G. A. Custer at the Battle of Washita

G. A. Custer at the Battle of Washita


At Washita Custer divided his forces into four and proceeded on his own out of sight of Major Joel Elliott and his men.

Major Joel Elliott & Custer

    Elliott was cut off by the Indians and decimated. Custer, following the battle, withdrew from the area without ascertaining Elliott's fate.

    The mutilated bodies of Elliott and his men were found several months later when the 7th Cavalry returned to the scene. In My Life on the Plains, Custer devotes two chapters, 10 and 11, congratulating himself on how well he did, dening that he knew where Elliott was, and but few other words as to Elliott.

    Indeed, toward the end of Chapter 11, Custer quotes Gen. Sheridan's words of adulation: Special congratulations are tendered to their distinguished commander, Brevet Major-General George A. Custer, for the efficient and gallant services rendered, which have characterized the opening of the campaign against hostile Indians south of the Arkansas.

    Custer's apparent abandonment of Elliott is regarded as having caused lasting dislike by Benteen of Custer. It appears, however, that Benteen's dislike predated Washita with Benteen regarding Custer as an egotistical blowhard. Benteen later confessed, "I'm only too proud to say that I despised him." Indeed, a letter by Benteen to William J. DeGresse, severely critizing Custer was printed in a newspaper. This resulted in Custer's threat to whip Benteen. Later, on Gen. David S. Stanley's 1873 Expedition to the Yellowstone, Custer relegated Benteen to duty at an army supply depot for railroad surveyors in eastern Montana Territory. That winter when Benteen's daughter lay dying at Fort Rice, Custer refused Benteen leave. But Benteen was not the only one who had problems with Custer on the expedition. Gen. Stanley (1828-1902) had increasing problems with the hard-headed Custer. Six times Stanley ordered Custer to get rid of a personal stove. The final irritant was Custer's taking along an in-law, Fred Calhoun, to act as his publicist. Stanley had Custer arrested for allowing Calhoun, a civilian, to use a government horse. For two days Custer was relegated to riding at the rear of the column until, with Custer's roommate at West Point former Confederate Major General Thomas L. Rosser acting as a mediator, Stanley relented. Not withstanding that the two had fought against each other during the War, the two remained friends. Indeed, in one campaign Custer succeeded in capturing Rosser's baggage including a brand new coat of Confederate gray. Rosser being the taller of the two, it failed to fit Custer. Rosser was on the expedition as the Railroad's chief engineer. Nor did the Civil War interrupt the feeling of comradeship by Custer with other classmates who joined CSA forces. Indeed, when Stephen Dodson Ramseur left the Point to join Southern forces, Custer hosted a farewell party at Benny Havens. Havens establishment was a supplier of victuals and spirits to cadets, but was off limits. Today it is remembered in the traditional Point song Benny Havens, Oh! sung to the tune of a old Scottish song The Tulip composed by James Oswald in 1757.

    Nor was Washita the only time that a unit was abandoned. A year before, in July 1867, Custer was dispatched to engage Indians out of Ft. Wallace. He was aware that he was to provide escort to a unit under the command of Lt. Lyman Kidder. Rather than wait for Kidder's arrival, Custer went off on his own toward Colorado while the Indians were able to ravage the plains of Kansas. Kidder and his men were massacred. Their stripped and mutilated bodies were found approximately 10 days later. Custer ordered the bodies to be placed in a mass grave. In his My Life on the Plains Custer described the scene:

    Red Bead, being less disfigured and mutilated than the others, was the only individual capable of being recognized. Even the clothes of all the party had been carried away; some of the bodies were lying in beds of ashes, with partly burned fragments of wood near them, showing that the savages had put some of them to death by the terrible tortures of fire. The sinews of the arms and legs had been cut away, the nose of every man hacked off, and the features otherwise defaced so that it would have been scarcely possible for even a relative to recognize a single one of the unfortunate victims. We could not even distinguish the officer from his men. Each body was pierced by from twenty to fifty arrows, and the arrows were found as the savage demons had left them, bristling in the bodies. While the details of that fearful struggle will probably never be known, telling how long and gallantly this ill-fated little band contended for their lives, yet the surrounding circumstances of ground, empty cartridge shells, and distance from where the attack began, satisfied us that Kidder and his men fought as only brave men fight when the watchword is victory or death.

    Kidder was bearing a dispatch from Gen. Sherman relating to Custer's failure to follow orders.

    Custer was court martialed and found guilty of the major charges, including ordering, without trial, the shooting of three of his own men. He then withheld medical attention. As to Kidder, Custer contended that he was not aware that there was to be a second dispatch from Sherman and Kidder's inexperience at following Custer's trail led to his demise. Among those testifying against Custer was Benteen. The sentence was suspension, without pay, for a year. After ten months he was reinstated. But Custer apparently did not learn from the lesson. Gen. Stanley on one occasion repremanded Custer for going off on his own, marching some 15 miles away from the main column.

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