Gary Roberts
Custer's "First Last Stand"
Sat Jul 03, 16:00

I'm no expert on Custer's Civil War career, so most of my response will be based on T. J. Stiles' Pulitzer Prize winning biography, CUSTER'S TRIALS (2015). The criticism of Custer focuses primarily on the fight at Trevilian Station, June 11, 1864. Custer was a rising star in the view of both Grant and Sheridan, especially in light of his performance at Yellow Tavern in May, when J. E. B. Stuart was killed. Phil Sheridan said of him, "Custer is the ablest man in the Calvary Corps."

On June 10, both the Union and Confederate armies were closing on Trevilian Station, neither apparently aware of the presence of the other. It happened that General Wade Hampton's command had taken Trevilian Station southwest of the main Union command. Custer's force was the southernmost command, and he had orders from General Torbert to link up with the rest of the First Division on the morning of the 11th at the station. Stiles writes that on June 11, "Custer committed two of the gravest mistakes of his career that day, and followed it with his greatest display of valor and ability."

The first mistake came shortly before five o'clock in the morning, Custer was attacked by what he believed was a full brigade. But Custer made no attempt to send riders to Torbert or Sheridan. Instead he dug in and held his position until the Confederates withdrew. He then marched southwest leaving the Confederates on his left. As Stiles puts it, "In essence, he outflanked himself and told no one."

He made his seccond mistake when he reached a clearing east of Trevilian Station and discovered Wade Hampton's supply train and horses reserves. Hampton was engaged with Torbert in the woods north of the station. Custer almost certainly heard the gunfire, but rather than riding to the guns, and with full knowledge that at least a brigade of Confederates were behind him, Custer decided to hold Hampton's supply train. The supply train would be a great prize, and Custer thought it worth fighting for. It was an indiscreet decision in a moment that demanded discretion. He sent the Fifth Michigan to seize the wagon train before the rest of his command arrived.

The Fifth easily captured the train, but Hampton had learned of Custer's presence, and the Fifth was soon confronted by a strong force commanded by Custer's West Point friend, General Tom Rosser. Rosser closed in on the Fifth, seemingly assured of overwhelming Custer's troops, capturing nearly half of the regiment. In this desperate moment, the Michigan Sixth arrived, commanded by Colonel James H. Kidd. Custer's orders were short: "Charge them!" Kidd's troops were quickly cut off by Rosser, who took many more prisoners. Fortunately, the Michiganders were rescued by a follow-up attack.

What followed was was a storm of attacks and counter-attacks. Hampton sent more troops reinforced by still more under Fitzhugh Lee This was the point which showed Custer's meddle and military skill. Custer dismounted most of his ttroops and set out setting up a defensive position using piles of rails and turned-over wagons. He formed his men in a circle (some called it a triangle). As the Confederate troops surrounded his position pushing close to overwhelm Custer, they discovered that they were in danger of shooting their own men beyond the opposite side of the defense. He moved his guns deftly as the threat shifted. He formed a mounted reserve that counter attacked the enemy when they threatened to break the Union line.

"Custer was everywhere," Kidd wrote later. Custer rode back and forth constantly open to Confederate fire. He barked orders, reconnoitered, and encourageed his troops by his coolness and bravery. He was hit three times by bullets, but they had no effect. One bruised his shoulder, one struck his arm but fell spent. Custer personally rushed to rescue a soldier in an exposed position, Bullets kicked up the dust around him, and another grazed his head. When Custer's artillery commander shouted to Custer that Rosser's men had taken one of his guns, Custer shouted, "No, I'll be damned if they have!" He drew his saber and led a small force in a charge. He was thrown back, then charged again and rescued the gun. He and his men were in the midst of Rosser's troops, so close he could havee spoken to his friend. An officer on Rosser's staff fired at Custer, missing him, but hitting Sgt. Mitchell Beloir, his flag bearer. Beloir rode toward Custer, shouting, "General, they have killed me. Take the flag." Custer tore the flag from its staff and shoved it into his blouse, saving the colors.

For more than three hours, the battle raged virtually hand to hand, but Custer never wavered. The Michigan brigade took heavy lossees (as did Hampton's forces) until General Wesley Meritt of Torbert's command broke through and ended the seige. Custer finished by recapturing two caissons, three ambulances, and several wagons. He avoided a disaster and turned defeat into victory.

The Union did not fare as well on June 12, but the heroic stand of the Michigan brigade and the ceaseless and masterful management of the fighting by their young commander consolidated Sheridan's opinion of Custer. It was Grant's style of war, and his dangerous miscalculations were overcome by his performance in the thick of battle. He was no nitwit. He seemed to know exactly where and how to respond to every circumstance. In the face of his heroism that day, his potentially disastrous mistakes shrank into unimportance to all but a few. That day he worked hard for "Custer's luck." You can point out his weaknesses, but it is hard to fault his combat skills.

As Dan rightly notes, it is important to remember the differences between the Civil War and the plains wars that followed. Stiles' documentation is impressive and supported by many others. Of course his miscalculations that day were fodder for latter day Custer debunkers.

    • Re: Re: Who Cares?B.J., Thu Jul 01 19:01
      So how do you explain his poor judgement at Cold Harbor?
      • Custer's "First Last Stand" — Gary Roberts, Sat Jul 03 16:00
        • Re: Custer's "First Last Stand"Dan Brown, Sat Jul 03 19:05
          Generals Sheridan and Hampton mirrored each other's plan. Sheridan sent troops on the diversionary assault on the railway, and Hampton realizes this. While Sheridan moves first, Hampton is able to tak... more
          • Good points, DanGary Roberts, Sun Jul 04 13:04
            Stiles says that it is ironic that Custer is criticized most for the thing he did best. Other aspects of his life--and ambitions--were a mess, and your point about his meteoric rise robbing him of gro... more
            • Happy 4th Indeed!Dan Brown, Sun Jul 04 18:59
              I regret giving my copy of the Stiles away. It gave, I think, a more complete picture of the man. He was actually something of a crackpot. Your interpretation of how he approached the village at LBH ... more
              • It’s very ironic and accurate how Custer had contempt for the men under his command whom deserted or went AWOL. Custer would send his best scouts to track down, capture and return these “disgusting” s... more
                • Custer was certainly a mixed bag. The Stile biography is revelatory as it focuses on the non-glorious aspects of the boy general's life, which included awol, get rich schemes, pandering to the affluen... more
                  • Custer won a lot of battles while personally not catching a Rebel bullet. However a great commander is also evaluated on winning battles while minimizing casualties ( deaths + injuries knocking sol... more
                    • Well...Dan Brown, Mon Jul 12 16:40
                      When it comes to casualties, it's unlikely that Custer had the most. Both sides produced heavy casualties. In terms of leadership and sound judgement on the battlefield, there were worse generals than... more
                      • "his troops liked him"B.J., Tue Jul 13 13:16
                        When you say Custer's "troops liked him" I assume you're referring to the troops whom were not dead or otherwise knocked out of action? and I assume you were not referring Custer's troops whom we... more
                        • The Michigan BrigadeDan Brown, Wed Jul 14 13:07
                          I was referring to the Wolverines. They knew the boy general who, despite his grades and demerits, had sound tactical judgement and who personally led him into battle. Custer was guilty of the afor... more
                          • The morale of the WolverinesDan Brown, Wed Jul 14 17:14
                            After the battles of the third day at Gettysburg the enlisted men of the Michigan Brigade took to wearing red scarves of of endearment for their commander and so that he would be so easily identified ... more
                  • Fame and GloryDan Brown, Sat Jul 10 13:09
                    Considering the hundreds of books on Custer and the Little Big Horn, the movies, the revisionist histories, and the millions of opinions, the irony is that he really had little effect, if any, on hist... more
                    • Lieutenant Colonel Custer .....B.J., Thu Jul 15 15:41
                      My very first history project per Custer in 1973 was not directly focused on the LBH. My project was researching why 11 years post op Civil War why Custer only had a permanent rank of Lieutenant Colon... more
                      • History is not staticDan Brown, Fri Jul 16 7:21
                        History is not governed by a specific course, it does not obey academic rules. It is an entity unto itself, independent from consensus, or fashion. The only historical moments people agree upon are pe... more
                        • Re: History is not staticB.J., Fri Jul 16 13:36
                          Evidence based research is the mechanism which defines history. It is not defined by one's opinion nor is it defined by philosophy. Yes Custer was correctly defined by Styles with the good and the ... more
                        • Let's Face ItGary Roberts, Fri Jul 16 11:10
                          One of my favorite analyses of Custer is the last chapter of Robert M. Utley's CAVALIER IN BUCKSKIN (1988). Utley, who has devoted more time to the plains Indian wars of the than probably any other h... more
                          • Re: Let's Face ItB.J., Fri Jul 16 14:18
                            All of the above appears to give a balanced view of Custer. However Custer's AWOL misconduct and later presidential suspension are the only variables which really matters. This was the summation o... more
      • I'm unsure as to what you meanDan Brown, Fri Jul 02 10:57
        Travilian Station has been called Custer's First Last Stand, but like the LBH, there are likely more assumptions made about the fight than facts. Grant wanted to make a withdraw from Cold Harbor. So ... more
  • Click here to receive daily updates