Considering George Armstrong Custer died nearly 140 years ago, it’s remarkable that so many feel they know him today.
Some think of him as the dashing “boy general” who saved the day and likely the Union at Gettysburg. Some see a vainglorious tyrant who cared more for his hunting dogs than for his men. Some identify him purely from his “last stand” at Little Big Horn, as a martyr, glory-hunter, scapegoat, villain or hero.
Perhaps the familiarity comes from the rich visual history. Custer knew the power of photography, and the camera captured his image probably more than any other commander of the 19th century. Artists and later Hollywood attempted to depict both the man and the myth, using color and personality not found in the sepia-toned prints.
He’s one of the most recognized figures from history—but are we any closer to capturing the truth of “who was Custer?”
Historian Jeff Barnes, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, is the author of The Great Plains Guide to Custer, Forts of the Northern Plains and the newly published The Great Plains Guide to Buffalo Bill from Stackpole Books. Photo Gallery
Battle of the Big Horn, published by Kurz & Allison in 1889, shows Custer as a “larger than life” figure, dwarfing the soldiers and Indians around him. – Courtesy Library of Congress –
William H. Illingworth captured this photo of Lt. Col. Custer with his Indian scouts during the Black Hills Expedition, in August 1874; Bloody Knife is pointing to the map (the death knell will sound for him, too, at the Little Big Horn battle). Custer’s tent was a gift from Thomas Rosser of the Northern Pacific Railroad (the company’s initials are on the tent).
Having amassed 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the annals of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Custer should have ended up in an obscure post. But the cadet, shown here in a photo taken on July 18, 1861, had the fortune of graduating as the Civil War broke out. From those early days of glory and gore to his very last one, on a bloody Montana battlefield, he continued to test boundaries and rules.
Custer sat for this photo in the Omaha, Nebraska, studios of Edric Eaton prior to the arrival of the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on January 12, 1872. The following day, they met with Buffalo Bill Cody and embarked on their famous “Grand Buffalo Hunt” in southwest Nebraska.
– Courtesy Kansas Historical Society –
Alfred Waud was known for his realistic sketches from the Civil War battlefields, and the above 1876 drawing,
Custer’s Last Fight, was considered one of the earliest accurate depictions of the Little Big Horn battle.
This title card promotes the extended scenes 1925 release of Thomas Ince’s 1912 film
Custer’s Last Fight. The original advertising for the 1912 release declared the movie as the “most colossal & sensational War Picture in the Entire History of Motion Pictures.”
Edgar Samuel Paxson finished
Custer’s Last Stand in 1899. Paxson took 20 years to complete the six-by-nine panorama, which is said to contain so much paint that it weighs half a ton. Using sign language, Paxson interviewed many of the surviving warriors of the battle, many of whom posed for him—including Crazy Horse. To see the original painting in all its glory, visit the Whitney Western Art Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.
Buffalo Bill Cody was the first to depict the Custer disaster before show-going masses with his Wild West in the 1880s. Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show followed up, in 1905,
Within four weeks of the battle, William M. Cary’s full-page drawing appeared in New York City’s
The Daily Graphic. Henry Steinegger borrowed heavily from the drawing to create this 1878 lithograph, General Custer’s Death Struggle: The Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The most famous and popular image of Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer—and the one he personally favored—was taken by Mathew Brady and company during the military celebration following the close of the Civil War.
– All photos True West Archives unless otherwise noted –
Custer loved dogs and frequently posed in photos with them. One snuggles next to the second lieutenant, as he poses with officers of Brig. Gen. Andrew Porter’s staff in this photo taken on May 20, 1862.
General Custer at the Little Big Horn was released by Aywon Film for the 50th anniversary of the Little Big Horn battle. Despite holding the title role of Custer, actor John Beck received fourth billing.
H.R. Locke created this cabinet card of “General Custer on His War Horse” for the Burlington Route. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad—with its Montana route passing through the Little Bighorn Valley—was one of the first to capitalize on the battlefield as a tourist attraction.
– Courtesy heritage auctions –
Cutting quite the fine figure during his Civil War years, Maj. Gen. Custer was photographed by Mathew Brady and company at the close of the war, in 1865. In the full-length photo, taken on May 23, Custer wears a wide felt hat he captured from a Confederate officer. The same hat was knocked off later in the day, when Custer’s horse bolted as Union troops passed before the review stand, during the Grand Review of the Armies celebration in Washington, D.C.
Alfred Pleasonton (at right), as the new major general, led Union cavalry forces in the Gettysburg Campaign. During this period, he promoted First Lt. Custer (at left) to brigadier general. The two ride toward each other in this compelling photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, taken in April 1863 in Falmouth, Virginia.
Even a future president got into the act—Ronald Reagan (right) starred as Custer, with Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart (far right), in the 1940 movie
Santa Fe Trail. A short-haired, clean-shaven Custer in pre-Civil War Kansas didn’t sit well with historical purists.
The Custer Fight, Charles M. Russell took the unusual step of portraying the Battle of Little Big Horn from the Indian perspective—the defenders of Last Stand Hill are almost completely obscured as the circle of Indians closes around them.
The Last Stand, likely inspired by the events of Little Big Horn, Frederic Remington made no attempt to accurately portray Custer’s fight. In addition to unrecognized defenders, the heavy clothing, sabers and rocky terrain weren’t at Little Big Horn either.