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.