There are many reasons that people become famous and well-known by their peers. Some of them are visionaries, transcending the ability or technology of their times to achieve great things and shape the future in the present. Some of them are great leaders, using their gifts in social and political situations to direct the path of their country. Some people are simply gifted enough to shape their own fame, or infamy in most cases, to build themselves up to be more than they very well might have been.
In the case of George Armstrong Custer, there was much in the way of criticism and controversy about his life. Taking away nothing from his ability in the American Civil War, Custer exemplified a man with a multitude of personal flaws, some of them have led to drastic mistakes. The first one is probably the most obvious to many people: his miscalculation at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Famously known also as “Custer’s Last Stand,” the Battle of Little Bighorn was, unfortunately, one of the defining moments in Custer’s military career – mainly because that was the point at which it had ended. Whether it be due to a failure of gaining proper intelligence or a simple disregard for it, Custer’s underestimation of the Sioux forces near the Little Bighorn River would prove to be his downfall. One could argue that Custer was doomed from the start as his entire regiment was made up of only about 600 men as opposed to what turned out to be roughly 2000 to 3000 opposing Native American warriors. However, the decision to split his regiment up into parts that could not strategically assist each other was probably not the wisest in his stretch as a part of the United States military (Custer only had approximately 200 men with him when he attempted to assault the Sioux village). And while the legend of “Custer’s Last Stand” lives on to this day, there are some who might suggest that Custer never even had the chance to make any stand at all, due to the overwhelming forces led by Crazy Horse.
But that is far from the only criticism of Custer’s military career. One could argue that his reputation ultimately led to his demise. Praised as an aggressive and relentless soldier, Custer had earned a name for himself in the Civil War. It was this that gave the United States military cause to pull him early from a subsequent court-martial and suspension from military duty which he was supposed to serve for a year. Historians suspect this suspension was due to erratic behavior caused by a lack of success in the wars with the Native Americans following the Civil War. Specific incidents include abandoning his post during a resupply to visit his wife on a completely different base as well as taking matters into his own hands regarding deserters as opposed to having them go to trial (ironic, upon further investigation).
Despite what some would consider a military career worthy of the annals of history, Custer’s beginnings were more humble than anything. It was said he graduated last in his class at West Point in 1861 before joining the Civil War as a second lieutenant. However, rapid success in the war led to an equally fast succession of promotions through the United States military, bolstering his reputation that led to his position within the Great Sioux Wars. An ego and a reputation for recklessness that was overlooked by a military who saw a greater need of his ability could easily be blamed for his preemptive downfall. This is not to say Custer was a bad man or even a bad military leader. However, insofar as personal flaws are concerned, it is easy to see how fame as historically documented as his might overshadow some of these personal failings.