Was General Custer a Great American Hero?
George Armstrong Custer was an aggressive, flamboyant and fool-hardy man, yet he was considered a great general for the Union Army. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1893 to Emanuel Henry and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick. His father was a farmer and blacksmith. He had five siblings, one who died in infancy. His mother, being a devout churchgoer, names her son after a minister, George Armstrong, in hopes he would go to the clergy.
He spent much time during his childhood staying with his step-sister in Monroe, Michigan. He attended and graduated from McNeely Normal School – later called Hopedale Normal College – in Hopedale, Ohio.
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While there, he carried coal to help pay for his room and board. After graduation, he taught school in Cadiz, Ohio. Custer was admitted to West Point on July 1 1857. The class was made up of seventy-nine cadets.
Twenty-three classmates dropped out because of academic reasons and twenty-two left to join the Confederacy. Thirty-four graduated, with Custer being last in his class. This was called the “goat” of the class. He received a record total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of West Point. He once told one of his classmates that there were only two places in a class – the head and the foot – and since he had no desire to be the head, he would aspire to be the foot.
He joined the Union Army and fought at the first Battle of Little Big Horn. He did very well because of his fearless aggression in battle, which earned him the respect of commanding officers. His cavalry played a critical part in forcing General Robert E. Lee’s forces to retreat. This tenacious also proved a great way to get Custer into the public’s eye.
He married Elizabeth Clift Bacon on February 9, 1864. She was an author and lecturer and her father a judge. Her father did not fell Custer was a good match for his daughter because he was the son of a blacksmith. However, he changed his mind when Custer was promoted to second lieutenant in charge of the Seventh Cavalry and they were married fourteen months later. She traveled with him and lived in a tent on the edge of the battlefields. In 1868, following the Battle of Washita River, he unofficially married Monahsetah, daughter of Chief Little Rock. Chief Little Rock was killed in action during the battle.
Custer was appointed lieutenant-colonel and in 1867 helped his unit in a campaign against the Cheyenne. He was later court-martialed and suspended from duty and forfeited his pay for a year for being absent from duty during this campaign. He left the fighting and went to visit his wife. he was found guilty on eleven charges during this court-martial. This was his second court-martial, as he was also court-martialed after his West Point graduation for allowing two cadet to fight while he was on guard duty.
The original plan for defeating the Lakota Indians at Little Big Horn was for three forces to trap the Lakota and Cheyenne between the, Custer advanced faster than he was ordered. He had no way of knowing that one of the forces had been forced back by Chief Crazy Horse. Custer spied what he thought was a large Indian village and, on the verge of what he felt was a certain victory for himself and the United States, he ordered his force to attack.
He split his them into three parts to keep fewer Indians from escaping. This attack turned out to be on of the greatest mistakes of the United States Army, as over 3,500 of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors surrounded Custer’s men and killed all 210 of them. Among those killed beside Custer were four of his family members, two brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew. This battle was also known as “Custer’s Last Stand”. He had once stated ‘there are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry”
Custer was a unique soldier. He did not consume alcohol or tobacco. He brushed his teeth after every meal and used cinnamon oil on his hair. As a general, he could choose his own uniform. On the battlefield he chose buckskin with fringe. He also wore velvet coasts trimmed with gold braid, a red scarf around his neck and a large brimmed sombrero. This was not done just for vanity as he once stated he did this so he would stand out as the led his men. He would be easy for them to pick out at the front line and would give them drive and confidence, knowing he was leading them.
He also had several nicknames. He was called Autie at an early age, as he could not pronounce his middle name. He was known as boy general as he was the youngest general in the Union Army. because of his physical stamina in the saddle he earned the nickname of iron butt and was called hard ass because of his strict discipline. He had long blonde curls, acquiring the nickname of ringlet. He enjoyed writing, often all night, telling of his experiences on the frontier.
Custer’s blunders during the Battle of Little Big Horn cost him his life, the lives of all his men as well as family members. It also cost him his bid for presidency of the United States. He was an active member of the Democratic party and was being named possible candidate to run against Rutherford B. Hayes. This battle also made him famous as it portrayed him to the public as a military genius and a refined and budding statesman.
In today’s world, it is quite possible he would not be hailed hero. Firstly, he would not have been commissioned an officer after having finished last in his class at West Point, nor would he be called a great soldier after having some of the bloodiest battles and losing most of his men during battles.
With that being said, he did achieve his lifelong goal of being a strong and famed military man who had had several movies, books, and memorials dedicated to his honor. This is one case when tragedy turned to fame.