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The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer
 


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The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer


  The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy.

  To Lynn and Cimarron,

  the most incredible wife and daughter any man could wish for

  Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Notice

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Map 1: The Battle of the Little Bighorn

  Map 2: Reno’s Valley Fight

  Map 3: The Reno-Benteen Defense Site

  Map 4: Three-Column Approach into Southeastern Montana

  Introduction

  One The Wrath of President Grant

  Two Glorious War

  Three Chasing Shadows on the Plains

  Four Death Along the Washita

  Five Battling Sioux in Yellowstone Country

  Six Black Hills, Red Spirits

  Seven Prelude to War

  Eight First Blood

  Nine The March of the Seventh Cavalry

  Ten Into the Valley

  Eleven The Crimson Trail

  Twelve Battle Ridge

  Thirteen The Siege of the Hilltop

  Fourteen Bodies on the Field

  Fifteen Custer’s Avengers

  Sixteen Mysteries, Myths, and Legends

  Seventeen Clearing the Smoke from the Battlefield

  Eighteen What Really Happened?

  Nineteen Heroes and Villains

  Appendix

  Table of Organization and Casualty Report of the Seventh Cavalry Little Bighorn Campaign

  Sources

  Bibliography

  Index

  Photographs

  Also by Thom Hatch

  About the Author

  Copyright

  If I were an Indian, I often think I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people adhered to the free open plains rather than to submit to the confined limits of a reservation, there to be the recipient of the blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices thrown in without stint or measure.

  —GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER

  Introduction

  One of the greatest, if not the most enduring, myths in American history is that George Armstrong Custer made a tactical blunder in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and consequently sacrificed the lives of over two hundred men. This invention has been so oft repeated over the years that it has virtually become fact, and most historians are quite comfortable embracing that position.

  What would happen if this litmus test for any aspiring historian was proven to be untrue? What if the battle plan that Custer had designed was actually brilliant and could have—should have—brought about success? Would the world of history tip on its axis and threaten to topple everything sacred if this mistake was revealed?

  Brace yourself for the unthinkable. You are now hot on the trail of the holy grail of American history and it is not going to look like you thought it might when finally you come face-to-face with it. At last, here is a book of bare-knuckle history, where you will encounter unexpected ideas, opinions, and conclusions.

  This book assuredly is not a read for the thin-skinned or fainthearted who cannot handle blunt statements, harsh judgments, barbed-wire criticism, or graphic details and need their history doled out in warm and fuzzy familiarity. It is time to cast aside this Custer myth and allow the evidence to lead us to a proper and plausible verdict.

  The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer provides an enlightening, innovative, exciting, and yes, highly controversial, approach to this battle. Every fact, theory, or accusation has been confronted and put to the test, and every piece of the Little Bighorn puzzle has been slotted into place to reveal the entire picture.

  I hope the reader will sense the drama of the moment as I conjure up visions of chilling war whoops, barrages of rifle and pistol fire, sizzling arrows, shouted orders, blinding smoke and dust, cries of panic and agony, thundering horse hooves and terrified whinnies, and—lastly—a deathly silence on a battlefield where over two hundred American soldiers lay dead.

  To understand why the death of Custer in the Valley of the Little Bighorn had such an impact on the country that it has been the subject of countless stories and legends, I first briefly examine the events in the life of George Armstrong Custer and the mood of the United States leading up to this historic moment in time. Custer was a dominant national figure of his era, whose popularity shined like a meteor streaking across the sky—until abruptly burning out at age thirty-six. The man and the legend are often one and the same.

  What was it really like for those cavalrymen who rode with Custer that day? How could such a tragedy have occurred to such an elite regiment? What really happened on June 25, 1876, in the Valley of the Little Bighorn?

  This book is the next best thing to having been there.

  One

  The Wrath of President Grant

  It was May 1876, springtime in Washington, D.C. The trees along Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital were sprouting with fresh green leaves and the beds of flowers that lined the street were blooming with an eye-pleasing explosion of rainbow colors. The White House lawn had been trimmed and manicured with an elegance befitting a royal palace.

  No doubt the cottonwoods and wildflowers that grew along the Missouri River near Fort Abraham Lincoln out in Dakota Territory were also showing signs of waking from their long winter’s dormancy.

  Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, however, at the moment failed to appreciate the splendorous emergence of the foliage. If given his choice, he would be enjoying the rites of spring at his post in Dakota Territory. Instead, he anxiously waited in the anteroom outside the Oval Office in the White House for an audience with President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant.

  This particular visit by Custer was not for the purpose of reminiscing about Civil War battles or discussing strategies for the upcoming campaign in Montana against the Sioux and Cheyenne. In fact, Custer had not been invited to the White House—and Grant had thus far refused to see him. Custer was not a patient man and the wait must have been torturous, especially given the reason for his presence.

  Custer had been unwittingly lured into a dangerous political situation that threatened public humiliation, if not severe damage to his military career. The president had denied the lieutenant colonel permission to accompany the Seventh Cavalry on the upcoming Montana expedition as punishment for a perceived slight. Custer now hoped to persuade the president in a face-to-face meeting to reverse his order and allow Custer to lead his troops on this perilous mission.

  Scandal was nothing new to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Although the president personally was a man of unquestioned integrity, associates of his had taken advantage of their positions near the seat of power to pad their personal fortunes. One such scandal involved Grant’s secretary of war, William W. Belknap. This alleged wrongdoing captured the full attention of the press and the public for one specific reason—a national hero by the name of George Armstrong Custer had been called to testify before the congressional hearing investigating the secretary.

  It had been an open and dirty little secret for years around the War Department and western military posts that certain high-ranking government officials were profiting from kickbacks in the awarding of post traderships. Those who had suspicions or were aware of this corruption had simply looked the other way—with one exception.

  George Armstrong Custer refused to ignore this criminal activi
ty. He had investigated circumstances at Fort Abraham Lincoln and concluded that this corruption went right to the top—Secretary of War William W. Belknap was conspiring with a local trader in a kickback scheme. Custer, disgusted by his findings, had in effect snubbed the secretary when he visited Fort Abraham Lincoln during the summer of 1875.

  The manner in which information of this sort found its way to the New York Herald newspaper, an ardent Grant administration critic, would be a matter of speculation. Competing newspapers pointed to the likelihood that Custer, who was a political friend of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the newspaper’s publisher, had been supplying details as an informant—perhaps even paid for his material. This accusation against Custer has never been proven. Regardless, the February 10, 1876, edition of the Herald accused Secretary Belknap of selling traderships and receiving kickbacks and further implicated Orville Grant, the president’s brother.

  This scandal was not particularly new, but revelations in this particular editorial were seized upon by the Democrat-controlled Congress as an ideal opportunity to embarrass Republican president Grant. Heister Clymer, chairman of the House Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, announced that hearings would be held to investigate the matter, which could possibly result in the impeachment of Belknap.

  Belknap, without admitting guilt, resigned as secretary of war on March 2, but Clymer continued his hearings. On March 9, Orville Grant admitted that his brother had given him license to four posts in 1874 and he had acted as a middleman in awarding these traderships. In addition, supplies that were supposed to have been delivered to authorized recipients had been diverted and resold elsewhere. The profits had been split; Belknap’s share was funneled to his wife.

  Custer would have preferred not to testify at the hearing, but he was a high-profile witness whose presence would generate great publicity for the Democrats. His popularity in early 1876 can be evidenced by the fact that the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, a Boston talent agency, had offered him a contract calling for lectures five nights a week for four to five months at two hundred dollars per night. He could earn more than ten times his annual army salary in less than half a year merely by speaking—not to mention adding to his popularity and fame as the country’s premier Indian fighter. Custer, however, turned down the lucrative offer because it would interfere with preparations for the upcoming campaign in Montana against hostile Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.

  Custer was called before the committee for the first time on March 29. The public paid close attention to what this national hero had to say. His personal integrity was unquestioned, and his experience with the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other tribes gave him a credibility unmatched by any other army field officer. He candidly related that soon after he had assumed command at Fort Lincoln he had requested the removal of the trader S. A. Dickey for various infractions, including introducing alcohol to the Indians. The new trader, Robert C. Siep, subsequently had confessed to Custer that he had been delivering two-thirds of his profits to Belknap. Custer’s concern was that this practice resulted in increased prices on goods at frontier posts, which caused a hardship on the troops.

  Contrary to popular belief, an examination of the transcript does not show that Custer directly implicated Orville Grant by name in the scheme but does reveal that he only hinted at the possibility of complicity. His hearsay testimony concluded on April 4, and Custer at that time expected to return to Fort Lincoln and prepare his troops for the upcoming campaign in Montana against the Sioux and Cheyenne.

  Although Custer’s testimony provided more in publicity than substance, he was not without critics. Cynics pointed out that Custer saw nothing contradictory about fighting Indians as well as those who cheated them. Editorials seeking any reason to discredit Custer questioned his intentions when defending the Indians against being cheated by the same government that was now prepared to go against them in battle.

  The most damaging blow, however, was delivered by his commander in chief. President Grant was infuriated by Custer’s testimony—Belknap was a close personal friend of the president. Grant decided to punish his impudent officer by denying him permission to lead the Seventh Cavalry on the spring campaign. And so Custer sat outside the Oval Office, hoping that the president would at least hear an explanation that would satisfy him and restore Custer to duty.

  Custer, to say the least, was devastated by the decision of the president to deny his participation in the campaign. While the Seventh Cavalry prepared for the march—temporarily under the command of Major Marcus A. Reno—Custer marked time in the White House anteroom, uninvited, feeling lost and confused as he hoped for an audience with Grant.

  This forlorn and humbling state of mind may have provoked thoughts within Custer of the days when he did not have such prestige and popularity and to consider that the President of the United States would even acknowledge him would be regarded as an unattainable dream. He was a perfect example of what could be called nothing less than a truly remarkable American success story. He had been born of low social standing and had risen by his own ambition and abilities to the point where everyone in the country recognized his name and most had a favorable impression of him.

  George Armstrong Custer had entered the world on December 5, 1839, in the back room on the first floor of a house in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio, the first child of Emanuel Henry and Maria Ward Kirkpatrick Custer. Although he was formally named George Armstrong, the family would call him Armstrong. As he learned to talk, his childlike way of pronouncing his name, “Autie,” became his nickname.

  Both of Armstrong’s parents had lost a spouse and each had brought two children to their marriage, which was beset by tragedy in the early years. Within five months of his marriage to Maria in February 1836, Emanuel’s three-year-old son, John, died. Two other children born to the couple died in infancy before five healthy children, beginning with George Armstrong, survived. Three boys followed: Nevin Johnson, Thomas Ward, and Boston; and later a daughter, Margaret Emma (Maggie).

  Emanuel, the village blacksmith, had helped found the New Rumley Methodist Church, served as a prominent member of the New Rumley Invincibles, the local militia, regarded his fidelity to the Democratic Party to be as sacred as his church membership, and had been New Rumley’s justice of the peace for twelve years.

  Maria was often referred to as being in ill health or an invalid for much of her life. It is probable that Armstrong, who was an only child for his first three years, was her favorite. Custer adored his mother throughout his life and never quite severed that invisible umbilical cord that linked them together. Custer’s future wife, Libbie, once related that the hardest trial of her husband’s life was parting with his mother. Libbie told about how when parting Armstrong would leave his mother’s side and throw himself into their carriage in tears.

  The Custer family was not by any means well-to-do, but Emanuel and Maria compensated for the lack of material possessions by creating a home full of love and family unity. The children from the three families bonded together with loyalty and affection, and the Custer household was said to be always in a happy uproar. This unrestrained atmosphere was engendered by Emanuel, who acted like a big kid when he was around his children. He would romp, wrestle, and play aggressively, making them the target of his practical jokes, which became a lifelong practice between them, and dodging their mischief in return.

  From an early age, Autie enjoyed hanging around his father’s blacksmith shop listening to the friendly banter and watching his father work. The boy would test ride the newly shod horses, an experience that enabled him to develop an early skill in horsemanship. Young Autie would also attend militia musters and parades, always wearing the little uniform made especially for him and carrying a toy musket or a wooden sword. Emanuel would show off his son by having Autie execute the manual of arms.

  The Custer children attended school in New Rumley, and Autie became known as a boy who loved pranks and was not afraid to take chances. Armstrong may have been
a rather bad boy in school, but he always completed his work and valued learning.

  In 1849, Emanuel sold his shop in town and moved his family to an eighty-acre farm on the outskirts of New Rumley, where Armstrong began attending Creal School. For reasons unknown—perhaps financial—Armstrong was soon apprenticed to a furniture maker in Cadiz. This arrangement did not work out, and the boy was sent to live with his half sister, Lydia Ann Reed. Ann, as she was known, had married David Reed, a drayman, farmer, and real estate investor, and had subsequently moved to Monroe, Michigan. Ann became a surrogate mother and trusted confidante to Custer, a relationship that would continue throughout his life.

  Armstrong attended New Dublin School, then Alfred Stebbins’s Young Men’s Academy in Monroe. His deskmate at the academy told about Armstrong’s penchant for sneaking adventure novels into class and reading them instead of his textbooks. His favorite titles included Tom Burke of “Ours,” Jack Hinton, and Charles O’Malley, the Irish Dragoon—the latter a childhood favorite of future Seventh Cavalry member Captain Myles W. Keogh.

  The young man was hardly a bookworm, however, but a spirited and fun-loving youngster who was a natural-born leader. He was remembered by the minister of the Methodist church in Monroe as the main instigator of mischief and minor disruptions during services.

  At age sixteen, Armstrong returned to New Rumley and attended McNeely Normal School in Hopedale, where he became quite a favorite with the young ladies. One classmate remembered that Custer “was kind and generous to his friends; bitter and implacable towards his enemies.”

  Armstrong interrupted his own education in 1856 to teach at the Beech Point School in Athens Township for twenty-eight dollars a month. The young teacher was known as a “big-hearted, whole-souled fellow,” which made him extremely popular.

  Armstrong, however, did not intend to teach forever. He arrived at the conclusion that—due to his family’s poor economic situation—he would require some sort of assistance in order to further his education. To that end, he wrote to the district’s Republican representative, John A. Bingham, and requested an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

 
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