1875, a Presidential election year, was the year George and Libbie Custer made a trip to New York. George had numerous friends there who were members of the Democratic Party. They were certainly glad to see him and were considerably excited over the stories he told about Belknap, Orvil Grant, and the post traders. The Democrats were searching for all the juicy scandals they could heap upon Grant. This scandal was just what they wanted especially with the dashing Custer as chief witness.
To get thing rolling, on February 10, 1876, Custer’s good friend James Gordon Bennett, who was publisher of the anti-Administration New York Herald, demanded a full investigation into the suspected corruption in the War Department. Bennett then made a “flat declaration that Belknap was selling traderships” and implicated Orvil Grant.
James Gordon Bennett
Bennett was a “gaunt, cross-eyed Scotsman,” and a “noteworthy newspaperman who had produced for the Courier highly informed and often irreverent reportage out of Washington on the administration of John Quincy Adams.” Then Bennett managed to fall in and out of favor with the Andrew Jackson crowd.
To push present matters further, “Bennett suggested that Grant ask his brother how much money he, Orvil, had ‘made in the Sioux country starving the squaws and children.’ “
There is little knowledge about what took place privately between Custer and his Democrats except that Custer did “agree privately with Bennett to give the Herald his exclusive account of the upcoming Sioux campaign.” This, by the way, was a campaign that Custer fully expected to command.
On March 31, 1876, the Herald came out with an article entitled “Belknap’s Anaconda.” Providing details, it accused the former Secretary of War of corruption. The public and political Washington assumed that Custer had written it. This assumption was reinforced when the post trader said he’d cashed a check from Bennett to Custer soon afterwards.
Lt. Col. Custer
A closer look at the situation can not help but bring up some questions. Knowing he would jeopardize his beloved military career, why would Custer attempt to lock horns with the President and Belknap just to save a few bucks for his men and himself at the trader’s store? When Custer was presented with the same similar question, his wordy response was, “I think it one of the highest commendation that could be bestowed on the Service, that it has not been completely demoralized by the unworthiness at the head.”
There are numerous possible answers, but one that stands out foremost in the minds of many historians is this: “Perhaps Bennett and his friends hinted that Custer could earn a reward beyond the satisfaction of exposing the crooks.”
Lt. Col. Custer
Bennett and his group wanted Grant out of the White House. They were really going to need a golden boy that could get the public’s attention to beat out Grant in an election. Custer was already the up and coming, if not already, national hero. Did Bennett hold out the presidency to Custer in return for his assistance and testimony?