Battle of Little Bighorn: 40 – President Grant Gets Revenge

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

May 2, 1876, the day that George Armstrong Custer left Washington without permission was just a few days before the 7th Cavalry was due to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln on the pre-planned major campaign against the hostile Indians lurking in the unceded Indian Territory.

The first stop for the train that Custer rode in was Chicago. It reached there on May 3, and that was as far as Custer got. When he stepped off the train a member of Sheridan’s staff was there to place Custer under arrest by order of President Grant. The charge: Leaving Washington without permission. The punishment: Custer, by Presidential decree, would NOT be allowed to join the expedition against the hostile Sioux — much less lead his 7th Cavalry into glorious battle.

For Custer, this was the worst possible thing that could happen, but the Democrats loved it. It was the perfect excuse for Bennett to cream Grant in newsprint. Bennett labeled the Custer situation “to be the most highhanded abuse of his [Grant’s] official power which he has perpetrated yet.” And a few days later Bennett struck Grant again likening the President to an “irresponsible despot . . . with an absolute power to decapitate anybody offending his Highness or his favorites.”

General Alfred Terry

Poor Custer was made to understand that he was under arrest. He was, however free to move about and took a train to St. Paul to meet with Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry whom Grant had made the new commander of the upcoming expedition in place of Custer.

It is noteworthy that several senior officers, upon hearing that Custer was no longer in command of the 7th for the expedition, immediately applied for the position. One such officer who applied, and who had ill feelings towards Custer, was Major Marcus A. Reno of the 7th Cavalry.

Major Marcus A. Reno

Custer was desperate. It was crucial, for at least his military career and possibly a future political career, that he be reinstated. Sherman, now the General in Chief of the Army, had refused to speak to Grant on the matter. Terry was Custer’s last hope. Custer was so desperate that, in front of Terry, he went down on his knees and, with tears in his eyes, begged Terry to get his, Custer’s, orders changed.

Terry suggested that Custer write to the President again, but Custer insisted that it wouldn’t do any good. The wordy Custer couldn’t think of what to say so Terry wrote it for him and Custer signed it. The telegram that was sent requested that the President at least allow Custer serve with his regiment during the expedition.

Lt. Col. Custer

Fortunately for Custer, Terry wanted this dramatic and flamboyant officer to command the 7th Cavalry. Terry endorsed the request with his own words, and even managed to persuade Sheridan to speak to Grant.

Now, all Custer could do was to wait for an answer from the President of the United States who held Custer’s career, and life, in his hands.