Mad, bad or misunderstood? Little Bighorn and the Custer enigma.
On a hot Sunday afternoon in June 1876, the most notorious battle in American history took place among the remote high plains of present-day Montana.
The word “battle” does little justice to the violent and brutal events of that fateful day. Suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, 221 men of the US 7th Cavalry were swiftly annihilated. Helplessly encircled on an exposed hilltop, many of the young men fought bravely; some threw down their weapons and lay on the ground crying; others made a desperate charge down the hill to escape, only to plunge straight into the mouth of the Indian village. It made no difference. There were no survivors.
News of the disaster reached the East on 4th July, as Americans were proudly celebrating the 100th Anniversary of their independence from Britain. The realisation that the cream of their armed forces had been massacred by what were seen as primitive savages caused a deep sense of outrage as well as grief.
Even after the Indian “problem” had been resolved, the traumatic events of that day would leave a lasting scar on America’s psyche. The chief casualty of that was the man who had led the troops to their doom – 7th Cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer. For somebody who had always courted fame, the Little Big Horn would guarantee immortality – but for all the wrong reasons.
Custer, the man
Two things ‘made’ Custer – his family background and the American Civil War. An inveterate practical joker and risk-taker from a poor but happy family, Custer was thrust straight into the reality of war, leaving WestPoint as the North-South conflict began. Though initially frightened by action, he quickly learned that being on the front foot, being the aggressor, gave him a huge psychological advantage over his opponents. His battle philosophy rapidly developed into “Attack! Attack! Attack!” and it brought him sensational success, winning victory after victory. In a Union army beset by incompetence and failure, Custer shot to the top, becoming a ‘brevet’ General at the age of 21. He was also a celebrity with articles about the “Boy General” in newspapers as far apart as New York and London.