George Armstrong Custer

Custer was the hero of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Or was he merely an arrogant fame-seeker?


George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) was a celebrity in his own lifetime, thanks to his dashing appearance, undoubted physical bravery and talent for self-promotion. When he died alongside his men while battling an overwhelming Indian force he became a legend. Was this all-American hero everything he seemed?

The Myth Custer was the hero of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Or was he merely an arrogant fame-seeker?

The Only Way Is Up
Custer's military career didn't start well. In 1861, he graduated from the West Point military academy at the bottom of his class. But the American Civil War had begun and Union generals were desperate to recruit officers. Custer soon found himself on the battlefield, where he distinguished himself as an aggressive, if sometimes reckless, cavalry commander. Aged just 23, successive field promotions had earned him the temporary rank of brigadier general.

Custer stood out for another reason: he had begun to dress extravagantly. His uniform was trimmed with gold, he wore a red necktie and a white, wide-brimmed hat. Later, he adopted the buckskin tunic of a frontiersman. He declared that he always wanted to be recognisable to his men.

A year after the war ended in 1865, Custer became a lieutenant colonel in the regular army's 7th Cavalry Regiment. In 1867, while serving in Kansas, he was court-martialled for making an unauthorised visit to his wife, Elizabeth (pictured, left). The authorities suspended him but he was back in the traces a year later because things were hotting up in the U.S. military's campaign to subdue Native American tribes.

U.S. policy towards Native Americans during this period was at best confused. Many have called it downright dishonest. In 1868, the government signed a treaty guaranteeing Sioux Indians undisturbed use of the Black Hills in South Dakota. The Sioux regarded this region as sacred. Yet, in 1874, Custer led an expedition to the Black Hills, reporting that they contained gold. A gold rush began and the stage was set for confrontation.

The government ordered that all Indians had to leave the area and move to reservations by January 31, 1876. In June 1876, Custer was sent to the Little Bighorn River, north-west of the Black Hills. Here, he and his men were to form one half of a two-pronged attack against a camp that included several Native American tribes and was led by the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull (pictured, left). Late on June 24, Custer arrived within striking distance of the camp, which lay across the river, a few miles to the north. The other force was still two days away but Custer decided to attack anyway.

The following day, Custer split his force of around 650 men into three columns, leaving a fourth detachment to guard the pack animals. He ordered the first column to reconnoitre south of the village. The second was to attack the village from the south. Custer's column was to advance northwards and then turn west to attack the village.

The plan rapidly unravelled. Custer had underestimated the size of the village and the fighting spirit of its warriors. The southern attack force was overwhelmed by hundreds of braves and forced to retreat, eventually meeting up with the reconnaissance column. Together, the two columns made a stand, losing scores of men. To the north, meanwhile, Custer and more than 200 men under his command were all killed in a desperate struggle against a far superior force of Indians.

The debacle of the Battle of the Little Bighorn shocked America. The government sent thousands of troops to batter the Indians into submission. Ironically the Indian victory at Little Bighorn was the last of its kind. Another battle began – a battle for Custer's reputation. Some officials, including President Ulysses Grant, criticised Custer for his handling of the encounter.

Elizabeth Custer responded by dedicating the rest of her life to defending her husband's reputation. She wrote and lectured widely, lauding Custer as an exemplary officer and gentleman. Gradually, the myth of a heroic, blameless Custer massacred by "savages" took hold. It is only relatively recently that historians have reminded us that Custer was leading an aggressive military force when he and his men were killed. What's more, the quality of his leadership at Little Bighorn is at the very least open to question.