On a hot summer day, 141 years ago today (6-25-1876), General George Armstrong Custer lost a battle for the first time in his military career. He died in that battle—The Battle of Little Big Horn. In essence, his entire life is remembered in the context of the worst mistake he ever made.
He died at 36 years old, but oh, what a life he packed into that 36 years. He was raised in Michigan and Ohio. We know a few things about his life, his parents, his siblings. I won’t go into them here. He enrolled at West Point where he had the dubious distinction of having the most demerits in the history of the academy, and of graduating last in his class. This was not because he was dumb, but because he was not committed to the seriousness of his training at West Point. He engaged in all kinds of gags, practical jokes, drinking, brawling, and messing with women. Few thought he’d even make it through his last year of school. He squeaked through by the skin of his teeth.
Then the war broke out, and young George was eager to fight for the Union cause. He approached battle like he was invincible, impervious to the bullets flying all around him. He had more than one mount shot out from under him, only to grab another or engage in furious hand-to-hand combat. He quickly rose in the ranks because of his outstanding courage in the line of duty. When others flagged around him, exhausted and beaten, he carried on with seemingly endless strength and energy, rallying them onward, winning every skirmish he participated in.
At the age of 23 years old, he became the youngest general in military history. News of his successes reached ever higher in the ranks of the Union—and Confederate—Armies. He became one of the Civil War’s most endearing heroes, and his flamboyant uniform (which he designed and embellished himself) and unflagging confidence ignited the imagination of the nation.
He was witnessed riding into battle with his reins in his teeth, firing his pistols left and right amid gunfire so heavy most took cover. But Custer fought like he was invincible. Later he said he never went into a battle without delivering himself into the Lord’s hands, knowing that whether he lived or died that day was in His hands.
And his horsemanship? His men said no one sat a horse like George A. Custer. It was sometimes difficult to tell where the horse ended and the man began, he was so at one with his mount. An animal lover since childhood, he especially loved his horses and his hounds, which he began to take with him as his fame and rank grew.
His wartime antics were not as successful in his career following the war. There was a huge difference between fighting men in the battles of the Civil War and fighting the best warriors on the continent—the plains Indians. He studied his enemy and developed more than a little respect for their ways. Yet no one carried out orders with the kind of eager relish Custer demonstrated in his post-war search and destroy missions to eradicate this nation of those “pesky” plains Indians, who stood in the way of the settlers’ spread toward the west and the completion of the Trans-continental Railway.
He loved the plains—being in the saddle to work, hunt, fight, to show off. He wanted to share his life with his darling wife, Libby, and brought her west where she could live in the relative safety of whatever fort he was stationed out of, and even sometimes on the plains, sharing a tent with her there beside him.
He was a controversial figure. Some would say he was one of the greatest men this nation has ever known. Some would call him a hero. A gentleman. Some would say he was one of the biggest fools this nation has ever tolerated. He frequently disregarded orders if he disagreed with them. He was arrogant, eccentric and pompous. He was a media hound who knew how to use publicity to further his own agenda.
Part of that agenda was the Presidency of the United States. Some say that on the nation’s centennial, 7-4-1876, he intended to announce his candidacy for that office, fresh from his latest victory on the field of battle—the Little Big Horn. This was to be his last battle, a final feather in his cap, the culmination of his military career. All he’d known was victory. Why would that day be any different?
Instead, he died. His whole company was cut down and butchered. Since then, we have heard the stories—from military leaders and soldiers of other companies, from Indians who witnessed the massacre, from forensic evidence on the field of battle and have pieced together most of what occurred that led to this gory assault.
And so, the world judges him, and knows him for this last, worst military decision of his life and his only defeat—and it now characterizes what this man stood for.
Was he a fool? Was he a hero? Was he a Christian? Was he a great man or a great villain? That depends on the book you’re reading on him at the time—he certainly gave ample evidence of both, and is one of the most polarizing figures in American history.
I would hate to think that my legacy was determined by the worst mistake of my life. In fairness to George Custer, I refuse to characterize his life and accomplishments by that criteria.
He lived for 36 years. He died 141 years ago today. And people still find him fascinating.