Historian Stephen Ambrose says with a little bit of luck, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer could have been elected president of the United States, IF he had defeated Crazy Horse and the Sioux in 1876.
Muddled election history
The United States is no stranger to divisive elections. Several times in our history since George Washington’s name has not been on the ballot, the presidential election has devolved into chaos or turned upside down with the popular vote winner losing the presidency.
One of the most muddled presidential elections was that of 1876. Democrat Samuel Tilden won an outright majority of the popular vote, but an electoral vote dispute (that could never happen again, right?) caused a special congressional commission to award the presidency to Rutherford Hayes.
Back up — to spring 1876
I’m taking most of the information for this blog from an author extremely familiar to warhistorybuffs — the late Stephen E. Ambrose. His book, Crazy Horse and Custer – The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, doesn’t explore the politics of the 1876 election in great depth. Instead it compares and contrasts (like a good college essay) the lives of these two utterly fearless fighters who both died violent deaths in defense of their respective societies. Within a year of the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse, an Oglala Sioux, was dead too, killed by reservation police in what basically was murder. There’s not enough space here to recount the Crazy Horse portions of the book, but his life is as fascinating as Custer’s. Crazy Horse, by the way, was never photographed, even when he surrendered on a reservation.
But Ambrose does spend some of his narrative speculating on Custer’s politics and the what might have beens. Even though both Custer and his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, were prolific writers, there is little concrete evidence Custer was lusting after a presidential nomination from a major party. But Ambrose lays out the circumstantial case, and it’s persuasive.
Custer was a lifelong Democrat and lifelong is an understatement. His father, Emanuel, was a fierce Jacksonian Democrat and George, who the family called “Autie” and many friends called “Curley” (eerily, Crazy Horse was also called Curley by friends and family), picked up the family politics early. A family story has him wishing to “whip the Whigs” at the age of 4.
In the Civil War Custer attached himself to well-known Democrat and general George McClellan. While Republicans grew ascendant and the Democrats declined during the war, Custer refused to bend, even though it might have helped his career. He was so brave leading Union cavalry in numerous engagements where he should have been killed that despite his party affiliation he rose to be one of the youngest brevet brigadier generals in the Union army at the age of 23 and by the end of the war he was a brevet major general.
Custer was also a showboat. Ambrose says Custer’s ambition was “not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great.” He achieved his ambition. Almost every American in the year 2020 could tell you at least a little about “Custer’s Last Stand.” How many could tell you who Samuel Tilden was, or even Rutherford Hayes?
Ambitious Indian fighter
Stephen Ambrose builds the case for a Custer presidential bid. Custer was not the best Indian fighter in the U.S. Army. Far from it. His go-to tactic, just like his experiences in the Civil War, was to charge headlong into the enemy ignoring casualties. His western troops often killed just as many women and children as warriors. But he was by far the most famous Indian fighter and perception becomes reality. He wrote books about life in the Wild West, and he regaled Eastern newspaper reporters with tales of his adventures. If he wasn’t a household name already, leading the 1874 Black Hills expedition, when gold was discovered, cemented his reputation.
He and his beloved wife Libby traveled extensively back East and there was no shortage of movers and shakers whispering in their ears about what heights Custer could achieve. And 1876 appeared to be a Democratic year. President Grant’s two terms were marred by scandal and the Panic of 1873 had devastated the nation’s economy.
After one such trip, Ambrose speculates Custer and Libby headed back to Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota filled with exciting dreams for the future. And why not. Americans love to vote for successful generals to be their president. In the spring of 1876 along came an opportunity for the biggest victory ever over the Sioux hostiles, accompanied by nationwide fame. Custer reportedly told his Indian scouts that he could become the “Great White Father” and would take care of them.
Rush to disaster
In late May 1876 Custer was a man in a hurry. The 7th Cavalry was part of a three-pronged offensive into the Northern Plains. The area around the Yellowstone River was basically declared a free-fire zone. All hostiles were ordered to surrender at the reservations. If they didn’t, the Army would shoot on sight.
Further building the case that Custer harbored ulterior motives, he refused the services of another regiment, the 2nd Cavalry, on his march into hostile territory. He also was offered the use of Gatling machine guns, but refused them ostensibly because they were slow and hard to move. In other words speed was supreme. For good reason. The Democratic national convention was scheduled to start on June 27, in St. Louis, the first time a “western” city had hosted a political convention. Custer was always known as a hard driver of his men, but he exceeded himself on his last campaign. At one point, the 7th Cavalry covered 70 miles in three days.
Custer also allowed newspaper correspondent Mark Kellogg to accompany the regiment despite General Phil Sheridan’s orders to the contrary. Kellogg’s dispatches from a spectacular victory over the Sioux would have been spread by telegraph all over the country and especially to the western gateway of St. Louis where the Democrats were meeting. Custer did not get his headlines, and Kellogg did not get his scoop of the century and instead died with the troops.
The nation learned of the terrible Army defeat on July 5 while celebrating the centennial. The Little Bighorn for the Indians (they called it the battle of Greasy Grass) became a classic example of “win the battle but lose the war.” An enraged, technologically advanced country marshaled its resources and hunted down the remaining hostiles and forced them onto the reservations.
Custer himself would have been pleased with the aftermath. Although he made several grievous tactical and strategic errors on his final campaign (no worse than the commanders of the other two prongs), the Army wasn’t about to condemn or tarnish a fallen hero. And then there was Libby Custer, his beautiful and vivacious widow who ingratiated herself in any society circle she encountered. She remained a widow until her death in 1933 at the age of 90 after dedicating her life to elevating the memory of her husband to legendary status. She wrote three books about the couple’s life on the Plains that became huge best sellers. She also assigned blame for the military debacle to the 7th Cavalry officers who survived. Custer’s body was exhumed from the Little Bighorn battlefield and reburied at West Point Military Academy. Libby joined him there when she died.
Ambrose thinks Custer died doing what he loved — fighting a battle. He cites the account of Sitting Bull, the Sioux medicine man and chieftain who inspired the warriors shortly before the battle with a vision of white soldiers “falling into their camp.” Sitting Bull, who admits he was not among the young warriors of Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, said the victorious braves told him one of the soldiers later identified as Custer was laughing when he died. Ambrose said that was perfectly believable.