“There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.” ~ George Armstrong Custer.
Few notables in American military history come close to the polarizing effect stamped upon our chronicles than George Armstrong Custer.
At times brilliant, always bold and audacious, a shameless self-promoter and ofttimes far more reckless than prudent, Custer was all of these and more. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to say his demise on the rolling hills of Montana at the hands of American Indians almost was pre-ordained.
Born in Ohio in 1839, he grew up in Michigan with his half-sister, and set his sights early on to raise himself above his station in life with a military career.
Despite lacking qualifications to get an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Custer won over his local congressman and enrolled in 1857.
Unfortunately, Custer and discipline were like oil and water. Rebellious and disdainful of authority, he famously finished last in his class at The Point in spring of 1861, at the outbreak of the American Civil War.
In fact, if not for a quirk of fate, Custer never would have had a military career. A few days before graduation, serving as officer of the guard at West Point, he failed to prevent a fight between two cadets and faced a court-martial.
But with war breaking out, and throngs of Southern cadets leaving the Army for the new Confederacy, the U.S. Army was desperate for officers and Custer was spared a career-crippling court-martial.
Custer had a way of ingratiating himself to superiors, and was able to move his military career along, constantly currying favor along the way.
He distinguished himself as a cavalryman, and somehow was promoted at the tender age of 23 from captain to brevet brigadier general by Union cavalry commander Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, despite having virtually no command experience.
Commanding a cavalry brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer wasted little time in employing his aggressive nature on the battlefield.
Often called reckless and foolhardy by fellow officers, he was a careful battle planner, having a natural instinct for gauging the relative strengths and weaknesses of his foe, which ofttimes were units of celebrated Confederate cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart.
He led mounted charges of his Michigan Brigade at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. In one ill-advised charge, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before Confederate cavalry, and became the target of enemy fire. He was rescued by a trooper of the First Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot the nearest Confederate and saved Custer’s life.
Still shameless in self-promotion, Custer wrote after he lost 257 men at the titanic Pennsylvania battle — the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade — “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.”
Sounds like he could have been a politician in 2014.
Modesty was not any part of the Custer character, or his at-times exaggerated publicity-generating legend.
Present at Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Custer soon was reduced in rank back to captain, as was the custom following the Civil War and its policy of brevet promotion in the field.
Sometimes called vain and “a dandy” by the men under his command, he still instilled courage and a style that most times was successful — a trait which often endeared him to his men, Washington politicians and particularly to his superiors.
Yet, it also eventually would lead to his undoing.
Appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Riley, Kan., he soon was appointed brevet major general at the pleading of Pleasonton, and took part in the campaigns against the Cheyenne in 1867.
With tensions high between the U.S. and most Plains Indian tribes, including the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne in 1874 — Americans continually broke treaty agreements and continued a further advance onto Indian lands of the West, with violence and acts of vengeance rife.
With the Indians forced by the government to move onto reservation lands, they rebelled, and Custer and the 7th departed Fort Lincoln, N.D., in May 1876, to round up all free Indians.
Custer boldly yet foolishly attacked a large encampment of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho along the Little Bighorn River, hoping to round up all the women and children and force the braves to capitulate.
In perhaps the worst miscalculation of any American military commander in history, Custer and his small divided force of about 700 cavalrymen was set upon by as many as 5,000 Indian braves. The Indians at times were better armed than the troopers, and Custer and his bravado were no match against this reality.
Called a massacre — more an arrogant miscalculation of an ill-advised government policy — Custer and his hapless men died quickly and rode off into history as Custer’s Last Stand.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at enid news.com/historicallyspeaking.