Custer's Last Stand

George Armstrong Custer, who developed from being a hopeless cadet to national military hero
George Armstrong Custer, who developed from being a hopeless cadet to national military hero

by Ray Setterfield

June 25, 1876George Armstrong Custer was a remarkable soldier who went from being a hopeless cadet at West Point to national hero with the rank of major-general. He will always be remembered for “Custer’s Last Stand” which took place on this day.

Born in Ohio in 1839, George was the third son of Emanuel Custer, a farmer and blacksmith. It is said that he was named after George Armstrong, a local minister, because his mother, Marie, fervently hoped that her son would enter the Church.

It was not to be. In 1857 at the age of 17 George enrolled as a cadet at West Point Military Academy. There, he continued to behave as he had done throughout his school years – as a rebel much more interested in fun and pranks than study.

In his 2015 book, Custer, author Jeffry Wert says that the local minister remembered Custer as “the instigator of devilish plots both during the service and in Sunday school. On the surface he appeared attentive and respectful, but underneath the mind boiled with disruptive ideas.”

Custer was to end his four years at West Point with one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy and to stand 34th in a class of 34 graduates.

As the lowest-ranking cadet, one now known as “the goat,” he could have expected an obscure posting but the American Civil War had just broken out and junior officers were in short supply. So Custer was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment. He soon impressed his superiors with his daring cavalry charges, bold leadership style and tactical brilliance.

His military career rapidly went from strength to strength and the West Point “goat” reached the rank of brigadier-general at the tender age of 23. After the Civil War, which brought him fame and glory as the “boy general”, he became involved in the conflict with Native Americans.

Despite government guarantees to the Lakota and Dakota Sioux as well as the Arapaho that they would have exclusive possession of the Dakota territory west of the Missouri River, white miners searching for gold were settling on land considered sacred, especially by the Lakota.

The miners refused to leave and the Lakota refused to sell the territory so the Government ordered all Native Americans to move to designated reservations. Bands of Lakota and Cheyenne came together under the leadership of Chief Sitting Bull, a charismatic Lakota who urged resistance.

By June, 1876, a growing number of Sitting Bull’s followers were camped on the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana Territory. The army was converging on the area in an attempt to corral them.

Custer, by now a major-general, was leading the 7th Cavalry and his scouts had discovered Sitting Bull’s village. At noon on June 25 he split his regiment into three battalions – one to charge straight into the village, the second to cut off any escape from the south and the third, under his personal command, to attack from the north.

It was a disastrous plan partly because the three fragmented battalions were unable to support each other and because his men faced about 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors rather than the expected 800.

The Battle of Little Bighorn is thought to have lasted about two hours and culminated in the defence of high ground beyond the village that became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” The general and all 210 of the soldiers under his command were killed. Those slain included two of Custer’s brothers, his nephew and his brother-in-law.

Precisely how the general died is shrouded in mystery but credence has been given to an account by the Sioux warrior White Bull, interviewed years later by writer and historian Stanley Vestal:

“I charged in. A tall, well-built soldier with yellow hair and mustache saw me coming and tried to bluff me, aiming his rifle at me. But when I rushed him, he threw his rifle at me without shooting. I dodged it. We grabbed each other and wrestled there in the dust and smoke.

“This soldier was very strong and brave. He tried to wrench my rifle from me. I lashed him across the face with my quirt, striking the coup. He let go, then grabbed my gun with both hands until I struck him again.

“But the tall soldier fought hard. He hit me with his fists on the jaw and shoulders, then grabbed my long braids with both hands, pulled my face close and tried to bite my nose off. I thought that soldier would kill me.

“Finally I broke free. He drew his pistol. I wrenched it out of his hand and struck him with it three or four times on the head, knocked him over, shot him in the head, and fired at his heart. I took his pistol and cartridge belt.”

Subsequent examination of Custer’s body showed that he had indeed been shot in the head and in the heart.

White Americans were so stunned and enraged by the death of their national hero and his men that government troops flooded the area, forcing the Native Americans eventually to surrender. Newspapers accused Sitting Bull himself of killing Custer, but he replied: “They say I murdered Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death.”

Today, at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Custer and his men are memorialised where they fell. The Native American warriors who lost their lives are remembered, too, on what is known as Last Stand Hill.

Published: November 3, 2020
Updated: November 9, 2020

Articles on Events in June