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:

What Are Custer’s Most Enduring Legacies?

We speak all the time about the past: how General George Armstrong Custer’s actions affected the conflicts with Native Americans at the time, how different factions responded at the time, what weapons and strategies were used at the time, what motivated his actions at the time, etc. But what about how all of those things affect or influence the current day? He is perhaps one of the most talked about American generals of all time, so what are his most enduring legacies?

Perhaps the most obvious legacy is based on his treatment of the Native Americans. He was brave, enthusiastic, and seemingly fearless, sure, but he was also brutal and aggressive. He slaughtered women and children, as did the men under his command, and he used survivors to act as human shields for his forces as they raped and plundered.

When we look back on the U.S. Army’s actions toward the Native Americans, many of us realize that our ancestors had no right to do what they did — that is, take land by whatever means necessary. Millions were slaughtered through biological warfare. This was genocide.

This stain on American history is the reason why many of us are here (and why many others who should be alive today are not here in our stead). 

Yet we have failed to make sufficient apologies, reparations, or even a show of respect for those who came before us. Perhaps our failures then are the most enduring legacy of Custer and his men, who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Those failures have echoed through the ages, and certainly we have yet to make amends the way we probably should. The dead deserve our respect.

Scholars and laymen alike will continue to debate over whether Custer was a masterful tactician or a failed general who should serve as a warning to the overzealous political and military powerhouses of today. But one thing is certain: the legacy will continue to be realized for centuries still.

What Do Present-Day Native Americans Think About The Coronavirus Pandemic?

The severity of the current viral outbreak can best be characterized using past examples. A person infected with the seasonal flu is expected to infect around 1.3 people. A person infected with the Spanish flu passed the virus to another 1.8 people on average. Those currently infected with covid-19 are expected to pass the virus to at least two more people. That means covid-19 is more contagious than the seasonal flu and one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever known.

A person infected with the seasonal flu has about a .1 percent chance of dying, on average. But the virus affected older victims adversely. A person infected with covid-19 has about a 2 percent chance of dying, on average (so far). A person who was infected with the Spanish flu had about a 2.5 percent chance of dying, on average. Which two outbreaks seem most closely related so far?

The seasonal flu kills around 675,000 people each year. The Spanish flu killed between 20 and 50 million people during the pandemic, which lasted more than one season. The current outbreak of covid-19 has only killed slightly over 8,000 people — but it’s only just getting started.

Governments are taking drastic measures not because they are overreacting, but because they’re finally starting to learn and understand this virus’s potential

Of course, it’s interesting to understand what Native Americans are feeling when they hear about this outbreak. After all, the epidemic that occurred when settlers pushed west into the New World wiped out 90 percent of the Native American population.

School officials in the region know that several people who have been in contact with a covid-19 victim were in the school recently.

Marty Indian School on Yankton Sioux Tribe’s South Dakota reservation has shut down. Superintendent John Beheler said, “We’ll have to start looking at relational ties to the individual and if there are any relatives in attendance in our school.”

He added, “Demographically, we have a situation here that a lot of our kids live with elders and their grandparents, and so we have to take these precautionary measures.”

Sometimes, Native American communities can be left out when financial support is passed by Congress. Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) has requested assurance from Vice President Mike Pence that tribal leaders are not excluded from the bipartisan deal expected from Congress this week or next. The deal should provide immediate relief to many Americans adversely impacted by the outbreak — and hopefully to many Native Americans, too.

Were Illnesses That Wiped Out Native American Populations Considered Pandemic?

Most people understand that much of the genocide perpetuated by Caucasian settlers in the New World was unintentional — it occurred because of illnesses and disease that they brought over on their ships. Native Americans had no resistance to these illnesses. Even simple influenza — the deadliest virus in the history of the world — wiped out entire Native American tribes alongside diseases like cholera, measles, scarlet fever and even the bubonic plague that wiped out a third of the world’s population in the Middle Ages.

Most of the illnesses that wiped out the Native Americans might be considered technically pandemic. The flu, for example, spread across the globe each year much as it does today. We typically call it an epidemic whenever and wherever it occurs, but the reality is that the virus is much better categorized as a pandemic. It was the same in the centuries when Native Americans and white settlers collided.

Other cases are less obvious and difficult to track. We don’t always have access to accurate information for outbreaks that occurred centuries ago.

For those diseases that were not already considered pandemic, there were epidemics in Native American communities. This outbreaks occurred not only because Native Americans had no antibodies or natural immunities to the illnesses, but also because they treated illness very differently than the people who brought the diseases to them.

That is to say that Native Americans believed a member of society could only become seriously ill when the spirits chose not to protect him. That meant that Native Americans often applied charms meant to mitigate the damage done by illnesses. 

Even these beliefs were challenged when Native Americans figured out the real problem: Caucasian settlers. When they finally understood how these diseases were transmitted, they avoided contact wherever and whenever they possibly could. This was made more difficult because settlers also understood the powerful weapon they had at their disposal — and so they used it to push Native Americans off the land they wanted.

A prime example of the use of biological warfare was the Siege of Fort Pitt in 1763. When the Native Americans mounted a failed attack on the fort, they were pushed back. Those who lived in the fort pretended to make peace with the tribe that had attacked them — when in actuality they had gifted the Native Americans items that contained the smallpox virus. This action was hardly an isolated incident.

These epidemics decimated population numbers. Before smallpox and cocoliztli, there were an estimated 22 million Native Americans living in Mexico. That was in the year 1520. By 1550, the population had fallen to about 3 million.

What Diseases Were A Threat To The United States Military In 1877?

The modern era has graced us with some of the most miraculous medical advancements for which we could hope. So much so that the most dangerous enemy in any engagement is, well, the actual enemy on the battlefield. It wasn’t always like this. In the 1870s, for example, one of the most dangerous enemies was disease. In fact, twice as many soldiers were killed by disease as by enemy combatants. Wow! 

Here are a few of the most dangerous diseases battlefield surgeons had to contend with:

Victory Disease. This might not be familiar to you because it’s not an actual disease. But it kills just like one. When a powerful force begins to believe itself invulnerable, victory disease takes root. Such is the case for General George Armstrong Custer, who led his men to slaughter because of his belief that they could not be defeated.

Malaria. This is still a major killer around the world even though we have the vaccine in hand. Those who come down with the infectious disease will likely succumb to a combination of fever, fatigue, vomiting, and splitting headaches. End-stage symptoms include a yellow complexion, seizure, coma, and potentially death. Mosquitoes transport the disease and it can recur after several months if left untreated.

Yellow Fever. Another virus transmitted through those dastardly mosquitoes. After nearly a week, those infected will start to develop fever, aches and pains, and chills. More serious end-stage symptoms include organ failure, shock, hemorrhage, and death. 

Gangrene. This occurs due to other conditions including diabetes, smoking, trauma, alcoholism, and frostbite. On the battlefield, trauma is the number one predictor. Gangrene is the death of tissue, which is why symptoms include changing skin color. One might experience numbness, intense pain, broken skin, chills, etc. May present with sepsis.  

Dysentery. This is common on the battlefield due to the lack of quality water. Dysentery is an intestinal infection that leads to diarrhea and dehydration. Many who suffer from dysentery will die without medical treatment.

Tuberculosis. This disease most often attacks the lungs and is highly infectious because it is spread through particles in the air. Caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, it results in weight loss, coughing, loss of appetite, fever, night sweats, and intense fatigue.

Smallpox. Caused by viruses, this disease was globally eradicated by 1980. About a third of those who contracted the disease would eventually die. It is noteworthy because of the many fluid-filled bumps or dimples that covered the body. Those who survived would likely incur heavy scarring. Other symptoms include fever and vomiting. Some survivors also went blind.

Were Gatling Guns Ever Used Against The Native Americans?

Anyone who has ever watched The Last Samurai from start to finish will know how unimaginably cool a gatling gun can be when used against a larger force (or a smaller one). But if you haven’t seen the movie, we’ll ruin the ending for you: Tom Cruise’s idiot character decides to stand with a small group of samurai warriors in defense of the “old way.” Those defending the old way have swords and armor, and those trying to wipe it out have muskets and uniforms. And gatling guns.

Against all odds, the last remaining samurai warriors break through the enemy lines to charge toward the commanders on horseback, only to be completely mowed down and slaughtered when the new wave employs gatling guns toward the rear.

Considering the timeline of the movie, it made us ask a single simple question: were gatling guns ever used against Native Americans and to what effect? To put it into perspective, gatling guns were first patented in 1862. The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in 1876. That’s plenty of time to implement even more genocidal tendencies than our armies had implemented before.

So did we?

The most important thing is that we had the option. More specifically — Custer had the option just before he went to his grave. He proposed that the guns would reduce mobility too much to make his force effective in battle. Whoops! Other military commanders agreed that gatling guns simply weren’t worth dragging into a mobile fight. They were heavy and unwieldy, and Native Americans often retreated to rough or mountainous terrain — which meant gatling guns could not follow.

But they were used during some battles. For example, they were effective in taking down the Cheyenne in Oklahoma during conflicts in 1875. They were also used in the Red River War in Texas and the Nez Perce War, both of which occurred in the mid-to-late 1870s. Other uses occurred during the Sioux Wars and the Bannock War.

The guns seemed to be used to limited effect, but little information is available to support any claims.

More likely, it seems that the gatling guns probably prevented the Native Americans from launching any effective countermeasures. That’s because almost all US Army garrisons had support from the guns. Even if the Native Americans outnumbered American soldiers 10 to 1, the guns could probably provide enough fire support from a fortified location to defend against any attack. The offensive capabilities of the guns where they were most likely to be used were probably limited, however.