Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth

Larry Holzwarth - August 23, 2018

In the summer of 1876, the United States was celebrating the centennial of its independence. The emerging sinews of the industrial age reflected its economic might. A huge celebration took place in Philadelphia, the Centennial Exposition, with more than 200 buildings constructed to showcase American ingenuity, agriculture, industry, and power. The Main Building for the Exposition was the largest erected in the world to that time. Reconstruction from the Civil War was coming to an end. Americans reveling in the celebration in Philadelphia and other cities were dealt a severe shock when it was learned in late June that George Armstrong Custer and his entire command had been wiped out by savage Indians, at some place called the Little Big Horn.

The earliest reports in the newspapers were luridly descriptive and often wrong. Custer’s entire command had not been wiped out, but the general, as he was called (he was a lieutenant colonel at the time of his death) had been killed, as well as more than 270 of his men. The blow to American prestige was profound, and it could not have come at a worse time. Avenging Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry who had died became a national obsession. The defeat of Custer became a pyrrhic victory for the western tribes as American troops, determined to eliminate their threat forever, pursued them across the plains. At the same time, the Custer myth, which would prevail for nearly a century, arose in the United States.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Memorial Hall, Philadelphia, built as part of the 1876 Centennial Exposition celebrated in the United States. Library of Congress

Here are some of the actions taken by the American army and people to avenge George Armstrong Custer and the troops of the Seventh Cavalry following the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Captured Confederate Lieutenant James Washington (left) sits with his former West Point classmate George Custer, Fair Oaks, Virginia, 1862. Library of Congress

1. The prelude to battle is important to understand

This narrative is focused on the aftermath of the Custer defeat, but an understanding of some aspects of the battle are necessary. In June 1876, three columns of American cavalry and infantry were on the march against the Northern Plains tribes of the Lakota and Cheyenne, determined to force the Indians to return to their reservations. Custer’s Seventh cavalry was part of the column commanded by General Alfred Terry, moving southwest into the Montana Territory. The other two columns, under General George Crook and Colonel John Gibbon, were moving to converge with Terry’s command at the Little Big Horn.

In mid-June Crook’s column fought a battle with natives on Rosebud Creek, after which, surprised by a large number of warriors encountered, he withdrew to regroup. Terry and Gibbon continued to advance, and on June 22, Custer was ordered by Terry to conduct a reconnaissance in force, along the Rosebud, with orders not to engage hostiles unless the battlefield situation made it to his advantage. In the morning of June 25, Custer learned from his scouts of the presence of a large Indian pony herd, and indications of a large village. Initially planning an attack the next day, Custer changed his plans when he learned that hostiles had followed his scouts back to their encampment.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
An 1889 depiction by a Chicago art company displays the by then widespread image of the Last Stand. Wikimedia

2. Custer actually did have access to information to how many were in the opposing force; unfortunately, that information was simply wrong.

Contrary to what is commonly reported, Custer had information regarding the strength of the hostiles, which was unfortunately inaccurate, failing to take into account about 800 additional warriors who had fled the reservations and joined the hunting parties, which were the target of the Army expedition. Custer split his command, providing Major Marcus Reno with three companies, Captain Frederick Benteen with another three, and retaining five under his direct command. A final company was left to protect the supply train. Custer was not planning a prolonged action against the village, but a hit-and-run raid to seize hostages.

Following a diversionary attack by Reno, Custer planned to sweep into the village and seize as many of the women and children as possible, meaning that the responding natives would be forced to fire upon their own families within his custody or surrender. It was thus that his insufficient knowledge of the numbers of warriors in the village – a failure of intelligence – that his decision to launch an attack became his fatal error. The Seventh Cavalry was in position about noon, and Custer ordered Reno to attack across the Little Big Horn. Reno quickly realized the size of the encampment and the number of warriors therein, and assumed a defensive position. Under too much pressure to stand and fight Reno was forced back across the river to the elevated bluffs beyond. There he was joined by Benteen’s detachment.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
The troopers who fell at the Little Big Horn were nearly all mutilated by the Indians, though General Terry reported that Custer’s body was not, nor was he scalped. Wikimedia

3. Trapped on Reno Hill, Custer and his troops likely died quickly due to the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.

Benteen was in receipt of orders from Custer to join him and to “bring packs” but opted to remain on the bluffs with Reno, despite both officers later reporting the sounds of heavy gunfire to the north, in the direction where Custer had led his portion of the command. Around five pm, a company was detached to attempt to reach Custer under the command of Captain Thomas Weir. Weir moved forward roughly a mile before halting when he spotted Natives shooting in the distance at targets on the ground. Eventually, all of Reno and Benteen’s command attempted to move forward, but they were quickly pushed back to the bluffs, where they remained under fire for another day.

By 5:30 Custer and the troops with him were likely already dead, overwhelmed by the number of native warriors in the village and the unexpected firepower they held. When relief troops from Terry’s column arrived they and the survivors of Reno’s and Benteen’s commands went over the battlefield, hurriedly burying the dead in the June heat, and from their observations and notes the myth of Custer’s Last Stand, defiantly fighting to the last on a desolated hill, was born. The decisive defeat would lead to the myth being expanded, largely from the efforts of Custer’s widow Libby, and efforts to disparage the actions of Benteen and to a lesser extent Reno. It was the myth of the battle and not the modern analysis of it which dictated the response of the American public in 1876, and thus the myth must be recalled.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
A young and still unknown Lieutenant Custer with his dog in 1862. Custer had several dogs which he took on campaigns with him throughout his career. Wikimedia

4. At first, the public celebrated Custer as a hero… but it soured starting in the 1960s.

Although controversial beginning in the 1960s, George Armstrong Custer was a national hero in the United States, a general at the age of 23, renowned for leading aggressive, nearly reckless cavalry charges from the front, long blonde hair streaming in the wind. He adopted flamboyant uniforms, posed for the camera whenever one presented itself, and named his Michigan Volunteers the Wolverines. Having survived so many battles with little more than a scratch it was unthinkable that he could be killed by mere natives, unless there were other, sinister elements involved. One of these was betrayal by his own men, and both Benteen and Reno found their actions and character called into question.

Reno in particular found himself the subject of media reports and public opinion that the Major had been drunk during the attack on the Little Big Horn, and that his actions and inactions were accountable to intoxication. Though Reno had many reported incidents of drunken behavior later in his career, officially the Army exonerated him for his actions on June 25, 1876. That did not stop the whispered accusations of his cowardice, and many veterans of the action reported that they had been coerced into giving favorable reports of Reno’s courage and his actions that day. Walter Mason Camp, an editor and scholar who interviewed dozens of veterans from the Little Big Horn on both sides, claimed that several officers conspired to protect Reno and his reputation.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
The Battle of the Little Big Horn gained worldwide fame, as this 1936 German painting of the fight attests. Wikimedia

5. The newspaper’s response to the Battle of the Little Big Horn cause many of the myths about Custer, that are still around today.

The first reports of the calamity which had befallen the Seventh Cavalry reached the east as the nation was celebrating Independence Day. For the next several weeks reports from the west dominated the nation’s headlines. Terrible Battle with Indians read the headlines of the Charlotte (North Carolina) Democrat on July 10, 1876. The report beneath the headline was one of the first to claim that Custer had been among the last to die in the fighting, the first hints at what soon became the Last Stand. On Friday, July 7, 1876, the New York Times headlined their article The Little Horn Massacre, which also claimed Custer was among the last to fall.

The San Diego Union reported the story on July 6, with one subheading misspelling the dead officer’s name as Custar, and claimed that the Seventh Cavalry “fought like tigers”. Several newspapers around the country contained subheadings referring to the American troops involved being “completely wiped out,” or similar sentiments. Southern newspapers, such as Anderson Court House’s Intelligencer, were less lurid, and considerably less laudatory of Custer, perhaps because of the still recent wounds of the Civil War and Custer’s part in it. The press coverage helped feed a sense of national outrage against the native tribes and demand for a more thorough chastising of the natives involved in the battle, as well as any other tribes not confined to reservations.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
This depiction of Custer’s Last Stand, entitled his death struggle, appeared in the New York Daily Graphic, an illustrated newspaper. Library of Congress

6. In 1876, many political leaders actually did voice that the defeat was brought upon by Custer himself.

President US Grant believed that the loss of Custer’s command was entirely the commander’s own fault. Grant knew Custer quite well, including his military and leadership abilities, as well as his impetuous and often insufferably self-centered temperament. “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary”, Grant later said. But in the immediate aftermath, he was forced by the political realities to take action. Congress meanwhile passed the Indian Appropriations Act of 1876 in which a rider was attached that mandated cutting off all food to the Sioux until they ceded the Black Hills to the United States and returned to the reservations.

Despite the reports in the press and the general public support for Custer, there were many voices in addition to Grant’s which blamed the disaster on the fallen hero. Among these were Reno and Benteen, who gathered the support of brother officers to defend their actions on June 25. Custer had been a popular officer with the public and enlisted men, but was far less so with some brother officers, who considered him overly ambitious and too willing to take risks for the betterment of his reputation at the cost of his men. Custer also had many enemies among the former members of the Confederacy, who joined the United States Army in the west, often under assumed names. There were few cries to “Remember Custer”, or “Remember the Little Big Horn”, as the United States prepared to punish the Sioux.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Elizabeth Bacon Custer, known as Libbie to family and friends, with her husband sometime during the Civil War. Library of Congress

7. Libbie Custer, Custer’s late wife, launched a lifelong campaign dedicated to clearing her deceased husband’s reputation.

As the debate over Custer’s role in the debacle at the Little Big Horn began to cast aspersions upon the former general’s name, a new voice emerged to defend his reputation and honor. That voice belonged to Elizabeth Bacon Custer, known as Libbie to her late husband and to close friends. Libbie had spent most of her marriage to her husband following him from one military post to another, a devoted companion. She shared many character traits with her husband. Both were stubborn, considered those in authority to be mere inconveniences when they disagreed with them, and were irretrievably ambitious. Libbie wore widow’s weeds for the rest of her life following the death of her husband.

Concerned about the speculation over the causes of the loss of Custer’s command, and the consequent damage to her husband’s reputation, Libbie launched what became a lifelong campaign defending Custer. In addition to the reports of the “Last Stand” which appeared in the newspapers, Libbie contributed magazine articles and testimony to Congress regarding her husband’s life on the frontier, his political views, his attitudes towards the Indians and the government’s Indian policy, and any other issues she could think of which would enhance Custer’s heroic reputation and disparage his enemies. She was not above using her status as the widow of a soldier who died in action to persuade his enemies to share her views.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Tom Custer, the general’s brother, stands behind him and Libbie. Tom was twice awarded the Medal of Honor during his military career, which ended when he too died at the Little Big Horn. Wikimedia

8. Libbie Custer was able to defend her husband’s honor due to her charming ability to gain support from major political leaders.

When Libbie Custer learned of the death of her husband – while she was waiting for news at the quarters she shared with him at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory – she also learned that she no longer had the right to Army provided quarters. She was widowed, homeless, and entitled to a pension from the government of approximately $30 each month. Her husband had provided a life insurance policy out of his own pocket. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, the Northern Pacific railroad graciously and very publicly provided her with a private railroad car to bear her home. She returned to her childhood home in Monroe, Michigan, where she received hundreds of letters of condolence.

Throughout their marriage, Libbie had protected Custer politically, using her considerable charm to gain the support of Grant, Philip Sheridan, William Sherman, various political leaders including Abraham Lincoln, and newspaper editors. Sheridan was so smitten by her during the Civil War that he suspended his prohibition of officers’ wives in camp for her benefit, allowing her and George to occasionally share quarters when they were in the field during the Overland Campaign in 1864. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Sheridan purchased the table on which he had signed the document and presented it to Libbie as a gift. When Libbie was widowed in 1876, she was well-positioned to assume the role as the defender of her late husband’s reputation, from first-hand knowledge of the persons involved and her husband’s behavior in the field.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Sitting Bull in 1885, a time when he was a regular attraction in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Shows, which often included a presentation of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Library of Congress

9. After Custer’s death, the US cracked down on their efforts to crus the Sioux and other Western tribes.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn was part of an ongoing United States military campaign against the plains Indians which is known as the Great Sioux War, though it also included actions against bands of the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and other western tribes. Following Custer’s defeat and death, the US Army, which until then had been focused on returning the wayward bands to their reservations, changed its strategy. The destruction of Indian camps and the systematic capture of leaders in defiance of the United States became the mission of the US Army. The United States Congress made the possession of the Black Hills, rich with gold, a goal of the war.

Indian agencies, where those natives who had agreed to remain on the reservations in exchange for government protection and supplies, were fortified and garrisoned. In the autumn of 1876, the troops at the agencies began a crackdown on the reservations, withholding food from the Sioux and seizing horses and livestock to prevent them from being given to hostile bands. Indian leaders, including Red Cloud, were arrested under the suspicion of being sympathetic to and secretly supporting hostiles, including allowing them to remain on the reservations when not engaged in raids against the settlers or military patrols. By October, agents from Indian Affairs made it known that the Sioux must cede the Black Hills as a condition of peace.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Nelson Appleton Miles assumed Custer’s role as America’s greatest Indian fighter in the public imagination during the Great Sioux War. Wikimedia

10. The Cheyenne tribe attempted to join the Sioux under Crazy Horse to attempt another rebellion against the US.

In November of 1876, the Northern Cheyenne were defeated and their village of more than 200 lodges was destroyed at Crazy Woman Creek in the Bighorn Mountains. After the battle, US troops discovered pillage from the Little Big Horn in the encampment. The Cheyenne were forced to sue for peace, and reluctantly accepted terms which relegated them to reservations in the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) where they found little to support their former way of life, the buffalo having been hunted to near extinction. Large numbers of the Cheyenne again fled the reservations, traveling north to join with the Sioux under Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse had little in the way of food and clothing with which to support these Cheyenne followers of the chief Dull Knife, and with few options, the natives attacked the army troops under General Miles in the Tongue River Valley in several small raids. On January 8, 1877, Miles retaliated in a raid in which there were few casualties on either side, but which forced the Sioux and Cheyenne to withdraw from their encampments in deep snow and frigid temperatures. Realizing that not even the harsh conditions of deep winter in the mountains could protect them from the army, many hostiles began to return to the reservations, discouraged by their inability to survive in the open.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Agents conduct the census at the Standing Rock Indian Agency in 1880. Library of Congress

11. The fate of Crazy Horse

During the winter of 1876-77, the remaining hostile bands found that the US Army continued to raid against their encampments, denying them food and shelter, and pressuring them to surrender. Many complied by February, though Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull continued to remain in the field. Throughout the late winter and early spring of 1877, army pressure continued, and more and more of the natives, unable to feed themselves and their families, surrendered to the reservations, their tribal leaders accepting American terms and shelter. By April 1877, the band under Crazy Horse had suffered long enough and surrendered to the Army at the Red Cloud Agency.

Crazy Horse remained at the Red Cloud Agency with his large band of followers through most of the following summer. In September US troops surrounded the agency in response to reports that Crazy Horse intended to break out yet again. Crazy Horse slipped out, was captured, and was taken to Fort Robinson, led to believe that he would be able to speak with the post commander regarding conditions on the reservation. Instead, he was taken to a cell, informed he was under arrest. As he attempted to escape he was killed by one of the soldiers. Sitting Bull fled to Canada with the majority of his followers, where he remained for several years.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
A devoted hunter, Custer poses with a Grizzly Bear taken by his hunting party in 1874. Wikimedia

12. Creating the Custer myth

The Sioux War didn’t end with a dramatic victory over the combined tribes, instead, it gradually fizzled out as the hostile bands gradually went to the Indian Agencies in surrender. Settlers poured into the Black Hills, as they had before the war, which was in fact one of its chief causes. Sitting Bull and his followers remained for a time in Canada, ignoring the pleas of the US Army to return to the reservation. Not until 1881, following problems with other native tribes in Canada and the Canadian authorities would the remaining Sioux return to the United States, where they were transferred to the Standing Rock Reservation.

The only notable battle in the public mind regarding the Great Sioux War remained that of the Little Big Horn, and the fact that it was a military defeat for the United States did not sit well. Major Reno and Frederick Benteen went to great lengths to blame the defeat on Custer, with Benteen, who had willfully disobeyed Custer’s orders to support him, being especially vile in his accounts of the campaign. Ulysses Grant, no longer burdened with the office of the Presidency, was critical of Custer, as were Generals Terry and Sherman. Custer’s longtime friend and comrade Philip Sheridan was discreetly silent rather than vocal in support of Custer. The atmosphere was ripe for the creation of a legend.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Frederick Whittaker was a prolific writer of pulp fiction such as this before he undertook the writing of the first published biography of Custer, six months after the general’s death. Wikimedia

13. A Complete Life of General George A. Custer

Six months after the death of Custer at the Little Big Horn, Mount Vernon New York author Frederick Whittaker produced A Complete Life of General George A. Custer, a biography. Whittaker was an author of nickel and dime novels, usually of a sensational nature, in the manner of what became known as pulp fiction. He had met Custer but once when the Civil War hero met with him to discuss the possibility of publishing his memoirs of his Civil War campaigns. Custer much later published instead a work entitled My Life on the Plains, describing his adventures during the Indian campaigns following the Civil War. Whittaker borrowed from that work liberally.

He also received much of his information from Libbie Custer, though she denied supporting the work on its publication. The Complete Life was a highly laudatory, almost fawning account of Custer’s life and exploits, including some information which could only have come from Libbie, and was the first work which created the image of Custer as the golden-haired cavalier. In praising Custer, Whittaker went to great lengths condemning both Reno for his incompetence and Benteen for his disobedience, implying cowardice on the part of the latter. The book sold well for many months, and Whittaker engaged in a written campaign to have Reno brought to a court-martial to answer for his actions on June 25, 1876.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
General Phil Sheridan (standing at left) with his staff during the Civil War, including Custer sitting at right. Library of Congress

14. The Custer legend continues to grow today

Following the release of the first Custer biography and the military investigation into Marcus Reno’s behavior at the Little Big Horn in 1879, which exonerated him, interest in Custer and the battle began to wane. Libbie Custer began a concerted effort to honor her late husband on a national scale, and to keep him in the public memory as one of its greatest military heroes. It was an effort which had actually begun in 1877 when she pushed her friend Phil Sheridan to have Custer’s body removed from its burial site and reinterred at the Military Academy at West Point, an institution from which he had barely graduated in 1861.

Libbie then worked to have a statue erected in honor of her husband, overlooking his grave at West Point, which she later had removed, concerned over the effete appearance of her husband’s likeness. She also convinced the town of New Rumley, Ohio, where Custer was born, to erect another statue of him, as well as the town of Monroe, Michigan. Libbie then began work on books of her own, and embarked on speaking tours describing her husband, her own observations of the army and the frontier, and the conditions of the native tribes and the reservations to which they were sent. Libbie’s efforts included lobbying Congress and testifying (in writing) on the corruption in the Indian Agencies.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Boots and Saddles was the first of three books written by Libbie Custer about her husband’s career, and her life in Army posts. Wikimedia

15. Libbie Custer, the defender of her late husband, published works to exonerate Custer.

In Libbie Custer’s estimation, her husband, her brother-in-law Tom Custer, and all of the slain at the Little Big Horn were martyrs to American ideals, and it was in that light that she presented their sacrifice to the American people in lectures and in magazine articles. In 1885 she published the book Boots and Saddles, subtitled Life in Dakota with General Custer. The book described Custer to the public in terms never before used; a loving and devoted husband, dedicated to his duty as a soldier and officer, solicitous of his men. It was well-received by the public and remains generally considered factual by scholars, though deliberately aimed at defending his reputation as a soldier.

Libbie’s account in Boots and Saddles ended with her receiving the news of Custer’s death at the Little Big Horn. Other authors took up her cause, reporting her efforts to console the wives of the other officers whose husbands perished in the Montana fields. Libbie became a national celebrity of the times and followed up her work with two additional books describing Custer and his military career, Tenting on the Plains (1887) and Following the Guidon (1890). After moving to New York, Libbie continued to offer lectures on Custer and his exploits, and in the chivalric manners of the day was well-received when she called on leading politicians and businessmen.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
A map taken from Tenting on the Plains, in which Libbie Custer described her husbands activities in Kansas and Texas, and their life together there. British Library

16. Building the legend

When Libbie Custer published Tenting on the Plains, which described in detail the campaigns led by Winfield Hancock in Kansas in 1867, she also became one of the first to chronicle the tensions between the United States and France over the French intervention in Mexico. Her husband’s actions during the wars against the Indians between Arkansas and the Platte rivers were described in terms which at times seemed critical of the army and its endless bureaucratic dithering. Custer is described as a ruthless enemy of the corrupt officials at the agencies which took advantage of the Indian tribes, both lining their pockets and endangering their charges.

Following the Guidon, which Libbie wrote using the letters written by Custer during the campaign which culminated at Washita Creek as references, describes the winter encampments and the military operations as well as her own life at a remote army post. Together with her earlier works, Libbie presented the sacrifices made by Army wives and families, one of the first writers to do so. Libbie was also one of the first to describe the adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and the other colorful army scouts and adventurers. She was a celebrated writer, yet she remained, for the most part, a recluse, refusing most callers, and maintaining the image of a widow devoted to her husband’s memory.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
Another view of the Battle of the Little Big Horn reflecting the public’s image of Custer’s Last Stand. Wikimedia

17. The legend of the Last Stand

Libbie Custer did not describe the Last Stand in her books. The legend was created by other writers, and the image of a small group of cavalrymen, surrounded by hordes of native warriors, with Custer standing near the American flag fighting to the last became etched into American history. Several eyewitnesses to the Battle of the Little Big Horn – all of them Indians – gave conflicting testimony over how the battle evolved and how Custer died. Numerous warriors claimed to have been the one to kill Custer, others claimed to have seen him fall, but the truth is nobody knows for certain how Custer died. He was found with two bullet wounds, either of which would have been fatal. Unlike the rest of his command, his body was not mutilated by the Indians, though later writers claimed, without evidence, that it had.

One of the earliest depictions of the Last Stand appeared as part of an advertising campaign, in a painting commissioned by Anheuser-Busch for their Budweiser beer. The painting was hung in saloons and taverns throughout the nation. In 1912 Custer was played in film for the first time, a silent short film directed by Francis Ford, whose brother John Ford would become famous for western and war films. Before Libbie Custer died in 1933, only four days short of her 91st birthday, Custer had been portrayed in films nine times. Films added to the legend of the Last Stand, with Custer played by actors including Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Robert Shaw, and Leslie Nielsen.

Avenging Custer: Activities that Turned George Armstrong Custer into a Myth
In reality, Custer had removed his buckskin jacket before dividing his command, and his hair had been cropped before departing on his final campaign, dispelling two more myths of the classic scene. Library of Congress

18. Custer’s legend today

In the 1960s changes in attitudes towards America’s history with the Indians led to a reappraisal of Custer and his legend. In many cases, the heroism of the Last Stand was changed into a bumbling and ill-advised attack, led by a megalomaniac. Custer was depicted as a butcher of Indians, a racist, and an egomaniac. Though not without his supporters, his actions at the Little Big Horn were roundly condemned as borderline insanity. This depiction is inaccurate and unfair to the commander who relied on the intelligence he was provided by his superiors, and followed his orders not to allow the natives to escape. It also ignores the failure of his officers to follow his orders.

Forensic examination of the battlefield in the late 1970s and early 1980s revealed a very different battle than the one long held in the national memory. Whether the additional troops of Benteen’s command would have changed the outcome had Benteen followed his orders and come to Custer’s aid is open to speculation. That Benteen disobeyed his orders is not, and the evidence that the army covered up his actions is clear. The truth about Custer is that his death surmounted his career in the public mind. Nearly all Americans remain aware of Custer’s Last Stand, though few remember his exploits during the Civil War and in the Plains Wars. Avenging Custer is an ongoing activity, with no signs of its abating in the twenty-first century.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Little Big Horn”, by Andrew S. Ward, American Heritage Magazine, April 1992

“Son of the Morning Star” by Evan S. Connell, 1992

“The Benteen-Goldin Letters on Custer and His Last Battle”, by John M. Carroll, 1974

“On the Little Big Horn with Walter Camp: A Collection of Walter Mason Camp’s Letters, Notes and Opinions on Custer’s Last Fight”, by Richard Hardoff, 2002

“The Little Horn Massacre”, by The New York Times, front page, July 7, 1876

“Ulysses S Grant Launched an Illegal War Against the Plains Indians, Then Lied About It”, by Peter Cozzens, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2016

“Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer”, by Louise Barnett, 1996

“The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General Custer and his Wife Elizabeth”, edited by Marguerite Merington, 1950

“Mystic Warriors of the Plains”, by Thomas E. Mails, 1972

“Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Big Horn and the Fate of the Plains Indians”, by James Welch and Paul Stekler, 2007

“Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors”, by Stephen E. Ambrose, 1975

“Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend”, by Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown, 2015

“A Complete Life of General George A. Custer”, by Frederick Whittaker, introduction by Robert Utley, 1876, 1993

“Libbie Custer”, by Gene Smith, American Heritage Magazine, December 1993

“Boots and Saddles, or Life in Dakota with General Custer”, by Elizabeth Bacon Custer, 1885 (1961 edition)

“Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer”, by Jeffrey D. Wert, 1997

“To Hell with Honor: General Custer and the Little Big Horn”, by Larry Sklenar, 2000

“Digging into Custer’s Last Stand”, by Sandy Barnard, 1998