My late father was the living embodiment of the adage: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” It didn’t take long for everyone in his family and all his acquaintances to learn that when he said, “Well, I don’t really know him very well”, he meant, “I can’t say anything nice.” I think in all my life, I only ever heard him speak harshly about two people. Because he was a military officer of the Old School, he strongly believed that an officer does not criticize a superior officer, the Commander in Chief or the Secretary of Defense except through the chain of command. So it wasn’t until he was beyond the age when he could be recalled to active service that he started talking about what he thought of Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War. But that is another story. The other person Dad spoke harshly about was General George Armstrong Custer. He never did and never would have used these words, but Dad thought Custer was a complete piece of crap.
First of all, Custer entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in the Class of 1862 and quickly became a fuck-up of legendary proportions. Before he graduated as the absolute last in his class, he racked up a record-setting 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the academy’s annals. One of my father’s early goals was to match Robert E. Lee’s record of completing four years at West Point without a single demerit. Dad just barely missed that achievement and his classmates tell me it was another cadet’s actions that got him that lone black mark. Dad also graduated toward the top of his class, so you can imagine the contempt he had for Custer, who pranked his way through the Academy. Normally, a goof-off such as Custer would find himself sent to the most obscure posting imaginable to serve out his military service. But he had the dubious fortune to graduate during the Civil War when officers of any stripe were needed. In that war, Custer was brash, aggressive and foolhardy. However, sometimes God protects fools and children. He succeeded enough that he was given field promotions up to the temporary rank of General. The result: lots of personal glory and press for Custer, lots of casualties for anyone under his command.
I remember, as kid, when we were studying Napoleon or someone in school and I asked my Dad, “What makes a great General?” His answer: “The one who achieves the greatest victories with the least loss of life. And the latter is more important than the former.” You can see how Dad’s style would clash with Custer’s. Even from his earliest days as a cadet, Dad was always about taking care of his troops. One of my Dad’s roommates once told me that, when he couldn’t figure out how to clean his rifle, Dad spent hours of his precious free time (and West Point didn’t give much of it) teaching this guy how to disassemble and reassemble his rifle so he wouldn’t get demerits. This same roommate told a story about being in a “scary as Hell” situation in Korea. Then someone yelled that the Combat Engineers had arrived. This roommate said, “I saw your Dad come over the hill in a Jeep and I knew we were going to be okay.”
Anyway, to get on with history, the Civil War ended, and Custer was reduced back down to Lt. Colonel. That didn’t stop the recklessness which was by now his trademark. Here’s the point where I’ve really started to delve into the Custer story, in anticipation of my summer trip through Montana, Wyoming and points West. At first, I was thinking I’d avoid the Little Big Horn or any other site associated with Custer. But I’m finding that, between the Badlands and Yellowstone National Park, all roads seem to lead through Custer territory. So I’ve been reading this book, which only confirms that Custer was a bigger idiot than my father led me to believe.
For instance, did you know that at one point, while stationed out in hostile Indian territory, Custer took it into his head to ride out alone to shoot a buffalo? He ended up shooting his horse in the head. Which left him wandering around on foot in the middle of the prairie and having to be rescued by his troops –who could have been ambushed in that effort.
I also found that the Battle of the Little Bighorn wasn’t what you might have been taught. If you are my age, you probably learned that Custer was out trying to head off a small band of Indian raiders and stumbled onto a huge encampment of confederated tribes. He was overwhelmed, fought valiantly, but was ultimately defeated only because of shear numbers. Not so. He basically made every stupid military mistake that could be made.
1. He didn’t know his enemy. The war styles of the various Sioux tribes and their allies were very different from European and American concepts of warfare. In the European tradition, a certain number of casualties were considered an acceptable price for war, so once you decide to engage, you charge ahead and count the bodies later. The Native American Plains Tribes, while they were a warrior culture, did not throw lives away. For them, warfare, unless it was a specific defense of a village or a planned raid, was very ad hoc both in timing and in leadership. There were no elected “officers” but rather charismatic leaders, who by virtue of their bravery and “medicine”, were followed. So if, when confronting the enemy, the odds seemed unfavorable or a leader’s medicine didn’t seem strong at that particular moment, the Indians would just fade away to fight another day when the conditions were more auspicious. Custer took that to mean that the Plains Indians were cowards or poor fighters. In reality, the Indians were all about personal bravery. They thought shooting a man at a great distance with a rifle was no measure of valor. It was much more honorable to engage face-to-face and much more admirable to disarm or disable an enemy in close combat. Whether or not you killed that enemy at that point was almost immaterial. None of this behavior was a secret. Custer’s Crow scouts explained this to him again and again and he refused to listen to them.
2. He didn’t trust his intelligence. For days leading up to the battle, Custer was warned again and again by his Crow scouts that many Sioux bands and their allies, the Cheyenne and other tribes were camped around the Little Big Horn. The scouts knew that formidable leaders such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were there, that there were vast numbers of warriors, and exactly where they were. Custer, again, refused to listen.
3. Custer was targeting non-combatants. He wasn’t ambushed. And he wasn’t just blundering around and accidentally stumbled on a huge force of Indians. He was specifically looking for a Native village with the express goal of killing and capturing large numbers of women and children for the purposes of drawing the warriors into a battle. Yup. Old Custer was intent on a little bit of genocide.
4. He divided his forces in the face of a superior enemy. Custer bragged many times that, with 70 cavalry troops, he could take on the whole Sioux Nation. So he divided his forces into three groups, deployed from three different directions, regardless of the fact that he had a pretty good idea he was facing a very large force. He also must have been aware that the rolling, treeless hills of the Little Big Horn offered scant cover. He was counting on his usual tactic that charging ahead would carry him to victory.
5. He had crap officers. Nearly every officer who ever served under Custer hated him. Add to that the fact that his two main officers at the Little Big Horn were the sporadically competent Benteen and the completely drunken Reno. Sure enough, although Benteen finally acquitted himself well in the battle, Reno started hitting the whiskey bottle before the battle even began. Neither was able to be much use to Custer who was swarmed by a superior force in an indefensible hill with no cover. In fact, Reno ignored an desperate plea delivered to him by a scout to bring ammunition and troops to help the besieged Custer.
Basically, from start to finish, Custer’s plans leading up to and at the Little Big Horn were all about how he could advance his own personal glory and reputation, rather than a measured, considered plan of how he was going to achieve an objective while reducing the chance of casualties among the men under his command.
So, I guess I’ll be spending some time with Custer come August. I might stand in front of the marker where he fell at the Little Big Horn battle site. I’ll tell him, despite his own massive PR efforts during his life and the continued efforts of his widow to make him a hero in the nation’s eyes, he was a jerk. Although, Custer’s ghost probably won’t be parading and preening around the Little Big Horn.
You know where he’ll be? At his gravesite in the old West Point Cemetery. Where, ironically, my father is buried a few yards away. I like to think that, on some dark night, when Custer’s ghost rises up and starts strutting around near his ostentatious monument, my father is sitting on his own gravestone watching him. Although Dad never talked smack, he did have a way of letting his students at West Point and various War Colleges, and even his own children, know when he thought they were being idiots. It involved long slow puffs on his pipe, punctuated by Socratic questioning that led you to the logical conclusion. You were acting like an idiot. I like to think on certain nights in the West Point Cemetary, he’s bringing Custer to the conclusion old Yellow Hair never reached in life. That he was a complete piece of crap.
Photo: “Base of Custer Monument, West Point, NY” by Ahodges7 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Top header: Detail of Edgar S. Paxson’s “Custer’s Last Stand”.