Custer and the Little Big Horn

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Custer’s Last Stand has been the subject of hundreds of books and articles. In 1953, Custer bibliographer Fred Dustin listed 641 items dealing with Custer and the battle. Hundreds more articles and books have been published in the last thirty years. Novels, movies, and television programs have also been devoted to that battle and to Colonel Custer.

On the afternoon of June 25, 1876, two thousand Teton Sioux and Northern Cheyenne killed 278 troopers of the famed Seventh Cavalry under the command of Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory.

The reports of this battle were especially shocking coming when they did. The first news of the fight reached the East Coast on July 6, 1876, only two days after the United States had celebrated its centennial. Disbelief was the nation’s first response, and only later that day did Americans finally accept the fact of Custer’s defeat. Not since the assassination of Lincoln eleven years earlier had the nation experienced such a shock.

In the years that have followed, this engagement has become the archetypal battle of brave white soldiers massacred by treacherous, tawny savages, just as Adobe Walls and Beecher’s Island were the prototypes of heroic white victories against hordes of Indians. These battles demonstrated that when white soldiers took the offensive, as did the Seventh under Custer, they could be defeated, but when they were involved with defensive tactics they were usually victorious. This was in part owing to the fact that many of the new army weapons, such as the Gatling and Hotchkiss guns, were defensive. Furthermore, native armies could not cope militarily with strong defensive positions, as was seen at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa when hundreds of Zulus were killed in their daring attack on that mission station in 1879.

Basic to an understanding of the tragedy at the Little Big Horn is the dashing military hero, George Armstrong Custer. Born to a middle-class family in New Rumley, Ohio, in 1839, Custer was an active, athletic, and ambitious boy. In most things that he did he excelled, except schoolwork. Although intelligent, he lacked discipline and was careless. Even as a child Custer was quick-tempered and would take offense at any personal slight. This characteristic plagued him for life and can be seen in an incident at school. While Custer was involved in a spelling bee, one of his fellow students attempted to break Custer’s concentration by making faces at him through a window. Custer pushed his fist through the window and smashed the boy in the nose.

For a time, Custer taught school in a one-room schoolhouse and earned twenty-eight dollars per month. He wanted, however, to improve his life and he knew he needed a good education. At West Point he could receive one free. In 1857 he was named to the Academy by Congressman Bingham. Custer’s father sold the family farm in order to raise money for his son’s clothing and travel expenses.

Custer had trouble with his grades at West Point, but it was demerits not grades that almost got him dismissed. Demerits were given for being late to class, failing to salute an upperclassman, and keeping an untidy room or unkempt appearance. If a cadet received 100 demerits in a six-month period, he would be expelled. Custer’s involvement in high-jinks and disregard for the rules brought him 129 demerits during his first six months, but the rules for demerits changed in 1857 and, under the new interpretation, Custer had only 69. Custer was graduated with his class in June, 1861, a week earlier than usual because of the outbreak of the Civil War.

Custer arrived in Washington in July and was assigned to the Fifth Cavalry in the Army of the Potomac. His personal bravery and bold showmanship in several battles soon gained for him the attention of Generals Philip Kearny and George McClellan. In 1863 he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. At the Battle of Gettysburg Custer was involved in a cavalry fight that turned back Jeb Stuart’s force. This action is believed to have been the margin of victory that allowed Union General Meade to win the critical battle of the war.

In February, 1864, Custer married Elizabeth Bacon, who remained his loyal and dutiful wife and who for years after his death continued to defend her “dearest Armstrong.”

After he returned to duty, Custer gained national attention when he pursued Lee’s army from Richmond to Appomattox. There he accepted the flag of truce on April 9, 1865. By the end of the Civil War, Custer was the youngest major general in the United States Army.

In 1866 Custer was returned to...

(The entire section is 1920 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XIX, October, 1981, p. 300.

Library Journal. CVI, April 15, 1981, p. 876.

Times Literary Supplement. October 23, 1981, p. 1241.