A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 18

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When a campaign against the roaming hostile Indians was decided on in 1876, Lieut. Col. Custer was naturally selected as the leader of the Dakota column, which was organized at Fort Lincoln, and mainly composed of his regiment.

About this time a Congressional committee at Washington were investigating the charges against Gen. Belknap, who had recently resigned the office of Secretary of War. Many persons were called to testify; and while Custer was actively engaged in organizing the Sioux expedition, he received a telegraphic summons to appear before the committee.

On the receipt of the summons, Custer telegraphed to Gen. Terry, the Department Commander, informing him of the fact, stating that what he knew as to any charges against the War Department was only from hearsay evidence, and asking his advice as to what he had better do. Terry, who was a lawyer as well as a soldier, in reply informed Custer that his services were indispensable, and that he feared it would delay the expedition if he had to go to Washington. He suggested that if Custer knew nothing of the matter, he might perhaps get excused from going there.

After hearing from Terry, Custer telegraphed to the chairman of the committee as follows;—

"While I hold myself in readiness to obey the summons of your committee, I telegraph to state that I am engaged upon an important expedition, intended to operate against the hostile Indians, and I expect to take the field early in April. My presence here is very necessary. In view of this, would it not be satisfactory for you to forward to me such questions as may be necessary, allowing me to return my replies by mail."

As the committee would not consent to the plan proposed, Custer went to Washington, and was detained there on this business about one month. He was severely cross-examined, but the result showed that he knew but little of the matter in controversy. All he could say of his own knowledge was, that a contractor had turned over to him at Fort Lincoln a quantity of grain, which he suspected had been stolen from the Indian Department, as the sacks bore the Indian brand. He had at first refused to receive the grain, and had informed the Department commander of his suspicions. He had received in reply an order to accept the grain; and he believed that the order emanated from the Secretary of War, and so testified before the committee. On returning west, he learned from Gen. Terry that he alone was responsible for the order to receive the grain; and thereupon, Custer telegraphed the fact to Mr. Clymer, and added:—"As I would not knowingly do injustice to any individual, I ask that this telegram may be appended to and made part of my testimony before your committee."

On being discharged by the committee, Custer, for the third time it is said, called at the White House, hoping to remove the wrong impression and misunderstanding as to his action before the committee which, he had learned from private sources, the President had received and still entertained. He did not however succeed in getting an interview, and it is said that Gen. Grant even refused to see him.

Leaving the White House, Custer proceeded to the office of Gen. Sherman, and learned that the General had gone to New York, but was expected back that evening. Custer then took the train for Chicago, and on arriving there was halted by Gen. Sheridan who had received from Gen. Sherman a telegram dated May 2nd, as follows:—

"I am this moment advised that General Custer started last night for Saint Paul and Fort Abraham Lincoln. He was not justified in leaving without seeing the President or myself. Please intercept him at Chicago or Saint Paul, and order him to halt and await further orders. Meanwhile let the expedition from Fort Lincoln proceed without him."

Gen. Custer was of course greatly surprised on learning that such a telegram had been received, and he immediately telegraphed to Gen. Sherman a statement of the circumstances under which he left Washington. He reminded the General that at their last interview he had stated that he would start west May 1st, and had been told in reply that it was the best thing he could do; he said further that he had every reason to believe, that in leaving Washington when he did he was acting in accordance with the General's advice and wishes; and in conclusion, he reminded the General of his promise that he should go in command of his regiment, and asked that justice might be done him. Receiving no answer to this message, he again telegraphed to Sherman asking as a favor that he might proceed to Fort Lincoln where his family was. In reply, Sherman telegraphed as follows:—

"Before receipt of yours, I had sent orders to Gen. Sheridan, to permit you to go to Fort Lincoln on duty, but the President adheres to his conclusion that you are not to go on the expedition."

Sherman's orders to Sheridan were as follows:—

"I have received your despatch of to-day, announcing Gen. Custer's arrival. Have just come from the President, who orders that Gen. Custer be allowed to rejoin his post, to remain there on duty, but not to accompany the expedition supposed to be on the point of starting against the hostile Indians, under Gen. Terry."

General Custer accordingly started for Fort Lincoln, and on arriving at Saint Paul, May 6th, he addressed the following letter to President Grant:—

"To His Excellency the President, through Military Channels:

I have seen your order transmitted through the General of the army, directing that I be not permitted to accompany the expedition about to move against hostile Indians. As my entire regiment forms a part of the proposed expedition, and as I am the senior officer of the regiment on duty in this Department, I respectfully but most earnestly request that while not allowed to go in command of the expedition, I may be permitted to serve with my regiment in the field. I appeal to you as a soldier to spare me the humiliation of seeing my regiment march to meet the enemy and I not to share its dangers."

This appeal to the President was forwarded by Gen. Terry with the following communication:—

"In forwarding the above, I wish to say expressly, that I have no desire to question the orders of the President, or of my military superiors. Whether Lieut. Col. Custer shall be permitted to accompany my column or not, I shall go in command of it. I do not know the reasons upon which the orders already given rest; but if those reasons do not forbid it, Lieut, Col. Custer's services would be very valuable with his command."

It may be well to state here the probable causes of the unfriendly feeling which Gen. Grant at this period manifested toward one whom he had "endorsed to a high degree" ten years previously. The Congressional committee hitherto mentioned, had been appointed by the Opposition members of the House, and some of its proceedings had, doubtless, annoyed and vexed the President. Gen. Babcock had been on his staff during the war, and enjoyed his friendship and support even after the damaging disclosures respecting the sale of the post-tradership at a western fort. Attempts had also been made about this time to injure Grant's administration, by seeking to identify it with the frauds which had been discovered, or which were suspected, and he naturally considered those who volunteered information to the committee as unfriendly to himself.

It was currently reported that Custer telegraphed to the committee's chairman, that an investigation into the post-traderships upon the Upper Missouri would reveal a state of things quite as bad as at Fort Sill; and that in consequence of this communication he was summoned before the committee.

But whatever the causes of Gen. Grant's unfriendliness, or the cruelty charged upon him for showing his displeasure as he did, the result of Gen. Custer's appeal was creditable to the President. Custer resumed his position as Terry's trusted coadjutor in fitting out the expedition, and finally marched from Fort Lincoln as commander of his regiment. It was no disgrace to him that Terry accompanied the column, and the best feeling always existed between the two officers. The junction with the Montana troops was contemplated at the time, and their commander, Col. Gibbon, would have ranked Lieut. Col. Custer when their forces united. Some commanding general had usually accompanied previous expeditions into the Indian country, and it seems probable that Gen. Terry would have participated in the campaign under any circumstances. Besides, it does not appear from Custer's despatch to Sheridan, that he had been promised more than the command of his regiment.

The history of the campaign, and the story of the disastrous battle in which Gen. Custer lost his life have been given in preceding chapters. His action in attacking the Indians before the arrival of Gibbon's troops has been the subject of controversy, and by some few even his motives have been impugned. The following paragraphs relative thereto are from the editorial columns of the Army and Navy Journal:

"It was not in Terry's instructions, and it clearly was not in his mind, that Custer, if he came "in contact with the enemy," should defer fighting him until the infantry came up. * * * There could be no justification whatever for any plan of operations which made an attack dependent upon a junction between Custer and Gibbon, after three or four days' march from different points. "It has been asserted that, smarting under the wounds which preceding events had inflicted upon his pride, Custer dashed recklessly into this affair for the purpose of eclipsing his superior officers in the same field, regardless of cost or consequences. This, it seems to us, is going much too far. Custer was doubtless glad of the opportunity to fight the battle alone, and was stimulated by the anticipation of a victory which, illuminating his already brilliant career, would make him outshine those put on duty over him in this campaign. But his management of the affair was probably just about what it would have been under the same circumstances, if he had had no grievance. His great mistake was in acting in mingled ignorance of, and contempt for his enemy. He regarded attack and victory in this instance as synonymous terms, the only point being to prevent the escape of the foe. Under this fatal delusion he opened the engagement, with his command divided into four parts, with no certainty of co-operation or support between any two of them. Neither ambition, nor wounded vanity, prompted these vicious and fatal dispositions, nor were they due to lack of knowledge of the principles of his profession."