Was Custer an idiot or genius?

Zach – Today I have a panel of important historical people with me to discuss a topic that’s been debated hotly ever since the late 1800’s: The issue of whether George Armstrong Custer was a total fool or an unlucky but good leader.
Mulan – Being a leader is more than calling out enemy locations while playing Call of Duty.
Matilda – You’re only upset because you kept getting killed by that sniper.
Zach – Ladies! Please, you both rocked at COD3 last night. No need to squabble.

What is going on here? Read on to find out!

Zach – To help us with this we have firstly, Charles Martel, leader of the Franks that led a very successful war against the Moors.
Martel – Glad to be here as always.
Zach – Next we have Hua Mulan. She took her father’s place in the army to protect her homeland.
Mulan – Thank you.
Zach – Then we have Countess Matilda of Tuscany. She fought the Holy Roman Emperor with her private army, chewed bubble gum and kicked butt until she was all out of bubble gum…then she just kicked butt.
Matilda – As eloquent and truthful as always.
Zach – And our last panelist is new to our discussions, Lord Cornwallis, general of the British army during the American Revolution.
Cornwallis – Thanks lad. It is an honor to be here among a group of my peers. It’s also good to see a representative of His Majesty’s military being accounted for.
Zach – Thank you all for being here.
Mulan – (Looks around) No Napoleon?
Zach – No, sorry. Not this time.
Mulan – Good. He was an annoying, arrogant man.
Zach – So, as I said earlier, our topic is George Armstrong Custer. What most people know about him is that he had a last stand at Little Big Horn. There is so much more to his story. Let’s review his past. It’s the only way to get a clearer view of the man.
Matilda – He graduated last in his class at the Military Academy. Evidently he was no scholar.
Cornwallis – Last? How ever did he gain a commission with such an appalling record?
Matilda – The Civil War.
Mulan – Yes, necessity sometimes bring benefits to soldiers that would normally be passed over.
Martel – He knew General McClellan. That didn’t hurt either. He joined McClellan’s unit and became a cavalry officer. Apparently that was more prestigious than being with the infantry. Fools. Infantry are what win battles.
Cornwallis – And no infantry was finer than the British Red Coats. Most able musket men in the world!
Zach – So, how did he do as a cavalry officer? I must admit that I’m highly curious. During my last deployment to Iraq, I was in the cavalry. So I was a part of the tradition of Custer. The American cy still wears Stetson cowboy hats and fake spurs. We also still have the same red and white flags that denote the unit is a cav unit.
Mulan – He did very well. He killed his enemies and gained success on the field of battle.
Cornwallis – Indeed he did! He fought in most major engagements in the eastern theater. I dare say that he rode over many battlefields that I was victorious on.
Matilda – I take it Custer didn’t fight at Yorktown then.
Martel – He was known for his daring and dashing and lack of fear. When a general muttered that he wished he knew how deep a certain river was, Custer charged out into the river and told the general that it was passable.
Mulan – Sounds like he was a glory seeker fighting for himself.
Zach – Do the rest of you agree with this? Was he a glory seeker?
Matilda – It is a bit difficult to deny when the man wears such garish clothing. A man doesn’t wear such clothing to avoid attention.
Cornwallis – He did have a bit of a flamboyant streak about him. Not very soldierly of him, is it?
Martel – I would say not.
Zach – So, he was at the Battle of Bull Run and the Peninsula Campaign. He performed exceptionally in every battle he fought in and for a Yankee at the beginning of the war, that is saying something. The North wasn’t exactly known for its high quality leadership.
Martel – His friend McClellan had a “case of the slows” as your president Lincoln called it. He was slow to attack and wasted many opportunities.
Cornwallis – But this is not a fault we can accuse Custer of. Indeed the man would attack anything and everything in his way.
Mulan – It shows a distinct lack of common sense. Dashing and feats of bravery do not win wars. Discipline, training and obedience win wars.
Matilda – But it can be said that they win battles. Mulan, I understand that you read your Sun Tsu. Doesn’t it say something about when the enemy is larger than your force, avoid combat?
Mulan – Yes it does. To do otherwise is to play a game of chance that is not in your favor.
Cornwallis – I wish General Washington had read that book. There would never have been a Revolution if that were the case!
Martel – I frequently fought larger forces. Size isn’t the only factor.
Zach – Glad you brought up his habit for charging larger forces. This brings us to his role in the battle of Gettysburg.
Martel – I saw the movie. I’ve never seen so many monologues.
Mulan – I enjoyed it.
Zach – What part did Custer play at Gettysburg?
Matilda – I’m not sure but I can guess that it involved attacking at the first chance he got.
Zach – Pretty much, but let’s be a bit more specific.
Cornwallis – The Confederate cavalry officer….what was his name? Ah! J.E.B. Stuart. He was in charge of General Lee’s cavalry. When Lee encountered the Federal army, Stuart was off riding rough shot over the country side and left Lee blind. Lee didn’t know he was about to face the entire Yankee army.
Mulan – Custer was also promoted to general at this battle.
Martel – Yes, he had his own command. He was the youngest general.
Matilda – He came across J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. What did he do?
Cornwallis – He charged
Mulan – He charged.
Matilda – Yes, he charged. Lee, at the time of Picket’s charge, sent Stuart’s cavalry to attack the Federal rear. This might have worked but they came across Custer’s unit.
Cornwallis – Yes, yes. We know. He was grossly outnumbered but charged right at them anyway.
Mulan – He was a fool.
Cornwallis – Perhaps, but his charge stopped Stuart’s cavalry from attacking the Federal rear. He accomplished his mission. I’d say that’s a fine officer. It seems reckless, but what was he to do? Also, it is said by Marguerite Merrington in her book “The Custer Story in Letters” “George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemies[sic] weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the ‘Custer Dash’ with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time.” This is an intelligent man that thought out his strategies.
Matilda – Yes, but at the cost of over two hundred of his own men.
Mulan – At the end of the battle Custer also wrote “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry” I would not such suffer a boastful, reckless man in my army.
Matilda – That does sound like a glory seeking fool.
Martel – It was a gamble but he won, so he is counted as successful. If he would have lost it would have been looked at as the most foolish mistake ever. Strange how success or failure determine intelligence.
Zach – So, he was a glory seeking man, but he wasn’t stupid and knew what he was doing. He was also highly aggressive.
Mulan – Too aggressive. It is not money or his own life he gambles with. It is the life of his men.
Cornwallis – But this was not Custer’s only daring deed of stiff upper lippedness. He fought the entire Civil War with such dash and grandeur. Indeed, he was even there for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. If that isn’t the mark of a successful general, then I know not what is.
Mulan – Victory is easy. What tests a person’s character is how they act in defeat. Wouldn’t you say, Lord Cornwallis?
Cornwallis – (clears throat and adjusts jacket. ) I don’t know what you mean.
Mulan – Sending a page out to surrender in your stead and then he tried to surrender to the French officer beside Washington. Washington won. I suppose that makes him a great general, then. Yes?
Cornwallis – What’s next on our discussion, Zachary?
Zach – Well…um…after the Civil War he stayed in the army, was given a chance to be a general in Mexico, turned it down and went out west to fight Indians.
Cornwallis – Yes indeed! Fighting savage locals. Something the British Empire excels at!
Martel – Yes, here we have Custer showing off his great daring and dash once again, but this time his targets were villages with women and children. I wouldn’t call this a noble and valiant war.
Matilda – Yes, he purposefully brought war down on women and children. Some would argue that it was the American Army’s policy to do so, but I don’t think this excuses him. Innocents die in war. It is a sad but inevitable fact. But it should be avoided and not be the goal.
Mulan – Look at the massacre at Black Kettle’s camp. They had a white flag and were offering peace.
Martel – As we said earlier, Custer was a very aggressive man and didn’t know how to hold off from the attack. So, when he saw Indians, he attacked. He also moved into territory promised to the Indians and helped set up settlements. The famous town of Deadwood was one such town.
Zach – This brings us to Little Big Horn. Custer was ordered to hunt down any hostile Indian camp he could. Hostile, in this case, meant that they wouldn’t bow down to the American government. If this wasn’t a case of fighting “The Man” then I don’t know what is.
Matilda – I thought your government had laws against such things.
Zach – Only if they’re citizens…and not since Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act which authorizes the military to detain indefinitely American Citizens. So, the answer is…. not really, but we’re supposed to.
Martel – Custer found his hostile camp, yes?
Cornwallis – Indeed, sir! He found it and then some! He thought he was after a village of nomads. His Crow scouts, traditional enemies of the Lakota, said they saw a large camp along the Little Big Horn River. Custer, being eager to fight before the Indians could flee, ordered his unit to split into three groups.
Mulan – One group went off to cut off escape and Major Reno took his force near the woods and formed a line.
Matilda – But Reno was soon covered in Indians that were very “Hostile” and was forced to retreat. Reno lost a lot of men.
Cornwallis – But it was supposed to be a classic Hammer and Anvil strategy.
Martel – I love the hammer and anvil strategy! But it doesn’t work when your anvil is defeated before the hammer can be brought to bare.
Mulan – Custer then attacked the camp, but before he could cross the river the Indians began…what did you call it last night?
Zach – A smack down.
Mulan – Yes! The Indians gave Custer a “smack up” and chased him up a hill.
Cornwallis – What was the problem? Why couldn’t they take this enemy camp? The problem was that this was no ordinary camp. Custer had stumbled upon a rare gathering of several tribes from several nations. He stumbled into one of the largest gatherings of Indian warriors ever assembled. Custer had a few hundred. They had thousands. I must say, he still should have won. I mean, look at Rourke’s Drift where we British stood tall and showed them what for!
Zach – This is a slightly different situation, Lord Cornwallis. This happened so fast that it threw Custer’s cavalry into chaos. It was a quick route and they fled up a hill to get some kind of advantage over the Indians.
Mulan – It didn’t work.
Matilda – Apparently not.
Zach – Recent archeological evidence has found that Custer died slightly north of the main fighting and had two wounds. One in his head and one in his chest. How this happened, no account really told us. It remained a mystery for over a hundred years!
Matilda – Can I say it?
Zach – Sure.
Matilida – But! We here at Minimum Wage Historian have found out what happened to Custer. The Cheyenne, one of the nations that took part at Little Big Horn, had been sworn to secrecy by their chiefs, telling them not to tell what happened to Custer for a hundred winters because they feared the reprisals of the American Government. Recently the Cheyenne have come out and told the public what their oral tales have said.
Zach – Thanks, Matilda. Well done. Yes, we have uncovered the Cheyenne’s version of events and it fits with the archeological evidence and other eye witness accounts. According Cheyenne tradition, Custer was knocked off his horse by a blow to the head by a warrior named Buffalo Calf Road….and she was a woman.
Mulan – (Fist pumps) Did I do that right?
Zach – Yes you did and it was a well earned fist pump. Buffalo Calf Road Woman was already a famous warrior before the Battle of Little Big Horn. At the Battle or Rosebud, she saved her brother, Chief Comes in Sight. The Lakota, under the command of Crazy Horse were retreating and left their wounded. Well, Buffalo Calf Road, or Brave Woman for short, went out in front of enemy fire, rescued her brother and then rallied the Lakota braves for a come from behind victory.
Mulan – I approve.
Matilda – (claps)
Martel – I could have used her in my army.
Zach – Hold on, I think I have a picture of her somewhere. Yes! Here it is.

Here's "Buff" as we like to call her, rescuing her bro. This was drawn by an eye witness.

She was so Bad A, that the Cheyenne named the battle after her and called it “Where the Girl saved her brother.” She was credited with knocking Custer off his horse and then killing him on the ground. There were other warrior women there as well including “Moving Robe Woman,” “Magpie,” and the awesomely named “Finds them and Kills them.”
Cornwallis – I’m afraid we are simplifying this battle to a ridiculous degree.
Zach – We have a case of Mountain Dew and we’re about to play Street Fighter. We have important things to do. Besides, if someone wants to learn a much more detailed account, then it behooves them to go look it up.
Mulan – We’re done here?
Cornwallis – Wait, we’re not done!
Martel – Not yet. What is the answer to the question? Was Custer a fool or unlucky?
Matilda – He made several blunders that any novice would have avoided. He should have scouted out the camp first. Everyone knows this. No one attacks blindly.
Mulan – He thought he was going into a village of women and children. Why bother?
Zach – Well, we’ve seen that his career during the Civil War was actually quite remarkable and filled with stunning successes. But I think he let his pride and aggressiveness get in the way of his training.
Martel – So, he was no fool, but he was a heartless jerk.
Zach – Well, he made other blunders as well at Little Big Horn, but I invite the readers to go and make up their own minds.
Mulan – Okay, let’s go. I have butt kicking that awaits you.


23 comments on “Was Custer an idiot or genius?

  1. Custer’s worst fault was that he never learned from his mistakes. His disaster at the Little Big Horn was preceded by an almost identical screwup in the Civil War, when he led a headstrong charge into the Confederate ranks and got completely surrounded.

    At the height of the fight, a quartermaster asked if he should take the wagons to the rear. A flustered Custer reflexively answered ‘yes, yes!’ only to realize minutes later, ‘where the hell IS the rear?!’ But it was too late and his wagons and supplies had stampeded into Rebel hands.

    Although Union forces were able to reach him in time, he suffered the humiliation of having his elaborate uniforms paraded through the streets of Richmond and his passionate love letters published in the city papers.

    • zacharyhill says:

      Ha ha ha! I have not heard that story but it sounds about right. (Having lived in Richmond I like this story.) Yes, I believe he was reckless to a fault. (obviously) I think his massacre was inevitable. If you gamble, you’ll eventually lose. I’m just surprised it took so long for it to happen.

  2. Anna Komemne says:

    Sorry I couldn’t be there. Sounds like you had fun. I tried to play Charles Martel in Call of Duty and he beat me every time. What I wanted to say was that if one is looking for more information, here’s a good news article about the Cheyenne coming out with their side of the story.

  3. skaramine says:

    Cheyenne history lesson – murder women and children under a white flag, a warrior woman will take our life and cut your name in two.

    Martel, Matilda and Mulan’s impressions quite echo my own. He was fairly smart, but in the end, he was scum who thought he was going to run over a helpless village, and received justice in the form of one to the head and one to the chest.

  4. Custer was also a fool because he chose to leave behind his artillery. More specifically, his Gatling guns. If he had chosen to move at a slightly slower pace that the artillery could have kept up with, he would have easily won the battle with the Gatling guns.

  5. Glenda says:

    Well done! I love those brave women. My gosh, there needs to be a history book just about the amazing women warriors of history. Custer, had it coming. Killing innocent women and children, is an evil practice. Custer may have been flamboyant, but he was ruthless, and reckless. He deserved what he got.

  6. Nice write-up! I am enjoying these immensely as a student of history as it gives quite the different perspective and forces me to go back among the books and look at why events played out the way they did.

  7. cthulhu says:

    So he completely underestimated his opponent, left his big guns behind and didn’t scout ahead…what other blunders could he have possibly commited?? Go LAKOTA!!

  8. Let’s see…

    He misinterpreted the hit-and-run cavalry tactics employed by the Plains Indians as an unwillingness to fight. He lied, cheated and broke his word when dealing with Lakota. His actions at the Battle of the Washita lost him the confidence of his men and officers. During the march to the Little Big Horn, he ignored the advice of his scouts as to the size of the Lakota and Cheyenne forces.

    If anyone finds “idiot” too harsh a word, then how about not very bright?

  9. Shyla Swamy says:

    Custer was an extremely evil man who took great joy in massacaring Indians. He is to Indians what Hitler was to teh Jews. It is truly disgusting that so many people have so much love and admiration for him.

    • zacharyhill says:

      Yup, because he’s flashy, daring and American somehow gives him a free pass to kill women and children. I’m finding it hard to describe the man without using a four letter expletive.

  10. Paul Genesse says:

    George Armstrong Custer was a piece of crap. He sat on his horse and refused to help Major Reno at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, when Reno attacked one end of the Indian camp and was getting crushed. He could have gone and helped him with a fighting retreat, and knew Reno was in trouble, but he stayed and watched Reno nearly get wiped out. Not to mention that Custer was going to ride through the camp and kill men, women, and children. Custer was a butcher, with no honor, and that is how he should be remembered.

    • Buffalo Calf Road says:

      That is also how I feel. You Americans love dashing individuals but in this case you’re overlooking his butchering of women and children. Whatever virtues he had, this cannot be overlooked. And saying “But times were different back then” is no excuse. We Cheyenne and Lakota did not yell at, let alone beat our children. Custer killed children. I have nothing good to say about this excuse of a man.

  11. Howard Gale says:

    Custer was a soldier following his orders. The Indians often raided white frontier settlements. They looted and killed the people found there. White captives were often tortured and mutilated by the Indians. This was a genocidal conflict. The Indians were the terrorists of their day. Custer and his motives can’t be understood from a modern perspective.

    • “Just following orders.” That argument worked so well that last time a bunch of genocidal murderers were put on trial. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_Trials
      They killed a few settlers once in a while that were on their land. Usually we call this self defense and even then it was nothing compared to the slaughter the American Army did to the Indians. Not even close. So, a few hot heads go out and kill a settler and the entire tribe gets massacred by the army. Seems legit. Then there was Chief Black Kettle who just wanted peace and wanted to be American and flew an American flag over his camp. Massacred. The Indians were not waging a genocidal conflict, the Army was. Also, what Custer was doing would have shocked and horrified the sensibilities of the people back home if they’d known he was killing women and children. The Victorians had a pretty violent and harsh outlook on life, but not so harsh as to condone such actions as that.

  12. Gamer Wardog says:

    This was amazing to read!! Have u ever thought of animating this on YouTube?

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