not hard to figure that Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s time in Texas
was controversial and paradoxical. His entire military career was that way, starting
when he graduated last in his class at West Point in 1861 until the bitter end
at Little Big Horn in 1875. Custer stirred controversy and debate in his own time,
and historians have continued the debate to the present day. Brilliant or buffoon?
Martyr or imbecile? The debate continues. |
Distinguished by shoulder-length
curly blonde hair, a red tie and sailor’s blouse, he was something of a dandy
and something of his own creation. He became to the world the dashing and daring
soldier that he imagined himself to be when he was a boy growing up in Ohio. That
boyhood dream became a reality in the Civil War when Custer distinguished himself
as a daring – some said reckless – commander who led Union troops successfully
at Gettysburg and other major battles and pursued Confederate General Robert E.
Lee to Appomattox.
George Armstrong Custer|
| Lee’s surrender at
Appomattox ended the Civil War for most people, though Texas
was among the states that didn’t officially surrender until a month later. The
entire South, including Texas, was ravaged by anarchy
in the immediate aftermath of the war. The U.S. also feared that the Confederates
would regroup in Mexico under emperor French emperor Maximillian.|
Phil Sheridan sent Custer and a thousand or so volunteer troops to Texas
in 1866 to help restore and maintain order, but Custer had his hands full maintaining
order among his own troops. The conflict arose over Custer’s refusal to let the
soldiers pillage and plunder the countryside to their heart’s content.
When they arrived at Hempstead
in August of 1866, Custer issued orders that made it clear that “foraging” the
land and its bounty would not be tolerated. Anyone found guilty of disobeying
those orders would have his head shaved and receive 25 lashes of the whip. Once
bloody and shorn soldiers started showing up in camp, the foraging stopped.
measure, though successful, was also controversial. Custer was accused of violating
the Reconstruction Laws that “no cruel or unjust punishment” be inflicted on “disturbers
of the public peace and criminals.” Custer argued that the punishment was neither
cruel nor unjust and, besides, it worked, which allowed him to follow his own
orders in regard to protecting Texas planters and
farmers from the troops.
The New York Times seemed to agree. “Gen’l Custer,
knowing that the trial for desertion was a farce, tried every humane way to save
his army from going to pieces, but failed,” a correspondent wrote. “He then tried
a new way, and flogged several men and shaved their heads. This had the desired
effect, but brought down the friends of these soldiers upon him, who charge him
with being disloyal, inhuman, and everything that is bad. Now, I leave it to everyone
if Custer didn’t do right.”
Custer’s peculiar disciplinary measures alienated
many of his troops (and some authorities in Washington) but not the people who
Texas, who would generally recall Custer fondly,
mainly because he had protected them from those who would have preyed upon the
land and the people who lived on it and from it.
The ban on foraging was
particularly galling to the soldiers as they marched into Texas
with a lot or orders and drills but few rations. Custer assured them that rations
would be available at Hempstead,
but that turned out to be not true. The troops spent two unhappy months there,
and then marched to Austin. The Custers
moved into the old Blind Asylum building on the outskirts of town, now restored
and a part of the University of Texas campus.
Custer’s wife, Libbie, who wrote about her experiences in Texas
in her book “Tenting on the Plains,” the stay in Austin
was an idyllic time, coming as it did between the Civil War and the Indian Wars
on the Plains. They spent a lot of time horseback riding and at the race track.
Custer liked a little place on Shoal Creek so much that he had a makeshift jail
built there. “Armstrong was having the time of his life, even while performing
the unpleasant and unrewarding task of taming Texas,”
one biographer wrote. For her part, Libbie enjoyed the luxuries of a bathtub,
furniture, a fireplace and a social life.|
|It was nice while
it lasted. He was mustered out of the volunteers in February of 1867, and would
eventually take command of the Seventh Cavalry, where he would meet his fate and
seal his name in the history books at Little Big Horn. The Texas
legislature passed a resolution of condolence, noting that Custer had endeared
himself to the people of Texas during his brief stay.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
February 23, 2011 Column