It has such a catchy name that it’s hard to remember Custer’s Last Stand is not a marketing slogan or a popular bestseller title. No, George Armstrong Custer was a real guy, born in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1839. As for the Battle of Little Bighorn where Custer died, it was a historic event and a shameful one at that. It involved 210 U.S. Army 7th Cavalry troops led by Lt. Colonel Custer attacking a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors near today’s Montana, at the site of the Little Bighorn River. This basic plot resulted in many glorified claims about Custer in subsequent years, along with a few widely accepted myths about the ordeal. Want the real story on what went on that fateful day? Here are seven key facts about Custer, including his ill-fated, awkward ending:
A power military career wasn’t Custer’s first choice
Had George Custer stuck with his first occupation choice, he may very well have died at a ripe old age in an armchair by the fire instead of perishing in battle at 36. At age 16, he went to Normal School and earned his grammar school teaching certificate the next year. As fate would have it, though, teaching bored him and he entered West Point in 1857.
Custer’s Last place
George Custer graduated, ah, last in a class with 34 cadets at West Point. But that didn’t stop him from being accepted for staff duty with the Army of the Potomac when the Civil War broke out. He joined the cavalry, his post of choice.
Custer once fought for a much more sympathetic cause
Old George fought with the Union and is even believed to have helped end the Civil War by pursuing the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia tirelessly. At war’s end, he’d been promoted several times, the last to Major General in charge of a cavalry division.
“Custer Luck” was a thing
Not for Custer the common commander’s tactic of the day. Instead of leading men into battle from the flank, he courageously preceded them and managed a few lucky escapes from that vantage point. One time the Confederates cut him off from his own followers, another time he had no fewer than 11 horses shot while he was riding them (or so the story goes.) It sounds amazing from a historical perspective, but the man who became synonymous with severe thrashings in battle was once known for having inexplicable “Custer Luck.”
Custer’s Last Stand wasn’t his only immoral military act
After his big promotion, Custer finally convinced Judge (and later General) Daniel Bacon that he was fit to marry his daughter, Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon. The newlywed Custer then headed to Kansas at the Federal government’s request. Here he made his first major military misstep, though he didn’t suffer any consequences. After his first bout of attempting to fight Native Americans under Major General Whitfield Hancock concluded, Custer headed out (without leave) to join his wife at Fort Riley–aka “desertion.” He was court-martialed, for this as well as ordering deserters shot without trial. He was sentenced to a year without pay, but it summed up the desperate U.S. military position pretty well that the government allowed Custer to resume his duties ahead of schedule. This was no favor, as it turned out.
Part of the tussle involved systematic buffalo slaying
Subsequent high school textbooks may have made Custer’s Last Stand sound like a prestigious battle fought with good cause on both sides, but the reality was, gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874. These were Native American lands. Even though the U.S. government had signed a treaty six years earlier establishing that area as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, when gold fever struck, the Feds broke their promises. The treachery extended all the way to the top, with President Ulysses S. Grant himself declaring that all the tribes anywhere near that now-valuable land had until January 31, 1876, to turn themselves in peaceably to reservations. Naturally, many tribe members blew him off.
To further weaken the tribes, the blackguard government went after their way of life and noble symbiotic relationship with the Plains buffalo. Along with overtly overturning earlier treaties, the U.S. government authorized railroad personnel and construction crews to kill off the herds the Native Americans relied on for sustenance. Part of the ploy was purposely letting trains stop where their passengers could slaughter buffalo and call it a sport. This made the tribes furious and set the stage for the worst U.S. Army defeat in all the many years the military engaged in battle with different tribes in order to plunder the native-occupied land of the Great Plains.
Custer really didn’t stand a chance
“The last stand” makes it sound like Custer courageously fought and finally succumbed. In reality, the tribes organized by veteran warriors Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were prepared and waiting and slaughtered Custer without much trouble. Some 10,000 men, women, and children had gathered, all of them refusing Grant’s demands to clear out and leave the gold mining to the white folks. Along with being outnumbered with just 210 troops, Custer made a critical error. His 7th Calvary was only supposed to scout the enemy camp. Instead, feeling like Sitting Bull was alert to his movements, Custer, hothead that he was, pressed forward instead of waiting for reinforcements as planned. The rest, as they say, is history. Even in those days, though, the history was flawed, with the U.S. government used the bloody defeat to reinforce to the naive public an image of “Indians” who were brutal and merciless and would stop at nothing to defend a sort of No Man’s Land. From the perspective of a century and a half, it’s clear who the greedy brutes were.