Go West Rotating Header Image

Mythbuster – General Custer and the Little Bighorn: Hero or Glory-hound?

Throughout history heroes are born, whether it is through bravery, courage, or even myth. Certain men and women stand out in historical significance as a result of their heroism. General Custer is no different, as many of his feats have been portrayed in a way which most people consider heroic. Rough on the edges, and unorthodox in his tactics, Custer rose to historical significance by fighting fearlessly and accomplishing a plethora of accomplishments throughout his military career. Although many people consider Custer a great American war hero, was he indeed a hero? A look at the Battle of Little Big Horn could perhaps shed some light on the brave yet unconventional valor of the late 19th century General.

General George Armstrong Custer was member of the United States military, serving in the Civil War and was an active participant in the U.S. war against Native Americans. He was not regarded as a top student while attending the prestigious West Point Academy [1], but his role in the Civil War would help mold the man who became to be thought of as a hero. During the year following the Civil War, Custer was eventually suspended by the Army but later reinstated to lead a campaign against the Cheyenne Indians. Although he was recognized for his feats during the fight against the South, Custer had the highest number of casualties amongst Union commanders [4]. Some argue this could have been due to his unorthodox battlefield tactics, while others conclude that his arrogance often got in the way. Custer’s reckless abandon on the battle field played a large part in what would later become known as one of the worst military disasters in United States History.

During this point in time in American History, the United States was still young in its process towards expansion, both economically and geographically. The American Government had put many Indian tribes on reservations or sent them to Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma.) Various Sioux and Cheyenne tribes were among the Native who were oppressed onto reservations. The idea of living on a confined plot of land did not sit well with many Indians, particularly the Sioux and Cheyennes. These two groups of Indians would eventually leave the reservations (to the objection of the American Government) and gather in Montana with the great Sioux leader, Sitting Bull. Not long after, an American attempt would be made to force the Indians back onto the reservation at the Big Horn River in Montana.

Upon arriving at the site of the joint Indian encampment, General Custer falsely determined that he will easily be able to take on the Natives. Custer then devised a plan which would split up his regiment into several coordinated attacks. One group was to hold the upper valley of the Little Big Horn River, while another group was to attack the by crossing the river and heading directly into the village [2]. With this strategy, Custer hoped to somewhat surround the Indians so there would be no easy way for them to escape. Against better judgment, Custer ordered the attack, which did not go as planned. The divided forces soon found out they were outnumbered, as well as slowed down by unforgiving terrain. The bluffs and ravines slowed down the men, and created a disorganized charge which the Indians took advantage of and charged Custer’s men. The Indians began the onslaught, and Custer’s men began taking massive casualties. Men were even ordered to kill their own horses to provide barriers from the swarms of bullets and arrows shot by the Indians ([2]. The Indians easily overtook their attackers, and began to kill and mutilate Custer’s men at will. In less than one hour, one of the worst American military disasters was over [3].

Although Custer made poor assumptions and which would later prove to be disastrous, he was still regarded as a “tragic” war hero. One of the biggest reasons why Custer maintained such a pristine image in American households was his grip on the media [4]. He understood the importance of public relations, and several times would personally bring out a news correspondent to accompany him on assignment. Although his commanding officers were disenchanted with Custer’s tactics on the battle field, they knew there was not much that could be done because he was such an icon [4]. Not to discredit General Custer, because he was indeed a brave man, but we can even relate today how a tight grip on the media can manipulate the persona and view the public eye has on certain figures. It can be concluded that the media contributed to a huge misinterpretation of fact and myth in American history.

Author: Anthony Tokarz

Works Cited

1. Mallery, Garrick. “Archives of the West”. PBS. 10/1/2009 <http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/six/bighorn.htm>.

2. Gray, John S. Custer’s Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

3. “Battle of the Little Bighorn.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 15 Oct. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/343981/Battle-of-the-Little-Bighorn>.

4. Urwin, Gregory J. W. Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Comments are closed.