4/12/10 - george armstrong custer

In today's excerpt - General George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876), whose brilliance as a young Union cavalry commander in the American Civil War, was forever overshadowed by his disastrous command as an Indian fighter and his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn:

"Since its founding in 1802, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point had seen its share of lollygaggers. Armstrong Custer would put them all to shame.

"The education a young man received at the Point was as good as or better than that received at most of the young country's universities. The Corps of Engineers ran the school, and it turned out top engineers—essential to an expanding nation. But the academy's primary goal was to build military officers out of the rough materials provided. To that end, discipline and drill reigned, and even slight transgressions of the countless rules and codes earned cadets demerits. These demerits, or 'skins,' were closely tabulated. If a cadet earned two hundred a year, he would probably be expelled. Custer, whose curly golden hair earned him the nickname 'Fanny,' quickly began compiling skins at a record rate. Most of them were for seemingly insignificant infractions, such as tardiness, an untidy uniform, inattention, or boyish conduct. Others were the result of mischief making, and several southern boys in his circle (most of his close acquaintances were from the South) were his coconspirators. ...

"Though the cause of much annoyance to his instructors, Custer soon became one of the most popular cadets ever to attend the academy. His sunny disposition and love of a good laugh proved magnetic, and though some judged him an unlikely soldier, 'we all loved him,' said one classmate. Custer ignored rules and schoolwork and reveled in after-dark adventures, some to Benny Havens's tavern in a small town a mile away. He became a genius at managing his demerits; when he approached the limit, he would straighten up until term's end. He would also walk endless extra-duty guard tours to remove some minor breaches from his record. Still, by the time he graduated in 1861, he possessed more skins than anyone else in his class. ... When thirty-three cadets were declared academically deficient in January 1861, they were allowed to take a reexamination; only Custer was reinstated. Though Custer gained a reputation for cleverness, it was only for his inventive pranks; his grades were almost never better than average and frequently worse. (One day in Spanish class, he asked the instructor to translate 'class is dismissed' into Spanish. When the teacher complied, Custer led his classmates out of the room.) But he read voraciously—mostly martial romances, Sir Walter Scott's
Waverley novels, and James Fenimore Cooper's LeatherstockingTales—and began a lifelong habit of unceasing correspondence with friends and family that reflected his steady improvement as a writer. (He particularly enjoyed writing poetry to girlfriends back home, for he had acquired a healthy fondness for the fairer sex, judging from the fact that he was treated for gonorrhea in August 1859 after returning to the Point from a two-month furlough.) ...

"Despite his mediocre grades, some of the learning stuck with him, and Armstrong was aware of its importance. To his older sister he wrote, 'I would not leave this place for any amount of money, for I would rather have a good education and no money than a fortune and be ignorant.' Overall, however, he scraped by, noting later, 'My career as a cadet had but little to commend it to the study of those who came after me, unless as an example to be carefully avoided.' He seemed content with his class rank, and almost proud of it. He told one classmate that there were only two positions in a class worth noting, and since he was not interested in the 'head,' he had aspired to the 'foot.'

"Armstrong's strongest attribute was a valuable one: more than anything else, he excelled at making friends. Upon arriving in 1859, one plebe remembered hearing the crowd around him shout, 'Here comes Custer!' and turning to see the object of everyone's attention—a slim fellow with a gangly walk. 'He was beyond a doubt the most popular man in his class,' remembered one friend at the Point. One of his roommates called him 'one of the best-hearted and cleverest men that I ever knew,' but added, 'The great difficulty is that he is too clever for his own good.' ...

"Final examinations put George Armstrong Custer at the bottom of his class. He earned his worst grades in cavalry tactics."


James Donovan


A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—The Last Great Battle of the American West


Little, Brown Company


Copyright 2008 by James Donovan


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