The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer: The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer: The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

by Thom Hatch


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In this thrilling narrative history of George Armstrong Custer's death at the Little Bighorn, award-winning historian Thom Hatch puts to rest the questions and conspiracies that have made Custer's last stand one of the most misunderstood events in American history. While numerous historians have investigated the battle, what happened on those plains hundreds of miles from even a whisper of civilization has been obscured by intrigue and deception starting with the very first shots fired.

Custer's death and the defeat of the 7th Calvary by the Sioux was a shock to a nation that had come to believe that its westward expansion was a matter of destiny. While the first reports defended Custer, many have come to judge him by this single event, leveling claims of racism, disobedience, and incompetence. These false claims unjustly color Custer's otherwise extraordinarily life and fall far short of encompassing his service to his country.

By reexamining the facts and putting Custer within the context of his time and his career as a soldier, Hatch's The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer reveals the untold and controversial truth of what really happened in the valley of the Little Bighorn, making it the definitive history of Custer's last stand. This history of charging cavalry, desperate defenses, and malicious intrigue finally sets the record straight for one of history's most dynamic and misunderstood figures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250051028
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

THOM HATCH is the author of nine previous books, including Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer and The Custer Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Life of George Armstrong Custer and the Plains Indians Wars. A Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and a historian who specializes in the American West, the Civil War, and Native American conflicts, Hatch has received the prestigious Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for his previous work. He lives in Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer

The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Thom Hatch

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Thom Hatch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5197-9


The Wrath of President Grant

It was May 1876, springtime in Washington, D.C. The trees along Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital were sprouting with fresh green leaves and the beds of flowers that lined the street were blooming with an eye-pleasing explosion of rainbow colors. The White House lawn had been trimmed and manicured with an elegance befitting a royal palace.

No doubt the cottonwoods and wildflowers that grew along the Missouri River near Fort Abraham Lincoln out in Dakota Territory were also showing signs of waking from their long winter's dormancy.

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, however, at the moment failed to appreciate the splendorous emergence of the foliage. If given his choice, he would be enjoying the rites of spring at his post in Dakota Territory. Instead, he anxiously waited in the anteroom outside the Oval Office in the White House for an audience with President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant.

This particular visit by Custer was not for the purpose of reminiscing about Civil War battles or discussing strategies for the upcoming campaign in Montana against the Sioux and Cheyenne. In fact, Custer had not been invited to the White House—and Grant had thus far refused to see him. Custer was not a patient man and the wait must have been torturous, especially given the reason for his presence.

Custer had been unwittingly lured into a dangerous political situation that threatened public humiliation, if not severe damage to his military career. The president had denied the lieutenant colonel permission to accompany the Seventh Cavalry on the upcoming Montana expedition as punishment for a perceived slight. Custer now hoped to persuade the president in a face-to-face meeting to reverse his order and allow Custer to lead his troops on this perilous mission.

Scandal was nothing new to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Although the president personally was a man of unquestioned integrity, associates of his had taken advantage of their positions near the seat of power to pad their personal fortunes. One such scandal involved Grant's secretary of war, William W. Belknap. This alleged wrongdoing captured the full attention of the press and the public for one specific reason—a national hero by the name of George Armstrong Custer had been called to testify before the congressional hearing investigating the secretary.

It had been an open and dirty little secret for years around the War Department and western military posts that certain high-ranking government officials were profiting from kickbacks in the awarding of post traderships. Those who had suspicions or were aware of this corruption had simply looked the other way—with one exception.

George Armstrong Custer refused to ignore this criminal activity. He had investigated circumstances at Fort Abraham Lincoln and concluded that this corruption went right to the top—Secretary of War William W. Belknap was conspiring with a local trader in a kickback scheme. Custer, disgusted by his findings, had in effect snubbed the secretary when he visited Fort Abraham Lincoln during the summer of 1875.

The manner in which information of this sort found its way to the New York Herald newspaper, an ardent Grant administration critic, would be a matter of speculation. Competing newspapers pointed to the likelihood that Custer, who was a political friend of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the newspaper's publisher, had been supplying details as an informant—perhaps even paid for his material. This accusation against Custer has never been proven. Regardless, the February 10, 1876, edition of the Herald accused Secretary Belknap of selling traderships and receiving kickbacks and further implicated Orville Grant, the president's brother.

This scandal was not particularly new, but revelations in this particular editorial were seized upon by the Democrat-controlled Congress as an ideal opportunity to embarrass Republican president Grant. Heister Clymer, chairman of the House Committee on Expenditures in the War Department, announced that hearings would be held to investigate the matter, which could possibly result in the impeachment of Belknap.

Belknap, without admitting guilt, resigned as secretary of war on March 2, but Clymer continued his hearings. On March 9, Orville Grant admitted that his brother had given him license to four posts in 1874 and he had acted as a middleman in awarding these traderships. In addition, supplies that were supposed to have been delivered to authorized recipients had been diverted and resold elsewhere. The profits had been split; Belknap's share was funneled to his wife.

Custer would have preferred not to testify at the hearing, but he was a high-profile witness whose presence would generate great publicity for the Democrats. His popularity in early 1876 can be evidenced by the fact that the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, a Boston talent agency, had offered him a contract calling for lectures five nights a week for four to five months at two hundred dollars per night. He could earn more than ten times his annual army salary in less than half a year merely by speaking—not to mention adding to his popularity and fame as the country's premier Indian fighter. Custer, however, turned down the lucrative offer because it would interfere with preparations for the upcoming campaign in Montana against hostile Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.

Custer was called before the committee for the first time on March 29. The public paid close attention to what this national hero had to say. His personal integrity was unquestioned, and his experience with the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other tribes gave him a credibility unmatched by any other army field officer. He candidly related that soon after he had assumed command at Fort Lincoln he had requested the removal of the trader S. A. Dickey for various infractions, including introducing alcohol to the Indians. The new trader, Robert C. Siep, subsequently had confessed to Custer that he had been delivering two-thirds of his profits to Belknap. Custer's concern was that this practice resulted in increased prices on goods at frontier posts, which caused a hardship on the troops.

Contrary to popular belief, an examination of the transcript does not show that Custer directly implicated Orville Grant by name in the scheme but does reveal that he only hinted at the possibility of complicity. His hearsay testimony concluded on April 4, and Custer at that time expected to return to Fort Lincoln and prepare his troops for the upcoming campaign in Montana against the Sioux and Cheyenne.

Although Custer's testimony provided more in publicity than substance, he was not without critics. Cynics pointed out that Custer saw nothing contradictory about fighting Indians as well as those who cheated them. Editorials seeking any reason to discredit Custer questioned his intentions when defending the Indians against being cheated by the same government that was now prepared to go against them in battle.

The most damaging blow, however, was delivered by his commander in chief. President Grant was infuriated by Custer's testimony—Belknap was a close personal friend of the president. Grant decided to punish his impudent officer by denying him permission to lead the Seventh Cavalry on the spring campaign. And so Custer sat outside the Oval Office, hoping that the president would at least hear an explanation that would satisfy him and restore Custer to duty.

Custer, to say the least, was devastated by the decision of the president to deny his participation in the campaign. While the Seventh Cavalry prepared for the march—temporarily under the command of Major Marcus A. Reno—Custer marked time in the White House anteroom, uninvited, feeling lost and confused as he hoped for an audience with Grant.

This forlorn and humbling state of mind may have provoked thoughts within Custer of the days when he did not have such prestige and popularity and to consider that the President of the United States would even acknowledge him would be regarded as an unattainable dream. He was a perfect example of what could be called nothing less than a truly remarkable American success story. He had been born of low social standing and had risen by his own ambition and abilities to the point where everyone in the country recognized his name and most had a favorable impression of him.

George Armstrong Custer had entered the world on December 5, 1839, in the back room on the first floor of a house in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio, the first child of Emanuel Henry and Maria Ward Kirkpatrick Custer. Although he was formally named George Armstrong, the family would call him Armstrong. As he learned to talk, his childlike way of pronouncing his name, "Autie," became his nickname.

Both of Armstrong's parents had lost a spouse and each had brought two children to their marriage, which was beset by tragedy in the early years. Within five months of his marriage to Maria in February 1836, Emanuel's three-year-old son, John, died. Two other children born to the couple died in infancy before five healthy children, beginning with George Armstrong, survived. Three boys followed: Nevin Johnson, Thomas Ward, and Boston; and later a daughter, Margaret Emma (Maggie).

Emanuel, the village blacksmith, had helped found the New Rumley Methodist Church, served as a prominent member of the New Rumley Invincibles, the local militia, regarded his fidelity to the Democratic Party to be as sacred as his church membership, and had been New Rumley's justice of the peace for twelve years.

Maria was often referred to as being in ill health or an invalid for much of her life. It is probable that Armstrong, who was an only child for his first three years, was her favorite. Custer adored his mother throughout his life and never quite severed that invisible umbilical cord that linked them together. Custer's future wife, Libbie, once related that the hardest trial of her husband's life was parting with his mother. Libbie told about how when parting Armstrong would leave his mother's side and throw himself into their carriage in tears.

The Custer family was not by any means well-to-do, but Emanuel and Maria compensated for the lack of material possessions by creating a home full of love and family unity. The children from the three families bonded together with loyalty and affection, and the Custer household was said to be always in a happy uproar. This unrestrained atmosphere was engendered by Emanuel, who acted like a big kid when he was around his children. He would romp, wrestle, and play aggressively, making them the target of his practical jokes, which became a lifelong practice between them, and dodging their mischief in return.

From an early age, Autie enjoyed hanging around his father's blacksmith shop listening to the friendly banter and watching his father work. The boy would test ride the newly shod horses, an experience that enabled him to develop an early skill in horsemanship. Young Autie would also attend militia musters and parades, always wearing the little uniform made especially for him and carrying a toy musket or a wooden sword. Emanuel would show off his son by having Autie execute the manual of arms.

The Custer children attended school in New Rumley, and Autie became known as a boy who loved pranks and was not afraid to take chances. Armstrong may have been a rather bad boy in school, but he always completed his work and valued learning.

In 1849, Emanuel sold his shop in town and moved his family to an eighty-acre farm on the outskirts of New Rumley, where Armstrong began attending Creal School. For reasons unknown—perhaps financial—Armstrong was soon apprenticed to a furniture maker in Cadiz. This arrangement did not work out, and the boy was sent to live with his half sister, Lydia Ann Reed. Ann, as she was known, had married David Reed, a drayman, farmer, and real estate investor, and had subsequently moved to Monroe, Michigan. Ann became a surrogate mother and trusted confidante to Custer, a relationship that would continue throughout his life.

Armstrong attended New Dublin School, then Alfred Stebbins's Young Men's Academy in Monroe. His deskmate at the academy told about Armstrong's penchant for sneaking adventure novels into class and reading them instead of his textbooks. His favorite titles included Tom Burke of "Ours," Jack Hinton, and Charles O'Malley, the Irish Dragoon—the latter a childhood favorite of future Seventh Cavalry member Captain Myles W. Keogh.

The young man was hardly a bookworm, however, but a spirited and fun-loving youngster who was a natural-born leader. He was remembered by the minister of the Methodist church in Monroe as the main instigator of mischief and minor disruptions during services.

At age sixteen, Armstrong returned to New Rumley and attended McNeely Normal School in Hopedale, where he became quite a favorite with the young ladies. One classmate remembered that Custer "was kind and generous to his friends; bitter and implacable towards his enemies."

Armstrong interrupted his own education in 1856 to teach at the Beech Point School in Athens Township for twenty-eight dollars a month. The young teacher was known as a "big-hearted, whole-souled fellow," which made him extremely popular.

Armstrong, however, did not intend to teach forever. He arrived at the conclusion that—due to his family's poor economic situation—he would require some sort of assistance in order to further his education. To that end, he wrote to the district's Republican representative, John A. Bingham, and requested an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

This audacious act demonstrates the determination that would be Custer's lifelong hallmark. The odds that a son of an outspoken Democrat such as Emanuel could gain political patronage from a Republican were beyond comprehension.

Many stories have been written about why Armstrong Custer was even considered for such a prestigious appointment from a man whose politics were contrary to those of the staunchly Democratic Custer family. Bingham later related—after Custer had become famous—that the "honesty" of the young man's letter "captivated" him. Perhaps that was true, but another story appears to have gained more credibility. Historians have speculated that the father of a girl with whom Custer was romantically involved used his influence with the congressman in order to remove Custer from his daughter's life.

While teaching at Beech Point, the seventeen-year-old Custer had boarded at the home of a prosperous local farmer and fallen in love with his daughter, Mary Holland. The couple traded correspondence—he even wrote her a poem that began: "I've seen and kissed that crimson lip"—but Mary's father was not thrilled in the least about having this happy-go-lucky amateur poet as a family member and likely set out to remove Custer from his daughter's life.

Regardless of the circumstances, in January 1857 seventeen-year-old George Armstrong Custer received notification that he had been awarded an appointment to West Point that would take effect in June. Emanuel mortgaged his farm in order to raise the two hundred dollars necessary to pay for his son's expenses and admission fee.

On July 1, 1857, Armstrong Custer and sixty-seven other plebes reported for duty as the class of 1862 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

The blue-eyed Armstrong Custer stood nearly six feet tall, weighed about 170 pounds, and was called Fanny by his classmates due to his wavy, blond hair and fair complexion. Students were organized into sections according to their academic abilities, and Armstrong found himself for the most part among the Southerners and Westerners, who were generally academically inferior to the New Englanders.

Therefore, Custer's closest friends were those with Southern roots—Kentuckians William Dunlop and George Watts, Mississippian John "Gimlet" Lea, Georgian Pierce M. B. Young, and Lafayette "Lafe" Lane, a Southern sympathizer from Oregon. Custer's best friend was Virginia-born Texan Thomas L. Rosser, who roomed next door.

Custer's fun-loving nature was immediately at odds with the strict Academy code of conduct, which was calculated by a system of demerits—called skins by the cadets—issued for various offenses. One hundred skins in a six-month period would be grounds for dismissal from the Academy.

At the end of his first year, Fanny Custer ranked fifty-second in mathematics and fifty-seventh in English—in a class of sixty-two. His placement was due in part to the fact that he had accumulated 151 demerits, the highest number in his class. His less-than-glowing academic record was not the result of a lack of intelligence on his part, rather his propensity for pranks and devil-may-care attitude. Fellow cadet Peter Michie wrote: "Custer was always in trouble with the authorities. He had more fun, gave his friends more anxiety, walked more tours of extra guard, and came nearer to being dismissed more often than any other cadet I have ever known."


Excerpted from The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch. Copyright © 2015 Thom Hatch. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The Wrath of President Grant 3

2 Glorious War 15

3 Chasing Shadows on the Plains 29

4 Death Along the Washita 49

5 Battling Sioux in Yellowstone Country 67

6 Black Hills, Red Spirits 89

7 Prelude to War 107

8 First Blood 119

9 The March of the Seventh Cavalry 131

10 Into the Valley 143

11 The Crimson Trail 153

12 Battle Ridge 163

13 The Siege of the Hilltop 179

14 Bodies on the Field 191

15 Custer's Avengers 203

16 Mysteries, Myths, and Legends 215

17 Clearing the Smoke from the Battlefield 229

18 What Really Happened? 245

19 Heroes and Villains 257

Appendix: Table of Organization and Casualty Report of the Seventh Cavalry Little Bighorn Campaign 273

Sources 277

Bibliography 313

Index 357

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The Last Days of George Armstrong Custer: The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 8 days ago
One of the better books of many on Custer. Well researched
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well researched.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author correctly points out that both Bentine and,especially, Reno disobied Custer's orders at the Little Big Horn, he conveniently fails to mention the many instances of Custer's poor judgement and egocentric actions. The idea that he might actually lose the battle never could have entered Custer's mind. The fact that he did should have supprised no one except, perhaps, Custer himself. A ll in all, this is NOT a balanced picture of the battle or Custer the man,