Zach – Today I have a panel of important historical people with me to discuss a topic that’s been debated hotly ever since the late 1800’s: The issue of whether George Armstrong Custer was a total fool or an unlucky but good leader.
Mulan – Being a leader is more than calling out enemy locations while playing Call of Duty.
Matilda – You’re only upset because you kept getting killed by that sniper.
Zach – Ladies! Please, you both rocked at COD3 last night. No need to squabble.
Zach – To help us with this we have firstly, Charles Martel, leader of the Franks that led a very successful war against the Moors.
Martel – Glad to be here as always.
Zach – Next we have Hua Mulan. She took her father’s place in the army to protect her homeland.
Mulan – Thank you.
Zach – Then we have Countess Matilda of Tuscany. She fought the Holy Roman Emperor with her private army, chewed bubble gum and kicked butt until she was all out of bubble gum…then she just kicked butt.
Matilda – As eloquent and truthful as always.
Zach – And our last panelist is new to our discussions, Lord Cornwallis, general of the British army during the American Revolution.
Cornwallis – Thanks lad. It is an honor to be here among a group of my peers. It’s also good to see a representative of His Majesty’s military being accounted for.
Zach – Thank you all for being here.
Mulan – (Looks around) No Napoleon?
Zach – No, sorry. Not this time.
Mulan – Good. He was an annoying, arrogant man.
Zach – So, as I said earlier, our topic is George Armstrong Custer. What most people know about him is that he had a last stand at Little Big Horn. There is so much more to his story. Let’s review his past. It’s the only way to get a clearer view of the man.
Matilda – He graduated last in his class at the Military Academy. Evidently he was no scholar.
Cornwallis – Last? How ever did he gain a commission with such an appalling record?
Matilda – The Civil War.
Mulan – Yes, necessity sometimes bring benefits to soldiers that would normally be passed over.
Martel – He knew General McClellan. That didn’t hurt either. He joined McClellan’s unit and became a cavalry officer. Apparently that was more prestigious than being with the infantry. Fools. Infantry are what win battles.
Cornwallis – And no infantry was finer than the British Red Coats. Most able musket men in the world!
Zach – So, how did he do as a cavalry officer? I must admit that I’m highly curious. During my last deployment to Iraq, I was in the cavalry. So I was a part of the tradition of Custer. The American cy still wears Stetson cowboy hats and fake spurs. We also still have the same red and white flags that denote the unit is a cav unit.
Mulan – He did very well. He killed his enemies and gained success on the field of battle.
Cornwallis – Indeed he did! He fought in most major engagements in the eastern theater. I dare say that he rode over many battlefields that I was victorious on.
Matilda – I take it Custer didn’t fight at Yorktown then.
Martel – He was known for his daring and dashing and lack of fear. When a general muttered that he wished he knew how deep a certain river was, Custer charged out into the river and told the general that it was passable.
Mulan – Sounds like he was a glory seeker fighting for himself.
Zach – Do the rest of you agree with this? Was he a glory seeker?
Matilda – It is a bit difficult to deny when the man wears such garish clothing. A man doesn’t wear such clothing to avoid attention.
Cornwallis – He did have a bit of a flamboyant streak about him. Not very soldierly of him, is it?
Martel – I would say not.
Zach – So, he was at the Battle of Bull Run and the Peninsula Campaign. He performed exceptionally in every battle he fought in and for a Yankee at the beginning of the war, that is saying something. The North wasn’t exactly known for its high quality leadership.
Martel – His friend McClellan had a “case of the slows” as your president Lincoln called it. He was slow to attack and wasted many opportunities.
Cornwallis – But this is not a fault we can accuse Custer of. Indeed the man would attack anything and everything in his way.
Mulan – It shows a distinct lack of common sense. Dashing and feats of bravery do not win wars. Discipline, training and obedience win wars.
Matilda – But it can be said that they win battles. Mulan, I understand that you read your Sun Tsu. Doesn’t it say something about when the enemy is larger than your force, avoid combat?
Mulan – Yes it does. To do otherwise is to play a game of chance that is not in your favor.
Cornwallis – I wish General Washington had read that book. There would never have been a Revolution if that were the case!
Martel – I frequently fought larger forces. Size isn’t the only factor.
Zach – Glad you brought up his habit for charging larger forces. This brings us to his role in the battle of Gettysburg.
Martel – I saw the movie. I’ve never seen so many monologues.
Mulan – I enjoyed it.
Zach – What part did Custer play at Gettysburg?
Matilda – I’m not sure but I can guess that it involved attacking at the first chance he got.
Zach – Pretty much, but let’s be a bit more specific.
Cornwallis – The Confederate cavalry officer….what was his name? Ah! J.E.B. Stuart. He was in charge of General Lee’s cavalry. When Lee encountered the Federal army, Stuart was off riding rough shot over the country side and left Lee blind. Lee didn’t know he was about to face the entire Yankee army.
Mulan – Custer was also promoted to general at this battle.
Martel – Yes, he had his own command. He was the youngest general.
Matilda – He came across J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. What did he do?
Cornwallis – He charged
Mulan – He charged.
Matilda – Yes, he charged. Lee, at the time of Picket’s charge, sent Stuart’s cavalry to attack the Federal rear. This might have worked but they came across Custer’s unit.
Cornwallis – Yes, yes. We know. He was grossly outnumbered but charged right at them anyway.
Mulan – He was a fool.
Cornwallis – Perhaps, but his charge stopped Stuart’s cavalry from attacking the Federal rear. He accomplished his mission. I’d say that’s a fine officer. It seems reckless, but what was he to do? Also, it is said by Marguerite Merrington in her book “The Custer Story in Letters” “George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemies[sic] weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the ‘Custer Dash’ with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time.” This is an intelligent man that thought out his strategies.
Matilda – Yes, but at the cost of over two hundred of his own men.
Mulan – At the end of the battle Custer also wrote “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry” I would not such suffer a boastful, reckless man in my army.
Matilda – That does sound like a glory seeking fool.
Martel – It was a gamble but he won, so he is counted as successful. If he would have lost it would have been looked at as the most foolish mistake ever. Strange how success or failure determine intelligence.
Zach – So, he was a glory seeking man, but he wasn’t stupid and knew what he was doing. He was also highly aggressive.
Mulan – Too aggressive. It is not money or his own life he gambles with. It is the life of his men.
Cornwallis – But this was not Custer’s only daring deed of stiff upper lippedness. He fought the entire Civil War with such dash and grandeur. Indeed, he was even there for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. If that isn’t the mark of a successful general, then I know not what is.
Mulan – Victory is easy. What tests a person’s character is how they act in defeat. Wouldn’t you say, Lord Cornwallis?
Cornwallis – (clears throat and adjusts jacket. ) I don’t know what you mean.
Mulan – Sending a page out to surrender in your stead and then he tried to surrender to the French officer beside Washington. Washington won. I suppose that makes him a great general, then. Yes?
Cornwallis – What’s next on our discussion, Zachary?
Zach – Well…um…after the Civil War he stayed in the army, was given a chance to be a general in Mexico, turned it down and went out west to fight Indians.
Cornwallis – Yes indeed! Fighting savage locals. Something the British Empire excels at!
Martel – Yes, here we have Custer showing off his great daring and dash once again, but this time his targets were villages with women and children. I wouldn’t call this a noble and valiant war.
Matilda – Yes, he purposefully brought war down on women and children. Some would argue that it was the American Army’s policy to do so, but I don’t think this excuses him. Innocents die in war. It is a sad but inevitable fact. But it should be avoided and not be the goal.
Mulan – Look at the massacre at Black Kettle’s camp. They had a white flag and were offering peace.
Martel – As we said earlier, Custer was a very aggressive man and didn’t know how to hold off from the attack. So, when he saw Indians, he attacked. He also moved into territory promised to the Indians and helped set up settlements. The famous town of Deadwood was one such town.
Zach – This brings us to Little Big Horn. Custer was ordered to hunt down any hostile Indian camp he could. Hostile, in this case, meant that they wouldn’t bow down to the American government. If this wasn’t a case of fighting “The Man” then I don’t know what is.
Matilda – I thought your government had laws against such things.
Zach – Only if they’re citizens…and not since Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act which authorizes the military to detain indefinitely American Citizens. So, the answer is…. not really, but we’re supposed to.
Martel – Custer found his hostile camp, yes?
Cornwallis – Indeed, sir! He found it and then some! He thought he was after a village of nomads. His Crow scouts, traditional enemies of the Lakota, said they saw a large camp along the Little Big Horn River. Custer, being eager to fight before the Indians could flee, ordered his unit to split into three groups.
Mulan – One group went off to cut off escape and Major Reno took his force near the woods and formed a line.
Matilda – But Reno was soon covered in Indians that were very “Hostile” and was forced to retreat. Reno lost a lot of men.
Cornwallis – But it was supposed to be a classic Hammer and Anvil strategy.
Martel – I love the hammer and anvil strategy! But it doesn’t work when your anvil is defeated before the hammer can be brought to bare.
Mulan – Custer then attacked the camp, but before he could cross the river the Indians began…what did you call it last night?
Zach – A smack down.
Mulan – Yes! The Indians gave Custer a “smack up” and chased him up a hill.
Cornwallis – What was the problem? Why couldn’t they take this enemy camp? The problem was that this was no ordinary camp. Custer had stumbled upon a rare gathering of several tribes from several nations. He stumbled into one of the largest gatherings of Indian warriors ever assembled. Custer had a few hundred. They had thousands. I must say, he still should have won. I mean, look at Rourke’s Drift where we British stood tall and showed them what for!
Zach – This is a slightly different situation, Lord Cornwallis. This happened so fast that it threw Custer’s cavalry into chaos. It was a quick route and they fled up a hill to get some kind of advantage over the Indians.
Mulan – It didn’t work.
Matilda – Apparently not.
Zach – Recent archeological evidence has found that Custer died slightly north of the main fighting and had two wounds. One in his head and one in his chest. How this happened, no account really told us. It remained a mystery for over a hundred years!
Matilda – Can I say it?
Zach – Sure.
Matilida – But! We here at Minimum Wage Historian have found out what happened to Custer. The Cheyenne, one of the nations that took part at Little Big Horn, had been sworn to secrecy by their chiefs, telling them not to tell what happened to Custer for a hundred winters because they feared the reprisals of the American Government. Recently the Cheyenne have come out and told the public what their oral tales have said.
Zach – Thanks, Matilda. Well done. Yes, we have uncovered the Cheyenne’s version of events and it fits with the archeological evidence and other eye witness accounts. According Cheyenne tradition, Custer was knocked off his horse by a blow to the head by a warrior named Buffalo Calf Road….and she was a woman.
Mulan – (Fist pumps) Did I do that right?
Zach – Yes you did and it was a well earned fist pump. Buffalo Calf Road Woman was already a famous warrior before the Battle of Little Big Horn. At the Battle or Rosebud, she saved her brother, Chief Comes in Sight. The Lakota, under the command of Crazy Horse were retreating and left their wounded. Well, Buffalo Calf Road, or Brave Woman for short, went out in front of enemy fire, rescued her brother and then rallied the Lakota braves for a come from behind victory.
Mulan – I approve.
Matilda – (claps)
Martel – I could have used her in my army.
Zach – Hold on, I think I have a picture of her somewhere. Yes! Here it is.
She was so Bad A, that the Cheyenne named the battle after her and called it “Where the Girl saved her brother.” She was credited with knocking Custer off his horse and then killing him on the ground. There were other warrior women there as well including “Moving Robe Woman,” “Magpie,” and the awesomely named “Finds them and Kills them.”
Cornwallis – I’m afraid we are simplifying this battle to a ridiculous degree.
Zach – We have a case of Mountain Dew and we’re about to play Street Fighter. We have important things to do. Besides, if someone wants to learn a much more detailed account, then it behooves them to go look it up.
Mulan – We’re done here?
Cornwallis – Wait, we’re not done!
Martel – Not yet. What is the answer to the question? Was Custer a fool or unlucky?
Matilda – He made several blunders that any novice would have avoided. He should have scouted out the camp first. Everyone knows this. No one attacks blindly.
Mulan – He thought he was going into a village of women and children. Why bother?
Zach – Well, we’ve seen that his career during the Civil War was actually quite remarkable and filled with stunning successes. But I think he let his pride and aggressiveness get in the way of his training.
Martel – So, he was no fool, but he was a heartless jerk.
Zach – Well, he made other blunders as well at Little Big Horn, but I invite the readers to go and make up their own minds.
Mulan – Okay, let’s go. I have butt kicking that awaits you.