SERVING OUR VETERANS: The Custer family legacy
On May 17, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and his U.S. 7th Calvary, left Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory, near present day Mandan, North Dakota. A little over one month later, on June 25th, Custer and all 208 enlisted soldiers and officers under his direct command were wiped out at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. This event took place this coming week, 143 years ago. It is probably what most people remember about Custer. His legacy is usually of his arrogance, ambition, and eventually his failure at The Little Bighorn. But, is that all there is to his legacy for us to dwell on and remember? And what is there to remember about the legacy of the Custer family?
Having read several books about Custer, I have come to the conclusion that his legacy, and the legacy of his family, should be more than just based on “Custer’s Last Stand.” Although he graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point in 1861, he went on to become a bold cavalry leader during the Civil War. At age 23, he was breveted to Brigadier General for his heroic and leadership skills. He was often referred to as the “Boy General.” At Gettysburg, he commanded the Michigan Cavalry Brigade and defeated Jeb Stuart’s assault on Cemetery Ridge, while greatly outnumbered. In 1864, Custer served in the Overland Campaign and in Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, defeating Jubal Early at Cedar Creek. His division blocked Lee’s final retreat and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate Army. Custer was present at Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox. After the war, Custer was appointed Lieutenant Colonel in the Regular Army and sent west to fight in the Indian Wars where he eventually met his demise at age 36.
And, what should we remember about Custer’s family? Many people are not aware how great a personal tragedy the Battle of the Little Bighorn was to the entire Custer family. Not only did George die in the battle, but two of his brothers (Tom and Boston) were also killed, as were his brother-in-law, First Lieutenant James Calhoun and a young nephew. Four members from one family died during this battle. Tom Custer had previously won two Congressional Medals of Honor during the Civil War, the highest award for bravery a soldier can receive. Custer’s wife, Elizabeth (Libby) remained devoted to him the rest of her life and never remarried. However, few of us remember the Custer family for any of this.
Admittedly, they all had their personal faults and made mistakes, but we should put their entire lives in proper perspective. For the Custer family, we see a family of high ideals, love of country, and willingness to serve our nation. We can all come away from their story with a different view of their legacy. For me, it is a reminder once again to not focus entirely on a person’s failures and mistakes, especially for veterans who have not been able to make that successful step back into our society. It is often easy to look down on them, and to not approve of the decisions they have made, or approve of their life style. I feel we need to remember that they, at one point in their life, were willing to answer the call of duty for their country. Many of them suffered both physically and emotionally as a result of their service to our nation. Let us always be grateful to them for this and let us always have compassion and empathy for them and their families. Let us all work together to help them receive all the benefits they have earned. How well we support and take care of all our veterans’ needs, will be part of our legacy as North Dakota citizens as well.
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