The Other Custers: Little Bighorn

Everyone knows the story of how Brevet-General George Custer overconfidently led over 200 troops of the 7th Cavalry to their deaths in June 1876 at the Little Bighorn River. What is not so well-known, however, is the fact that he was not the only Custer in the battle. Two of his brothers, one of his young nephews, and one of his brothers-in-law also died with him in Montana.

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Little Bighorn Battlefield, Montana

The Custer family grew up in Monroe MI. The oldest son was George, a flamboyant and somewhat arrogant youngster with the childhood nickname “Autie”. His brother Tom was six years younger, followed by Boston, then the youngest brother Nevin and sisters Lydia and Margaret.

Young George was an adventure-seeker, and decided on a career with the Army, enrolling at West Point. He graduated last in his class, but it was 1861, the Civil War had just begun, and the Union Army needed all the officers it could find. Custer was assigned as a junior officer in a Michigan cavalry regiment. The once-lackluster student now displayed a reckless bravery on the battlefield which impressed his superiors, and he quickly climbed in rank. Before the end of the war he had been given command of his own cavalry regiment, the 6th Michigan, and had been granted the brevet rank (a temporary battlefield promotion, made necessary by the death of so many officers in combat) of General. At 23, Custer was the youngest General in the Union Army.

Meanwhile, his younger brother Tom Custer had tried to enlist in 1861, but he was only 15 and their father Emanuel blocked his induction. So Tom had to wait until his 16th birthday in September before joining the 21st Ohio Cavalry regiment (the family had moved to Ohio after George left for West Point). After seeing his first combat at Murfreesboro, Tom was assigned as a staff officer to General James Negley, then was transferred to the headquarters of several other divisions. In 1865, General George Custer intervened to have Tom transferred to a combat unit in his own regiment, the 6th Michigan. Here, Tom Custer proved himself to be every bit as reckless and aggressive as his older brother, fighting at Stones Hill, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and rising to the rank of Brevet Major. On April 2, 1865, at the Battle of Namozine Church, Tom Custer fought his way to the Confederate lines, with a horse shot out from under him, and captured the battle flag of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry Regiment–an action which won him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Then, incredibly, he repeated the feat just three days later. At the Battle of Sayler’s Creek, Custer charged the Confederate lines and was shot in the face, the bullet entering his cheek and exiting the back of his neck. But he kept on going, and captured another Confederate battle flag, from the 2nd Virginia Regiment. For his actions, he was awarded a second Medal of Honor, the first person to ever win the award twice and one of only 19 people to do so (and the only one to do it twice in one week). It made Tom Custer the most highly-decorated soldier of the Civil War.

When the war ended, both brothers stayed in the Army, though both lost their temporary brevet ranks. Lt Col George Custer became the commander of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, and pulled some strings to get his brother Tom assigned to his unit. They were sent to the western frontier, where hostilities had broken out with various Native American nations, including the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. In 1868, Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked a Native village on the Washita River, sending one group of his troopers to attack one end of the encampment and distract the Native warriors while he led another group of soldiers to ride down the now-unprotected women and children. Tom Custer was wounded in the hand during the fighting. Tom was also with Custer in 1874 when the 7th Cavalry was assigned as a military escort for a group of railroad workers who were passing through the Black Hills in South Dakota, which had been granted to the Lakota by the 1868 Treaty of Ft Laramie. During the trip, members of the group found gold in the Black Hills–an event which would lead directly to their deaths.

After the discovery of gold, a flood of fortune-seekers entered the Black Hills, in violation of the Laramie Treaty. When the Lakota protested and killed some of the invaders, the Army was moved in, and in turn a large number of Natives from several different nations left their reservations and returned to their traditional lands, under the leadership of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall. In 1875, the US announced that any Natives who had not returned to their reservations by the end of the year would be declared “hostile”, and in May 1876, the 7th Cavalry was assigned to a force under the command of General Alfred Terry, which was to enter Montana in search of the renegade Natives. Lt Col George Custer commanded the 7th, and Captain Tom Custer commanded the regiment’s Company C.

By this time, another brother had joined them. Boston Custer, born in 1848, had been too young to enlist during the Civil War, and when he tried to join the Army after the war he was rejected on the grounds of poor health. But then his brother George stepped in, signing Boston up as a civilian contractor and bringing him to the 7th Cavalry as a forage-master during the 1974 Black Hills expedition. When Lt Col Custer left for Montana in 1876, he took his brother Boston along as a “civilian guide”–a fiction, since Boston had never been in the area.

Two other relatives rode out with Custer. Lt James Calhoun had fought in the Civil War and was then assigned to Ft Hays in Kansas, where he met Custer’s sister Margaret. After their engagement, Custer had Calhoun transferred to his 7th Cavalry and put him in command of Company L. Their marriage in 1874 made the company commander the brother-in-law of George, Tom and Boston. Meanwhile, another Custer sister, Lydia, had also married, and had a son named Harry Reed. He became George Custer’s favorite nephew and earned the nickname “Autie”–the same that George had in childhood. In June 1876, the 18-year-old Harry joined his uncle at Ft Lincoln in North Dakota. Officially, he was hired on as a civilian who was in charge of caring for the Regiment’s pack horses. In reality, he was basically on a summer vacation to tour the West: Custer had picked up Harry and his sister Emma on the way back from a trip to Washington DC. When General Terry’s forces entered Montana, nobody expected that there would be much actual fighting; it was assumed that the small scattered bands of “hostiles” would slink back to the reservations when confronted. Custer saw no danger in allowing his young nephew and his civilian brother to accompany him.

On June 25, 1876, as the 7th Cavalry approached the Little Bighorn River, Custer’s Crow and Arikara scouts began finding signs of a Native encampment nearby, and it soon became apparent that it was a large camp. Custer’s orders had been to find the Native villages and report their location, but he had also been told by General Terry that if it looked like the Natives might escape and move away, he should attack them. In approaching the Little Bighorn, Custer’s troops had surprised a Lakota hunting party, and now, assuming that the Lakota had warned the encampment of his presence, he decided to move on them before they could get away.

Custer split his troops into three groups. One, under Captain Frederick Benteen, would stay behind as a reserve and to guard the pack horses. Another, under Major Marcus Reno, would attack one end of the village, while Custer would take five companies (about 200 troops–including Tom Custer’s C Company and Calhoun’s L Company) and attack from the other end. It was to be a replay of the fight at Washita. The civilians Boston Custer and Harry Reed would stay behind with Benteen.

When Major Reno reached the edge of the Native village, he saw that it was much bigger than anyone had realized. (Modern estimates range upwards of 6-7,000 people, including some 1,500-2,000 warriors.) Reno immediately came under attack from Native warriors and was forced to form his troopers into a defensive skirmish line.

Custer, meanwhile, had approached the other side of the village and, seeing how large it was, sent a messenger back to Benteen to reinforce him with more troops and the extra ammunition packs. “Come on,” the message said. “Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. PS, bring packs.”

When the message reached Benteen, he gathered a force of troopers and set off towards the river. Both Boston Custer and Harry Reed independently decided that they wanted to join George and Tom during the fight. Boston mounted a mule and rode off–fifteen minutes later he found Custer’s force on a hill near the village and joined his brother. A few minutes later, Harry Reed arrived: he had taken a pack horse and passed Benteen’s troopers on the way.

Reno, in the meantime, had lost almost half his men in desperate fighting, and retreated back across the Little Bighorn River. At the top of a nearby hill, he unexpectedly ran into Benteen and his troops, who were looking for Custer. Together the two groups dug a series of rifle pits into a defensive circle. “Benteen Hill”, as it became known, was immediately surrounded by Native warriors, who would keep the cavalry troopers pinned down for the rest of the night and most of the next day.

Custer’s moves were later reconstructed by archaeological work at the site. Approaching the Native village, he was driven back to a nearby hill where fierce fighting occurred. Lt Calhoun was killed, and the site is now known as Calhoun Hill. About half of Custer’s 200 troopers died here. The survivors regrouped at another hill a short distance away, now known as “Last Stand Hill”. Here they were surrounded and cut down. Today, white stone markers indicate where the bodies of the 7th Cavalry soldiers were found. George Custer’s marker is near the top of the hill; the bodies of Boston Custer and Harry Reed are just yards away. Also found with them was the body of Tom Custer. Most of C Company’s soldiers had died near Calhoun Hill, but apparently Tom and perhaps a handful of his troops had made their way to Last Stand Hill. As the troopers here were systematically killed, a small group of about 30 soldiers made a last desperate run for the Little Bighorn River, hoping to hide in the trees along the riverbank. None of them made it: they were met by a group of Natives led by Crazy Horse. The fighting had been quick. One later Native account of the battle noted that Custer and all his troops had been wiped out in “the time it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner”.

With Custer’s force gone, the Native warriors began to converge around the hill on which Benteen and Reno were holding out. They would likely have been wiped out too, had scouts from the village not returned with word that General Terry’s troops were not far away. The remaining remnants of the 7th Cavalry were allowed to escape, and the Natives packed up and moved away.

When Terry’s troops reached the site of the battle, they buried each of the dead where they lay, each body in a shallow grave wrapped in a blanket or Army tent. A short time later the bones were dug up, the enlisted men (most of them unidentified) buried together in a mass grave at the battle site, and the officers sent home for reburial. George Custer was buried at West Point. Tom Custer and James Calhoun were interred at Ft Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas. Civilians Boston Custer and Harry Reed went to the Custer family plot in Monroe MI.

 

 

 

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