"Get your facts first; then you can distort them as you please." Mark Twain
George Armstrong Custer, Autie to his friends and loved ones, had a fiery love that lasted until his death. From all accounts his marriage to Elizabeth Bacon was passionate and involved a woman willing to risk danger to follow on the campaigns and be with the love of her life. Did he have affairs? Did she? Those questions won't be answered but whatever they went through in the 12 years of their marriage, they were madly in love the day he was killed on a ridge above the Little Bighorn.
There is a humanity you get from reading actual journals and whether they sugarcoated the tough parts, that tends to be how we do. Did they tell their truth as they saw it or wished it to be? All the kinds of things we will never know for sure.
Until I read Elizabeth's books, I never understood why she didn't remarry after Autie's death. She was beautiful and only 34. But then with her words, the life she had led with him, what man could have ever measured up? I finally did understand.
The criticism of Armstrong both at the time and through the generations has been that he was a glory hound. His own book doesn't remotely show that as he constantly gives others credit. He over and over praises his Crow and white scouts. I think some of this talk of glory hound was because he dressed flamboyantly. He has his reasons for that and to me they made sense.
When Armstrong left West Point, it was one year before normally cadets graduated. At twenty-one, he was thrust into being a cavalry leader in one of the most vicious and bloody wars the United States has ever known or hopefully will know. He fought in many of the biggest battles and was often cited for bravery. He fought at the head of his men, not necessarily the norm for brevet generals which is what he became during the war. He said the bright red scarf was so his men would always know where he was to see what he wanted to do next.
Being showy also increased his fame and frankly how do you think he would have done it otherwise having not come from a military family nor one of wealth. He was a self-made man who liked the military life.
As a hunter and warrior, his physical skills were part of his fame. He could ride all night and fight all day which clearly wasn't necessarily true for all those who fought under him. When he demanded discipline of his soldiers many resented the orders. He could be curt and concise for what he wanted done which may have played a role in his eventual death. If he was hated, he was also admired and even loved by many of the Indian tribes who he had fought and who also served as his scouts.
I think it's worth reading the books about the politics of his time like by James Donovan, A Terrible Glory, because it does help us see the mythology of the hero but also of our times. We haven't really learned a lot and that's sad.
photo of the painting in the visitor center at The Little Bighorn National Monument
As to what happened that last day, did he make the tragic blunder that so many claim? He did die and with him 210 of his men, but did he have more of a plan than some claim. Did he try to do what he felt was best and it was the one time the Custer luck ran out?
Here's how I see that last day, and it's based on many of the books as well as my own thinking regarding what makes sense. He was riding to battle with two officers who either hated or disliked him. He had to know that based on what they had said and their actions. Could he trust either? He had troops who weren't seasoned thanks to the US government demanding he spend the months ahead of the campaign in DC where he testified about government abuse in cheating the Reservation Indians and the soldiers for quality of food. He made no friends that way, but he told the truth as he knew it and he told it in such a way that the media of its time could relay his words.
Remember he was a celebrity. Some hoped he would run for president with the next election. He was an ardent Democrat, who had not favored equal rights for the blacks, but who had fought to make it happen. Democrats were encouraging him to run. As a war hero, he could well have had a shot at being President. Were there those who didn't want that to happen?
So that last day riding out with these troops who weren't that well trained, he divided his force from the full 600 some soldiers to three groups. That's where he is criticized, but I think he had a reason and a very logical reason which fate played a hand he could not have anticipated-- not with any amount of reconnaissance.
What we know based on Benteen and Reno's testimony is he told Benteen, who made no secret of his hate for Custer, to head one direction and look for Indians running away. He had Reno attack the village from another. Did he explain his motive to them the night before or did they really not understand the plan?
He took his men and tried to cross the Little Bighorn but was stymied by an unknown factor-- quicksand. His goal was stopping the battle, no matter how huge the force of the Sioux and Cheyenne, based on capturing and taking hostage their women and children. It had worked at the Washita because he understood the way the Indians reacted to threats to their families. It could have worked here, but he couldn't get across. The Indians knew where to cross and soon he was fighting for his survival and hoping two officers who hated him would come to his aid. They didn't.
Custer, unlike his men, was not mutilated. He had been shot twice, was stripped of his clothing, holes poked his both his ears and evidently that arrow up his penis which I still have to wonder what the symbolism of that was. While the troopers had been mutilated in sometimes horrible ways, why wasn't he? The likelihood is the Indians that day only knew it was Custer after he'd been killed. Some would have recognized his body. Was that why no mutilation? Other ideas have been suggested and who knows the truth of it.
There is a lot of spiritual mythology about the battle and its aftermath which I won't go into here but one story I liked which indicated there is often a lot more involved in life and death than we will likely ever understand.
"How information about the Little Bighorn and the terrible wipeout of Custer traveled is a mystery. Only an hour or two after the battle had ended, General Crook began to notice that his native scouts began to look sad, wailing and generally expressing a sense of calamity. But what did they know, and how did they come to know it?Stories of ghosts, strange happenings have been repeated even to some claiming to have seen Custer and Sitting Bull standing together at Wounded Knee and showing by their faces sadness at the carnage. Both had been killed by that time. Did they actually understand and respect each other better than any outside the life of a true warrior could ever understand?
"The question has never really been answered to my satisfaction or anyone's. The natives mourned something they could not have seen, and knew something they could not have come to know by conventional methods.
"General Crook worried this question for the rest of his life, without ever coming to a satisfactory conclusion. Could it have been smoke signals, or hand mirrors, or what? Crook went to his grave not knowing." Larry McMurtry in Custer