What Was President Grant’s Policy Regarding Native Americans?

What to do about the Native American “threat” to Americans was a great source of contention for the people who had already pushed these indigenous peoples far from their ancestral homes, killing millions in the process. Ulysses S. Grant ascended to the presidency in 1869 and recognized immediately that there were no standardized processes in place concerning how to approach the Native Americans.

At the time, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans living on lands that had been assimilated by the United States. Those peoples were bound by nearly 400 different treaties. It’s not an exaggeration to say things were confusing, and only getting worse with time.

Grant did a few things at the very beginning of his arrival in office. He appointed a Seneca man named Ely S. Parker to become Commissioner of Indian Affairs, then establishing a Board of Indian Commissioners, and finally enacting a “Peace” policy toward Native American peoples. It failed spectacularly.

Two years later in 1871, Grant managed to change the status of Native American tribes to make them wards of the United States federal government. Unfortunately, Parker resigned that same year, which put the fate of new programs in jeopardy. Despite this setback, peaceful negotiations were scaled up during Grant’s first term.

The second term is another story entirely. During a peace conference that was put together to end the bloody Modoc War, Major General Edward Canby was murdered by the Modoc leader, who was subsequently captured, convicted of murder, and hanged. The rest of the tribe was relocated shortly thereafter. 

In news sure to stun present-day environmentalists, Grant vetoed a bill that would have protected bison because he knew that the “lack” of bison would force Native Americans to abandon a nomadic lifestyle. They did. But now we’re without bison. See how that works?

These obstacles resulted in the Great Sioux War, during which General George Armstrong Custer was famously killed.

Were There Native American Reservations By The Time Custer Died?

Most people believe that Native American reservations were a concept established by the United States of America — but that’s not true. We simply took the concept and ran fast and hard. It was actually the British Empire that first decided to subjugate, assimilate, or push the Native Americans onto small parcels of land. They did this through treaties that would never have seemed “fair” to the Native Americans — and which were destined to be broken by European settlers anyway. 

The first reservation ever established was the Brotherton Indian Reservation in New Jersey. This was a 3,284 acre piece of land “given” in August 1758. A few years later, plans were drawn up that would determine how future purchases would be made. The idea was always to consult with the Native Americans first, but settlers would generally push onto Native American lands first, become violent, and then the Native Americans would understandably fight back. Then a new treaty would be made, only for the cycle to begin anew some years later. This would keep going for about 200 years.

By 1824, the famous John C. Calhoun conceived the Office of Indian Affairs to formally adopt treaties for the purchase of land or granting of reservations. 38 such treaties were adopted quickly.

Southern California tribes were forced to sign treaties that pushed them onto reservations during a 41-year period between 1851 and 1892. But Congress wouldn’t ratify the treaties, which meant their signing was swept under rug until 1896, when the Bureau of American Ethnology declassified them for the first time.

Toward the end of Custer’s life (he was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876), President Ulysses S. Grant was doing his best to avoid more violence with Native American tribes. He failed pretty miserably. His 1868 “Peace Policy” aimed to reorganize the Indian Service to “relocate” tribes. If the goal was to avoid violence, forcibly moving people from their ancestral homes was likely a bad way to go about it.

Somehow, he thought the idea would be received better if the men in charge were Christian officials nominated by the Church itself. You might have guessed that this too was a horrible idea.

The Native American tribes routinely ignored or fought back against the relocation orders (why wouldn’t they?) which forced the U.S. government to deploy the army to watch Native American movement. This led to the Sioux War (during which Custer was killed) and the Nez Perce War. President Rutherford B. Hayes decided to scrap the “Peace Policy” by 1877, and smartly asked the Christian officials to relinquish their posts. They acquiesced completely by 1882.  

The Indian New Deal (also called the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or the Howard-Wheeler Act) guaranteed new rights for Native Americans, gave them back sovereignty of their own lands, and provided them with the authority to manage their own lands. Of course, by this point in time, “their own lands” were all reservations.

The Education Of George Armstrong Custer

Custer was an example of one following the Great American Dream — after enrolling in the McNeely Normal School (which became the Hopedale Normal College) in Ohio, he needed to move in with his elder half-sister. He knew he would have to work for what he obtained in life. He graduated from McNeely in 1856, after which he was an educator in Cadiz, Ohio. He enrolled in West Point in 1857 and was appointed as a cadet. He would have been 17 at the time.

The course demanded five years of study alongside 79 other cadets. However, the study was streamlined to four years because of the Civil War, and the class graduated on June 24, 1861 (which was the same year the war broke out). 

His education at West Point was hardly exemplary. It was worthy of note only because of his poor academic and social conduct!

The class of 79 cadets diminished to 34 after many dropped out or joined the Confederacy. Out of those remaining, Custer ranked dead last. Custer was given an awe-inspiring 726 demerits during those four years, which remains one of West Point’s worst since its conception.

The local minister said, “[Custer was] the instigator of devilish plots both during the service and in Sunday school. On the surface he appeared attentive and respectful, but underneath the mind boiled with disruptive ideas.”

One roommate remembered, “It was alright with George Custer, whether he knew his lesson or not; he simply did not allow it to trouble him.” 

Others noted that Custer’s career would have been doomed had the Civil War not broken out during the end of his education. He achieved decent postings at the beginning of his tenure as a junior officer, and quickly climbed in rank due to his willingness to take big risks — which included disrespecting higher ranking officers or outright ignoring their orders to gain notoriety for himself.

Could Custer’s Men File A Personal Injury Lawsuit (If They Had Survived)?

General George Armstrong Custer has been nearly idolized by historians for decades — and perhaps for no good reason. By some, he is considered to be battle-hardened, prepared, and ambitious. To others, he is considered among the most fool-hardy commanders in the history of the United States’ armed forces. Which argument would hold the most merit in court? Or, rather, would such a case even make it into court before being dismissed?

Keep in mind that the Battle of Little Bighorn was fought on June 25, 1876. Custer himself and most of the men he brought into battle were slaughtered by the Native Americans they had been harassing for months. These weren’t “kind” killings. The men were butchered. But this wasn’t at a time when you could hire some random Koonz McKenney Johnson & Depaolis LLP law firm to sue the pants off the United States government for personal injury or wrongful death. It didn’t work that way.

So there are a few things to first consider: One, Feres v. United States resulted in a Supreme Court decision that created a precedent that any active duty military personnel cannot sue the United States government for injuries sustained during service. More significantly, it related to medical malpractice by the federal government — because soldiers could still hold the government liable for malpractice.

But that ruling landed in 1950, which means precedent had not yet been established by the time Custer led his men into their last battle. Hypothetically, any surviving servicemen or the families of the slain could have launched a lawsuit.

The reality might have been a little different. But regardless, let’s explore the type of argument that might have been made on behalf of the servicemen in court. Where did Custer go wrong? Well, an advocate would likely argue that George Custer’s lofty aspirations led him astray — and his men with him. You see, Custer had his eye on the presidency (and was known as a man for showmanship in the public eye).

And how does a man like Custer become president? Simple: he fights his way there from the battlefield. The bigger the victory, the bigger the public eye on the man. Custer fought battles no matter the odds for one reason and one reason only: political ambition.

His life outside of the military only serves to bolster the argument. He was an avid gambler who, because of his love of betting, went to the grave with an enormous $9,000 debt. 

This is why an advocate would likely have made the case that Custer’s men almost certainly lost their lives because of his bad decision-making both on and off the battlefield. They would argue that regardless of his significant victories, they had always come at a cost, and the risks were far from calculated to ensure those victories. They might even say that Custer should never have been so elevated in the first place — and that some of the blame should fall on those still living, the men who decided to put Custer in such a high position. Ultimately, they would argue, Custer’s men paid the price for this cascade of bad decisions.

These are reports based on findings following the Battle of Little Bighorn:

What Was George Armstrong Custer’s Role During Sheridan’s Civil War Campaign?

Custer was well known for his flamboyant actions and flare for the melodrama. After losing more men in a Union cavalry brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War — 257, to be exact — he stated: “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.” He was awarded a promotion for his role in the battle, but you already know how much of the rest of his career went — at least at the end. 

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was a pivotal site for the Civil War, and many battles were fought there — including a few led by Custer himself. 

Philip Sheridan was a cavalry commander for the Army of the Potomac, and commanded many of the forces that took part in the regional battles within the valley. Much of his military command during this time was subdued because of the presidential election of 1864, where a defeat might then lead to the end of Lincoln’s presidential campaign. Custer, however, ravaged the area with his “Wolverines” in the 3rd Division, defeating Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early.

After a number of fierce battles, Custer joined Sheridan to chase Robert E. Lee, who was in the process of fleeing to the renowned Appomattox Court House. Custer was successful in blocking Lee on the day the Confederate forces finally surrendered — and, in fact, Custer was the one to accept the first flag of truce.

Custer was reported to have said, “In the name of General Sheridan I demand the unconditional surrender of this army.”

Longstreet noted that he did not have the authority to make such a surrender, and that he certainly wouldn’t parley with Sheridan even if he were. Regardless of the antics at that particular battlefield, Custer joined the others where the surrender was finally signed (the aforementioned Appomattox Court House) — and he was even gifted the table on which the signing took place.

Was George Armstrong Custer Undone By Native Americans — Or American Politics?

The Native Americans that Americans continued to push away from their own lands were fearsome adversaries even after the majority were wiped out by disease (both accidentally and by biological warfare). But few would argue against the idea that the American political arena can be just as dangerous if you’re not up to the task. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author T.J. Stiles, General George Armstrong Custer certainly fit into the latter category.

Stiles said that “[Custer’s wife] told him to stay out of politics. On the battlefield he knew his limits. In politics he didn’t have the same sense.” And let’s face it: Many historians would argue he didn’t have sense in either arena.

Stiles explained to a group of 100 history buffs that Custer was not without fault in nearly every venture undertaken. He was a Democrat (which were more like the Republicans of today), and that led to significant problems he didn’t foresee.

Professional debt relief resources like the Fullman Firm simply didn’t exist in the late 1800s when Custer met his match on the battlefield. Custer’s penchant for adventure and risk-taking didn’t only lead to his demise — they led to an exorbitant amount of debt to the tune of $9,000. That hefty sum of money — even larger when he died — was left unpaid. 

Part of those debts was attributed to a love of gambling. 

Stiles said, “He had a lot of intellectual interests. He was an enthusiast and was intrigued by things. He was fascinated by science.”

Some of the audience attendees were repeat visitors to Monroe, where Stiles gave his talk. One was Pittsburgh resident Theresa Zapata, who said, “I love this town. I love history and if you love history, this is the place to be.”

Others came out of an interest in the Civil War, which was also a heavy topic of discussion. Casey Granton of West Bloomfield said, “I thought [the presentation] was terrific. I’ve read a lot of books on Custer. When I found out [Stiles] was a Pulitzer Prize winner, I definitely wanted to read this one.

Stiles acknowledged the wide gap between what the public believes about Custer and what actually was real. Stiles said, “To the public, he became this romantic figure. He really became a national icon.”

Politically, Custer ventured into discussions about slavery and rebellion. Those were big mistakes according to Stiles. You might be surprised to know that in Stiles’ eyes, Custer very much respected the Native Americans with whom he was at war. At the end of the day, though, he did his duty because he knew that the United States would need the land to flourish in the future.

Stiles said, “Almost anything you say about Custer is controversial. He was a hometown hero.”

It was in Monroe where he did much of the research for his book. “I got tremendous help when I was here,” he said.

Was George Armstrong Custer Interested In Becoming President?

George Armstrong Custer was a man of many talents (or lack thereof) and it seems like there was no hole too deep to dig. He gambled away the massive sum of $9,000 before his death at Little Bighorn, jumped into politics before he was ready, and bit off more than he could chew on the battlefield. And as it turns out, he may have wanted to strive for even greater heights — like the presidency of the United States.

Is it crazy to think that the man might have achieved this ambition in some bizzaro alternate reality where he didn’t die on the battlefield?

Well, after 2016 we should have all revised our expectations of what is or is not possible, even when seemingly implausible — and this is especially true when you consider that Custer was widely considered a media personality.

Custer made many political maneuvers through the military, not the least of which was defying then-President Grant’s orders to announce that gold had been found in the Dakota Black Hills. Grant considered Custer’s insubordination merely a chance to increase his own notoriety in the public eye.

Historian H.W. Brands said, “Custer had a following on his own. Members of Congress would invite him to come speak and he would persuade them. In some ways, he had political clout that Grant and Sherman didn’t. They outranked him but Custer had a following.”

There were certain stepping stones to the presidency even back then, and Brands explains that it was military operations like the Battle of Little Bighorn that were meant to propel him to the top: “Custer was a very ambitious man. He thinks if he goes out West, defeats the Indians…Everyone sees him as a great hero…and now he can position himself as the next commander and chief.”

Custer got himself killed, perhaps in pursuit of those lofty aspirations. Whoops.

Montana Town Near Little Bighorn River Sold In 2012

You might not think that an entire town can be sold at auction, but in fact it can. Especially when the town has only two residents (who lived together), a single home, and immense historical value. Garryowen rests near the Little Bighorn River, most notable for being the final battlegrounds of General George Armstrong Custer and his men — who were all slaughtered there after picking a fight with Native Americans they could not possibly win.

Chris Kortlander bought the town near the Little Bighorn Battlefield all the way back in 1993 after a wildfire destroyed his Malibu, California property. It measured 7.7 acres. 

Kortlander said, “The only thing I had were the clothes on my back.”

(Or so the story goes — but we’ll take that with a grain of salt since you have to make some big bucks to live comfortably in Malibu, and that probably means a decent pack of insurance).

After the death of his first wife from breast cancer, Kortlander needed the money — and his own health was also failing.

At auction, the first bid stood at $250,000. Kortlander probably had a mild heart attack since he had previously placed the property on eBay for a whopping $7 million only one year earlier. The “economy” of the two-resident town was built around a combined gas station and convenience store, which were also up for auction. A historical manuscript collection written by Elizabeth Bacon Custer — George’s wife — was also at auction.

Elizabeth had written at least three books describing what it was like to be married to a man like Custer, and it’s these books that likely contribute to the fascination historians still have over the man who died over a century ago.

Assistant Museum Curator at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (Cody, Wyoming) Lynn Houze said, “Libbie went on a mission to salvage his good name and to refurbish his reputation.”

But interestingly, Kortlander had a love letter that was written to Custer by a woman who was obviously not his wife. A translation of this letter was unavailable for publication. But according to Kortlander, it represents evidence of a historically significant affair. 

Garryowen is also a nickname for the doomed 7th Cavalry Regiment that Custer led into battle that fateful day. This name was adopted because of the Irish tune after the same name used for the march. 

The 7th Cavalry was historically important even after Little Bighorn (of course the soldiers were fresher in subsequent years). The 7th participated in World War I and II after transitioning to become part of the 1st Cavalry Division. They continued the fight in the Korean War as well. Then the Gulf War. And then the War on Terror. Oh, they are busy little bees. 

During the Indian Wars, the 7th fought took part in the Yellowstone Expedition, The Black Hills Expedition, Yellowstone, the Nez Perce War, the Crow War, the Ghost Dance War, and various skirmishes along the Mexican Border.

Belknap Impeachment Trial (UPDATE)

When we published a piece about the Belknap impeachment trial back in November, we could hardly have predicted that it might become relevant to current events only two months later (okay, so maybe we could — it is Trump who made it relevant, after all). You will recall that General George Armstrong Custer had leveled some fairly serious accusations at both Belknap, who was Secretary of War, and President Grant’s brother, before he himself was called to testify during an investigation into corruption charges made by a Democratic senator.

The very morning that impeachment was floated as a potential remedy to the alleged corruption, Belknap went to President Grant, confessed his crimes, and resigned. But no one asked whether or not that meant they couldn’t go on ahead with the investigation and impeachment — as many Republicans are now doing in response to former President Donald J. Trump’s upcoming trial.

The House of Representatives unanimously impeached Belknap, who was no longer in office. This precedent is probably one of the reasons that President Nixon resigned before he could be impeached. He would have known that the potential for his impeachment was still there, but that the chances would be significantly reduced, especially for a country that simply wanted to move on from the controversy.

Trump may have been too stubborn to resign after his second impeachment, but the Belknap precedent remains relevant today simply because Trump is no longer in office. But one detail often left out of the debate about whether or not a trial should commence is the fact that Trump was in office when he was impeached. And once a president is impeached, the Senate is legally obligated to conduct a trial. To do anything else would be to ignore their oaths of office.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the majority of the Senate voted to convict Belknap on five separate articles of impeachment. But they missed the two-thirds benchmark needed to find an impeached official guilty, and he was thus acquitted of the charges. He was not prosecuted outside of Congress.

Read General George Armstrong Custer’s Own Words

When most of us read about history directly from a textbook, we have to trust the words printed. That’s because historical figures themselves didn’t write those books. Historians did. And historians are capable of bias. They’re capable of making mistakes. Of course, anyone who wants to be remembered is capable of the same kind of error in translation. But still, we can learn quite a lot from reading the candid words of historical figures when they don’t realize those words will be etched into stone for the remainder of time.

One letter written by George A. Custer was written to a cousin named Augusta Frary during his stay at the Brunswick Hotel in New York City.

The letter reads: “My dear Cousin; The fates seem determined to prevent me from paying long expected visit to you. I received your letter soon after I arrived in Washington but had decided before starting for the east from Dacota that I would [illegible] the opportunity of my trip to Washington + New York to, at least call upon you. I left Washington, for good as I supposed last Thursday, stopping one day in Philadelphia to visit the Centennial grounds and buildings, intending to leave New York last night at 8 oclock and stop over on train at Albion on my way west, but alas for my plans, yesterday I received a summons calling me to Washington as witness in the Belknap impeachment trial before the Senate on Thursday next.”

Sure, this letter lets us know that Custer probably had a penchant for run-on sentences. But imagine what fun it is for historians to fall down that rabbit-hole. Are you familiar with the Belknap impeachment trial? We didn’t think so.

Belknap had a storied career in politics, before which he was a member of the Union Army and lawyer. He served as a government administrator in Iowa before President Ulysses S. Grant made him Secretary of War. He was investigated for corruption by Democratic Congressman Hiester Clymer — a friend of his! — after rumors arose of Belknap’s corrupt practice of receiving illicit trade-related profits. 

In the space of one morning after chatter of impeachment began, he confessed to President Grant and resigned. Clymer continued his investigation anyway. He was swiftly impeached by unanimous vote in the House of Representatives (even though he was no longer in office), a precedent that has haunted impeached officials to this day, including President Nixon. 

Custer was involved to testify during Clymer’s investigation. This testimony was explosive at the time, because Custer had previously leveled serious accusations at both President Grant’s brother and Belknap. He even went so far as to arrest the president’s son for drunkenness! Ironically, Grant’s frustration with Custer kept the latter away from the battlefield for nearly a month — and the first battle Custer would participate in after his return was also his last.

Listen to some of his letters read aloud wherein he describes the mentality of his men before going into battle — and his expectation that they will suffer few casualties or none at all: