the Last Great Battle of the American West (2009)
The fawning press still loved him, and Custer was always accommodating to the media. By 1872, his letters were regularly published in newspapers and magazines under his own name. Custer enjoyed his celebrity enormously . . . much to the chagrin & irritation of some.
(Pictured: Lt. Colonel Custer shortly before the Battle at Little Bighorn)
Captain Frederick Benteen (31, 5 yrs older than Custer), a cantankerous Virginian that served with distinction in the Civil War. Benteen took an instant dislike to Custer when he first met him in January, 1867; many historians have argued that this may have been due to similarities in their personalities. Benteen viewed Custer as a blustering, bragging, press-created peacock . . . he was jealous, upset that he wasn't in command. Benteen's bitterness would infect the 7th Cavalry all the way to Little Bighorn on 25 June, 1876.
The 7th Cavalry was ordered to protect settlers and railroad crews pushing West. In the Spring of 1867, Custer joined up with General Winfield Scott Hancock's 1400 soldiers, cavalry, and artillery, but the joint mission was an abject failure, in that hostilities actually increased in the Great Plains.
Custer was court-martialed two months later, and he basically dug his own grave. The Court of Inquiry gave Custer multiple chances to help himself, but Custer remained imperious. After a month of deliberation, Custer was found guilty on all but three charges, and was suspended from rank and command without pay for a year. It was actually a very mild verdict, and at the time, being convicted in a court-martial was not the career-ending humiliation that it would become in the 20th Century. Custer blamed many others in the 7th Cavalry for his situation, never once reflecting on his own decision-making . . . it widened a rift that would never heal in the regiment.
When Custer returned, he was energetic, purposeful, and itching to find Natives. Custer was allowed to retain his regiment, and Sheridan made sure that the regiment was properly supplied. Custer was still the disciplinarian: officers late to meetings actually had their tents put on fire. One month after his return, the 7th set out to find Natives . . . during the winter. Sheridan calculated that it would be easier to find Natives along their winter camps by rivers and creeks.
Custer led the charge from the north (with the rising sun at his back) into the village, but he had ordered multiple simultaneous charges from different directions. The engagement lasted a mere ten minutes, but there were two alarming developments. First was Major Elliott and his sixteen missing men, and Custer had reports that some warriors were heading his way. The village Custer attacked was actually one of several that had over 1000 warriors (very poor reconnaissance), and they were advancing in mass. Custer decided to burn the village, kill 900+ ponies, and abandon Major Elliott and his men on the field (Elliott and his men were eventually found, dead and frozen, riddled with arrows and badly mutilated).
Of the 40-50 Natives killed, over half were noncombatants; Osage scouts, not troopers, were the main reason for the deaths (to the Osage, it was a chance to gain revenge against the Cheyenne from past events). The Washita was harsh, but it wasn't a wholesale massacre; Custer actually halted some of the killing. Custer's superiors were pleased with the result, in that it was the first piece of good news to come from the Plains after the Civil War. While it was a morale-booster for the government, it demoralized Southern Plains Natives . . . no longer could Natives feel safe during the winter in their camps by rivers.
From that point on, there was a Custer "Clan", and Benteen's "Anti-Custer Clan"; however, most officers remained neutral, wanting nothing more than to do their duty (and when off duty . . . drink). Benteen would continue to rail against Custer, loudly, for the next seven years . . .