21 June 2012 by Published in: Union Cavalry 24 comments

The other day, I was asked a couple of interesting questions. One question was whom do I think was the best Union cavalry commander, and as a subset of that question, where did I think that George Armstrong Custer fit into that calculation. The person who asked my opinion actually suggested that Custer has been underrated by historians. I answered the question about the best commander as I always do when asked to answer such questions, which was to identify John Buford as the best. I cited to John Gibbon’s assessment of Buford–he wrote, “John Buford was the finest cavalryman I ever saw”–and said that was good enough for me.

The Custer question opened up a real can of worms that I’ve spent some time considering over the years. At one point, I was asked to write a bio of Custer, and I initially refused. I eventually agreed, but once I got into it, I realized that not only was my heart NOT in the project, after Jeff Wert’s excellent, balanced, and fair bio of Custer, I realized that I had nothing to add, and eventually terminated the project. However, researching it and beginning to write it really forced me to sit back and take stock of this guy whom I had little positive to say about.

Personally, I would NEVER use the word underrated to describe Custer.

My thoughts on Custer have been a long, strange trip. For most of my adult life, most of my thoughts on Custer were seriously prejudiced by the end he met at Little Big Horn. I adhered to the theory that he was reckless and careless about the well being of his men. It bothered me a great deal that Custer had not paid his dues like Buford, George Stoneman, Alfred Pleasonton, David M. Gregg, and the others had. It also bothered me a great deal that this flamboyant man child got the press and attention that he got and that quiet competent professionals like Buford and Gregg did not ever receive. Consequently, I pretty much dismissed him out of hand as a poseur. Eventually, I realized that that was unfair and wrong.

My research into various projects forced me to study Custer’s career in the Civil War. Much ado has been made about his exploits–read my friend Greg Urwin’s Custer Victorious:The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer if you need an example of why I would never consider him underrated–and in most instances, rightfully so. He put up a real stinker at Trevilian Station, but other than that, his career in the Civil War was marked by tremendous luck that landed him in the right place at the right time, and some real talent at leading men.

Custer had a lot of real problems. Because he had never commanded much of anything when he was promoted to general, he had not come up through the ranks like his predecessors like Buford, Gregg, and even Merritt (who, as a brand new second lieutenant right out of West Point, served in the same company with, and under the direct command of, Capt. John Buford, and who was very much Buford’s protege and greatest legacy to the Union cavalry). Consequently, he had little skill for and no experience whatsoever with the traditional roles of cavalry: scouting, screening and reconnaissance. He also was a political naif when it came to Army politics, not ever really having had to deal with them. In many ways, he was as Lee allegedly described John Bell Hood: all of the lion and none of the fox.

In 1864, when Sheridan took command, his style and Custer’s meshed nicely, and Custer became his go-to guy. And, with the exception of his lackluster performance at Trevilian Station, it’s pretty difficult to argue with his record. He was pretty much the ultimate hussar, as opposed to John Buford, who was the ultimate dragoon.

But, let’s make no mistake about it. It’s not a fair or appropriate comparison to compare someone who spent most of the war as a brigade commander with someone like, say, Gregg or Merritt, both of whom commanded the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps at some point during the war and both of whom made their fame as division commanders. There’s a quantum difference between commanding a brigade and a division, and an even greater expanse between commanding a division and a corps.

And so, my thoughts about Custer have come full circle. I am now able to see him clearly–both his good and bad points. At times, he was the reckless clod who charged blindly into whatever lay in front of him without doing any scouting. He had absolutely no skill or talent for the traditional role of cavalry whatsoever. But he was a fighter–of that, there can be no doubt. And he was an inspirational leader whose men loved him for his willingness to lead from the front. Most of all, he was lucky. And his luck finally ran out one hot, dusty day in June 1876.

In the pantheon of Union cavalry greats, I would place him well below the likes of Wesley Merritt or Custer’s West Point classmate and rival, James Harrison Wilson. Why? Because Merritt and Wilson both had the skill and talent to be corps commanders, whereas Custer had neither the experience nor the political skill to be anything more than an outstanding brigade commander and a reasonably good division commander. I also would place Buford ahead of him, because Buford had no peer in the Union army as an intelligence gatherer who was also a ferocious fighter. And finally, I would place David Gregg ahead of him. At the end of the day, it was Gregg whom Sheridan relied upon most heavily in 1864 because Gregg was steady, experienced, and competent.

There are others whom I admire greatly. Robert H. G. Minty was probably the best Union cavalry brigade commander of all of them. Thomas C. Devin was terribly competent, terribly reliable, and deserving of the nickname “Buford’s Hard Hitter,” which pretty much speaks for itself. William Woods Averell deserves much better than he gets historically; much of the historical treatment of his career in the Civil War is terribly unfair. Averell certainly had his issues, but there was no better raider than him in the Union services, and his men adored him. George D. Bayard is the great unknown. After Stoneman, he outranked EVERYONE in the Union cavalry, and had he not received a mortal wound at Fredericksburg, he would have been next in line to command the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps when Stoneman left the AoP for medical leave in May 1863. Bayard was young, competent, and aggressive, if unpopular with the men for being a terrible martinet, and he would have been a VERY different sort of leader than Alf Pleasonton, who was the ultimate lead-from-the-rear kind of guy. I’m not normally much of one for “what-if’s”–there was enough that actually happened to keep me interested, not speculation–but that’s a tantalizing one.

Given that a number of my books have dealt with the Michigan Cavalry Brigade–including my current project–I’ve had to really study Custer’s tenure in command of the MCB in great detail. There can be no doubt that the men who followed him loved him unconditionally. It’s clear that he was inspirational leader of very real skill. He was nothing if not aggressive–too much so at times–and he was a fighter. His poor grasp of army politics nearly cost him his career in the post-war army, and his poor treatment of those who served under him earned him the eternal hatred of some of his officers. But, it is very difficult to argue with his record of success. And in the end, that’s what really matters.

He will never be my favorite, but I have come to respect him, and I have made peace with my relationship with him.

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Comments

  1. John Foskett
    Thu 21st Jun 2012 at 6:54 pm

    This is an excellent analysis of Custer in the context of Union cavalry leaders and where he “ranks”. I suspect that much Custer analysis fails to separate out the post-War GAC. That Custer properly could be viewed as a bad/reckless tactician whose skills were ill-suited to his opponents and who made decisions which reflected very poor judgnent. It all caught up with him in Montana in June, 1876, but the signs were there as early as the poorly-handled Washita “fight” in 1868. And maybe that’s why his “luck” finally ran out. For what it’s worth, I cannot imagine him handling a large organization like a corps.

  2. Todd Berkoff
    Thu 21st Jun 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Hi Eric. Great piece. I concur with your list. I noticed you didn’t consider Sheridan in your ranking. Was this subconscience? Ha, and rightly so. I never considered Sheridan a real cavalry commander anyway. He was more of an army commander that sometimes used cavalry effectively…sometimes…really only during the last week of the war, in my opinion.

    I too usually prefer the “quiet professionals” like Merritt, D.M. Gregg, and Wilson. I would be interested in reading a good analysis of Wilson’s Raid, in which Emory Upton, Eli Long, and Edward McCook ably led divisions in this complicated and immensely successful cavalry operation. I have always thought these three division commanders were randomly picked. Upton, for example, had never commanded cavalry before, but proved to be up for the challenge. He was one of only a few officers to succeed in all three services during the war.

    Eric, what are your views of Torbert as a cavalry commander? Did he display much leadership at Third Winchester or should the credit go to Merritt and Averall for their successful charges late in the day? In any case, Torbert maintained command when Sheridan returned to Petersburg. That says something of Sheridan’s and Grant’s confidence in him. Maybe you can save that for a separate blog post.

    Todd

  3. Chris Evans
    Thu 21st Jun 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Great post.

    My thoughts on him have changed constantly over the years. I really like the Wert and Urwin books that you mention on him. They make a person study him in a fair light.

    Also, as a student of the battle of Little Big Horn my thoughts have sometimes been colored by all of the mistakes he made there.

    I certainly think he is a fascinating person to study and hope someday a epic, fair biopic could be made on his life that would supersede the quite decent ‘Son of the Morning Star’ and the wildly inaccurate ‘They Died with their Boots On’.

    Chris

  4. Thu 21st Jun 2012 at 7:50 pm

    Thanks, guys. I really appreciate the compliments.

    Todd–in truth, Sheridan was an absolutely wretched cavalry commander. His won-loss record as commander of the AoP Cavalry Corps was something like 1-11-1. Pretty horrible.

    I like the idea of addressing Torbert. I will do an assessment of him next week.

    Keep safe over there.

    Eric

  5. Thu 21st Jun 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Hey, Todd,

    As for Wilson’s Corps, this book is pretty good. You might check it out.

    Eric

  6. Dennis
    Fri 22nd Jun 2012 at 5:44 am

    As Eric said, it is all about winning and that makes it difficult to argue with Custer’s Civil War record.

    For a variety of reasons, (not just an early demise) I would not have wanted to serve under him in his later career

  7. Todd Berkoff
    Fri 22nd Jun 2012 at 9:08 am

    Now, all this being said, Wade Hampton licked many of these Federal commanders in battle after battle. Hampton did an excellent job blunting Sheridan at Trevilian Station and against Gregg at Samaria Church, although Gregg was outnumbered almost 2:1.

    The more I read about Hampton, the more impressed I am with his leadership and personal bravery. For someone with zero military experience before the war, he had a most impressive military career. Hampton and Nathan B. Forrest are the only two men who reached the rank of lieutenant general in the Confederate army with no prior military experience.

    Now, how does Custer rank against Confederate contemporaries like Rosser and Fitzhugh Lee?

  8. Fri 22nd Jun 2012 at 11:19 am

    Todd,

    I am no fan of Fitz Lee. In all of my years of study of the Civil War, I have identified exactly four good days Fitz had in the entire war. It doesn’t take much to be better than Fitz.

    Rosser was a good match for Custer, as demonstrated at Trevilian Station. They were classmates and friends, and they were a lot alike.

    My thoughts about Hampton have been made well-known here. Search the archives, and you will see.

    Eric

  9. Dave Gill
    Fri 22nd Jun 2012 at 11:48 am

    1-11-1?? Sounds like he merits a chapter in the revised edition of “You Stink”!

  10. Maxwell Elebash
    Fri 22nd Jun 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Very enjoyable post! I have never been a fan of Custer or Sheridan and felt both were overrated. Both were brave and capable but I have always felt they were a catagory of officer that new more how to ingratiate themselves to the right people whatever the expense to their cotemporaries or subordinates.
    My opinion of Custer at Little Bighorn has always been negative but John S. Gray’s Custer’s Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn enhanced my opinion some.

  11. John Mills-Darrington
    Fri 22nd Jun 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Hi Eric
    Not seen a book about Greg (and some of the other union commanders) How about it?
    John

  12. John Foskett
    Sat 23rd Jun 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Sheridan. I’ll admit to being a convert to many of Eric’s views after reading the book, particularly as a cavalry commander. I do think that he proved to be very capable in two roles before he came east – (1) as a “staff” officer under Curtis and then (2) as a division commander in the Army of the Ohio/Cumberland. Obviously, he also had much success once he got back out of his cavalry role in the Shenadoah and the Appomattox Campaign (leaving aside his handling of Wareen at Five Forks).

  13. Mon 25th Jun 2012 at 10:54 am

    John M-D,

    There’s one very bad self-published bio of Gregg. Writing a real one is on my list of things to get to eventually. He settled in my home town of Reading, PA, and spent the rest of his life there, and there is a large collection of his stuff at the local historical society that I intend to make use of, and there is also a collection at the Library of Congress.

    Eric

  14. Don
    Mon 25th Jun 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Great post, Eric. I noticed an omission in your list of cavalry commanders in the Army of the Potomac — Benjamin F. Davis. Was this intentional or an oversight? Although as a southerner he would have likely never been put in charge of the Cavalry Corps, he had done good (and well publicized, in the case of the Harpers Ferry escape) service up to the time of his death at Beverly Ford.

  15. Mon 25th Jun 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Don,

    I left Davis off the list because, other than the Harpers Ferry breakout, he was really largely unproven when he was killed.

    Eric

  16. Chris Barrett
    Wed 27th Jun 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Well Howdy General! Here is what Amazon auto-forwarded to me:

    “Greetings from Amazon.com Customer Discussions,
    Because you requested to be notified when people commented on your review of “Protecting the Flanks: The Battles for Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and East Cavalry Field, Battle of Gettysburg, July 2-3, 1863 (Discovering Civil War America)”, we are sending you this e-mail.

    Jun 26, 2012 4:20:47 PM PDT
    Eric J. Wittenberg says:
    I’m done with you, sporto. I’m even more done with your slander.
    Consider yourself on notice. One more slanderous comment and you will have more trouble to deal with than you ever imagined. I trust that I have made myself abundantly clear.”

    I thought that I would at least get in touch wit ya since Amazon wiped out your handy threat. Such a nasty…they will not carry your “rants”.

    Anyway…I did today enjoy a reading of you web material on Buford…such an awesome fellow; along with his crew of tough staff!
    Of course I do not expect to be allowed to discuss much history with you here so I won’t wear out any fun ride.

    I don’t even mind your attitude tho’ really Gen…you outflank yourself with unnecessary stuff. Really…climb back on yer saddle fella!

    Say…didn’t Imboden’s Northwestern Brigade have over two thousand fresh cavalry and a battery of arty with him at Lee’s center? And that is Lee’s only flank protection if in fact he feared such a bold attack from Meade. Certainly Lee had no reason to fear a safe-as-can-be Gregg – - he has his tight orders. He does brillant to cut the Wolverines and friends lose!
    I do sincerely trust that your newly revised book on East Cavalry engagements will deal with the strongest military probability that Stuart’s division is 1) not at all on any competent line of battle – - how far from Ewell is he? Point? In fact, Lee fears no flank attack at all. And 2) Strategic Envelopement. Deal with that…it is important. Stuart failed to succeed in completing it. So often historians like yourself hug those after battle reports as if they were not political documents…which they were. 3) Perhaps there is no resolution to some of these most engrossing issues…like this one of Stuart’s intent. His military effect [that is different] is clear: attack down the Pike into Meade’s rear lines…even a chaotic mess there would have vastly aided Pickett.
    With working with these carefully [if you can], Lee and Stuart will end up looking like bumbling fools.

    It does no service to good history to threaten or try and bluster your way to prevent those who have legitimate questions such as these or accuse them of slanderous behavior. Dust off yer pants…get back on the horse. I for one like your books…but who dear General owns all the truth on all the Battlefield?

    Best wishes, Chris Barrett

  17. Wed 27th Jun 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Mr. Barrett,

    Your comment is not germane to this post. Indeed it is quite off-topic.

    I tried very hard to tell you that I want nothing to do with you or this discussion. Apparently, you refuse to accept that. And so, you insisted on persisting in this idiocy against my wishes and by insisting on posting more slander. Given those facts, are you REALLY surprised that I might not respond well? Or perhaps that was precisely the result you were attempting to engineer. It doesn’t matter. Regardless of what you may think, this discussion is over, right here and right now.

    Opinions are like assholes, Mr. Barrett. Everybody has one. Since you seem to have many more than others, well, draw your own conclusions….

    I really don’t care about your nonsensical and moronic theory. I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what you want me to address in my book, which was not written to satisfy your unreasonable and unrealistic demands. I can’t think of anything I care about less than what you think, provided that you cease and desist from slandering a book you have never bothered to read. Got it? Can I possibly be any more direct than that? Will that finally sink into that thick head of yours?

    I won’t delete your comment now, but the next time you feel the need to waste my bandwidth and leave me an inappropriate comment in an inappropriate place, it, as well as the original comment, will be deleted and your IP address will be permanently banned. Just try me if you don’t believe me. I am as serious as a heart attack. I pay for this website, so I get to make the rules. And candidly, I cannot imagine anything that I care about less than whether you like my rules.

    I made it clear that I was finished with you and your nonsense, but you just won’t let it go. So, I’m going to say it one more time, in case you are so unbelievably dense as to not believe me: I AM FINISHED WITH YOU, YOUR SLANDER, AND WITH THIS DISCUSSION. LEAVE ME ALONE. NOW.

    I trust that I have made myself abundantly clear.

    Goodbye, Mr. Barrett. This discussion–which I never wanted, which I consider slanderous, tortious and actionable, and which you persist in trying to prolong–is now over, and for good this time. If you have even some semblance of a brain in your head–and each time you insist on posting more of your nonsensical crap here or on your grossly inappropriate, slanderous, and unfair “review” on Amazon, I become more and more convinced that you truly are either galactically stupid or that you are nothing but a loathsome troll with no life who really needs to crawl back under whatever rock you crawled out from under (and I genuinely believe you are a troll)–you will forget you ever heard my name, ever saw this website, or ever chose to engage me in a discussion I never, ever wanted to have in the first place. Again, just try me if you have any questions about whether I’m serious. But consider yourself warned of the consequences if you do…..

  18. Dave C.
    Thu 28th Jun 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Mr Wittenberg,

    As a self-avowed “student” of Custer, I greatly enjoy your blog and especially this post. Could you elaborate on what you consider his mistakes to be at Trevilian Station? I assume they have to do with a lack of proper scouting or allowing Col Alger to charge the largely unguarded Rebel wagon train without having the entire brigade ready to support him. Few battles are fought without mistakes (especially when commanded by someone as young as Custer), but I’ve always thought Custer’s “First Last Stand” at Trevilian Station (Day One) was actually one of his finest hours as a commander. Once his brigade was encircled by the Confederate cavalry, Custer did an impressive job leading the Wolverines for hours under absolutely dire circumstances. He personally led multiple mounted and dismounted charges, was “everywhere at once,” and was hit several times by spent balls. Not every brigade commander could have survived such a desperate situation. Even Rosser gave his friend (and nemesis) high praise for his actions that day. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this aspect of the Custer’s generalship.

    Sincerely,
    Dave Chapman

  19. Thu 28th Jun 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Dave,

    You’ve got it exactly right. How wise is it to pitch into a very large force of the enemy without a shred of information about their strength or dispositions, as Custer did there? It was terribly unwise.

    Having gotten himself into that mess, he was at his best, and I give him credit for that.

    Eric

  20. Ralph Hitchens
    Fri 29th Jun 2012 at 9:36 am

    This is an excellent post, fully qualifying as “fair and balanced” in my opinion. Sometimes “empty suits” do attain unwarranted rank and prominence, but in fairness you cannot say that about Custer.

    I would also urge Custer addicts (not at all a derogatory term!) to also read Larry Sklenar’s To Hell With Honor, for which I would vote as one of the best recent books about Custer and the Little Bighorn battle.

  21. Fri 29th Jun 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Ralph,

    Thank you for your kind words. As I said in the post, it took me a lot of years to get to this point.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about the Sklenar book. I likewise think it’s one of the best of the modern generation of Little Big Horn books. I also liked Jim Donovan’s book a great deal.

    Eric

  22. Al Ovies
    Fri 29th Jun 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Oh my mentor!! I never thought I’d see these words written by you. The thought that my hero might actually have reached a level where he might be compared those great cavalrymen Buford and Merritt takes my breath away. The very fact that that you are starting(and I emphasize the word starting) to realize Custer’s contribution to the cavalry effort during the Civil War effort only leads to me to believe that you are ready to embark on a on an examination of the reltionship between Custer and Merritt. Incidentally, I am sending you a print of my favorite Custer portrait. I hope it finds a place in your collection.

  23. Richard Deardoff
    Tue 10th Jul 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Having been exposed to Custer thru “Little Big Man” I also have been suspicious of him. Was he a poseur? Here is someone who got along with McClellan, Pleasonton and Sheridan…men completely different in temperment. Did Custer simply know the right buttons to push?

  24. John Foskett
    Wed 11th Jul 2012 at 10:28 am

    By the way, Eric, your post on Custer apparently has inspired Dimitri today over at the Bookshelf.

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