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 historian, provides a balanced, measured, and thoughtful view of the problem that Custer poses for history. He does not avoid the hard questions or attempt to absolve Custer of responsibility for his failings and considers options that might have altered the outcome.
The U. S. Army never really developed a strategy for fighting. In part it was because the military establishment never truly respected the Indians as fighters, never attempted to understand their ways--General George Crook was a notable exception, never adapted their strategy and tactics effectively. Essentially. The railroad and its attendant migration of settlers did more to defeat the Western tribes. It took 240 years froom the first settlements in Virginia until the combination of the Mexican-American War and the California Gold Rush to consolidate and secure white American control over the lands east of the Mississippi; it took little more than 40 years to complete the conquest of Native America. This startling contrast was the result of industrialization, changes in Indian policy , the vast migration into what had been once dismissed as the Great American Desert.
And still, the army thought of it as little more than a mop-up. General George Crook showed creativity and even empathy in the wars against the Apaches. He was able eveb to anticipate their movements and use their own tactics against them. Ranald MacKenzie proved effective on the Southern Plains. But the tribes of the Central and Northern Plains proved more difficult to manage.
Essentially, as Utley points out, and Russell Weigley explores in some depth in his THE AMERICAN WAY OF WAR (1973), even as Grant pursued a "peace policy," Sherman and Sheridan directed a war of annihilation against the Indians little different from the Shenandoah campaign and the march to the sea during the Civil War. As Sheridan instructed Mackenzie, "I want you to be bold, enterprising, and at all times full of energy, when you begin, let it be a campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction." Custer, consciously or not, was the model for that. As Utley and others have more recently demonstrated, underestimating Native leadership prolonged the conflict and, in the case of the Little Big Horn proved disastrous.
That brings us back to Custer and the Centennial Campaign . Custer did not leave any explanation of what happened on June 25 or his assessment of reasons for the disaster. That analysis fell to Terry, Gibbon, Brisbin, Reno, and Benteen--all others who shared culpability for the disaster at the Little Big Horn. Custer was a "C" officer--confident in his own abilities, conceited in his approach to others, contemptuous of his enemies--both red and white. But there is no doubt that the other officers who helped to fix the image of Custer thereafter all had reasons to defend their own actions and avoid culpability for their own mistakes. Survivors drew the initial portrait of what happened there. But I have always been intrigued by the letter of Nelson A. Miles, who arrived after the Little Big Horn, to his wife when he reached the Yellowstone in August 1876: "The more I see of movements here, the more admiration I have for Custer, and I am satisfied his like will not be found very soon again."
In effect Miles took Terry's original plan, which was fundamentally sound, and did what Terry intended Custer to do. Custer did not disobey Terry; Terry told him plainly in their last conversation to use his own judgment. Hia intent, according to Utley, was "to give Custer a base far up the Yellowstone and turn him loose." That task fell to Miles, and he made it work, in large part because he and Custer saw many things in similar ways. Miles basically took the region of the Little Big Horn away from the Sioux. Miles became perhaps the most effective "Indian fighter" of the post-Civil War period. And he saw merit in Custer's ideas and plan.
Utley suggests that Custer might have done equally well had he lived. They had similar qualities--"ambition,, drivee, engry, persistence,, boldness, self-confidence, courage, capacity for hard work, imagination." Utley points out that they saw campaigning similarly--"hound the quarry relentlessly, in all seasons, despite all hardships and obstacles until they gave up." He also points out that Miles and Custer shared "unappealing personality traits" that limited their popularity and made them controversial. In time, Utley observes, that Custer might "have lived up to the reputation he enjoyed but did not yet fully deserve. . . ."
What no one could really imagine was the size and the fighting commitment of the Sioux and Cheyenne forces at the Little Big Horn. Never before had any American force faced so many Indians, nor would any afterwards. So how can we measure his performance. In the successful pattern that Custer favored, the response of the Indians scattered, protecting their families and horses as their first priority. But, as Utley argued (and who can doubt it after reading his studies of Sitting Bull and native leadership), this village emboldened by its sheer size was full of fight and ready to engage. Even so, it is doubtful that Custer would have changed his plan. He expected Benteen to respond to his urgent request; he expected Reno to hold the timber. Again from Utley, "Had Reno's force remained in place, the warriors here could not have left for Medicine Tail without exposing their families. As it happened, Reno's withdrawal freed them to concentrate on Custer in a strength that forced him back from the river into unfriendly terrain." Benteen, for his part never increased his pace beyond a walk, even after Custer's order, actually written by Lieutenant Cooke, and learning that Custer was engaged ahead. Custer made mistakes, to be sure, but he was used to facing impossible and confident that his plan was sound.
I'm not to concerned about Custer being a peacock. The cavalier tradition was strong. During the Civil War J. E. B. Stuart was a peacock. George Pickett was a peacock, and there were others in both blue and gray with scarlet and yellow scarves, overly pompous uniforms, thigh high boots, and plumed hats. Another factor which must be taken into account was the difference between the small post-war army and the massive armies of the Civil War. Conditions affected the qualities and limited opportunities for advancement in rank in the post-war army. Let's face it, Custer was a man of many parts that we have discussed here. I dislike him for his arrogance and his blind spots and many of the criticisms of Custer I share, but I also admire his courage and his ability to remain calm under fire. The Civil War brought those qualities to the fore, born of instinct rather than of calculation. He did inspire men with his personal courage and cause survivors to rally to him in spite of the costs. But he never grew in other ways. He could adapt quickly in the middle of a fight, but he never learned to adapt other aspects of his character and contact, which was exacerbated by the less motivated post-war army and the lack of sustained combat during the Indian wars. Yet somehow, rightly or wrongly, the measure of the man always boils down to the "last stand." That fact--and the myth it spawned--is unfair to Custer. Had he died in the last days of the Civil War, he would be counted as one of the best fighting officers of the war, but he would not be a legend either. I agree with your assessment of the reason Stiles' biography of Custer is so important.
As a footnote, Thomas Berger's novel, LITTLE BIG MAN, is better than the movie version and more palatable to those of us interested in history.
This exchange has been enjoyable. Thanks for raising questions and providing thoughtful insights. Best!
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
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
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