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General George A. Custer
Daring is always popular. The dashing fighter outranks the tactician and takes precedence over the engineer when the people's plaudits for valor fill the air. To be the beau sabreur of the army, as was Murat, in Napoleon's day, and as Custer was in Grant's, is as glorious as it is dramatic, as inspiring as it is picturesque. There were, in fact, many points of resemblance between these two dashing cavalry leaders--Murat, the Frenchman, and Custer, the American. Both smelled powder as the aides-de-camp of their chiefs; both rose rapidly from grade to grade, and from rank to rank, until they stood at the top; both labored at the end under the burden of criticism and detraction; and both met their death through a mistake, and fell like brave and gallant soldiers.
Custer's Last Fight.
It was a brilliant and exceptional record. He had fought in all the battles of the Army of the Potomac save one. He was Sheridan's most trusted and favorite cavalry officer. In less than four years he had advanced from captain of volunteers to major-general, and from lieutenant to major-general in the regular army. He was but twenty-six when the war closed, and all his promotions had been won by his bravery, his dash, his daring, and his good leadership. During the last six months of the war the Third Division of Cavalry, led by Custer, captured in open fight over one hundred pieces of artillery, sixty-five battle flags, and ten thousand prisoners. It was a record of which any soldier might be proud, and it made Custer at once the idol of his hard-riding troopers, and one of the popular heroes of the day. At the great review in Washington he rode near the head of the parade, leading what was popularly called "the most gallant cavalry division of the age," greeted with cheers and flowers along the line of march.
Custer's active service did not close with the war. He was sent to Texas as commander of a cavalry division, and in November, 1865, was made chief of cavalry. In February, 1866, he was mustered out of service as major-general of volunteers and became again captain in the regular army, "on leave." President Johnson denied him the leave of absence he asked for to fight under Juarez in Mexico against Maximilian, the usurper, and in July, 1866, he received his commission as lieutenant-colonel of the newly formed Seventh Cavalry, United States Army--the regiment that he made into Indian fighters and served with until the end. In November, 1866, he joined his regiment at Fort Riley, and was soon fighting Indians on the plains. He utterly defeated the hostile Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Kiowas at the battle of the Washita, in the Indian Territory, in November, 1871; he was on post duty in Kentucky until 1873, and then again on the plains, where, on August 4, 1873, he whipped the hostile Sioux at the battle of Tongue River, in the Yellowstone country, and again, on the 11th of the same month, at the battle of the Big Horn. In the summer of 1874 he led an expedition of exploration and discovery into the Black Hills, in the Dakota country, and in May, 1876, led his regiment in what proved to be his last campaign, a march against the hostile Sioux in the unexplored region of the Little Big Horn. Here, with less than three hundred men, he faced the confederated Sioux, numbering thousands of warriors, and in a desperate and characteristic engagement closed the record of a life of brilliant effort and daring by standing at bay, against the tremendous odds of ten to one, until he and his entire command fell to a man, fighting desperately to the end.
Custer was gallant, but sometimes indiscreet; he was daring, but often careless of consequences; and when in positions of command he was apt to be impatient of cowardice and of greed. So he raised up enemies for himself, and twice these enemies sought and nearly accomplished his downfall. His last campaign was fought under the burden of an apparent official censure, galling to a man of Custer's impetuous nature, all the more so as he knew it to be unmerited and unjust. There is little doubt that this weight of wrong engendered a spirit of recklessness, foreign even to his daring nature, and led him to take risks he would not otherwise have accepted, simply because he felt the necessity for action and believed that through valor would come his speediest vindication. Had he been supported by those he relied upon he might, even in the face of the overpowering odds marshalled against him, have come off victorious, instead of dying, an unnecessary sacrifice, like another Roland, and, if we accept the legends, at just Roland's age. It is because that tragic ending of a valiant life was, viewed from the picturesque stand-point, its logical and dramatic conclusion, that American tradition and popular applause will, in the years to come, remember Custer, not so much for the dash at Winchester, the daring at Waynesboro, or the valor at Five Forks, as for his immortal last stand on the banks of the Little Big Horn, when he and his brave troopers went down in death together.
General Custer was the born soldier in face and figure. Lithe, broad-shouldered, and sinewy in frame, nearly six feet in height, blue-eyed and golden-haired, he was the beau ideal cavalry leader--alert, active, ready, and responsive, with an eye to all details, a love for the picturesque in bearing and equipment, of great endurance, abstemious, healthy, and strong, and as much at home in the saddle and with the sabre as in his own little house in Monroe or by his blazing camp-fire. He married, in February, 1864, Elizabeth Bacon, a daughter of Judge Daniel S. Bacon, of Monroe. For ten years his wife was his constant companion in camp and in frontier service, and she has written many sketches of his active life in the saddle and his characteristics as soldier and as man.
General Custer, at the time of his death, was engaged on a series of "War Memoirs," and his articles on frontier life and army experiences found ready acceptance and wide favor. He was, undoubtedly, America's best cavalry leader, and won a place as "a perfect general of horse" beside the world's dashing war-riders--from Hannibal's "Thunderbolt," Mago the Carthaginian, to Maurice of Nassau and the "Golden Eagle," Murat the Frenchman.
Fourteen of the thirty-seven years he lived were spent in actual service in the camp or on the battle-field. He was a brigadier-general at twenty-three and a major-general at twenty-five. In the height of his popularity and his phenomenal success as a cavalry leader, he was a picturesque and familiar figure to friend and foe alike, as in his broad cavalier's hat, his gold-bedizened jacket, and high cavalry boots, with his long hair streaming in the wind, he would ride like a tornado, to the accompaniment of "Garry Owen," his favorite battle-air, carrying all before him--a subject worthy the pencil of a Vandyke, the very type of the dashing trooper of romance. But that there was a method in his dash and a practical element in his daring, even the generals he outranked and the civilians who tried to direct him would admit, and to be the choice of McClellan and the favorite of Sheridan gave the assurance of worth to his leadership and of value to his valor.
In 1877 Custer's remains were removed to the graveyard at West Point from the battle-field of the Little Big Horn, where he had first been buried amid the fallen heroes of his own brave band. In 1879 the Government made the battle-ground where Custer met his death a national cemetery, and raised a monument, upon which appeared the names and rank of all those who fell in that needless and fatal, but heroic, fight.
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