The Charms of George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer, right, with his captured West Point classmate Confederate Lieutenant James B. Washington and an escaped slave after the Battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, Virginia, May 31–June 1, 1862
James F. Gibson/Library of Congress
George Armstrong Custer, right, with his captured West Point classmate Confederate Lieutenant James B. Washington and an escaped slave after the Battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, Virginia, May 31–June 1, 1862

The nineteenth-century cavalry officer George Armstrong Custer, who was a general at twenty-three and dead at thirty-six, has probably been the subject of more books than any other American, Lincoln excepted. All until now move swiftly through the brilliant feats of arms of the Civil War career that made Custer a national hero to focus instead on his last hours. Every schoolboy used to know that Custer died in 1876 on a hill overlooking the Little Bighorn River in Montana with five companies of the 7th Cavalry dead to a man around him, killed by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Only a single cavalry horse was found alive on the field.

Custer was the commander so the failure was his, the result of overconfidence and wrong decisions. He had divided his regiment into four groups before sending them into battle, exposing each to defeat in turn. He issued a promise to support the detachment of his second-in-command, Major Marcus Reno, with “the whole outfit,” but failed to give it any support at all. He did not know where the village was that he was planning to attack, or how big it was. He did not know how to reach the village from the bluffs that lined the eastern bank of the river. He believed in error that the Indians were poised to run, not stand and fight. Custer’s own detachment never crossed or even reached the river, much less the village on the other side. In fact, he never actually attacked the Indians at all. They rode out instead to meet him, sent his soldiers reeling back, pursued them up the spine of a long hill, and finally overwhelmed the desperate remnant in about the time, a Cheyenne war leader said later, that it takes a hungry man to eat his lunch.

When news of the disaster spread by telegraph in early July during a national celebration of the Centennial in Philadelphia, the country could hardly believe it. A century of excuse-making promptly began. Two popular images cast the disaster in a heroic light—a chromolithograph commissioned by Anheuser-Busch that hung over bars throughout the land, and a movie still of Errol Flynn playing Custer in the final scene of They Died with Their Boots On. Both depict Custer as the last man standing, wearing a buckskin jacket, hatless, sword in hand, and surrounded by stacks of dead savages.

The reality, long denied, was very different. In the fighting at the Little…



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