11/14/06 - custer

In today's excerpt - General George Armstrong Custer. After his many dazzling combat performances as a Union general in the Civil War, Custer finds himself in a command with very little action among the Indians. But he then receives new orders from General Phil Sheridan—the orders that will lead him to Little Big Horn:

"An Ohio blacksmith's son, impulsive and high-spirited, charming but self-absorbed, he had just scraped through West Point, accumulating 726 demerits and graduating last in his class. 'It was all right with him,' a classmate remembered, 'whether he knew his lessons or not; he did not allow it to trouble him.' And he was an unlikely looking soldier: his hair swept to his shoulders in gold ringlets, he carried a toothbrush in his jacket pocket so that no matter what was going on around him he could polish his gleaming teeth after every meal, and he had worn into battle a gaudy uniform of his own design—Confederate hat, red kerchief, velveteen jacket, and trousers decorated with gold lace.

"But he was born for war. His judgment would often be called into question, but no one ever questioned his headlong courage. Again and again, he led the charge ... as though no bullet or saber could touch him. Eleven horses were shot from under Custer, and at twenty-three he became the youngest general in the Union Army and perhaps its best-known divisional commander. ... [H]is men, many of whom admired him so much that they, too, wore red kerchiefs into battle—also suffered some of the Union Army's highest losses. ... [A]t the Grand Review, the great Washington parade that celebrated the war's end, three hundred admiring girls, all dressed in blue, showered him with blossoms. ...

"At first, Custer professed to love the West, and he designed for himself a distinctively western costume, meant to catch the eye of visiting newspapermen. ... But the glory Custer assumed would once again be his as soon as he faced Indians in battle proved maddeningly elusive. Out hunting one day with his hounds, far from his column and in the heart of Indian country, he galloped after a buffalo, aimed his revolver—and somehow shot his own horse through the head. On foot, bruised and totally lost, he had to be rescued by his own men. Catching Indians was no easier. ... After weeks of fruitless campaigning, forage and supplies failed to materialize. ... The pitiless sun took a heavy toll on Custer's men and horses, and they began to desert in ones, twos and threes. Then, thirteen troopers left camp together. Custer ordered them hunted down and shot. One was killed outright, two more were brought back wounded. For two days, Custer refused them medical attention. One subsequently died. Custer, Captain Albert Barnitz told his wife, was 'the most complete example of a petty tyrant that I have ever seen.'

"[T]hen, to lead his winter campaign, Sheridan sent for Custer. It was all the younger man had hoped for - a chance to redeem himself. ..."


Geoffrey C. Ward


The West: An Illustrated History


Little, Brown, and Company


Copyright 1996 The West Book Project, Inc.


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