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Lessons in Leadership
By Duane Schultz
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Duane Schultz
All rights reserved.
Born to Be a Soldier
Custer put on his first uniform in 1843 at the age of four. It was velvet, with large buttons, and he loved it. His mother had made it for him so that he could march along with the militia unit in his hometown of New Rumley, Ohio. His father, a member of the militia, swelled with pride as his "yellow-haired laddie," carrying his wooden gun, marched with the adults. They taught the boy the Manual of Arms; one called him a born soldier. They cheered when he marched and drilled. It was Custer's first taste of glory.
Custer's father was a blacksmith, a justice of the peace, and a farmer. After his first wife died, he married a widow with three children; they later had five of their own. The special child of that union, the favorite, the shining star, was the one they named George Armstrong. They called him by his middle name, but the boy could pronounce it only as "Autie," and that was what they called him forevermore.
Townspeople who remembered Autie described him as impulsive, irrepressible, mischievous, and eager to take chances. He was quick to play pranks and practical jokes on siblings and schoolmates, a practice he learned from his father. He seemed smart enough to do well in school, but he was usually behind in his lessons, often doing just enough work to get by. He disliked school and was generally such a poor student that his parents apprenticed him to a furniture maker at the age of ten. Autie was unhappy with this arrangement, and his parents grew increasingly worried about the boy's future. In desperation, they packed him off to Monroe, Michigan, to live with his stepsister Lydia Ann and her husband, David Reed.
Lydia was fourteen years older than Autie but had always adored him. In Monroe, he helped out on their farm and managed to do well enough in his new school to pass, though he remained as impetuous and high-spirited as ever. The local minister remembered Autie as 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." Autie once encouraged a gang of boys to flick birdshot around the church, shooting it with their thumbs during services; it made a terrible racket and caused people to duck their heads to avoid being hit. The minister said he always knew who had dreamed up the idea; Autie was always the leader.
Autie was ambitious and hardworking, however. In addition to school and his chores on Lydia's farm, he worked for David's hauling business and picked up odd jobs at the home of Monroe's wealthy judge, Daniel Bacon. He may have been looking for extra spending money, or just for the chance to be around the judge's daughter Libbie. She was two years younger than Autie, and everyone agreed that she was the brightest, perkiest, and most attractive girl in town.
Libbie liked to swing on the front gate, waiting for Autie to walk past, something he did frequently. One day she yelled, "Hello, you Custer boy!" and then ran into the house laughing. It was at that moment, Custer later told her, that he decided to marry her. But marriage to Libbie would have to wait. Although Autie did occasional work for the judge, he was never invited inside the house. The boy and his family were far down the social ladder, and the judge made sure Autie knew his place.
After nearly three years with Lydia in Monroe, Custer returned to his parents in Ohio in 1855, for reasons that are not altogether clear. He worked on the farm and sporadically attended school; this time he earned better grades though he was rarely seen to study. His classmates recalled that he read novels most of the time in class, hiding them behind his schoolbooks.
In 1856, at the age of sixteen, Custer became a teacher at a different school in a township seventy-five miles away. It was then that he fell in love with Mary Holland, called Mollie, the daughter of the farmer with whom he boarded. Theirs was a passionate relationship, with frequent references in letters, which Mollie kept, to meeting in the trundle bed. When Mollie's father found out, Autie had to find another place to live, though their romance continued.
Autie knew he wanted more out of life than rural Ohio could offer. His parents could not afford to send him to college, but the military academy at West Point was free, and it offered the opportunity for a life of adventure and glory.
Obtaining the required congressional appointment to West Point was a problem, however. The local congressman was a staunch Republican, while Custer's father was a well known and equally staunch Democrat. No son of a Democrat was about to get the congressman's support. Fortunately, fate interceded in the form of another influential Republican, Mollie Holland's father, who wanted that Custer boy out of his daughter's trundle bed and as far away from Ohio as possible. West Point would do nicely, and so Holland exerted his influence with Congressman John Bingham. In June 1857, eighteen-year-old Autie was on his way to the United States Military Academy.
* * *
George Armstrong Custer was one of the worst cadets in the long history of West Point, and one of the most popular. It was hard to resist someone so fun-loving, good-looking, and irrepressible, who took such delight in openly breaking as many rules as he could get away with. "My career as a cadet," he later wrote, "had but little to recommend it to the study of those who came after me, unless as an example to be carefully avoided. My offenses against law and order were not great in enormity, but what they lacked in magnitude they made up in number." His focus was on completing the required four years with a minimal amount of study while having the most fun he could.
Custer made friends easily. Writing years later, a classmate, Morris Schaff, wondered if West Point "ever had a cadet so exuberant, one who cared so little for its serious attempt to elevate and burnish, or one on whom its tactical officers kept their eyes so constantly and unsympathetically searching as upon Custer. And yet we all loved him." Most of his friends were Southerners who would later fight for the Confederacy. One of these was Thomas Jefferson Rosser from Texas, who lived next door with his roommate, John Pelham. Custer was also on good terms with Horace Porter, John "Gimlet" Lea, Stephen Ramseur, Alonzo Cushing, Judson Kilpatrick, and Wesley Merritt.
In the meantime, Custer fought against the academy's rules and regulations. Before his first summer was out, he accumulated twenty-seven demerits; over the next four years, he would earn the dubious distinction of receiving more demerits than any other cadet in his class. While his grades put him at the bottom of his class, he was at the top of it in misbehavior.
The range of the misdeeds for which he received demerits is wide and varied. It includes trifling in ranks, calling "Corporal!" in a boisterous tone of voice, putting cooking utensils in the chimney, and having his hair out of order. (His solution was to wear a wig to hide its non-regulation length.) He defaced the wall of his room with pencil marks, and his room was grossly messy.
Then there was the case of the stolen fowl. One night after Taps was blown and cadets were supposed to be asleep, Custer led a raiding party past the guards to the home of an officer who kept chickens. They stole a chicken, boiled it in the cooking utensils Custer kept illegally in his chimney, and left a trail of feathers from the barracks to the trash bin. No one was ever charged with the crime.
One day in Spanish class during Custer's third year, he asked the instructor how to say, "class is dismissed" in Spanish. When the teacher complied, Custer rose and marched the entire class out of the room.
Like many cadets before and after him, Custer often slipped out at night heading for the notorious Benny Havens tavern, about a mile away. At Benny Havens' place, cadets could get whiskey, hot rum flips, and Benny's famous buckwheat cakes to augment their more meager and less tempting dining hall fare. Given sufficient whiskey, the cadets would break into a rousing chorus of "Benny Havens, Oh!" set to the tune of "The Wearing of the Green."
Come fellows, fill your glasses and stand up in a row.
For sentimental drinking, we're going to go.
In the army there's sobriety, promotion's very slow,
So we'll cheer up our hearts with choruses at Benny Havens, oh!
Benny Havens, oh! Benny Havens, oh!
We'll sing our reminiscences of Benny Havens, oh!
To the ladies of our army, our cups shall ever flow,
Companions of our exile, and our shield against all woe,
May they see their husbands generals, with double pay also,
And join us in our choruses at Benny Havens, oh!
Custer never got caught during these nocturnal excursions, but other cadets were not so fortunate. Jefferson Davis, class of 1828 (who by the time Custer was a cadet was Secretary of War), nearly toppled off a cliff one night as he headed back to the barracks after having had a little too much to drink. George Pickett, class of 1846, who, like Custer, was the last man his class, once got so inebriated that he passed out in the snow. He could easily have frozen to death but for a classmate on guard duty who discovered the body and smuggled him back into the barracks.
Custer's luck did seem to fail him temporarily, when he had to be treated for gonorrhea. He could have contracted it on summer leave back in Ohio, but biographers believe that, like many other cadets who were treated for venereal disease, he probably got it from a prostitute in New York City, a common source of infections among cadets.
Despite his cavalier attitude toward the rules, Custer had one trait that always brought him back from the brink of expulsion. It seems a paradox, but when he needed to do so, he showed a high degree of self-control and self-discipline. He seemed to always know how far he could go, how close he could come to disgrace, and he would stop just short of that point.
This is evident in his pattern of demerits. Any cadet who received more than a hundred demerits in a six-month period was automatically dismissed from the academy. Custer once amassed ninety within three months, but he was able to restrain himself for the remaining three months without earning a single reprimand, quite an accomplishment for a man of his temperament. The situation was similar with his grades: he always achieved just enough to pass. He knew how far he could push the system and managed to do what was needed to survive, but nothing beyond.
At the beginning of his last semester at West Point, Custer and a few of his classmates tried to beat the odds of passing a major examination by stealing the prepared lists of questions that each professor had submitted to the examining board. They were found out and arrested, and all but Custer were dismissed from the academy just a few months before graduation. Once again, Custer's fabled luck prevailed.
He graduated from West Point on June 24, 1861, having accumulated ninety-seven demerits in his last six months and receiving the lowest final examination scores in the class. His worst academic performance was in Cavalry Tactics.
The war was already underway, and the new graduates—except for the Southerners, who had already left for home—were eager to see action. Six days after graduation, the Northerners left for Washington to receive their assignments. But not Custer; he was under arrest.
On June 29, Custer was serving as Officer of the Day, overseeing the summer camp for the new class of cadets. Two of them got into a fistfight, which some older cadets tried to break up. But Custer, instead of stopping the fight as he should have done, ordered the two antagonists to settle their dispute by fighting it out fairly. As Custer watched while the two boys flailed away at each other, he did not see Lt. William Hazen, one of the academy staff, approaching. Hazen stopped the fight and arrested Custer for failing to do his duty to maintain order.
The next day, Custer was summoned to appear before Lt. Col. John Reynolds, Commandant of Cadets. Reynolds asked why Custer had not placed the two new cadets under arrest for fighting, which he knew was against academy regulations. Custer gave a straightforward, candid, and revealing answer. "The instincts of a boy," he told Reynolds, "prevailed over the obligations of an officer of the guard." And, as one Custer scholar has noted, "for the remainder of [Custer's] life, these instincts prevailed."
Court-martial proceedings began on July 5. The charges were neglect of duty and conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline, serious offenses for an officer whose career had barely begun. If Custer was found guilty, there might be no career, and no glory or fame. But the court did not reckon with the Custer luck. Although he was found guilty on both charges, he received only a reprimand.
Lieutenant Hazen, the arresting officer, testified in Custer's favor, telling the court-martial board that he considered Custer to have in general displayed good conduct during his years at the academy. Hazen's motive for his highly creative interpretation of Custer's behavior is not known, but his testimony helped Custer's case immensely.
Also in Custer's favor was the intervention by the congressman who had granted him the appointment to West Point. Custer's classmates, or perhaps Custer himself, had informed the congressman of the situation, and as a politician, Bingham may not have wanted one of his appointees, even if he was the son of a Democrat, to be drummed out of the service. It might show the congressman to be a poor judge of character. He urged the board to show leniency.
The Union Army had already lost so many West Point–trained officers to the South that it needed all the new officers it could get, and that included George Armstrong Custer. And so, on July 18, 1861, Custer left West Point for Washington, DC, the last man in his class to depart. Finally, the Custer boy was going to war.CHAPTER 2
A Gallant, Reckless Boy
On the way to Washington, Custer stopped in New York City to have his photograph taken. He posed with a stiff expression on his face, looking like "a hot, tired boy in a mussed uniform with wilted white collar. Holding his new pistol in his left hand, he tried to look the camera lens sternly in the eye." He reached Washington the next day and found himself, as he would so many times during the Civil War, in the right place at the right time. Custer's luck never seemed to let him down.
When he reported to the War Department for his assignment on July 20, he learned that he had been ordered to report to Company G, 2nd United States Cavalry, with the main Union army under the command of Brig. Gen. Irwin McDowell. The army was encamped at Centreville, Virginia, twenty-five miles from Washington near a creek named Bull Run.
Rumor said there would be a big battle there any day now, and most of the Northerners agreed that it would be the first and last battle of the war. Once they met the Yankee force, those Confederates would be sent packing. Custer was delighted to find that he would likely be in the midst of the action.
After the War Department officer issued the orders, the man asked Custer—almost as an afterthought—if he would like to meet the general-in-chief of the United States Army, the country's greatest hero and living legend, Gen. Winfield Scott.
For a newly commissioned second lieutenant just out of West Point, and only two days from his court martial, to meet the man who had won the Mexican War, who was second only to George Washington in national prestige, was an almost unbelievable honor. Custer was ushered into the great man's office.
"Old Fuss and Feathers," as Scott was affectionately known, was a legend, but he was past his prime. A giant of a man, standing six feet, four and a quarter inches (he always insisted on mentioning the extra quarter inch), he was now seventy-five years old, and his body was ravaged by infirmities. He was so obese that he could no longer mount a horse or even get out of a chair without help. But, though he no longer led troops in battle, his reputation for daring and courage and his long years of glorious service to the nation had made him an icon, particularly to young officers who had learned about Scott's exploits while at the academy.
General Scott shook Custer's hand with surprising strength and told him that quite a few West Point graduates were busy drilling new recruits for the army. He asked Custer whether he would like to join them in their training duties, or would he prefer something more active? Custer later said that he was so nervous in Scott's presence that he stammered when he replied that he wanted to join General McDowell's army at the front.
Scott seemed pleased with Custer's answer and offered the awestruck young man another opportunity. There were few horses left in the city; the army had requisitioned all it could find. However, if Custer could somehow obtain a horse by seven o'clock that evening, he could have the honor of personally delivering Scott's dispatches to McDowell. Custer could hardly believe his luck.
Now all he had to do was to find a horse. He raced from one livery stable to another but could not find one available. It seemed that he would have to face General Scott, admit failure, and lose his chance to carry dispatches to the front. But being Custer, he did locate a horse, and it was not just any horse.
As he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, feeling increasing frustration and despair, he spotted someone he recognized, an enlisted man who had served at West Point. The man remembered Custer. He told Custer that he had been sent by his commanding officer to retrieve a spare horse that the outfit had left behind when it went to Bull Run. Custer knew the horse from West Point, too; it was Old Wellington, and he had ridden it as a cadet. The enlisted man already had his own horse, so he offered Old Wellington to Custer.
Excerpted from Custer by Duane Schultz. Copyright © 2010 Duane Schultz. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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