Friday, June 18, 2010
RENDEZVOUS ON THE LITTLE BIG HORN “TAPS” FOR AMERICA’S BOY GENERAL Part I
Major General (brevet) George Armstrong Custer in 1865 – The U.S. Army’s “Boy General”
No chapter in American history has been so thoroughly written about yet more subject to myth and misunderstanding than the event we all know as “The Battle of The Little Big Horn”, or “Custer’s Last Stand”, (the “Battle of Greasy Grass Creek” to the Indians). It was unquestionably the most humiliating defeat for an army of The United States since Bull Run in the Civil War, but in the long term it came to represent a much larger loss for the future of the Plains Indians in their fight for ownership and sovereignty over their ancestral lands. It was in fact a prime example of a people who won a great battle, and as a consequence lost the larger war.
For military historians, this unusual battle between the warriors of two very different cultures, the politics of the era in which they fought, the battlefield tactics employed, and the commanding personalities of the opposing leaders has been a topic of controversy to this very day. Was the massacre of most of his command an inevitable consequence of Custer’s over-reaching arrogance and personal ambition, or was he simply surprised by the unexpected size and competence of the massed combination of forces he met near the bend of that western river on June 25th, 1876 ? Is it true that his two battalion commanders, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen were somehow guilty of dereliction of duty in failing to come to his aid in time, or was the whole unfortunate affair simply evidence of the fact that Custer’s well-known “luck” finally ran out? Did the Indians really have better rifles as some proclaim, and would it have made a difference if the 7th Cavalry had brought along the Gatling guns available to them?
At the center of all the questions sits the larger-than-life personage of George Armstrong Custer himself, known throughout the country as the Union Army’s “Boy General” who had cut a huge figure in the American Civil War, from First Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg, to The Wilderness, Petersburg, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. He became the youngest Brigadier General in history at the age of 23, and by war’s end he wore the two stars of a Major General (brevet). The son of an Ohio blacksmith, he would have been an unlikely candidate, in 1858, for admittance to The U.S. Military Academy at West Point but for the intervention of a congressman. Even with that, he barely escaped dismissal on behavior demerits several times, only to graduate at the bottom of his class just in time to join the ranks of the Civil War Union Army.
As a cavalry commander, Custer built a reputation for his aggressive – even audacious – use of mounted troopers in close combat, matching skills with J.E.B. Stuart, his Confederate counterpart . Along with an apparent disdain of danger, he was driven by ambition and a need to be noticed. As another officer once noted, Custer “always needs to do too much and go too far”.
Somehow, despite his relentless drive to place himself at the head of nearly every assault, Custer failed to win the Medal of Honor he so coveted. Ironically, it was his beloved younger brother Thomas Custer, who garnered not one but two of the country’s highest awards, within days of each other. A number of Custer historians believe that in his ill-conceived attack on the Indian village at Little Big Horn ten years later, he was still trying.
At the end of the Civil War, the Union Army went into a rapid down-sizing mode, and those officers who were invited to continue in service had their brevet ranks reduced to the lower or “permanent” grade level. Thus, Major General George Armstrong Custer became Lt. Colonel Custer, though he was typically honored with the term “General” by those serving with him. Controversy continued to plague Custer in the post-war years, and relations with his Commander-In-Chief, President Ulysses M. Grant were prickly at best. In fact just before being given field command of the U.S. 7th Cavalry in time for the Cheyenne campaign in the west, he had been serving out a one-year disciplinary removal from duty. Already a veteran of Indian warfare, he carried with him the baggage of prior run-ins with fellow officers, including Major Marcus Reno who would now be his second-in-command. In fact, Reno nurtured a hard-to-hide hatred for Custer, whom he had accused of abandoning wounded at the battle of Washita. On top of all that, Custer and his regiment were under the command of General Alfred Terry, a somewhat timid and conveniently “distant” overseer in the upcoming campaign in a flawed and largely failed national policy designed to drive the remaining plains Indians into reservation life.
As the country prepared to celebrate its proud Centennial birthday on July 4th, 1876, Custer and his 750-man regiment set out on what would be their date with destiny on a hill overlooking the Little Big Horn River. Waiting for them would be an unprecedented amalgamation of more than 2000 Indian warriors from seven nations under the determined leadership of a Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man by the name of Tatanka iyotake, or Sitting Bull.