The name George Custer is etched in the annals of U.S. and Montana history for the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Less well-known is that Custer may have been the man who won the Civil War.
The incident, known mostly to Civil War buffs, occurred at the critical climax of that war’s decisive battle, at Gettysburg, on July 3 — 150 years ago Wednesday.
Under the gifted leadership of General Robert E. Lee, the South had won a series of battles against attacking Union armies. The Confederates decided to become the attackers by invading the vital northern state of Pennsylvania. A victory there could force the U.S. government to grant independence to the Confederate states.
Lee’s ragged army was able to live off the rich Pennsylvania countryside, until then unravaged by war. The Southerners, some of them barefoot, were probably primarily interested in the shoes thought to be manufactured in Gettysburg when on July 1 they shattered a smaller Union force, chasing them through Gettysburg where they dug in on a fishhook shaped ridge a short distance beyond the town.
Encouraged by their easy victory, the confident Confederates attacked the next day in the spirit that ultimate victory was in their grasp, but the Northern defenders held their ground.
That night the fate of the Confederacy was on Lee’s shoulders. If he could win the battle he could win the war. If not, his ill-equipped and outnumbered army might never have the chance again.
He decided to send a force of about 15,000 men, including the fresh Virginia division of General George Picket, to attack the center of the Northern line. The men would have to charge across a mile of open field, all the time within deadly range of artillery backing up the defenders of the ridge, and much of the time within range of their rifles.
The bloody repulse of the charge is regarded as Lee’s greatest failure. He retreated on July 4, which ironically might have been Confederate Independence Day. Could the desperate charge have possibly succeeded? Defenders of the reputation of Lee think it could have if what they believe was Lee’s entire intricate plan had been executed as he planned it.
Lee sent his cavalry force, about 6,000 mounted men, around to the rear of the ridge. If they could attack from behind at the precise time of Picket’s charge, unsuspecting Northern artillerymen attempting to “stick to their guns” would be easy prey for the horsemen’s sabers. Then, attacked from both sides, the Northern infantry line might have been broken.
The plan failed because a force of about 2,000 Northern cavalry, piecemealed together by the colorful “Boy General” George Custer, intercepted the superior force of Southern cavalry, and fought them to a standstill. Unable to accomplish their mission in the narrow window of time, they withdrew, and facing the full, undistracted fury of the dug-in defenders, Picket’s hapless attackers were annihilated.
With flowing curls and red cravat, the colorful Custer went on to other Civil War glories. In the end, he was uniquely rewarded with the war’s most significant trophy. Union General Phillip Sheridan purchased the table on which General U.S. Grant wrote the surrender terms for Lee to sign, and presented it to Custer with a note to Custer’s wife. It said: “Permit me to say, madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.”
(Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and Senate president.)