Battle of Little Bighorn: 41 – Custer Gets Lucky and the Sioux Turn Down an Invitation

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

General Terry intercedes for Custer with the President. As a result, though Custer still will not command the three-pronged attack, he will lead the 7th Cavalry on the expedition. Also the suspicion that Custer believes he is slated to become the next president is explored. General Crook leads an unsuccessful winter campaign against the Sioux, and Sitting Bull holds the first of two important Sun Dances.

Sheridan did intercede for Custer but rather in a left-handed way when he included the following concerning some of Custer’s past discredits:

I asked executive clemency for Colonel Custer to enable him to accompany his regiment against the Indians . . . .

Sheridan was referring to a time when Custer had deserted his post to visit his wife, killed some of his men for desertion, then was court marshaled and sent home for a year. Then Sheridan continued with “and I sincerely hope if granted this time it may have sufficient effect to prevent him from again attempting to throw discredit on his profession and his brother officers.”

After being reinstated previously, Custer and the 7th Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s Cheyenne camp on the Washita River. Custer had failed to scout the area beforehand and later discovered there to be far more Indians there than the single village he’d attacked. Then he went off and left Major Joel Elliott and some men to be massacred by the Indians.

Major Joel Elliott

The President relented, though it may have had something to do with the fact that the press was verbally dismembering Grant over the situation. Custer was reinstated, but only to command the 7th Cavalry on the expedition. Terry would remain in command.

One can not help but wonder whether President Grant retained some hope that the worst might befall Custer in the upcoming fight with the Sioux, thus getting Custer out of the President’s political hair permanently.

President Grant

One of Custer’s objectives, of which Terry, Sheridan, and the President were unaware, was stated by Custer to Colonel William Ludlow, the engineer of the expedition. Custer expected “to cut loose from and make my operations independent of, General Terry during the summer.” Custer, referring to past campaigns, added that he’d “got away from Stanley [in 1873] and would be able to swing clear of Terry without any difficulty.”

Now, with a departure date from Fort Abraham Lincoln of May 17, 1876, just days away, Custer made a visit to his Crow and Arikara scouts. It was a visit that brings about the ‘Presidential’ speculations previously. Custer first presented his Rhee scout Bloody Knife with some gifts he’d purchased in the east for the Indian and talked about that trip for a while.

Bloody Knife

Then Custer told Bloody Knife that this would “be his last Indian campaign and that if he won a victory—no matter how small—it would make him the Great White Father in Washington.” Custer then promised that if the Arikara helped him achieve a victory he would take Bloody Knife with him when he went to live in the White House.” That Custer expected to become President of the United States is made plain enough by his statement to his favorite Indian scout. But whether this was an idea that singularly sprouted in Custer’s own brain or was fertilized by Bennett and his Democrats is anyone’s guess.