(Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, brevetted Major General during the Civil War.)
You may not be able to discern the play of words in the title of this post and who I'm tipping my hat to but that's OK. All you need to know is that one reason George Armstrong Custer, and a substantial number of his 7th Cavalry Regiment troopers ended up dead and horribly dismembered in the summer of 1876 near Montana's Little Bighorn River was...yep, you guessed it...gold. Amazing what that lustrous yellow metal can do TO people, as well as for them, isn't it?
If you don't know much about the life and military career of the "Boy General" then you may not know that Custer was many things to those who knew him...and those who knew him either loved him or hated him. There weren't many in his sphere of influence who were ambivalent when it came to Custer.
There's little doubt that Lt. Colonel Custer was brave to the point of foolhardiness as his U.S. Civil War military service as a cavalry officer and brevetted (or temporary) Major General underscores. During the war against the Rebellion, he often plunged headlong into battle with an elan and a brashness that earned him praise in some circles and caustic comments in others. There's also ample historical proof to suggest that Custer was a glory hound of sorts and willing to cast caution to the winds if it meant victory or getting his name mentioned in military dispatches or the newspapers.
Custer was alternately arrogant and vain and caring and solicitous...at least with his wife, family members, friends, and supporters. The officers and men who served under him in the so-called Indian Wars on the Great Plains either loved him, despised him, or feared him. Take your pick. He could be a martinet at times and also a cruel task master. At one point Custer was brought up on charges for having deserters summarily shot and for being absent without leave to visit his wife Libbie who was ensconced at another military post some distance from his own. If you don't catch the irony here I'd be very surprised...it was OK for Custer to shoot those who deserted the ranks of the 7th but he didn't blink an eye when he abandoned his own post against orders. After all, rank has its privileges.
(Officers of Custer's 7th Cavalry in an 1873 photo.)
The picture I'm painting of George Armstrong Custer is only a very crude and thin veneer, I'm afraid. He was a complex man in many respects who deserves greater scrutiny for both his accomplishments and his failures, for it was the latter that truly shined the light of questionable fame on him as an individual and as an army officer. The Sioux (Lakotas), Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors who meted out the final judgment on Custer and over 250 of his men at the Little Bighorn took advantage of his shortcomings and failures, as well as his inherent arrogance. They also got some huge payback for Custer's earlier transgressions, including his organizing and leading a prospecting expedition into the Lakota sacred lands, now known as South Dakota's Black Hills.
Dying for Gold
It had long been rumored that the Black Hills country held great mineral wealth, but I doubt that George Custer himself knew just how rich in gold the Lakota peoples' sacred lands truly were. The 1874 expedition into the Black Hills finally laid to rest this question when placer gold was discovered in abundance there by expedition prospectors. Never mind the fact that the U.S. Government had ceded the Black Hills and surrounding territory to the Indians some years earlier as part of a "peace treaty." There was "gold in them thar' hills" and the white miners were going after it, come hell or high water. This they began to do, first in trickles, then in hundreds, and finally by the thousands until it became impossible for the Lakotas to drive them away or kill them all.
(South Dakota's Black Hills country, once held sacred by the Lakota peoples.)
When the Indians began to retaliate against the white miners and homesteaders, the army stepped in to drive them onto reservation lands where they were expected to live off the government dole and engage in practices such as farming, something totally alien to these proud warriors and nomadic hunters. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, and others refused to be driven like cattle onto the reservations and decided to fight to the death to maintain their lands and their way of life. Gold may have been one of the great catalysts for Custer's death and the near destruction of the 7th Cavalry, but it was lead and iron-tipped arrows that had the final say on June 25 and 26th, 1876.
(Sitting Bull, Custer's nemesis at the Little Bighorn and Lakota chief and holy man.)
So Custer died for gold and for the sins committed against the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho and every other American Indian who'd ever been lied to, cynically manipulated, and ousted from territories given them by the Great White Father in Washington.
Gold can be an evil thing at times and Custer got what was coming to him...
(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2013
Questions? E-mail me at email@example.com