I wrote this post two years ago, concerning my favorite neglected episode of the Civil War, when young George Armstrong Custer shocked Confederate J.E.B. Stuart with his unexpected and furious resistance to Stuart’s attempt at disrupting the Union flank while Gen. Meade’s army defended itself against Pickett’s Charge. As with the First Minnesota’s suicidal stand on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer’s crucial moment of truth has been largely neglected in the assembly of the battle’s heroes; I don’t think it has ever been depicted in a Civil War film, for example, though there is at least one book about it.
The incident is especially fascinating to me because of the its multiple ironies. Custer succeeded when his nation needed him most because of the exact same qualities that led him to doom at the Little Big Horn years later. Moreover, this man who for decades was wrongly celebrated in popular culture as an American hero for a shameful botched command that was the culmination of a series of genocidal atrocities actually was an American hero in an earlier, pivotal moment in our history, and almost nobody knows about it.
Thus it is that among the brave soldiers of the Blue and Gray who should be remembered on this 150th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on this continent is a figure whose reputation has sunk to the depths, a figure of derision and ridicule, a symbol of America’s mistreatment of its native population. Had George Armstrong Custer perished on July 3, 1863, he might well have become an iconic figure in Gettysburg history. The ethics verdict on a lifetime, however, is never settled until the final heartbeat. His story also commands us to realize this disturbing truth: whether we engage in admirable conduct or wrongful deeds is often less a consequence of our character than of the context in which that character is tested.
Here is the post, slightly lengthened:
July 3, 1863 was the date of Pickett’s Charge, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered a desperate Napoleonic advance against the Union line at Gettysburg in what has come to be a cautionary tale in human bravery and military hubris. The same day marked the zenith of the career of George Armstrong Custer, the head-strong, dashing cavalry officer who would later achieve both martyrdom and infamy as the unwitting architect of the massacre known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Custer’s heroics on the decisive final day of the Battle of Gettysburg teach their own lessons, historical and ethical. Since the East Calvary Field battle has been thoroughly overshadowed by the tragedy of Pickett’s Charge, it is little known and seldom mentioned. Yet the truth is that the battle, the war, and the United States as we know it may well have been saved that day by none other than undisciplined, reckless George Armstrong Custer.
Lee’s plan, along with Pickett’s Charge, was to have J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry attack the Union line from the rear as the Blues were facing the advance by Pickett’s division. Had the Union forces believed themselves surrounded, Lee’s tactic of attacking with a massed, relentless, attacking line might have had its desired psychological effect and broken the North’s resolve.
Stuart’s mounted force met Union artillery as he approached, so the Confederate general ordered a cavalry charge. Custer, by some luck and the alertness of cavalry commander Gen.David M. Gregg, was on the scene to try to foil the advance. The smaller Union force met Stuart’s mounted warriors head-on in furious hand-to-hand combat, with Custer personally leading the fighting. Custer’s own horse was shot out from under him, so he commandeered a bugler’s horse and continued the assault.
General Stuart’s Virginians retreated, but not for long. Stuart called up reinforcements, and pushed the Union cavalry back. When it appeared that the Confederate cavalry would break through, Custer, whose forces were badly outnumbered, called for a second attack by his Michigan Calvary Brigade. Shouting “Come on, you Wolverines!”, Custer commanded another attack, this one at a full charge to meet the charging enemy…a tactic that was as rare as it was considered foolhardy. One stunned witness recalled,
“As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them.”
Custer had a second horse shot out from under him, but his courageous and reckless exploits broke Stuart’s advance, and ruined that part of Lee’s strategy.
Would Lee’s grand gamble have paid off with victory if Stuart had reached the rear of the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge? No one will ever know, but here is the opinion of one participant, Lt. Brooke-Rawle, who later became the principal historian of the East Cavalry Field fight. He wrote:
“We cavalrymen have always that we saved the day at the most critical moment of the battle of Gettysburg-the greatest battle and the turning point of the War of the Rebellion. Had Stuart succeeded in his well-laid plan, and, with his large force of cavalry, struck the Army of the Potomac in the rear of its line of battle, simultaneously with Pickett’s magnificent and furious assault on its front, when our infantry had all if could do to hold on to the line of Cemetery Ridge, and but little more was needed to make the assault a success, the merest tyro in the art of war can readily tell us; fortunately for the Army of the Potomac, fortunately for our country, and the cause of human liberty, he failed. Thank God that he did fail, and that, with His divine assistance, the good fight fought here brought victory to our arms!”
We do know that Custer’s trademark flamboyance and impetuousness, the same qualities that later would doom him and his men at the Little Big Horn, helped ensure the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. (In giving Custer his due, let us not neglect the equally important role Gen. Gregg played in the victory. Capt. James H. Kidd of the 6th Michigan later wrote:
“There was no mistake about it. It was Gregg’s presience. He saw the risk of attempting to guard the right flank with only the two decimated brigades of his own division. Seeing with him was to act. He took the responsibility to intercept Kilpatrick’s rear and largest brigade, turn it off the Baltimore Pike, to the right, instead of allowing it to go to the left, as it had been ordered to do, and thus, doubtless a serious disaster was averted…If Custer’s presence on the field was, as has often been said, “providential”, it is General D. M. Gregg to whom, under providence, the credit for bringing him there was due.”
In many ways, George Armstrong Custer was neither a trustworthy commander nor a good man. After the war, he led soldiers who committed numerous atrocities against Native Americans, and was willing to risk the lives of others to serve his own military reputation and ambition. Custer, however, possessed many of the most useful tools of ethical conduct, which I call “The Seven Enabling Virtues.” While not ethical in themselves, these character traits—courage, valor, fortitude, sacrifice, honor, forgiveness and humility—greatly assist us in behaving ethically, especially under challenging circumstances.
The lingering trap is that these tools can be used in the service of right or wrong, and can lead an individual to do as much harm as good. They are also prone to leading us to behave irresponsibly or unfairly. Courage can become recklessness; valor can curdle into showboating; fortitude can turn to stubbornness; sacrifice may become callousness; honor may beget vanity; forgiveness to excess encourages apathy and passivity, and humility plants the seeds of submissiveness. Custer’s courage, valor, fortitude and sacrifice served his nation and humanity well on July 3, 1863. On June 25, 1876, they helped get him and the 210 soldiers under his command slaughtered.
Without constant vigilance and a strong and evolving sense of ethics, even the enabling virtues can trigger misconduct and disaster. On July 3, I always reflect on Custer’s grand heroism when his country needed it most, and how strange it is that he is best remembered for his worst blunder, when his greatest achievement was so much more important. I also think about how his life is a cautionary tale, reminding us of how easily our strengths can become our weaknesses, if we fail to understand how best to use them, or recognize when they are leading us astray.
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