Thursday, June 23, 2011

George Armstrong Custer: Hero or Media Darling?

George Armstrong Custer was no military novice in 1876 when he rode out to subdue the Sioux. Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, and distinguished himself in the American Civil War as a brave cavalry officer, being promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general in 1863 and brevet major general in 1865. Custer’s adherents made much of the fact that he was a “boy general”, but such honors were fairly common during the Civil War. In fact two of Custer’s subordinate officers in the 1876 campaign, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen had been given similar honors during the Civil War. Reno was made a brevet brigadier general in 1865 and, by the end of the war, Benteen had been recommended to receive the rank of brevet brigadier general.

Unlike many other brave soldiers, however, Custer had a knack for publicity. He frequently invited correspondents from leading newspapers to accompany his campaigns, and their reporting significantly enhanced his visibility and reputation. Custer put on quite a show for the press, sporting a flamboyant uniform and long hair worn in ringlets sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil. In his manner of dress and command he was not unlike J.E.B. Stuart, the flamboyant commander of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate cavalry. The North needed its’ own Stuart and Custer cast himself in the role of the North’s dashing cavalier.

While no one could question Custer’s personal bravery or flamboyance, his tactics were weak. His one basic tactic was to charge the enemy, wherever he might be, no matter how strong his position or how large his numbers. On the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, for example, Custer, without reconnaissance, attacked a force four times his size. Custer was personally cited for gallantry although his brigade suffered the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade engaged at Gettysburg. Custer’s reputation was bought with the dead bodies of his men.

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