Battle of Little Bighorn: 38 – Custer for President?

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

James Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald wanted to oust the front-running Presidential candidate nominee, Samuel Tilden, governor of New York. Tilden, a reformer, had made the destruction of the Tweed Ring that ran Tammany Hall his personal objective. Tammany controlled the Democratic Party. Bennett, as were other Democrats, was opposed to Tilden’s nomination and wanted a candidate who could beat Tilden. This may be where Custer fit into the future presidential picture.

Lt. Col. Custer

If Custer could be coerced into testifying against the Grant Administration, possibly he could be manipulated in other Bennett-desired directions as President of the United States. Besides, with Custer performing as the commanding officer of the up-coming three-pronged campaign against the hostile Indians out west, and winning of course, he’d be sure to get votes. It was a political dream made in h—–, well, wherever political dreams are hatched. Just as long as some savage didn’t crack the golden egg before it was nested in the White House.

Libbie Custer

While Custer and his wife were visiting New York, the Redpath Agency offered George a lecturing contract. The money offered was stupendous for the times but Custer turned it down. There was a big campaign coming up and he knew he’d be the leader. In January of 1876 Custer wrote to his brother Tom saying, “I think the 7th Cavalry may have its greatest campaign ahead,” and he would “rather have died than missed it.” In February, the Custers prepared to return to Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Fort Abraham Lincoln

In late February, Custer had hardly settled in again at the fort when he was ordered back to Washington. Because of Bennett’s investigation, House Committee Chairman Hiester Clymer began digging into War Department records and wanted Custer to testify.

Before stopping in Washington, Custer went on to New York. There he visited his publisher, and some of his Democratic friends. This group included William Endicott, who would later be Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of War. What was discussed, we do not know but Custer did accept an invitation to dinner at the Manhattan Club with the promise that it would be non-political with no speeches. Congressman Robert Roosevelt had signed his invitation.

George Armstrong Custer

Clymer was pushing for Grant’s impeachment. In testifying, Custer presented complaints against the traders, and was itching to get back to the Dakotas before his command left to fight the hostiles without him. He did manage to get Major General Alfred Terry, commander of the Department of Dakota, to ask for Custer’s release. However, the President made no move towards Custer’s clearance to leave Washington. What did Custer expect?

He had previously written articles for Galaxy, criticizing Grant’s peace policy towards the Indians. He had arrested the President’s son for drunkenness while on the Black Hills expedition. Now Custer was accusing the President’s brother and former Secretary of War, of corruption. This was not a good way to make an impression—or to get leave to leave Washington in a hurry.