A ridiculous question, right? But if one looks at books and other media one has to wonder, since the Little Big Horn looms largest, it seems, in the attempt to portray this interesting Michigander, and his spouse, Libby Bacon of Monroe. Thus it was good to see at least some coverage of Custer's pre-Indian War career in the American Experience show on Tuesday last. I particularly liked that some of the themes in Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice on Custer were included in the show. Here's from the transcript -- note the Michigan references:
'Narrator: On July 3rd, 1863, outside the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the fate of the Union Army, and the course of the Civil War, hung in the balance. On the third day of a climactic battle, confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart -- the legendary gray horsemen known as "the Invincibles," -- threatened to overrun the Union's vulnerable right flank. As the overwhelmed Union forces began to fall back, only the veteran First Michigan Cavalry remained to counter-attack. At that moment, a figure came riding to the front of the Michigan lines, dressed in black velvet, his saber held high, yellow hair streaming in the wind -- it was the 23-year-old Brigadier General -- George Armstrong Custer.
Louis Warren, Historian: Custer, who's at the head of this charge turns around and shouts 'Come on you wolverines!' And it's a full speed charge. The horses are screaming as they slam into each other.
Narrator: "So sudden and violent was the collision," wrote one veteran, "that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them. The clashing of sabers, the firing of pistols, the demands for surrender, and cries of combatants, filled the air." When it was over, the Union lines had held, and Custer's wild charge had helped win the most decisive battle of the Civil War.
Louis Warren, Historian: There is a streak of either courage or foolhardiness, and you can take your pick. But there certainly is something there that does lead him to charge headlong into guns blazing. And it's a critical moment in the Union victory at Gettysburg. It was a giant risk and he took it and it paid off.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Author, The Last Stand: Custer in a battle was, was a thing of beauty. He, he could direct people with precision, never get rattled. I mean he just had a sense of physical courage that was inspiring. And that's a real gift when you're out there in the chaos of war. And Custer had it.
Narrator: "Oh, could you but have seen some of the charges that we made!" he wrote to a friend. "While thinking of them I cannot but exclaim, 'Glorious War!'"
Narrator: Although Custer was fresh out of West Point when the war began, his exploits on the battlefield proved that he was more than ready for command.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: He's a guy who sees his chance to rise during the war. And he recognizes that the only way he, the only capital he has is his life. He's got to put himself in a post of danger if he wants to distinguish himself. And so he does. He's on the firing line with his troops. He gets horses shot out from under him and he dresses so that he's a mark for any sniper on the field. He's got a huge sombrero with a feather in the cap. He's got a big scarlet neckerchief. He's got a velvet jacket with gold braid. He's asking for it.
Paul Hutton, Historian: Custer didn't just look the part; he acted the part. He never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself. In the bloodiest war in all of American history, he's in the thick of the fighting from the first battle to the last battle. And he's barely scratched. It's just absolutely remarkable. 'Custer's luck,' he called it and he came to believe in it.
Narrator: Cited for bravery in his very first engagement, at the Battle of Bull Run, Custer distinguished himself in a string of brilliant cavalry actions that made the dashing young officer a darling of the nation's press. The New York Tribune proclaimed, "Future writers of fiction will find in Brigadier General Custer most of the qualities which go to make up a first-class hero." The men of his Michigan Brigade, many of them twice his age, idolized Custer, following him into some of the war's most violent engagements, proudly sporting the bright red neckties that he wore.
Michael Elliott, Cultural Historian: The Civil War was a time that called for Custer's brand of leadership. Somebody who was daring and brash and inspiring to the people who fought underneath him.
Richard Slotkin, Historian: Remember, on a Civil War battlefield everything is visual. He has to be a great actor. He has to get out in front of his men and perform courage.
Michael Elliott, Cultural Historian: And that image of Custer, not at the back, but at the front, with his sword out, that's the Custer that put him on the cover of Harper's Weekly and that everybody came to associate him with.
Narrator: Now, with his triumph at the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer had become one of the most famous officers of the war. He was known as 'The Boy General.' He stayed on the front lines until the very last day of the conflict, receiving the flag of truce when General Robert E. Lee finally surrendered at Appomattox, on April 9th, 1865. Custer's most admiring commander, Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, gave him the table upon which the peace terms were signed, along with a note to Custer's wife Libbie. "...permit me to say, Madam," it read, "that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband."'
Can there be any doubt that Custer was the Civil War's most inspirational and victorious cavalry commander?