Before the battle at Greasy Grass Part 2: The man at the center of it all

The previous entry touched upon some of the broad circumstances – westward expansion by European Americans, broken treaties and relationships between some of the different tribes that lived on the plains – that led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. As we approach the battlefield at Little Bighorn or Greasy Grass as the Lakota called it, I think it’s important to take a look at  the most famous American soldier to emerge from the battle – Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer.

Custer was an over sized figure who sought celebrity and enjoyed it. He was a man of great ambition tempered by honor and chivalry. He could be a man of sympathy and great cruelty. In short, a very complex character stood at the center of “Custer’s Last Stand” at the battle of the Little Bighorn. This battle not only became one of the most storied and controversial engagements in the history of American warfare but it served as a rallying point for the U.S. Army to increase its prosecution of the war against the Sioux and Cheyenne bands that had won the day on the plains of Montana and bring a swift resolution to the conflict.

(Anyone needing to cite an example of winning a battle but losing a war, should unhesitatingly point to the Battle at Little Bighorn. So relentless was the American response that this was the last battle the Native Americans would win in the Great Sioux War. Crazy Horse, one of the men who led the Sioux and Cheyenne into battle that day, would surrender barely six months later on January 8, 1877. The Agreement of 1877 – signed on February 28 – officially annexed all Sioux land and established permanent reservations. Sitting Bull, the last holdout, would lead his people on a four year exile into Canada on May 5 of the same year before his own surrender in 1881.)

Building a reputation

 (photo from

(American history, at least as it was taught when I was in primary and secondary school is little more than a broad survey that touches upon selected events that are presented with little or no depth or context and usually from a single point of view. What I was taught was that Indians had tricked Custer into an ill-conceived raid on an Indian village and ended by massacring him and his men on the battlefield. We learned none of the context I minimally wrote about in the previous entry, the flaws in the execution of General Terry’s battle plan or the tension between Custer and at least one of the other officers present that day who, had he made some different decisions might have prevented the loss of all of Custer’s troops.

In my time covering Maryland athletics, I learned that in sports, one play made or missed or infraction called or uncalled by the official, is rarely determinative. The same can be said of Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn. It wasn’t a single decision or even a series of decisions Custer and others made on the day of the battle but a confluence of events before and during the fight that likely led to his demise.)

Although he had little interest in or talent for academics – he graduated 34th in his class of 34 from the U.S. Military Academy in 1861 – George Armstrong Custer had an instinctive aptitude for leading men and for daring on the battlefield. (In truth, Custer’s poor academic record might be somewhat undeserved. His class initially enrolled with a total of 79 men. Of that number, 23 dropped out for academic reasons while 22 of Custer’s erstwhile classmates dropped out to join the Confederacy.)

It was in the American Civil War that Custer made his reputation. He first made an indelible impression while serving as an aide to General George B. McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan was contemplating a crossing of the Chickahominy River and wondered aloud at its depth. Custer, who happened to be within earshot, promptly rode his horse into the center of the stream and shouted, “That’s how deep it is, Mr. General!”

McClellan responded to the then second lieutenant’s brash action by tasking him with leading four companies in what proved to be a successful assault on the forces of Confederate General Joseph Johnson. This earned Custer a field promotion to captain.

Custer’s reputation grew after he was given a field promotion to brigadier general of volunteers commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade also known as the Wolverines. (This is known as a brevet or field promotion. It’s usually temporary and the U.S. military discontinued the practice in 1890.) Once in that position of command, Custer chose gaudy uniforms partly because he wanted his troops to easily identify him as he led from the front and, in part, because he wanted others to know he was leading from the front.

Typically leading his troops in what became known as the “Custer Dash”, some criticized his leadership as reckless. While his strategy appeared reckless, in truth, it wasn’t. By the time he ordered his troops to charge, Custer had typically scouted every battlefield meticulously, gauged the enemy’s weak points and strengths and ascertained the best line of attack.

Custer fought successfully in a skirmish at Hanover, Pennsylvania on June 30, 1863 and barely escaped death a day later at Abbottstown where he was unhorsed and rescued by Private Norvell Francis Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Safely reaching the town of Two Taverns, he reunited with the troops of Elon J. Fransworth where they received orders to protect General Meade’s flank at Gettysburg.

Seen by most as the pivotal engagement of the American Civil War, the tide of the three day battle at Gettysburg was perhaps turned by Custer’s actions and were certainly his finest hours during that war.

On July 28, 1866, Custer received his commission as lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment which was initially headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas. While there, he took on a number of roles and, as was his wont, also got himself in a bit of hot water when he went AWOL to visit his wife but Major General Phillip Sheridan, who had become one of Custer’s great allies during the Civil War, arranged for his release from the prison at Ft. Leavenworth.

Sheridan was planning a winter campaign against the Cheyenne and, Custer would lead the 7th Cavalry in an attack on the camp of Chief Black Kettle. The raid occurred on November 27, 1868, and became known as the Battle of Washita River. Employing a tactic he would later incorporate into his battle plan at Greasy Grass, Custer divided his force into four parts planning to attack at daybreak. This he did with the same rashness that had served him so well in the Civil War. Many of the officers serving with him felt this sort of attack had needlessly risked the lives of his men. One of the officers who held that view, Captain Frederick Benteen, would be in command of Company H on Jun 25, 1876 where he would make a decision that likely saved his life, the lives of his men as well as those under the command of Major Marcus Reno but that also likely sealed the fate of Custer and the troops he led into that fight.

Another part of Custer’s strategy was targeting women, children, the elderly or disabled for capture and later using them as human shields. In his book My Life on the Plains, published in 1874, Custer justified this strategy, “Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger…” He likely overstated the number of Cheyenne warriors killed while understating both the number of Cheyenne women and children killed and his own troops. Still, his victory at Washita River was considered the first major U.S. victory in the Southern Plains War and only enhanced his reputation.

Fate steps in and it’s a real scandal

Recall that several years before the battle at Little Bighorn, Custer and the 7th Cavalry had transferred to Fort Lincoln in North Dakota. (It was from here that he led the 1874 Black Hills Expedition.) Also recall that General Alfred H. Terry had developed the plans for an assault on the “hostile” Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho in the unceded territory hoping to set out sometime in the first week of April 1876. However, a Washington scandal that had been brewing in the background of the Plains Indian wars for several years bubbled to the surface just as Custer prepared to march from Fort Lincoln. It was known as the Trading Post Scandal.

The U.S. military’s use of civilian contractors is not a recent development. In the 19th century, the Army contracted with what were known as sutlers – private contractors to run a base’s supply store.  As has been the case with many military contractors throughout history, these men found ways to make their contracts remarkably lucrative. Soldiers had to purchase most of their own supplies and, facing no competition, the sutlers could sell their goods at higher than market prices. In the plains and the west, these traders also managed an extensive black market trade selling weapons and other goods to native tribes that were then often used against the very soldiers these traders were contracted to supply. In 1870 or so, Congress gave the Secretary of War, at the time William Belknap, the exclusive right to appoint post sutlers.

In that year, the post at Fort Sill in Oklahoma had a sutler named John Evans but somehow Belknap’s wife, Carita, managed to persuade him to appoint a fellow named Caleb Marsh a sutler. Not eager to give up his tradership, Evans offered Marsh a deal. Evans would continue to trade but would share his profits in the form of quarterly payments of $3,000 to Marsh. Marsh, as it turned out shared half his payments – the equivalent of approximately $60,000 per year in 2017 – with Carita Belknap.

Carita (Carrie) Belknap died some time in December 1870 shortly after giving birth. Belknap continued receiving the payments for the “care of their child.” Though the child died in 1871, Marsh’s payments continued to flow to Belknap. The payments continued even after he remarried in 1873.

In late 1875 and early 1876, a series of articles citing what we would call today anonymous sources appeared in a New York newspaper prompting a Democratic controlled House of Representatives began an investigation. Hoping to avoid impeachment, Belknap resigned. In spite of this, the House voted to impeach him and a Senate trial ensued in which a majority of senators voted for impeachment but which fell short of the requisite two-thirds needed to convict because some senators felt they couldn’t convict a resigned official.

You might wonder what all this has to do with Custer. Rumors began to circulate that Custer had not only been the source of those leaks but had helped to author at least one of the articles of impeachment. In March 1876, he was summoned to Washington to testify in Belknap’s trial which he did on two occasions – March 29 and April 4.

It’s certainly plausible that Custer did leak at least some of the information that found its way to the New York papers. Sometime in 1875, while stationed at Ft. Lincoln, Custer noticed that his men seemed to be paying unusually high prices for their goods and supplies. He investigated the matter personally and learned that the sutler was keeping only $2,000 for every $15,000 in profits he generated. In his testimony, he concluded that the remaining $13,000 had to be going to an illegal partnership or possibly to Secretary Belknap himself.

(Photo of William Belknap from Wikipedia)

But then his testimony became even more inflammatory. He accused President Grant’s brother Orvil of taking part in the scheme. As he continued testifying, he leveled more and broader accusations raising great controversy. Even with the distance of history, it’s difficult to know which of Custer’s charges were true and which were more a reflection of offenses to the notions of honor and chivalry that were so much an essential part of his person.

Whatever their basis, it’s safe to say that Custer’s testimony accusing the President’s brother infuriated Grant and the ensuing firestorm in which the Republican press accused Custer of perjury while the Democratic press portrayed him as a virtuous officer raised Grant’s ire even further. Grant then ordered General Terry to appoint a new officer to lead the 7th Cavalry. Custer was not going depart Washington with his command intact.

Seeking some sort of redemption, Custer tried to arrange a meeting with President Grant but Grant refused. Not knowing what else to do, Custer headed west to return to Fort Lincoln. When his train reached Chicago, one of his closest allies, General Phillip Sheridan, acting under orders from another of Custer’s supporters General William T. Sherman, arrested him and sent him on to Fort Snelling in Minnesota where General Terry awaited.

Although Terry was of a very different temperament than Custer, he held the Lt. Colonel’s military acumen in great esteem and truly believed he needed Custer to take part in the campaign against the Sioux.  Facing an uncharacteristically repentant and desperate Custer, Terry urged Grant to reinstate his command of the 7th Cavalary. Sheridan and Sherman both supported this action and Grant, who had seen both some of his own public standing erode and a groundswell of support growing in favor of Custer, concluded that he needed a decisive victory over the Indians, acceded to the requests of his generals.

(The Republicans failed to nominate Grant to run for a third term choosing Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes to run against the Democratic Party’s nominee, Samuel J. Tilden.  Tilden won the popular vote in what remains the highest {by percentage at 81.8} voter turnout of any U.S. presidential election but failed to secure a majority of the electoral college. [When considering voter turnout, keep in mind that while African-American men could ostensibly vote in this election under the rights granted by the 15th amendment to the Constitution, the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was still 44 years in the offing.] 

Tilden claimed 184 electoral votes – one shy of the 185 needed to win – while Hayes had clear claim on 166 with 19 in dispute because the Democrats claimed that corrupt, Republican controlled election boards in the southern states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina had overturned Democratic popular vote majorities and awarded their votes to the Republican. 

Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and Republicans controlled the Senate and the two houses were unable to decide who should count the votes. For the only time in American History, Congress named an Electoral Commission comprised of five justices from the Supreme Court and 10 members of Congress. The 15 man commission voted 8-7 along party lines to give all 19 disputed votes to Hayes who became the 19th President of the United States.)

One unintended consequence of this delay was that it provided time for Crazy Horse and other leaders to rally even more men to their cause. Perhaps of greater importance, it also allowed some sutlers to continue selling arms to the Native Americans and it’s been theorized that they went into that battle better armed than the troops they faced.

Setting out on the campaign

Despite this almost miraculous reprieve, the Custer who returned to Fort Lincoln and prepared to lead his troops into battle did not appear to be the same brash man that many knew. Many of the enlisted men and some of the officers noticed that Custer often seemed preoccupied during the march from Fort Lincoln across North Dakota toward Montana.  Some described him as reticent and not the talkative commander to whom they were accustomed. Certainly Custer would have been focused on the usual military issues regarding transporting and protecting his supplies or disagreements over battle plans but it also raises the question of whether Custer might have been suffering from depression and, if so, whether that affected his decisions at Greasy Grass.

One of the officers who challenged Custer’s plans was Captain Benteen. The friction between the two dated back at least as far as the incident at Washita which Benteen thought was unduly rash because Custer had failed to properly scout the Cheyenne village and which had, in fact, nearly resulted in disaster for the 7th Cavalry. Also, in his report to General Sheridan about the battle, Custer omitted commendations for anyone under his command – a practice that was the norm at the time. Given his claim of the scope of the victory, this omission was particularly glaring.

Further raising Benteen’s ire, Custer’s report to Sheridan made little reference to casualties. He failed to note that he had abandoned Major Joel Elliot and 16 others on the battlefield. According to Benteen, Custer had made no attempt to locate the bodies which were found together in a tight circle when the regiment returned to the battlefield on December 11.

It’s likely, however, that the greatest source of animosity between the two came about in 1873 when Benteen and his family reported to Fort Rice in the Dakota Territory. In June of that year, the 7th Cavalry led the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873 and on July 31, Custer ordered Benteen to remain behind at what became known as Stanley’s Stockade, a supply point on the Yellowstone River.

As the fall turned to winter, Benteen received word that his daughter, Fannie, barely 18 months old had fallen very ill at Fort Rice. Custer, who had himself gone AWOL to visit his sick wife, denied Benteen’s request for leave to return to Fort Rice and before they could  resolve the issue, Fan had died.

It’s possible that Custer felt some residual humiliation from having abased himself in front of General Terry in his pleading efforts to regain his command. Perhaps He was wondering whether some bold action that led to a great victory would restore his reputation in the eyes of President Grant.

After separating from General Terry at the confluence of Rosebud Creek and the Yellowstone River, Custer led his troops south along snow covered ridges to the reoprted Indian camp at Little Bighorn. What did Custer see when he looked at the village along the Bighorn River the day before the battle?

 Here’s one depiction of the battle from

Some historians have speculated that, for the first time in his career, Custer underestimated his enemy. Others think his earlier successes against superior forces both at Gettysburg and Washita might have left him overconfident. And, of course, there is the question of the impact of the fallout from the Trading Post Scandal. As I noted at the outset, Custer was a complicated man and now you see that many factors could have been in play in the lead up to that fateful day.

Although Reno and Benteen and several hundred troops under their command would survive the battle, Custer would make a series of decisions that all but certainly sealed his fate and that of the men he led to Last Stand Hill.

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