too accurate; and upon the natural disdain that arose from his passing of the buck to Benteen, as soon as the latter came up.

I hold no brief for Reno; but I believe in giving even the devil his due; and it is not necessary to attack and condemn Reno in order to account for what happened to Custer.


Don't forget that Reno's 112 wee opposed in the valley by not more than 25% of the Indians at any time. There were never to exceed 800 or 900 of them. The rest - fully 2500 or 3000, were attacking Custer before Reno's retreat got under way. There was no hope for Custer before Reno's retreat got under way. There was no hope for Custer from the moment he abandoned his intention to support Reno from the rear. His command was doomed as soon as it rode down the river. . . . ."


Graham went on to question whether Crook should be considered a 'cowardly poltroon' for his retreat a week before at the Rosebud?


Anyway, quite interesting stuff. Lots of Custer opinions out there from good sources on all sides. I personally find a couple of weak spots in Graham's analysis. For one thing, his timeline of Custer being attacked before Reno retreats may be a bit aggressive as to Custer's movement. Also, the number of Indians may be a bit inflated. However, that is the studied opinion of Colonel Graham. :)
Agreed that you just can't know how the charge would have turned out. I'd say odds are Reno's soldiers would have been wiped out. (But maybe they draw the bulk of the warriors away from Custer.) Halting the charge at that moment and setting up a picket may have saved his command from annihilation, but it was nevertheless an act of dithering. If he were going to be prudent, he should have been prudent before ordering the charge.
 
Feb 2017
423
Minneapolis
#44
Agreed. I've liked Philbrick's works, but in The Last Stand, he seems to accept every accusation against Reno or Benteen, regardless of the reliability of the source.

Philbrick also does guilt by implication. For example, on page 203, after Benteen's detachment had watered their horses, Weir set out first. At which point Philbrick writes "Whether or not Weir had shamed him into it, Benteen immediately gave the order to advance." Considering Benteen is the one who had ordered the changed course towards the rest of the 7th Cavalry and he hadn't even heard from Custer yet, Benteen clearly did not need to be shamed into moving towards the rest of the 7th Cavalry.

On the next page, after Benteen gets the 'Bring Packs' order, Philbrick says "The written order had told Benteen, in no uncertain terms, to proceed as fast as possible, but instead of forging ahead, he continued his conversation with Martin." Benteen exchanged a couple sentences while waiting for the rest of his detachment to come up, puzzled out the order as best he could, and then moved out at a fast trot. The order did not say anything "in no uncertain terms" it was vague and self-contradictory. Philbrick says "Benteen claimed to be perplexed by the order", but Benteen noted that it was impossible to 'Be quick' and 'bring packs', choosing to 'be quick'. The order also didn't tell Benteen where Custer was or what he was doing, questions Benteen and others would be asking until they found out Custer was dead.

On page 221, Philbrick says that "When Benteen first received Ciuster's orders to "Come on," he'd decided that he didn't have time to wait for the ammunition packs. But now, even though fighting was obviously occurring to the north, he resolved to wait."

In this, Philbrick ignores that:
* Based on the messengers Kanipe and Martin, Custer was beating the Indians.
* Benteen had half as many men as Custer. If Custer was in trouble, Benteen's detachment was small enough they would probably be wiped out before reaching Custer.
* Reno had directly ordered Benteen to aid him.
* Half of Reno's force was dead, wounded or missing. The rest were demoralized and low on ammo. If Benteen ignored Reno's order, and abandoned Reno's detachment in the face of the enemy, Reno's force would probably be wiped out.
* Abandoning Reno also meant abandoning the pack train to their deaths, while letting most of the 7th Cavalry's ammunition fall into the hands of the Indians.
* Once the pack train did arrive, not just Weir, but Benteen's whole detachment started moving towards Custer.
I finished Philbrick's book. He's definitely critical of Reno and Benteen but I don't think he's putting the defeat on their shoulders. My sense from reading the book is that Reno and Benteen were behaving in a very human way given the strains of the immediate situation and the context of their history with Custer.
 

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,466
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
#45
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.
You are using the wrong word when you say Custer was "brevetted" to the rank of Brigadier General by age 23. Being "brevetted" means being given a brevet commission.


During the Civil War the federal government of the USA had two different armies, the regular army or United States Army and the United States Volunteers. An officer in either army could have both substantive and brevet ranks.

Thus a Civil War era officer could have any of four different types of ranks.

1) Substantive rank in the regular army.

2) Brevet rank in the regular army.

3) Substantive rank in the US Volunteers.

4) Brevet rank in the US Volunteers.

And famous Union Civil War generals usually acquired all four types of ranks in their careers.

In Custer's case he was appointed and commissioned as a substantive brigadier general of United States Volunteers in 1863 age 23.

And in 1876 Custer was a substantive lieutenant colonel in the 7th Cavalry in the United States Army, as well as a brevet Colonel, brigadier general, and major general in the United States Army.

I find it annoying when people over simplify and confuse substantive rank in the United States Volunteers with brevet rank.
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#46
Agreed that you just can't know how the charge would have turned out. I'd say odds are Reno's soldiers would have been wiped out. (But maybe they draw the bulk of the warriors away from Custer.) Halting the charge at that moment and setting up a picket may have saved his command from annihilation, but it was nevertheless an act of dithering. If he were going to be prudent, he should have been prudent before ordering the charge.
Probably should also study the timelines for Custer's action. I don't think the two fights line up that well. Many of the warriors fought at both ends. (if memory serves). Anyway, as you move forward (or if) a good time study should be looked into. A really interesting one is the Indian accounts work from Gregory Michno called 'Lakota Noon'. It is available easily and economically. I felt like it was a major addition to my readings on LBH. https://www.amazon.com/Lakota-Noon-...F8&qid=1528744136&sr=8-1&keywords=lakota+noon
 
Feb 2017
423
Minneapolis
#47
Philbrick does a pretty good job of covering the Indian perspective but it's clear his real interest was with the 7th Cavalry side. So "Lakota Noon" might be just the thing. Several years ago I did read Mari Sandoz's Crazy Horse and thought it was brilliant as literature and in terms of seeing things through Indian eyes, but it's idiosyncratic, highly speculative and not really "history" as we know it and love it today.
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#48
Agreed. I've liked Philbrick's works, but in The Last Stand, he seems to accept every accusation against Reno or Benteen, regardless of the reliability of the source.

Philbrick also does guilt by implication. For example, on page 203, after Benteen's detachment had watered their horses, Weir set out first. At which point Philbrick writes "Whether or not Weir had shamed him into it, Benteen immediately gave the order to advance." Considering Benteen is the one who had ordered the changed course towards the rest of the 7th Cavalry and he hadn't even heard from Custer yet, Benteen clearly did not need to be shamed into moving towards the rest of the 7th Cavalry.

On the next page, after Benteen gets the 'Bring Packs' order, Philbrick says "The written order had told Benteen, in no uncertain terms, to proceed as fast as possible, but instead of forging ahead, he continued his conversation with Martin." Benteen exchanged a couple sentences while waiting for the rest of his detachment to come up, puzzled out the order as best he could, and then moved out at a fast trot. The order did not say anything "in no uncertain terms" it was vague and self-contradictory. Philbrick says "Benteen claimed to be perplexed by the order", but Benteen noted that it was impossible to 'Be quick' and 'bring packs', choosing to 'be quick'. The order also didn't tell Benteen where Custer was or what he was doing, questions Benteen and others would be asking until they found out Custer was dead.

On page 221, Philbrick says that "When Benteen first received Ciuster's orders to "Come on," he'd decided that he didn't have time to wait for the ammunition packs. But now, even though fighting was obviously occurring to the north, he resolved to wait."

In this, Philbrick ignores that:
* Based on the messengers Kanipe and Martin, Custer was beating the Indians.
* Benteen had half as many men as Custer. If Custer was in trouble, Benteen's detachment was small enough they would probably be wiped out before reaching Custer.
* Reno had directly ordered Benteen to aid him.
* Half of Reno's force was dead, wounded or missing. The rest were demoralized and low on ammo. If Benteen ignored Reno's order, and abandoned Reno's detachment in the face of the enemy, Reno's force would probably be wiped out.
* Abandoning Reno also meant abandoning the pack train to their deaths, while letting most of the 7th Cavalry's ammunition fall into the hands of the Indians.
* Once the pack train did arrive, not just Weir, but Benteen's whole detachment started moving towards Custer.
Really interesting observations out of The Last Stand. While I mentioned enjoying In the Heart of the Sea, my feelings toward the recent Valiant Ambition is similar to your feeling here. There is bias. Mostly in the treatment of the other characters. For example, in Valiant Ambition, anyone who qualified as a stumbling block (or simply saw through him) to Arnold is treated as a flat stock character. Pretty much operating out of pure petty jealousy and nothing else. Which applies to a lot of folk. But I suppose the Arnold biographers still feel the need to pump him up to the stars so his fall can be all the more tragic. :sad:
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#49
Philbrick does a pretty good job of covering the Indian perspective but it's clear his real interest was with the 7th Cavalry side. So "Lakota Noon" might be just the thing. Several years ago I did read Mari Sandoz's Crazy Horse and thought it was brilliant as literature and in terms of seeing things through Indian eyes, but it's idiosyncratic, highly speculative and not really "history" as we know it and love it today.
Michno's book openly discusses its shortcomings inherent in using many of those accounts. A good book to use for comparison to that is this by John S Gray. I found it highly technical and difficult but did use his timeline as a guide against Michno's timeline and found them generally comparable.

https://www.amazon.com/Custers-Last...F8&qid=1528771635&sr=8-4&keywords=john+s+gray
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,639
#50
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.
Reno was erratic and indecisive - after he got a faceful of Bloody Knife's blood and brains. Before that, Reno was neither.

Reno was sent against a force which was both larger and more willing to fight than Custer had expected. Rather than charging into a force that vastly outnumbered him, Reno formed a skirmish line. When the Indians attempted to flank him, Reno recessed his flank. By this point, firing was intense enough some soldiers reported difficulty in hearing commands or even bugle calls. Reno conferred with an officer covering his flank with both concluding that maintaining position would result in their being cut off, surrounded, and overwhelmed by the Indians. There was no sign of Custer coming to support them, so Reno ordered a fallback to the woods, which was accomplished in decent order. Falling back to better defensive positions was a logical and reasonable action, not an act of cowardice or indecision. Custer attempted the same when he realized how badly he was outnumbered.

Reno’s fallback position was not as safe as he had thought. He asked the scout, Bloody Knife, what he thought the enemy would do next, when a bullet struck Bloody Knife in the head, splattering blood and brains in Reno’s face. Let me try to convey some of what Reno experienced in that moment.

Reno was facing Bloody Knife, probably leaning close, trying to hear and be heard over the din of battle. Bloody Knife may not have been a friend, but Reno respected his opinion. Then half of Bloody Knife’s face disappears, leaving a horror of torn flesh and glistening bone. Reno may feel shards of tooth or bone embed in his cheeks. He definitely feels gobbets of flesh and brain, splashes of blood strike him in the face. It’s in Reno’s hair. It’s in his eyes. It’s in his open mouth. Reno doesn’t just see Bloody Knife’s death, he hears it, he feels it, he smells it, he tastes it. But the horror is not over – Bloody Knife is mortally wounded, not instantly dead. The catastrophic brain injury sends random nerve impulses to Bloody Knife’s muscles, which spasm in a grotesque mockery of dancing before he collapses. If Reno is lucky, Bloody Knife doesn’t collapse into Reno’s arms. If Reno is lucky he’s in enough shock he doesn’t register the way Bloody Knife’s body continues to twitch until it finally gives up its hopeless struggle for life or hear the noises that come from the dying man’s mouth. If Reno is lucky, it’s not until later he realizes the bullet that hit Bloody Knife must have missed Reno’s own head by inches.

It’s an experience Reno will never be able to forget, something that will give him nightmares for the rest of his life. It would drive many past their breaking point into numb immobility or helpless weeping or uncontrollable screaming or shooting themselves to make the horror go away. Reno was pushed near to his limit – he was dazed and confused, impaired enough that some thought he was drunk.

The wonder is that Reno was functioning at all. He fell back hastily and in some disorder, but Reno did not totally collapse. The retreat had an objective – a defensive position on high ground, and it stopped there. About a third of Reno’s men died in the retreat, but when some of Custer’s forces tried to withdraw from Calhoun Hill to Last Stand Hill, only about one in six made it.

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.
Philbrick does say that "Given the immense size of the village, it only made sense to wait for reinforcements before initiating the attack." Yet Custer had 80 to 90 more men than he'd ordered Reno to attack the village with.

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.
If Custer delayed 45 minutes then Benteen might have been able to join Custer if Benteen abandoned Reno and the pack train in the face of the enemy.

In 1919, White Man Runs Him said "Custer moved slowly, taking lots of time and stopping occasionally. He did not leave that place until Reno had started fighting." and "Custer had come down Medicine Tail Creek and was moving toward the river. The Indians saw him there, and all began running that way. There were thousands of them. Custer tried to cross the river at the mouth of Medicine Tail Creek, but was unable to do so."

Also in 1919, White Man Runs Him said "Custer's men did not fire at all on this side. Custer believed that Reno's command was all killed because they were retreating into the bluff and the dust was flying. The scouts believed that Reno's outfit was all killed. It was hard to tell because the dust was flying and they were retreating so fast. I know for sure that Custer went right to the river bank. I saw him go that far. The Sioux were right across the river. Then Custer fired. That was the first firing Custer did." and "Custer was reckless. Instead of Custer going ahead and starting at the same time as Reno, Custer held back and did not start until he saw Reno fighting. That was poor generalship."

In 1916, Hairy Moccasin said "Custer yelled to us to stop, then told us to go to the high hill ahead (the high point just north of where Reno later entrenched). From here we could see the village and could see Reno fighting. He had crossed the creek. Everything was a scramble with lots of Sioux. The battle was over in a few minutes. We thought they were all killed." and "When we met Custer he asked, "How is it?" I said, "Reno's men are fighting hard." We went with the command down into a dry gulch where we could not see the village."

Some time before 1920, Goes Ahead was summarized as saying "Custer rode to the edge of the high bank and looked over to the place where Reno's men were, as though planning the next move. When they had arrived at about the point where Lieutenant Hodgson's headstone was placed later, the three Crow scouts saw the soldiers under Reno dismounting in front of the Dakota camp and thought that the enemy were "too many." Custer's command went down the draw toward the lower ford on the run. "

All three scouts accounts indicate that Custer did not hurry - until he saw Reno was losing, at which point Custer quickly advanced towards the river. None of these accounts support the idea that Custer dawdled for 45 minutes.
 

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