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: