2nd Lt. George Armstrong Custer, Co. G, 2nd U. S. Cavalry, On Traveling to the Field and the Battle (Part 1)

20 09 2017

I left West Point on the 18th of July for Washington, delaying a few hours that afternoon on my arrival in New York to enable me to purchase, of the well-known military firm of Horstman’s, my lieutenant’s outfit of sabre, revolver, sash, spurs, etc. Taking the evening train for Washington, I found the cars crowded with troops, officers, and men hastening to the capital.

At each station we passed on the road at which a halt was made, crowds of citizens were assembled provided bountifully with refreshments, which they distributed in the most lavish manner among the troops. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds, they received us with cheers and cheered us in parting. It was no unusual sight, on leaving a station surrounded by these loyal people, to see matrons and maidens embracing and kissing with patriotic fervor the men, entire strangers to them, whom they saw hastening to the defense of the nation.

Arriving at Washington soon after daylight, Saturday morning, the 20th of July, I made my way to the Ebbit House, where I expected to meet some of my classmates domiciled. Among others I found there was Parker, appointed from Missouri, who had been my room- and tent-mate at West Point for years. He was one of the few members of my class who, while sympathizing with the south, had remained at the Academy long enough to graduate and secure a diploma. Proceeding to his room without going through the formality of announcing my arrival by sending a card, I found him at that early hour still in bed. Briefly he responded to my anxious inquiry for news, that McDowell’s army was confronting Beauregard’s, and a general engagement was expected hourly. My next inquiry was as to his future plans and intentions, remembering his Southern sympathies. To this he replied by asking me to take from a table near by and read an official order to which he pointed.

Upon opening the document referred to, I found it to be an order from the War Department dismissing from the roles of the army Second Lieutenant James P. Parker, for having tendered his resignation in the face of the enemy. The names of two others of my classmates appeared in the same order. After an hour or more of discussing the dark probabilities of the future as particularly affected by the clouds of impending war, I bade a fond farewell to my former friend and classmate, with whom I had lived on terms of closer intimacy than with any other being. We had eaten day by day at the same table, had struggled together in the effort to master the same problems of study; we had marched by each other’s side year after year, elbow to elbow, when engaged in the duties of drill, parade, etc., and had shared our blankets with each other when learning the requirements of camp life. Henceforth this was all to be thrust from our memory as far as possible, and our paths and aims in life were to run counter to each other in the future.

We separated; he to make his way, as he did immediately, to the seat of the Confederate Government, and accept a commission under a flag raised in rebellion against the government that had educated him, and that he had sworn to defend; I to proceed to the office of the Adjutant General of the Army and report for such duty as might be assigned me in the great work which was then dearest and uppermost in the mind of every loyal citizen of the country.

It was not until after two o’clock in the morning that I obtained an audience with the Adjutant General of the Army and reported to him formally for orders, as my instructions directed me to do. I was greatly impressed by the number of officials I saw and the numerous messengers to be seen flitting from room to room, bearing immense numbers of huge-looking envelopes. The entire department had an air of busy occupation which, taken in connection with the important military events then daily transpiring and hourly expected, and contrasted with the humdrum life I had but lately led as a cadet, added to the bewilderment I naturally felt.

Presenting my order of instructions to the officer who seemed to be in charge of the office, he glanced at it, and was about to give some directions to a subordinate nearby to write out an order assigning me to some duty when, turning to me, he said, “Perhaps you would like to be presented to General Scott, Mr. Custer?” To which I of course joyfully assented.

I had often beheld the towering form of the venerable chieftain during his summer visits to West Point, but that was the extent of my personal acquaintance with him. So strict was the discipline at that Academy that the gulf which separated cadets from commissioned officers seemed greater in practice thant that which separated enlisted men from them. Hence it was rare indeed that a cadet ever had an opportunity to address or be addressed by officers, and it was still more rare to be brought into personal conversation with an officer above the grade of lieutenant or captain, if we except the superintendent of the Academy and the commandant of the corps of cadets. The sight of a general officer, let alone the privilege of speaking to one, was an event to be recounted to one’s friends. In those days the title of general was not so familiar as to be encountered on every hotel register. Besides, the renown of a long lifetime of gallantry in his country’s service had gradually but justly placed General Scott far above all contemporary chieftains in the admiration and hero worship of his fellow countrymen; and in the youthful minds of the West Point cadets of those days Scott was looked up to as a leader whose military abilities were scarcely second to those of a Napoleon, and whose patriotism rivaled that of Washington.

Following the lead of the officers to whom I had reported, I was conducted to the room in which General Scott received his official visitors. I found him seated at a table over which were spread maps and other documents which plainly showed their military character. In the room, and seated near the table, were several members of Congress, of whom I remember Senator Grimes of Iowa.

The topic of conversation was the approaching battle in which General McDowell’s forces were about to engage. General Scott seemed to be explaining to the congressmen the position, as shown by the map, of the contending armies. The adjutant general called General Scott’s attention to me by saying, “General, this is Lieutenant Custer of the Second Cavalry; he has just reported from West Point and I did not know but that you might have some special orders for him.”

Looking at me for a moment, the general shook me cordially by the hand, saying, “Well, my young friend, I am glad to welcome you to the service at this critical time. Our country has need of the strong arms of all her loyal sons in this emergency.” Then, turning to the adjutant general, he inquired to what company I had been assigned. “To Company G, Second Cavalry, now under Major Innis Palmer, with General McDowell,” was the reply. Then, addressing me, the general said, “We have had the assistance of quite a number of you young men from the Academy, drilling volunteers, etc. Now what can I do for you? Would you prefer to be ordered to report to General Mansfield to aid in this work, or is your desire for something more active?”

Although overwhelmed by such condescension upon the part of one so superior in rank to any officer with whom I had been brought in immediate contact, I ventured to stammer out that I earnestly desired to be ordered to at once join my company, then with General McDowell, as I was anxious to see active service. “A very commendable resolution, young man,” was the reply; then, turning to the adjutant general, he added, “Make out ;lieutenant Custer’s orders directing him to proceed to his company at once”; then, as if a different project had presented itself, he inquired of me if I had been able to provided myself with a mount for the field. I relpied that I had not, but would set myself about doing so at once.

“I fear you have a difficult task before you, because, if rumor is correct, every serviceable horse in the city has been bought, borrowed, or begged by citizens who have gone or are going as spectators to witness the battle. Beauregard may capture some of them and teach them a lesson. However, I what I desire to say to you is, go and provide yourself with a horse if possible, and call here at seven o’clock this evening. I desire to send some dispatches to General McDowell, and you can be the bearer of them. You are not afraid of a night ride, are you?”

Exchanging salutations, I left the presence of the general-in-chief, delighted at the prospect of being at once thrown into active service, perhaps participating in the great battle which everyone there knew was on the eve of occurring; but more than this my pride as a soldier was not a little heightened by the fact that almost upon my first entering the service I was to be the bearer of important official dispatches from the general-in-chief to the general commanding the principal army in the field.

I had yet a difficult task before me in procuring a mount. I visited all the prominent livery stables, but received almost the same answer from each, the substance of which was that I was too late; all the serviceable horses had been let or engaged. I was almost in despair of the idea that I was not to be able to take advantage of the splendid opportunity for distinction opened before me, and was at a loss what to do, or to whom to apply for advice, when I met on Pennsylvania Avenue a soldier in uniform, whom I at once recognizes as one of the detachment formerly stationed at West Point, who left with those ordered suddenly to the defense of Washington at the time of Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, when it was feared attempts would be made to assassinate the president-elect.

Glad to encounter anyone I had ever seen before, I approached and asked him what he was doing in Washington. He answered that he belonged to Griffin’s battery, which was then with McDowell’s forces at the front, and had returned to Washington by Captain Griffin’s order, to obtain and take back with him an extra horse left by the battery on its departure from the capital. Here then was my opportunity, and I at once availed myself of it. It was the intention of this man to set out on his return at once; but at my earnest solicitation he consented to defer his departure until after seven o’clock, agreeing also to have the extra horse saddled and in readiness for me.

Promptly at seven o’clock I reported at the adjutant general’s office, obtaining my dispatches, and with no baggage or extra clothing to weigh down my horse, save what I carried on my person, I repaired to the point at which I was to find my horse and companion for the night. Upon arriving there I was both surprised and delighted to discover that the horse which accident seemed to have provided for me was a favorite one ridden by me often when learning the cavalry exercises at West Point. Those who were cadets just before the war will probably recall him to mind when I give the name “Wellington,” by which he was then known.

Crossing Long Bridge about nightfall, and taking the Fairfax Court House road for Centreville, the hours of night flew quickly past, engrossed as my mind was with the excitement and serious novelty of the occasion as well as occasionally diverted by the conversation of my companion. I was particularly interested with his description, given as we rode in the silent darkness, of a skirmish days before at Blackburn’s Ford, between the forces of the enemy stationed there and a reconnoitering detachment sent from General McDowell’s army; especially when I learned that my company had borne an honorable part of the battle.

It was between two and three o’clock in the morning when we reached the army near Centreville. The men had already breakfasted, and many of the regiments had been formed in column in the roads ready to resume the march; but owing to delays in starting, most of the men were lying on the ground, endeavoring to catch a few minutes more of sleep; others were sitting or standing in small groups smoking and chatting.

So filled did I find the road with soldiers that it was with difficulty my horse could pick his way among the sleeping bodies without disturbing them. But for my companion I should have had considerable difficulty in finding my way to headquarters, but he seemed familiar with the localities even in the darkness, and soon conducted me to a group of tents near which a large log fire was blazing, throwing a bright light over the entire scene for some distance around.

As I approached, the sound of my horse’s hoofs brought an officer from one of the tents nearest to where I halted. Advancing toward me, he inquired who I wanted to see. I informed him I was the bearer of dispatches from General Scott to General McDowell. “I will relieve you of them,” was his reply, but seeing me hesitate to deliver them, he added, “I am Major Wadsworth of McDowell’s staff.”

While I had hoped from ambitious pride to have an opportunity to deliver the dispatches in person to General McDowell, I could not decline longer, so placed the documents in Major Wadsworth’s hands, who took them to a tent a few paces distant, where, through half-open folds, I saw him hand them to a large, portly officer, whom I at once recognized to be General McDowell. Then, returning to where I still sat my horse, Major Wadsworth…asked me of the latest news in the capital, and when I replied that every person at Washington was looking to the army for news, he added, “Well, I guess they will not have to wait much longer. The entire army is under arms, and moving to attack the enemy today.” After inquiring at what hour I left Washington, and remarking that I must be tired, Major Wadsworth asked me to dismount and have some breakfast, as it would be difficult to say when another opportunity would occur.

I was very hungry, and rest would not have been unacceptable, but in my inexperience I partly imagined, particularly while in the presence of the white-haired officer who gave the invitation, that hunger and fatigue were conditions of feeling which a soldier, especially a young one, should not acknowledge. Therefore, with an appetite almost craving, I declined the kind proffer of the major. But when he suggested that I dismount and allow my horse to be fed I gladly assented.

While Major Wadsworth was kindly interesting himself in the welfare of my horse, I had the good fortune to discover in an officer at headquarters one of my recent West Point friends, Lieutenant Kingsbury, aide-de-camp to General McDowell. He repeated the invitation just given by Major Wadsworth in regard to breakfast, but I did not have the perseverance to again refuse.

Near the log fire already mentioned were some servants busily engaged in removing the remains of breakfast. A word from Kingsbury, and they soon prepared me a cup of coffee, a steak, and some Virginia corn bread, to which I did ample justice. Had I known, however, that I was not to have an opportunity to taste food during the next thirty hours, I should have appreciated the opportunity I then enjoyed even more highly.

As I sat on the ground sipping my coffee, and heartily enjoying my first breakfast inn the field, Kingsbury (afterward Colonel Kingsbury, killed at the Battle of Antietam) informed me of the general movement then begun by the army, and of the attack which was to be made on Beauregard’s forces that day.

Three days before, I had quitted school at West Point. I was about to witness the first grand struggle in open battle between the union and secession armies; a struggle which, fortunately for the nation, the Union forces were to suffer defeat, while the cause for which they fought was to derive from it renewed strength and encouragement.

From Civil War Times Illustrated (submitted there by Peter Cozzens), Custer’s First Stand, Vol. XXXVII, No. 6, December, 1998

Part 2
Part 3

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A Heck of a Trip Out West, With a Way Cool Ending

1 08 2017

For nine days at the end of July, I took a little trip out west with some like-minded history geeks, most of whom I’ve known for a long time, and some of whom are now new friends. I thought about how – or even if, given its nature – I would post about it here. This trip wasn’t Bull Run related, nor was it even Civil War related, at least not directly.

The long and short of it is that I visited Yellowstone National Park for the first time;

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At Artist Point. Clockwise from me in the Penn State hat are three Gettysburg area residents and my car-mates on this adventure: Bob George (who knows everything); Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide and trip organizer Chris Army, in his magic hat; and Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide/thespian John Zervas. The background is real.

and the Buffalo Bill Cody Center of the West, in Cody, Wy., for the first time;

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Yep, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

and Fort Phil Kearney, including the fields of the Fetterman Massacre and Wagon Box Fight, also in Wyoming, for the first time;

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and Buffalo, Wy., near the famous Hole in The Wall, and seat of the Johnson County War, for the first time;

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Nate Champion, casualty of the Johnson County War. If you’re gonna be remembered, there are worse ways than this.

and the Rosebud Creek battlefield in Montana, for the first time;

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The hardy bunch who trekked to the top of the Rosebud battlefield’s Conical Hill. Me in the red, white and blue hat. Clockwise from Kendra Debany are James Hessler, Don Caughey, Rosebud historian Bob O’Neill, Bill Burkman, and Rosebud historian Neil Mangum, our guide.

and Pompey’s Pillar, a site visited by William Clark on his return trip, which overlooks a campsite of George Armstrong Custer and his men during the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873, for the first time;

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and the sites associated with the Battle of Little Bighorn (LBH), for the first time;

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Medicine Tail Ford from the battlefield side of Little Bighorn. Yes, that’s a sweat lodge. With lawn chairs nearby.

and had I gone to the rodeo, across the street from our hotel in Billings, Mt., it would have been my first time, too. But I didn’t, because we simply had no time.

As you can imagine, that’s a lot to cram in at once, and I’m still trying to process it all. So I’m going to just point out two cool tidbits from a trip full of cool tidbits.

Our guide for Little Big Horn and Rosebud was former Little Bighorn National Monument superintendent Neil Mangum. Through his efforts we were able to visit some sites not typically accessed, including battlefield spots Sharpshooter’s Ridge (special permit from the park) and Medicine Tail Ford and Nye-Cartwright/Luce Ridges, which are on private property. Another site is located on private property in the Rosebud Creek Valley. This is in the area of the Sun Dance, held in the month leading up to the Rosebud and LBH battles, in the mobile village of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe. During this, Hunkpapa Sioux spiritual leader Sitting Bull had a vision of Soldiers Falling Into Camp, which was interpreted as an impending victory over the U. S. Army. This vision was then recorded in pictograph on a formation which had been used for such a purpose for many years, Deer Medicine Rocks. Here’s an image I recorded of the glyph for Soldiers Falling Into Camp:

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“Soldiers Falling Into Camp”

Fascinating stuff. The rocks are visited to this day by individuals who leave offerings and prayers, which take many and colorful forms.

On Sunday, we completed our two-day tour of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. We recorded the last of many group photos, this one on Monument Hill (you may know it as Last Stand Hill):

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The whole shootin’ match on Monument Hill, Little Big Horn battlefield. Tour leader Neil Mangum seated.

It was after this that a great trip, meticulously planned and organized by friend and Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide (one of four on this trip) Chris Army, wrapped up just about as perfectly as it could. One of the last stops on our tour was the site of the death of Captain Miles Keogh of the 7th U. S. Cavalry. Keogh had served in the Civil War on the staff of General John Buford at Gettysburg, and so is of particular to the Guides in attendance, three of whom stand near Keogh’s marker:

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Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guides Chris Army, James Hessler, and Wayne Motts at the marker for Miles Keogh.

Later, before mounting up for the ride back to the hotel and the farewell dinner to follow, attendees took some time around Monument Hill to visit sites not on the tour or cruise the Visitor Center bookshop. I was doing the latter with long-time fellow battlefield stomping friend John (he’s completely off the social media grid so will remain last nameless). We were discussing the relative merits of various Little Bighorn titles – I was by far the dumbest of this group when it comes to Indian Wars – when a young man approached John and asked his opinion of a book. The book was about Keogh, and he informed John that he was a collateral descendant of the Captain. Overhearing this, I spotted Neil Mangum and brought him over to meet Philip, who spells his name Kehoe. Then I sought out Little Bighorn student and LGBG James Hessler, and things snowballed from there, with even the Park staff joining in. It turns out Philip was visiting the field with his brother Brendan and cousin David, who lives in Keogh’s boyhood home.  Brendan and David share the middle name Miles. All three are teachers and were visiting from Leighlin Bridge, County Carlow, Ireland.  I’m not sure the lads anticipated the attention, but it was a great way to end our last day on the field!

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On the steps of the LBH Visitor’s Center with, front row left to right Brendan Myles Kehoe, Eric Wittenberg, David Myles Kehoe, and Philip Kehoe; back row left to right me, Neil Mangum, Kendra Debany, and James Hessler.

I managed to do the whole trip without buying a single book (other than a small one on the art museum in the Buffalo Bill Center). But I took photos of plenty of books that caught my eye. Has this western trip spawned a new obsession? Only time will tell.

 





Preview: Hutchison, “Artifacts of the Battle of Little Big Horn”

18 12 2016

517bvmwsael-_sx375_bo1204203200_I know this is not a Civil War book, per se. But a good friend has invited me on a week-long July trip to Indian War sites including the Big Kahuna, Little Big Horn, and if my brother doesn’t wuss out, I think I’ll be going. Around the same time I got the invitation, I received an inquiry from the publisher of Will Hutchison’s Artifacts of the Battle of Little Big Horn: Custer, the 7th Cavalry & the Lakota and Cheyenne Warriors. It’s fate, Kismet, the stars aligning. Or something.

This is a very attractive book. Glossy pages, full color photos, a narrative portion including descriptions of the ephemera carried into the field by members of Custer’s expedition, and notes on each and every item pictured. I’m no expert by any means – I’ve read two books on Little Big Horn, the non-linear, unreadable (for me) Son of the Morning Star, and the more recent A Terrible Glory. I plan to bulk up on that in 2017, and Artifacts seems like a good place to start. I checked with someone who IS something of a LBH expert, and he tells me that, while few of the items included are new and most have been published elsewhere, this book represents the largest collection of artifact images presented in a single volume.

How can I convey to you the many and varied types of artifacts you’ll find inside? I think one item will do – though it’s not the same image as is in the book. This image of George Custer’s jock strap (technically, his Rawson’s Patent Elastic Self-Adjusting U. S. Army Suspensory Bandage C-7A Size 5) can be found here.

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The image in Artifacts is much better, not such a jumbled mess, and appears on the same page as an image of Custer’s apparently blood-stained socks.

The point is, this book is a feast for the eyes not only for Custer and LBH buffs, but for pretty much anyone who likes viewing, and learning about, old stuff owned and handled by legendary figures. If that sounds like you, check out Artifacts of the Battle of Little Bighorn.





Preview: Miller, “Decision at Tom’s Brook”

6 08 2016

TomsBrookYet another Savas Beatie new release is William J. Miller’s Decision at Tom’s Brook: George Custer, Thomas Rosser, and the Joy of the Fight. This is a chronicle of the October 1864 clash of cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley, described by one Confederate soldier as “the greatest disaster that ever befell our cavalry during the whole war.”

Mr. Miller builds the story of Tom’s Brook on the framework of the relationship between Custer and his rebel counterpart Rosser. Both attended the USMA at the same time, and both were noted for their sometimes rash behavior and poor judgement on the battlefield. Like the Highlander says, “There can be only one,”and at Tom’s Brook one would lose his head to the other (if only figuratively). Note that the Lieutenant Rosser commanded the 1st Company of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans at Bull Run. Custer was there, too.

Here’s what you get: 212 pages of text, with page-bottom notes, plenty of illustrations, and Hal Jesperson maps; three appendices (orders of battle, strengths and losses, and notes on maps and topography – Mr. Miller is, after all, the author of Mapping for Stonewall: The Civil War Service of Jed Hotchkiss); a bibliography listing over three pages of archival sources and over three pages more of newspaper sources; and a full index.





Preview – Stiles, “Custer’s Trials”

22 10 2015

41jMb9LuJsL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The nice people at Knopf (that’s k-nop-f) sent me a copy of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles. Mr. Stiles is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book on Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, and also authored a biography of Jesse James. So, like Arthur Digby Sellers (author of the bulk of the TV series Branded), he’s not exactly a lightweight.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. If you’re a regular reader of this or other Civil War blogs, you’re probably beyond a comprehensive biography by a “non-specialist,” particularly yet another biography of one of the most biographied Americans ever. And you’re right to be leery.

I wager there are a few members of the Little Big Horn Associates who stop by here every now and again (after all, Autie was here at First Bull Run), and I don’t think most of them or you will find much to shock or surprise. It’s 460 pages of text, with 80 pages of notes and a surprisingly brief 8 page bibliography (but a good four pages of that is archives and newspapers.) But at this point, is some new discovery the real reason you’d pick up a Custer bio these days? Doubtful. Folks who have read thousands of pages just on the condition of Custer’s body, or certain parts of his body, when found aren’t going to be surprised by much in the way of documentary discovery.

Stiles states in his preface that his intent with Custer’s Trials is “to change the camera angle – to examine Custer’s life as it was lived, in order to better grasp…his larger meaning….escape the overshadowing preoccupation with his death.” Because his life “had a significance independent of his demise.” “I want to explain why his celebrity, and notoriety, spanned both the Civil War and his years on the frontier, resting on neither exclusively but incorporating both.”

So let me explain why I’ll read this one, despite the fact I’ve read others, and some studies of Little Big Horn, and even have a pretty focused book sitting right here in my maybe-I’ll-read stack, Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle. I’m going to read this because it promises something so very rare in Civil War literature: good story telling. Dude won a Pulitzer! What I’ve skimmed is elegant, that is, not painful to read, and it smacks neither of hagiography nor hatchetography (although that could change, I suppose.) I encourage all CW lit consumers to take breaks every now and again for books that are not painful, in fact, enjoyable to read. Think of it as a reward. You’ve earned it.