Featured What is the deal with George Armstrong Custer?

hanna260

Sergeant Major
Joined
Mar 1, 2015
Location
Just Around the Riverbend
Custer_Portrait.jpg

Alright so I looked in the thread archives and didn't find anything this comprehensive but maybe some posters could point me to them? If this is already a thread... sorry!

Okay, so this is kind of embarrassing because I really should know this but... I know next to nothing about Custer (shoot me now). He was a cavalry commander during the ACW, he had cinnamon spiced ringlets in his hair, he was um... a tad flamboyant we could say, and him and the rest of his force died at Little Bighorn. That's about it. Oh... I do know one more thing. He inspires really strong feelings. Some people seem to love him, some people seem to hate him. Why is that? Can anyone tell me more information about him or recommend a book?
 
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peteanddelmar

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 29, 2014
Location
Missouri
Alright so I looked in the thread archives and didn't find anything this comprehensive but maybe some posters could point me to them? If this is already a thread... sorry!

Okay, so this is kind of embarrassing because I really should know this but... I know next to nothing about Custer (shoot me now). He was a cavalry commander during the ACW, he had cinnamon spiced ringlets in his hair, he was um... a tad flamboyant we could say, and him and the rest of his force died at Little Bighorn. That's about it. Oh... I do know one more thing. He inspires really strong feelings. Some people seem to love him, some people seem to hate him. Why is that? Can anyone tell me more information about him or recommend a book?

He rode into Longstreets or Lee's camp and demanded the surrender of Lee's army at Appomatox I think. Longstreet reminded him of his place and he left. I guess he was a little puffed up.
I don't love or hate him.
He should have the respected the northern plains Indians a little more and he might have lived a lot longer!
That's all I got.
Go to sleep.
Unless you are an insomniac like me....then.....I'm sorry.
 

FZ11

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 4, 2011
Location
Dallas
Alright so I looked in the thread archives and didn't find anything this comprehensive but maybe some posters could point me to them? If this is already a thread... sorry!

Okay, so this is kind of embarrassing because I really should know this but... I know next to nothing about Custer (shoot me now). He was a cavalry commander during the ACW, he had cinnamon spiced ringlets in his hair, he was um... a tad flamboyant we could say, and him and the rest of his force died at Little Bighorn. That's about it. Oh... I do know one more thing. He inspires really strong feelings. Some people seem to love him, some people seem to hate him. Why is that? Can anyone tell me more information about him or recommend a book?
Custer evoked strong opinions because Custer was a Jerk......a very brave Jerk and Good Fellow, if you were in his circle of friends.
 

Northern Light

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Jul 21, 2014
Custer was a man with an inflated sense of his own self. While he may have been a good soldier, it always seemed me that his eye was on the main chance of getting ahead. His vanity was amazing. Google him and look at how many images of of him there are. George never met a camera that he didn't like. In my opinion, it was his own fault that he was killed at Little Big Horn, and it is just too bad that he chose to take so many other with him.
I personally find him irritating, and the Longstreet incident just typifies his annoying behaviour.:furious:
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
Yes but Custer didn't get all the attention for his Civil War actions until he got his men killed so famously post-war. He wasn't this ' name ' during the war although dressed poorly- wish I could remember the quote from one of Eric's books on what he was wearing at Gettysburg. Hysterical. The thing is, he did this bone-head thing later, we all go back and poke around the rest of his career thinking ' OH, there's that idjit, ' expect all his pre-west career to have been the same. Also too long to get into- as down-right silly as it was, getting all his men killed that day at LBH, his choice not to take that gun made a little sense. It wasn't completely insane, Custer just gambled on something and lost really, really badly that day.

He didn't do badly- I'll take him a couple million times over Kilpatrick, for sure. Have a feeling anything I say will be MUCH better said if our real Cavalry member sees this thread so do not wish to sound too inane, put a hoof in my mouth meanwhile, is the thing. Bluffing down Stuart's column with a much smaller forcer? I don't know- rode right into that one himself, too, sailor collar and all. At Gettysburg, we can't expect him to be this amazing, fully-fledged, experience cavalry general, competent to go up against the best the Confederacy threw at him. Well for one thing he couldn't- had men telling him what to do.

And really, also can't hold it against the guy, his tendency to primp a little. Pickett was known for it, God Bless Him- no one braver on the planet than Pickett of the flowing, perfumed locks.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
Custer was a man with an inflated sense of his own self. While he may have been a good soldier, it always seemed me that his eye was on the main chance of getting ahead. His vanity was amazing. Google him and look at how many images of of him there are. George never met a camera that he didn't like. In my opinion, it was his own fault that he was killed at Little Big Horn, and it is just too bad that he chose to take so many other with him.
I personally find him irritating, and the Longstreet incident just typifies his annoying behaviour.:furious:


Hee- I do see what you mean, and I think there was a huge post- LBH sweep to go back and pick through the ashes, as it were- see where evidence may have shown us a man full of the kind of vainglory that would indeed get all his men slaughtered, you know? History is not kind in tragedy. Certainly LBH was entirely his fault- also a few of the circumstances leading up to it, make it a little less ego, more poor military judgement, if that makes any sense? There's a lot of that in war, whereas we look at things without the ' war ' overlay, the look idiotic. I'm not defending Custer- just think he's taken massive hits which are not always his?

Banks, for instance, is the single most photographed general in the Civil War- good looking man! Perhaps he kept hoping he'd look taller in the next one or was very happy with the way he looked so thought others should be, too? Rarely hear him accused of vainglory despite a few of his less than sterling moments- and his are studio shots. A lot of Custer's are in the field, meaning the photographer found him, you know? Custer and Pleasonton, Custer and his Confederate prisoner ( forget who ), etc. Banks are nearly all studio- he tromped over to sit for them. Point being there's a difference. Really am not arguing? Just think Custer takes a ton of hits not really ' his ' despite what a bone-headed, down-right careless and dismissive thing he managed to do, resulting in that tragic slaughter.
 

Northern Light

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Jul 21, 2014
Hee- I do see what you mean, and I think there was a huge post- LBH sweep to go back and pick through the ashes, as it were- see where evidence may have shown us a man full of the kind of vainglory that would indeed get all his men slaughtered, you know? History is not kind in tragedy. Certainly LBH was entirely his fault- also a few of the circumstances leading up to it, make it a little less ego, more poor military judgement, if that makes any sense? There's a lot of that in war, whereas we look at things without the ' war ' overlay, the look idiotic. I'm not defending Custer- just think he's taken massive hits which are not always his?

Banks, for instance, is the single most photographed general in the Civil War- good looking man! Perhaps he kept hoping he'd look taller in the next one or was very happy with the way he looked so thought others should be, too? Rarely hear him accused of vainglory despite a few of his less than sterling moments- and his are studio shots. A lot of Custer's are in the field, meaning the photographer found him, you know? Custer and Pleasonton, Custer and his Confederate prisoner ( forget who ), etc. Banks are nearly all studio- he tromped over to sit for them. Point being there's a difference. Really am not arguing? Just think Custer takes a ton of hits not really ' his ' despite what a bone-headed, down-right careless and dismissive thing he managed to do, resulting in that tragic slaughter.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Custer sought out the photographers for a "photo op".:giggle:
 

Joshism

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
From my Civil War reading in recent years Custer seems held in positive regard as a Civil War cavalry commander. Of course, Sheridan thought highly of him so maybe he wasn't so good after all? :wink: I would be interested to hear what Eric has to say on this subject.

That he was always a vain egomaniac
 

18thVirginia

Major
Joined
Sep 8, 2012
Of course, there is always the possibility that Custer sought out the photographers for a "photo op".:giggle:

I don't know much about Custer, but I looked at his photos. The camera loves faces with angles, so do photographers, and Custer has those in abundance. Sometimes you'll see that photographers keep migrating back to one face in a crowd or one out of a group of people because they just love that face.

Another possibility is that his wife was always good for buying photos and that she kept every one that she purchased, hence we have a lot more of him.
 

southern blue

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 14, 2014
Location
Virginia
I find it interesting that discussions about Custer seem to always leave out what he did in the Shenandoah Valley. Hanging of a 17 year old that was more than likely in the wrong place at the wrong time...and the execution of a man who was mentally challenged and of course his part in 'The Burning'. One account has a locale man cursing him with the words.... 'You will sleep in a bloody grave because of this!' It would have been interesting to have been in the area at the time of the LBH. I wonder what the locale reaction would have been.

His battle reports were anything but boring though. Read his account of Third Winchester. It's almost like reading a classical treatment of an ancient battle.
 
Joined
Aug 12, 2011
Location
Elliott Bay
Custer was at the bottom of his class at West Point. He was very lucky on the battlefield and his early successes got him promoted. He was intensely unpopular among his troops because of his flamboyance and because he was pretty casual with their lives in cavalry charges in 1865 and a martinet. He called it Custer's Luck. His post-war record was marked by the attack on the camp on the Washita where he failed to recon the objective. His leadership of the 7th Cavalry was uneven with his officers divided into "innies" and "outies" (my terms). When he went absent without leave in 1875 to go see Libby he was court martialed and beached for a year. He got back in the saddle just in time for the 1876 campaign. There he failed to recon the objective and the luck ran out.

My background is in law enforcement and have encountered similar personalities, flashy, successful and lucky until one night...

Disclosure: my grandmother's uncle was killed at the LBH, Reno-Benteen Battlefield.
 

theoldman

First Sergeant
Joined
Apr 22, 2013
Location
upper mid-west
In a nut shell, Custer was reckless and brave to the point of being stupid. It is one thing to risk your own life, but entirely something else to risk stupidly hundreds of lives of soldiers who are obligated to obey your commands. He had what was known as "Custer's Luck" during the ACW and that was not always meant as a compliment.

There are biographies that you can read but IMO, an excellent summary is a book which is about Custer's final battle The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Edit to add: Stephen Ambrose wrote a very detailed book about Custer and Crazy Horse that is almost like a graduate level anthropology book. I use it as a reference at times.
 
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Northern Light

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Jul 21, 2014
Custer was at the bottom of his class at West Point. He was very lucky on the battlefield and his early successes got him promoted. He was intensely unpopular among his troops because of his flamboyance and because he was pretty casual with their lives in cavalry charges in 1865 and a martinet. He called it Custer's Luck. His post-war record was marked by the attack on the camp on the Washita where he failed to recon the objective. His leadership of the 7th Cavalry was uneven with his officers divided into "innies" and "outies" (my terms). When he went absent without leave in 1875 to go see Libby he was court martialed and beached for a year. He got back in the saddle just in time for the 1876 campaign. There he failed to recon the objective and the luck ran out.

My background is in law enforcement and have encountered similar personalities, flashy, successful and lucky until one night...

Disclosure: my grandmother's uncle was killed at the LBH, Reno-Benteen Battlefield.
I think we have all encountered this type of personality at some level. I am very sorry that your great uncle got stuck with the big jerk.
 

Eric Wittenberg

1st Lieutenant
Keeper of the Scales
Joined
Jun 2, 2013
Location
Columbus, OH
For many years, my sole opinion of Custer was based on how he met his end. Over a long period of time, I have gained a grudging respect for him. I no longer dismiss him as a lightweight as I once did. The truth is that he is a very complex and deeply interesting character.

He graduated last in his West Point class by choice. He knew he wouldn't graduate first, so he figured, why not finish last? On those occasions where he came dangerously close to expulsion, he straightened up, flew right, did extra guard duty, and worked off demerits. Somewhere along the line, he contracted a social disease at Benny Haven's that rendered him sterile (which is why he and Libby never had children). He had briefly been a school teacher before attending West Point. He definitely had a serious side. He was a teetotaler, and he did not curse or swear.

His biggest problem, I think, was the fact that he jumped up the ranks without paying his dues. By that, I mean that he went directly from being a very junior staff officer to a brigadier general. Other than one raiding expedition, he had never commanded anything. He had no knowledge or understanding of regimental politics, because he never served in one before becoming a general. He did not know how to play army politics, and it nearly cost him his career after the war when he testified against Grant's Secretary of War, Belknap, thereby pissing off Grant and nearly costing Custer his entire career. There's a reason why 11 years after his promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Army, he still had the same rank.

Because he did not know how to play army politics, it made him very unpopular with most of the officers of the 7th Cavalry after the war. Other than those who were in his inner circle, they never forgave him for leaving the very popular Maj. Joel Elliott's body behind at the 1868 Battle of the Washita, and it is difficult to describe the depth of Fred Benteen's loathing of Custer for all of the reasons stated herein. Again, there is a reason why he was still an LTC 11 years after the end of the Civil War.

Also, because of the circumstances of his promotion, he had no experience with, nor any particular talent for, the traditional roles of cavalry: scouting, screening and reconnaissance. But he could fight. Make no mistake about that: he was a fighter, and in Sheridan's world, that was the primary prerequisite. At the same time, Custer's impetuosity nearly cost him his brigade on the first day (June 11, 1864) at Trevilian Station when he blindly charged into a Confederate wagon park and soon found his entire brigade completely encircled and having to fight its way out. The legendary Custer's luck was with him that day; he was struck by a spent bullet that merely bruised him, and he managed to hang on until his rival Wesley Merritt cut his way through to Custer and relieved his command of the pressure. I call it "Custer's First Last Stand", and I think it's an accurate parallel.

Part of Charles Francis Adams' description of Kilpatrick equally applies to Custer: "a brave, injudicious boy, much given to huffing, and will surely come to grief." He was full of bravado, had an immense ego, and was prone to acting without proper caution. He was a brave and inspirational leader, and the men in the ranks loved him during the Civil War--they would have followed him anywhere if he led them there. There is definitely something to be said for leading from the front, and there's no denying that Custer led from the front. Sadly, the exploits of a 23 year old boy don't translate well to a 36-year-old veteran of 15 years, which is what Custer was at the time of the Little Big Horn.

In the end, it is exceedingly difficult to argue with his record in the Civil War. His rise and accomplishments are nearly without comparison. But that's the thing about luck--when it's your primary asset, eventually it runs out, and you're left to fend for yourself. And in the case of Custer and nearly 300 men of the 7th Cavalry, the luck finally ran out on June 25, 1876.
 

dlofting

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 13, 2013
Location
Vancouver, BC, Canada
If you read about the Little Bighorn (or go on one of the online forums) you'll find differences of opinion on Custer and the battle. Some feel the loss of the five troops under his direct command was his fault and some put more blame on either/both of his "battalion" commanders, Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen.

Regardless I think the Lakota/Cheyenne were much better prepared, armed and led than anyone in the US army at the time realized....plus Custer happened to attack the village when it was very large with probably 2000 plus warriors. He might have avoided the high casualties if he had not split his command into three wings/battalions but I don't think he had a chance of winning the fight. Crook was beaten by a smaller group of warriors at the Rosebud a few days prior to the Little Bighorn and he had about 1300 men under his command, including Native American Allies.

Philbrick's book is a good overview of the battle and easy reading, if you're looking for something.
 
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