Battle of Little Bighorn: 35 – Scandal in the Grant Administration

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

The summer of 1875, Custer spent quietly with his wife, Libbie, at Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Libbie Custer

Surly a man with Custer’s vim and vigor must have known moments of boredom. The surveyors that worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad had also stayed home, due to the economic depression. And Sheridan was not allowing the 7th Cavalry to hinder the miners flowing into the Black Hills, so Custer’s men had nothing to do either.

One thing Custer’s troops did find to do was to complain about the high prices that the post trader charged them. They claimed they could get the same goods in Bismarck for half the price the trader charged, but regulations stated that they had to buy from the post trader. Custer was subject to the same high prices and knew that the Secretary of War was behind these price hikes.

Lt. Col. Custer

The situation was that the Secretary of War was responsible for appointing the various post traders. He sold the appointments and received a kickback, which in turn forced the traders to hike up their prices to make up for what they’d been charged by the Secretary of War. Not to mention, hiking up the prices to put some extra cash in their own pockets. It was a dirty business and the brunt of it fell on the military men at the posts. It was dirty and Custer didn’t like it one bit.

At this time William W. Belknap was the Secretary of War and for some undiscovered reason, Grant insisted on trusting the man. The only obvious possibility is that Belknap managed to get the President’s brother, Orvil Grant, in on the deal.

Just about everyone in the west knew what was going on, but back east it was all considered hearsay. Custer couldn’t prove what was going on even if he did have first-hand knowledge from paying the same high prices. And his status with the President was none too high after he’d arrested the President’s son, Fred, back during the Black Hills Expedition.

Concerning this matter, Custer did some investigating. He discovered that the trader at Fort Abraham Lincoln “made a profit of $15,000 per year, of which he kept only $2,000.” Then Custer did a little name-calling. He labeled the traders “a bunch of crooks, adding that Secretary Belknap was the chief of the thieves.”

There was more behind all this than meets the eye at first glance. The public on one side and the Grand Administration on the other were both still smarting from the scandals of the Whiskey Ring and the Credit Mobilier. So the public and those opposing the Grant Administration were ready to jump on the scandal bandwagon at the slightest provocation. Belknap was already a prime candidate for the gossip columns. Or rather the first Mrs. Belknap, as well as the second Mrs. Belknap, was.