George Armstrong Custer Court-Martial: 1867

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George Armstrong Custer Court-Martial:

Defendant: George Armstrong Custer
Crimes Charged: Absence without leave from his command; conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline. In addition to three formal charges, there were eight detailed specifications.
Defense Lawyer: Charles C. Parsons
Prosecutor: Captain Robert Chandler, Judge Advocate
Presiding Officer: William Hoffman
Court: Benjamin Grierson, Pitcain Morrison, Michael Morgan, Franklin Callender, Thomas English, Henry Asbury, Stephen Lyford
Place: Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Date of Trial: September 15-October 11, 1867
Verdict: Guilty of five of the 11 charges and specifications.
Sentence: Suspended from rank and command for one year and forfeit of pay for the same period.

SIGNIFICANCE: This court-martial was not untypical of the way the U.S. military held its officers to account in that era, but it was also typical of the way internal and personal motives could play a role in who was singled out for discipline. Many observers then and since have felt that George Armstrong Custer was being used as a scapegoat for the failure of the costly 1867 expedition against the Kansas Indians. On the other hand, Custer's treatment of the deserters seems highly questionable, and in retrospect his actions portend the rash behavior that led to the disaster at Little Bighorn in 1876.

There were many heroes from both the Union and Confederate forces who emerged from the Civil War but among the most dashing was George Armstrong Custer. As a young graduate from West Point's Class of 1861, he participated as a cavalry officer in virtually all the battles of the Army of the Potomac from the first to the last. By April 1865, his bold actions had earned him a temporary promotion to major general at the age of 25.

At the end of the war, Custer reverted to his permanent rank of captain; in 1866 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned to command the Seventh Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Riley in eastern Kansas. At this time, the Indians across the West were increasing their attacks on all forms of white people's encroachmentsforts and supply outposts, the new railroads, overland wagon trains, and settlers. General William T. Sherman, commander of the military forces in the vast western region, assigned Major General Winfield S. Hancock to take charge of a campaign to commence in the spring of 1867. Custer's Seventh Cavalry was assigned a major role.

As the weeks passed, Hancock's campaign was increasingly regarded as ineffectual until in June it was decided to pursue the Indians more aggressively. Encounters between the Indians and the U.S. troops accelerated in frequency, violence, and casualties; desertions in the U.S. forces were also increasing. Fort Wallace, the westernmost military post in Kansas, was effectively under siege by Indians when Custer arrived there on July 13. Finding its beleaguered forces short of food, medical supplies, and ammunition, and with men dying from cholera almost daily, Custer decided on his own to lead about 75 of his troops to Fort Harker, some 225 miles to the east, to obtain vital supplies to take back to Fort Wallace.

He set off on July 15 and arrived at Fort Harker on July 19. By July 21, Commander, Colonel Andrew J. Smith placed him under arrest. On August 7, General in Chief of the U.S. Army Ulysses S. Grant ordered a general court-martial to try Custer at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in September. What had Custer done wrong?

The Court-Martial

On September 16, the charges with the specifications were read aloud in the court. Under the charge of "absence without leave from his command," it was specified that he left Fort Wallace for Fort Harker without proper authority from his superiors. Many of the other specifications fell under the charge of "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline." Two of these specifications claimed that he had marched some of his men "upon private business" and that he had used two ambulances and four mules to travel the last leg of the journey to Fort Harker. Behind these charges, however, lay the larger accusation that Custer should have been devoting his time and energy and forces and resources to pursuing Indians.

These might be considered almost administrative issues, but the remaining specifications were more serious. One claimed that on the trip from Fort Wallace to Fort Harker, after receiving a report that two of his men had been killed by Indians who had attacked a detachment, Custer neglected to pursue the Indians or to recover and bury the bodies. Another claimed that, on his long trip to Fort Wallace earlier in July, he ordered some of his men to pursue and shoot three known deserters, without conducting any trial; that after these wounded men were hauled 18 miles in a wagon to Custer's encampment, he refused to allow the doctor to treat them; and that one of these wounded men, Charles Johnson, subsequently died because of Custer's orders.

Custer pleaded not guilty to all charges and the trial proceeded. The prosecution called witness after witness, and although not all were antagonistic to Custer, their testimony tended to support the general outlines of the charges. Numerous differences involving distances and dates and other details inevitably emerged, and some testimony actually aided Custer. Although Custer's own brother, Lt. Thomas Custer, a member of his staff, testified that George had said, "I want you to get on your horse and go after those deserters and shoot them down," the officers who first fired at three deserters claimed they had done so in self-defense. The doctor who treated the three wounded men testified that Custer had only forced him to wait about a half hour and that Custer had in fact quietly told him to give the men proper medical treatment.

When it came time for Custer to mount his defense, in addition to several witnesses who offered testimony in his support, he submitted a series of official military orders showing that other U.S. Army officersincluding his superior, Major General Hancockhad authorized killing deserters. He also offered an elaborate table showing the high numbers of desertions from the Seventh Cavalry.

Custer himself never took the stand but he submitted a long report in which he justified his action against the deserters by stating that, after these three men were shot, "Not a single desertion took place from that time so long as I remained with command." Aside from that, he presented what he regarded as more than reasonable explanations for all the charges against himself.

On October 11, the court went into deliberation and within hours returned to announce they had found Custer guilty on five of the charges and specifications. He was immediately sentenced to be suspended from his rank and command for one year and to forfeit his pay for the same period.

The Aftermath

From the outset of his indictment, Custer had been supported by many fellow officers and he had hopes that the verdict would be set aside on appeal by some of his old colleagues in the Union army. Instead, Lieutenant General William Sherman issued a statement saying that the findings "are approved by General Grant." It was also reported that General Grant "is convinced that the Court, in awarding so lenient a sentence for the offenses of which the accused is found guilty, must have taken into consideration his previous record." But if he could not get his sentence set aside, Custer did not suffer that much. Major General Philip Sheridan lent Custer and his wife the use of his suite of rooms at Fort Leavenworth, and there they lived in some comfort.

There was one surprising development, though, when on January 2, 1868, Custer was served with a warrant from the state court of Kansas and charged with the murder of Charles Johnson, the deserter who had died. At first the case was dismissed on the grounds that the court had no jurisdiction. A second warrant, however, led to several days of examination and testimony, but on January 18 the judge found that the evidence did not support the charge. That spring, Custer and his wife moved to a home in Michigan, where he was free to boat, fish, and hunt. Then in August, reports began to come through of a new round of attacks by Indians in Kansas. General Philip Sheridan was ordered to head a campaign, and on September 24 he telegraphed Custer: "Generals Sherman, Sully and myself, and nearly all the officers of your regiment, have asked for you Can you come at once?" Custer took a train the very next day and on September 30 he was back with the Seventh Cavalry and ready to start fighting Indians. He would not stop until June 25, 1876, when he was killed at the battle of Little Bighorn.

John Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Frost, Lawrence A. The Court-Martial of General George Amstrong Custer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Monaghan, Jay. The Life of General George Armstrong Custer. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

Whittaker, Frederick. A Complete Life of Gen. George A. Custer. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1876.

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George Armstrong Custer Court-Martial: 1867

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