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United States House Committee on Invalid Pensions

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The United States House Committee on Invalid Pensions is a former committee of the United States House of Representatives from 1831 to 1946.

The committee was created on January 10, 1831 with jurisdiction over matters relating to pensions for disabled veterans. Originally, the jurisdiction of the committee included pensions from the War of 1812. The committee had become so overburdened with pensions from the Civil War, that on March 26, 1867, jurisdiction for pensions from the War of 1812 was transferred to the Committee on Revolutionary Pensions. Subsequently, jurisdiction of the Committee on Invalid Pensions included only matters relating to pensions of the Civil War, with the committee reporting general and special bills authorizing payments of pensions and bills for relief of soldiers of that war.

In 1939 the jurisdiction of the committee was changed to include, "the pensions of all the wars of the United States and peace-time service, other than the Spanish–American War, Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion, and World War", while those pensions that fell in the excluded categories were tended to by the Committee on Pensions.

The committee was abolished under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 and its jurisdiction transferred, in large part, to the executive agencies.

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>> David Ferriero: Good afternoon. I'm David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States. It's a pleasure to welcome you here to the McGowan Theater. For those of you who are with us physically and for those of you who are joining us on our YouTube Channel, welcome. Today we will hear about one of the country's most famous military men, General George Armstrong Custer from T.J. Stiles most recent book, "Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America." And T.J. will be signing after he speaks today. General Custer is remembered best for his defeat, a decisive one, by Native-Americans at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, popularly known as Custer's last stand. But there is so much more to the Custer story than Bighorn. Before we hear about that, I'd like to tell you about a couple of programs that are coming up soon here in this theater. Monday, September 7 at 7:00 we'll present a program to observe the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment which banned slavery throughout the United States. Jeffrey Rosen, President of the National Constitution Center, will lead a discussion of the amendment's impact with a panel that includes a member of Congress, a federal judge, a journalist, and several history professors. Next Wednesday, December 9 at noon, we'll offer a program entitled "Embassy to the Eastern Courts: America's Secret First Pivot Toward Asia, 1832-1837". The author Andrew Jampoler will tell how President Jackson looked for new trading partners before being locked out of traditional markets in Europe and the Caribbean after the Napoleonic War turned to Asia. A book signing will follow that program. Today's guest is prize-winning author T.J. Stiles. It's a particular pleasure for me to be welcoming T.J. back to the National Archives where he mined the records researching this new book. I often cite T.J. as an example of how important serious researchers are to institutions like this. Scholars who mine the collections in their research and help us better understand what is in our holdings in the generation of new scholarship. And for me this new book completes a trifecta. T.J. researched his first book, "Jesse James," at Duke University where I was the university librarian. That book won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seeburg Award for Civil War Scholarship. His next book, "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," which received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, T.J. researched as a fellow at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library where I was the Director of Libraries. And now the Custer book which draws on many different record groups across the National Archives facilities. I'm so proud of the role that my three institutions have played in T.J.'s scholarship. The reviews of this book have been over the top. Has there been a bad review? >> T.J. Stiles: I wouldn't say over the top. >> David Ferriero: I would. [Laughter] Described as a biography of stunning richness, captivating, epic, ambitious, bursting at the seams. My favorite is from a publication named "Biography" which recently renamed "Signature." What's remarkable about the Custer that emerges in "Custer's Trials" is how both his internal and external states are. For every dichotomy of an America in flux that his public persona enlightens, there is also a deeply seeded personal anxiety that racked Custer. Because of this re-emerges as one of those too rare literary characters whose internal and external states, are unified in what they tell us about a time in history and the consequences that befall a person who tried to project himself into another world. Please welcome my friend T.J. Stiles. >> [Applause] >> T.J. Stiles: Thank you very much. It's a real honor and a pleasure to be here. As the National Archivist as just said, we have known each other for a number of years. I am immensely pleased that he's in charge of the National Archives. He's a real professional. It's a delight to be here. I want to start straight off with a letter which was written on October 12, 1865, by Moses P. Hanson. Hanson was the surgeon of the 2P the Wisconsin Cavalry Regiment, on occupation duty after the end of the Civil War. He wrote of a case that he had investigated personally and knew the facts of. It had happened not 48 hours since, not two days previously. On October 10, two days before he wrote the letter, a 9-year-old girl somehow crossed 23 miles of Texas countryside from a plantation into the town of Hempstead where Hanson was posted. She had been held in slavery all of her life. And this was now three months after Juneteenth, the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas which had not been occupied by Union troops during the war itself yet she had still been held in de facto slavery. And like so many African American families, hers had been divided by slavery. Her mother, however, was just 23 miles away, an enormous distance for a 9-year-old girl but still within reachable distance, living with a white woman, a Mrs.Godie, [phonetic] who lived in this village of Hempstead. So she crossed that distance somehow and managed to find her mother and reunite with her in Mrs. Godie's house. Soon afterwards, a 13-year-old boy showed up. His name was Willis Chambers. He was the son of the owners of the plantation and the people who had considered themselves the young girl's owner. He declared, as Hanson wrote, that he had gotten orders from his mother to bring her, the girl, out of Hempstead or kill her. She refused to let go of her mother. He literally had to pry her off her mother and tied her hands behind her back. Quote, he then tied her hands behind her back and tied a rope around her waist, pulled her out, and tied her to a ring in his saddle, mounted, and put spurs to the horse. As he dragged the girl, she fell down. Then the horse reacted to her falling by kicking her. And before they had gotten very far, he cut her loose, quote, a mass of broken flesh and bones, dead. Now, the mother of this girl complained to the Army Provost Marshal who was in Hempstead, who was in charge of the application of law and order in a military district. Quote, he refused to mettle, Hanson wrote. She then went to General Custer and he sent to arrest the boy. Major General George Armstrong Custer, Major General of U.S. Volunteers, who was the commanding general in Hempstead, who was now in charge of administering this area of Texas, had to decide what to do with this boy who openly admitted having killed this 9-year-old girl. Now, Custer is one of the most controversial figures in American history. People love him and they hate him. These days they tend to hate him more than love him. He was, in fact, notorious, as well as a celebrity, during his own lifetime. But whether you love Custer or hate him or have no particular opinion, we all envision him in a particular way, usually alone on a hill top surrounded by his dead soldiers as Cheyenne and other warriors circle around him as he fires off his last bullet and is slaughtered along with more than 200 of his troops. This Custer is the one that lives in our imagination. He is a man of the West. He is a man who is eternally fighting Native-Americans. He's someone who we can't really imagine anywhere else. Certainly we don't imagine him in an administrative role, not on a horse, not leading a charge into battle, but rather sitting behind a desk administering justice, deciding a case of life and death in the aftermath of slavery in Texas. This is a letter that I found in the National Archives by doing something that historians should do, biographers should do, which is to try to think broadly, to try to go to collections that aren't obvious. Custer is one of the most researched people in American history. And I respect that research. There are people who have never published a thing who know details about Custer's life that I don't know. So it's a subject to be approached with humility. It's not something that I want to make exaggerated claims about when it comes to my knowing more than anyone else or having discovered things no one had seen before. And yet by approaching it with a different set of interests, a different set of priorities, I tried to put together a picture of Custer's life and his significance and his meaning for Americans at the time before he got to the Little Bighorn, before that enormous sunrises over his life and blinds us to everything that came before that stunning death of his, which was, indeed, significant. Why was it that Custer was a celebrity before he got there? Why was it that he was notorious before he got there? What was the meaning that Americans saw in him before he took on the meanings that we put upon him? This was the mission that I set for myself in writing this biography of Custer. And by going outside of the usual collections that people consult, I began to put that picture together. So here we have Custer as seen in a letter, the unregistered letters sent to the assistant commissioner of the Bureau of -- refugees, freed men and abandoned lands, the Freedmen's Bureau. It's not a place people usually look for information about Custer. And yet, if we look at his life, we find that race, slavery, emancipation, and civil rights runs through his life, a major theme not only in his public role but in the way he envisioned the world and in his private relationships. There's another aspect to Custer as well, one that's a little bit more familiar. That's Custer as the Army officer. And I want to come back to this case in a moment but first I'm going to go back to other records from the National Archives that illuminate Custer. And many of these are very well-known. He was a young boy from a poor background in Ohio who went off to West Point, very lucky he got an appointment to West Point. There, as one of his classmates said, when he realized he could not lead the class academically, he decided to support it by providing a solid base. He graduated last in his class but first in demerits. And what does that mean? Again, this is something I have to do. I have to try to understand the human meaning, the interior state, that's reflected in the outer actions. All of those demerits are a reflection of his acting out, of his performing for an audience and that audience are his fellow cadets, trying to project an image of himself. This is an important fact about Custer, something to understand but also see passed, he was always telling stories about himself. He was telling stories to an audience. And he was also telling those stories to himself. That this ego, this grand performative nature, his elaborate costume he wore into battle, the costumes he adopted when he went west, when he wore buckskin instead of a black velvet uniform as he had during the war, this is telling a story to the public and one for himself that he's not that obscure boy that no one from nowhere; that, in fact he's someone who is great, who is performing on a historical stage, a man who is an antebellum, romantic hero. That's the story he's telling an d one he is always trying to tell himself he wants to be. So he performs for an audience. Well, he graduates from West Point. And he's still performing for that audience. He hasn't been assigned a regular post in the Army yet. And just days after graduating he is the commander of the guard for the Army encampment, the training encampment for the cadets as they train in the summer. An upper classman starts a fistfight with an underclassman. Custer is in charge. He's captain of the guard. He's supposed to arrest them. An Army can't function with the soldiers fist fighting with each other at will. And instead he says, stand back, boys, let them have a fair fight. Now aday that would be handled administratively but this was something he was court martialed for, convicted. But Custer's luck came in. Something saved him again and again. The Civil War broke out. He's terribly fearful he'll miss the entire thing. So he pleads for mercy, admits his guilty, pleads for mercy. The court martial convicts him but they let him go off to war. There he finds a new audience. He's performing now for his superiors. He finds a mission. And suddenly the miscreative West Point begins to perform extremely well. And there's something charming about him, something very hard to capture in the documents. He's got charisma. And his superiors are susceptible to it. So during the campaign, he's actually plucked from obscurity when he performs very well, taking part in the raid on Confederate position, that comes to the attention of General McClellan, puts him on the staff. Now Custer is performing for General McClellan. He performs very well. Interestingly, he worships McClellan, a notoriously conservative general politically and in military operations. Custer worships this man who is so accomplished and so esteemed even though his own personality is so different. He's volunteering to go off on raids. He wants to win in a way that McClellan doesn't. That's what saves him when McClellan falls, the fact that he's a committed soldier who wants to win. But the other thing that saves him is not just his merit. It's the fact that he's trying to find a new patron. Remember, the Civil War was not fought primarily by the regular Army but by an organization that was created for the duration of the war, the U.S. Volunteers. And this is a very political Army with regiments raised by the states, with regimental officers appointed by governors. It's very much reflects antebellum America, a world of personal connections, where there's very few large institutions. Lincoln himself was a self-taught lawyer. Before the end of the 19th Century, it's unimaginable to think of a self-taught lawyer representing the largest corporations in America as Lincoln had. And this is the world, though, that Custer came out of. So he's in the Army, one of the first great institutions of the upcoming America, the organizational society. But he's operating very much as a man of the past, looking for those personal patrons. Still current. It's not past yet. But this is a world that is not looking to the future but rather one that reflects an older America. And he finds a new patron. The patron becomes the commander of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. When the North is invaded, Custer's -- the general who picks Custer for his staff gets a chance to appoint new brigade commanders. He takes this 23-year-old cadet -- lieutenant, who graduated last in his class and makes him a brigadier general. And what happens? Custer performs exceptionally well. He goes straight -- practically straight to the battle of Gettysburg. His men see him in this black velvet uniform with gold braid from cuff to elbow. And they think he's kind of ridiculous. I'd like to point out there were other generals who dressed like that. They were all Southern generals. And Custer himself, he's a product of actually border state culture. He had a Maryland-born father. He's from southern Ohio. He has very much southern affinities. This is kind of the antebellum idea of chivalry, the more Southern idea of culture, again reflecting an older America, more romantic ideal. That's the ideal that Custer represents. An interesting thing about that is that it served a practical purpose. We see Custer's affectations, it's very easy to dismiss him as an egoist, someone who was full of vanity and simply wanted everyone to look at him. But on the battlefield of the Civil War, a brigadier general is in the mix. And by drawing attention to himself, he's both inspiring his men, both giving them a rallying point. They know where their commander is. He helps to orient his men, especially when he leads them forward. And it's also a declaration about his own confidence in himself as a fighter, a declaration of confidence in himself in his own personal courage. And this is something we have to remember when we see that grand performance that Custer puts on. That when it comes to battle, there's real substance there. This is a man who actually fought very well. He wasn't merely lucky. He wasn't merely impetus. He was a real professional. And in all of the chaos of Custer's life, this is where we see him performing with confidence, with self-assurance, and with real professionalism. That's where he's in this control of himself, in battle. The problem for him is that in the future of the battles come fewer and fewer, farther and farther apart. But in the Civil War they come thick and fast. His men love him. They admire him. May be the last American general to kill someone in a sword fight. And seeing their leader actually fighting and fighting well, not just bravely but with personal skill, this is something that his men absolutely loved. One of his soldiers says, "I saw General Custer plunge his saber into the belly of a rebel trying to kill him." You can imagine how hard men fight for a general who is that brave. So this is something that can seem, you know, difficult to repugnant or ridiculous to a modern mind but to that mind that comes out of antebellum America in a world in which the Civil War is crushing gallantry, crushing individual heroics, under the massive fire power, Custer is in this little slice of the Civil War. Cavalrymen fighting other cavalrymen in which old-fashioned gallantry still serves a practical purpose in which that romantic image lives on allows him to succeed. For that reason he becomes extremely popular. He didn't just win battles. He did it in a way that captures an older idea of America that people felt was slipping away. At the same time that he's leading a gallant charge against a Confederate charge on horseback, and fighting with a sword, at that very moment Pickett was leading the mass infantry attack, Confederate infantry attack on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. And what happened? Mass rifle fire and mass artillery fire wipe them out. They died by the thousands. And they went forward with all the traditional marshal values, the traditional virtues. You know, neatly lined up with their flags in front of them. And they were crushed. Individual heroics are being wiped out. So the Civil War gives rise to Ambrose Bierce, one of the darkest America writers who came out fighting the Civil War convinced that death comes from everyone at random, sometimes playing cruel practical jokes on human beings. You have Oliver Wendell Holmes whose idea bled out of him through the bullet hole in the neck, who comes out and becomes one the great realists of American law. You have people who didn't fight like Mark Twain and Henry Adams of which darker, more ironic sensibility. Or Henry Adams' brother, who is now forgotten but at the time a very important 19th Century intellectual who fought in the cavalry and who developed a much darker and cynical world view as a result. But Custer is an outlier. He's a man who actually has all of his illusions reinforced by the Civil War. This is important to remember. In the international Archives, by looking beyond just the battle records, we see Custer in another role, the institutional man, the organizational man. And the record is full of reprimands from his superiors, especially General Kilpatrick. Custer, for example, would go over the head of his division commander to appeal directly to his patron. And he's getting written reprimand saying you are supposed to go through the chain of command; don't go around your division commander. He loves his old friends from West Point who are now on the other side. He's constantly calling truces to go socialize with his pals on the enemy side. Kilpatrick is saying you've been told before you are not to fraternize with the enemy. They are the enemy. We are having a war. And this is something Custer is constantly being told not to do. And this is a theme that runs throughout his life. His difficulty as functioning as a member of a hierarchal organization in a sense as a member of a bureaucracy or a large institution, dealing with chains of command, dealing with the institutional requirements, being able to manage subordinates and being able to meet his duties as the required by superiors. And that's something that comes up later on that I'll get to in a moment. He also confronts in the Civil War the true meaning of the Civil War. Actually, the Battle of Gettysburg and during the pursuit, when the fighting guy's down, he goes to a contraband camp as the Union Army called escaped slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation to justify not returning escaped slaves to Southern slaveholders. They said they're contraband of war. That became the nickname for escaped slaves, contrabands. He found a young woman who was a teenager, Eliza Brown. And Eliza Brown had worked on a large farm, not quite a plantation, slave-holding farm in Northern Virginia. She had managed to work inside the master's house. She had been a cook and domestic servant. And she escaped. And Custer found her. He hired her to be his personal cook. Well, what happened is that Eliza Brown wasn't merely a cook, wasn't merely a servant. She was someone who both believed in the cause and she said later on not everyone who fought carried a musket. And she also saw the possibilities for her as someone who had never had personal safety, someone who had never had any authority within the larger world outside of the slave quarters, seizes this opportunity as the personal servant and cook to the general who is in command of her brigade. And she begins to trade information. She literally butters up, or butters up biscuits, for visitors from higher level headquarters and squeezes information out of them, which she spreads. She becomes a figure of trust within the brigade. Soldiers would come to her and leave her money and valuables and ask her to intercede with Custer for this special request. She builds her own patronage network distributing food out of the general's mess to other contrabands. This is someone who sees an opportunity and seizes it. But what happens? Custer gets married to a remarkable woman, well educated, very intelligent, very charming woman named Libby Bacon, becomes Libby Custer. And she goes to the front and she finds there's already a woman in her husband's house who is running things. Now, even though with a cook and a servant she wasn't expected to do the work, Libby was supposed to be in charge of the domestic affairs. That's the narrow slice of authority women were allowed by 19th Century society. And she finds this young black woman who has got control of it already. And Eliza Brown does not want to give up that authority. So Eliza Brown now, her number one survival adaptation in life is being able to deal with white people who have all the outward power. And she very adroitly develops a relationship with Libby Custer where she takes care of her, creates favors with her. She builds her up as an ally and yet she very adroitly keeps her out of the kitchen. And Libby Custer in her memoirs comes up with various excuses for this. You know, I didn't know anything about dish water or the general forbade me to do anything in the kitchen. It was an attempt to explain away the fact that she was being outmaneuvered by this young black woman. And over time there becomes more and more of a power struggle. As Libby Custer realizes that this narrow slice of authority is being denied to her by a woman who is much more adroit in this relationship than she is, and the tension begins to build. That tension comes to a head -- not to a final head but it comes to an early climax in Louisiana and Texas where Custer is deployed at the end of the Civil War. He was now a national hero. He had played a key role in major victories in Virginia in 1864 and in 1865. He followed Sheridan, his new patron, the commander of the cavalry corps after Pleasanton in the Army of the Potomac. And Sheridan goes to Texas to occupy a state that had not been occupied before. Eliza Brown tries to educate the Custers about the impact of slavery. She takes them into the slave quarters. She introduces them to people who got the scars of hundreds of whippings on their back. Custer is moved by it. He has a lot of respect for Libby -- for Eliza Brown. He writes to his father-in-law, "You know, the nation will always owe a debt of gratitude to the Civil War for ending this terrible scourge of slavery." And yet, when he is in Louisiana and Texas, he feels the need to cultivate the local elites. This is a man who, again, is a product of border state culture. He's a very Southern-looking man even though he's a man of the North. He's someone who has very deep, conservative ideals. He's a Democratic Party partisan. And he's also someone who yearns to be accepted by the elite, by the people at the top of society. He craves it. And who are at the top of society in the South? Who makes a point of cultivating him? It's the white planters. It's the people who had been in charge of Texas which had never been occupied by Indian troops, as I said, during the war, has no sense that it's been defeated in which slavery has grown stronger. At the beginning of the Civil War there were I think 275,000 slaves in Texas. But since it was seen as a safe zone where Union armies were not penetrating, other slave holders sent slaves into Texas. So by the end of the war the number had increased to 400,000. Slavery grows stronger during the Civil War in Texas. And this is the world Custer goes into. He's also very skeptical of the fact that the Army is now in charge of enforcing law and order and justice in the zones that it's occupying. This is an area that's held in the grasp of war, to use the term that they used at the time. Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson, appointed a provisional governor, Governor Hamilton, who writes to Custer's superior, the man who is in charge of Horatio Wright, the general who was in charge of the military occupation. And he says, "There's scarcely a day that I'm not informed of a homicide committed upon a freedman. The manifestation of a settled purpose on the part of the military authorities of the government to promptly punish such offenses by a few examples in proper cases would have a most happy effect." Again, this is from the National Archives. It's almost as if he had Custer's case in mind. Quote, it must be obvious to you, General, as it is to me, that we cannot depend upon the civil authorities of our state for some time yet to deal out justice to evildoers. So violence after emancipation is rampant in Texas upon the freed people. And Custer has one of the most egregious cases imaginable on his hands, the murder of a child for the crime of going to see her mother. Custer has the boy in his custody. He thinks about it. He thinks about his beliefs. And a man who is capable of great respect across the color line in personal relationships can't escape his bigotry and his belief that the federal government should have nothing to do with it, that there is, in fact, a biological racial hierarchy, and he lets the boy go. He turns him over to the civil authorities who were still the ones in charge during the Confederacy and they, of course, immediately release the boy. It's a disheartening moment when we see Custer plunging toward the first of the great crises of his life as he goes too far with his beliefs. He wrote to his father-in-law about this time that negro troops are being mustered out rapidly. Of course, they had been recruited by the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, for the Union Army. He said, and I hope will continue to be mustered out until the last of the race has laid down the musket and taken up his more appropriate implement, the shovel and hoe. There are white men who are willing and anxious to fill up the Army to any limit desired. They should get the preference. I'm in favor of elevating the negro to the extent of his capability and intelligence but in making this advancement I'm opposed to doing it by correspondingly reducing or debasing any portion of the white race. This is, of course, an argument Johnson makes when he vetoes the Civil Rights Act, that somehow it discriminates against whites. "As to entrusting the negroes of the Southern states with that sacred privilege, the right of suffrage, I should soon think of elevating an Indian chief to the Popedom of Rome." It's a two-for-one racial insult if you think about it. "All advocates of negro suffrage should visit the Southern states and see the class of people upon whom they would desire to further privilege." This is a moment when the idea of political equality is being talked about in which the 14th Amendment is being drafted in which the idea of not simply that African Americans should be fee but they should be a of the American policy is play and Custer is opposed to. A lot of the Army officers felt that way. If Custer had left it at that, it would have been one thing but he didn't. He returns from Texas, testifies before the joint committee on Reconstruction, actually quite honestly about the violence in Texas, inflicted upon the freed people, about how the former Confederates are not willing to surrender in spirit, even if they have it technically. And yet he soon realizes that there's a battle going on between Republicans in Congress who want civil rights legislation from President Andrew Johnson who is increasingly opposed to it. And he sides with Johnson. And when Johnson -- when General Grant appoints Custer to the -- the 9th Cavalry, one of the new regiments of black troops in the regular Army, a regiment, I should note that goes on to have an extremely distinguished record in the West and afterward in American military history, Custer refuses. As we know from records from the National Archives, he writes to President Johnson directly over Grant's head, once again skipping over the chain of command, and says I only want to serve with white troops. Johnson recognizes an ally. And Custer, a national celebrity, joins Johnson on a grand political tour called the swing around the circle in 1866. And merely -- more than merely being a figurehead, he actually gives speeches. He defends Johnson against hecklers. He fully throws himself as a serving regular Army officer into the political fray. And this is where Custer becomes controversial for the first time, not over his actions against Native-Americans but, rather, his actions in the realm of race, equality, freedom, and the consequences of emancipation. That's where Americans begin to divide over him. A man who had been a great national hero and celebrity now is corned by much of the public. There's much more to it than that but that is -- first point where we see it. Johnson, the democrats are defeated. Johnson loses his effort. And Custer goes west. He goes into a personal crisis that I think is kind of driven by this. He enters into his first campaign against American Indians. And as fascinating in many ways, one, having nothing to do with Custer, is the fact that he sits in on councils being held between General Winfield Scott Hancock who leads this first great expedition that Custer joins on the Great Plains. He's conferring with Cheyennes and the Great Plains. They're explicitly telling him what the crisis is. Even before settlers began to move in under the Great Plains and occupy lands that the high plains nations counted as their own, the migration through their territory was eroding the environmental basis for their lifestyle. Because you had the California gold rush, the great migration to Oregon, the Colorado gold rush. And you had thousands of migrants moving across the Great Plains. So what do they do? They go along the river bottoms. They follow the river valleys. Only 7% of the land mass -- land area of the Great Plains. Absolutely critical to the wintering of the great bison herds and also the great horse herds that the Indians have. And it's being rapidly degraded by these migrants moving through, cut downing timber, destroying the grazing, polluting the water. The Army sets up post at the most resource-rich spots. And that leads to further degradation. And they explicitly say you're cutting down timber. You're making the water unusable, etc. And the Army doesn't understand it. And they say, well, listen, you've got to let our people move through. They're talking passed each other. So it's an interesting thing. It has nothing to do with Custer's personal biography but that you find in the National Archives the records of these negotiations in their own words and how they're talking passed each other. And Custer himself doesn't quite grasp. His first year in the Great Plains is a disaster. He's, again, going through personal crisis. He's now seen as notorious as well as a celebrity. He's in a crisis with his wife. His relationship with his wife is fascinating and complex. His desire for attention from women, again that insecurity, constantly creates crisis in his marriage. He goes off and gets humiliated by the Cheyennes on the Great Plains and he finally gives up the campaign and rides back to meet his wife and is court martialed and convicted. His wife, by the way, goes through a fascinating crisis of her own when Fort Riley, where Custer had been posted is suddenly denuded of white troops and a black regiment moves in and Libby Custer, her own memoirs, get really ugly. She's terrified she's going to be raped by a black man. And she relies upon Eliza Brown to protect her. It's a really interesting, revealing, and not very flattering picture of Libby Custer both on a frontier in space and also a frontier in time, dealing with the new America in which African Americans are playing a public role that she is not prepared for. And Eliza Brown is right there saying: What are you talking about? And, of course, for her it's a great moment of finally she's living in a black community again. She has a rich social life again. And here is her employer who is going nuts, purely out of racist reaction that I think also reflects the crisis in the marriage. So you know, this is a well-known story. Custer is convicted. The records in the National Archives are very interesting. I quote from them in that respect. But something that people don't realize is that Custer was nearly court martialed again. He couldn't accept the fact that he had been convicted. This is not Custer luck. This is not the way that he's use to the being treated. Rules have always been broken for him. He's always been able to avoid the usual institutional process. And when he's convicted, quite rightly, even though he's only suspended for a year, he can't take it. He writes a letter to the press saying it's a trumped up prosecution and that everybody agrees that he should never have been convicted. So we find in the records of the National Archives the judge advocate general writing to General Grant saying, you know, everybody believes that he should be court martialed again. He's refusing to accept the validity of the institutional process, of military justice within the Army. He's lashing out. He's brittle. He's defensive. It's that insecurity in Custer that makes a crisis worse. So Sheridan intervenes. He says I know what he did is wrong. It really offends me, too. Please don't do that. I actually want him back in duty. Finally Custer gets called back in duty to do what? Fight a battle. A battle that's very controversial that I talk about in the book. As far as Sheridan is concerned, Custer fights well and he fights this battle well. That's what saves him from himself, his ability to fight, the thing that we think of him as being so bad at. Now, after the conclusion of this campaign -- I'm going to move swiftly forward because I want to have time for questions. Custer engages in a lot of other areas that I talk about in my book. He goes to Wall Street. He spends a total of about two years in New York after Civil War. He loves the cosmopolitan center. He loves the theater. He loves literature. He loves fine art. He tries to float a silver mine that he had invested in Colorado on Wall Street. He has no interest in running the mine. Just wants to float the stock and sell out and make a killing. And he does a terrible job of it. So he's a celebrity. He sees the world. He's celebrated on Wall Street. He's treated to fancy dinners. He sees the wealth. He wants to take part in the new corporate economy. But he doesn't grasp it. He can't master it. And that's Custer living on this frontier in time, wanting to engage with the new world yet very much a man of an older world that's beginning to disappear, unable to master the way the world is changing. He finds some success as a popular writer, actually. He goes on to write articles for one of the new national magazines. And he tries to project himself as a public intellectual writing about the Great Plains, its natural history and then writes his memoir. It's a very romantic style. It's very, very different from Henry Adams who takes over the North America review and gives orders that sound like something an editor would say today. Henry Adams says, you know, cut out all unnecessary words, especially adjectives. It's like straight out of, you know, your creative writing 101. Custer meanwhile is trying to cram in as many unnecessary words as possible. So you know, he's somewhat popular but it's still outdated, an older style. That's Custer, that older sensibility. Then something else happens during this hiatus from the West. He's deployed to Kentucky. When I was in the National Archives, I was reading the post records. I saw Libby said, "The 7th Cavalry was broken up and distributed around the South to fight the Ku Klux Klan but that was all in the Deep South so we didn't have anything to do in Kentucky." Well, I saw that his men were being detailed constantly, two, three at a time, to aid the assistant U.S. marshal in going on arrest raids. I thought, what is he doing? So I asked an Archivist where are the records I could find of the U.S. marshal. He said, try archives II in College Park, and look into the U.S. attorneys records. So I looked into it and I found, in fact, that there was a massive offensive being carried out by the Department of Justice which itself was new against the Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky. In fact, Klan violence in Kentucky in the early 1870s was rampant, wife. You had a government that was not state government not covered by the Reconstruction Acts like the Deep South was. So the actual -- governmental apparatus of Kentucky was in league with the Ku Klux Klan. So there's rampant violence going on, murders taking place. And Custer wants nothing to do with it. He wrote a report, a sarcastic report. He was very unhappy at the time. He was asked to report on his little post that he commanded in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. He reports on the number of rounds they have, how often they drill, whether the new recruits speak English. That is a man with a gambling addiction. He writes, in his official report, in responding to an inquiry, "Exactly what meaning is intended to imply to the word gambling which is construed differently by different persons," he asks. "I'm at a loss to understand. If by gambling the act of betting money or risking it on games of chance are contests of speed between horses, and if among games of chance are included that usually known as poker and similar games, my answer is that so far as my knowledge and belief extend, none of the officers of this command have an addiction to gambling except the commanding officer. And he is addicted to it only so far as neither to interfere with his duties, violate any rule proprietary, nor mettle with other people's business." It's an official report. It's as sarcastic as hell. And then he goes on -- it's brittle. Again, that wordy style we begin to see, that defensiveness, that brittle report in a seas of discontent. But then he includes a statement which is explicitly directed against this duty of hunting the Klu Klux Klan. He says, "The only means and facilities for physical exercise by enlisted men are those enjoyed at drill and on fatigue duty and in escorting deputy U.S. Marshals through the country of which methods I regard the first two as highly preferable." He doesn't believe the Army should be involved in any legal matters. And he doesn't believe the government should be prosecuting the Klan. We know from other letters that he apparently wrote to friends in Britain that he actually sympathizes with the Klan. He spends a lot of time, again, with the elite civilians in Kentucky and he very much takes their side. So this is a man who in the first age, sadly truncated age of civil rights enforcement, Custer opposes it. And even though that's a view that is very popular with a large percentage of Americans, it is very much the view of an older America. And Custer is wedded to it. Lucky for him he goes off on the expedition of 1873. But, again, going through the National Archives, not just looking at this from high-profile events, you see that Custer is seen as a problem officer within the institution of the Army. They talk about him as someone they can't get along with. There's a dispute that blows up over really nothing. But people are writing about how we can't work with this guy. They don't trust anything he says. It's about whether they need more supply wagons or what not. But nobody believes Custer because he's such a problem officer in the view of the Army, the institutional opinion of the Army. He goes off on the Yellowstone expedition escorting a surveying party for the Northern Pacific Railroad, one of the second wave of transcontinental railways through Lakota country. He's got a brewing fight with his commanding officer, Colonel Stanley. And Stanley's writing about Custer's reputation and how he's living up to his reputation as a problem officer. He has Custer arrested briefly. And Stanley gets drunk. And Custer is talking to a friend of his about how he might have to arrest Stanley, which would be mutiny. And there's obviously the tension between the two is brewing to a boiling point. But what happens? He has two battles with the Sioux and performs very well. Something we have to remember when we get to the Little Bighorn. He is not impetus. He correctly reads an ambush of the kind that led to the defeat by the Sioux during Red Cloud's War. He reads it and avoids it. He keeps his men well in hand. He's not reckless and impetus. He doesn't win a crushing victory in these two battles but, you know, he drives off the Sioux in a very dangerous position for himself and forms quite well. Stanley is writing about how proud he is of Custer. So once again Custer has created a crisis for himself. Unable to work within an institution of the Army, unable to catch on to the changing times. But he has a chance to fight. And that's what saves him from himself. Well, he plunges himself into one more great crisis. When there is a revolutionary election in 1874, the Democrats come into control of the House of Representatives and they do something which may be familiar to you. They launch a wave of investigations of the administration. They call on Custer to testify. As I point out, prosecutors or committee chairmen don't call witnesses unless they know what they're going to say. Somehow Custer has been in touch with them. Custer, the partisan democrat. And so Custer testifies about corruption in the grant administration which he doesn't know about personally. But he doesn't simply do that. He goes to lunch with the Democratic congressmen. He sits at their desks on the floor of the House of Representatives, writing letters to his wife on Democratic stationary. A highprofile regular Army officer openly allying himself with the political opposition to the Commander In Chief. Something the Army would not tolerate today. But Custer does it. And President Grant is a little upset about this. And I think justifiably, actually. So he says Custer cannot be the field commander of the 7th Cavalry in an upcoming campaign to drive in the Sioux so that the government can seize control of the Black Hills. Again, Custer sees his chance to save himself from this crisis. A chance to fight, escaping him. He becomes desperate. He pleads. He manages to get General Terry, his immediate superior to plead for him. And finally, reluctantly, Grant allows him to be put back in command of his troops and to go off to fight in an attempt to save himself one last time from a crisis that he's created for himself. By that time the situation had changed. The Lakotas and Cheyennes -- they are the ones I think that deserve the credit for that victory. In dismissing Custer as an arrogant fool, we can diminish the magnitude of that victory not simply in numbers but fighting skill and the most amazing combination of tactical leadership among the Lakotas especially. They defeat Custer. Custer lost. He made mistakes. But they won. And Custer rode into something he couldn't luck his way out of and couldn't outfight -- fight his way out of. And Custer's luck finally ran out at the Little Bighorn. The reason that was such an event for Americans is not simply the scale of the defeat. That's very true. Not simply that the cream of the American Army such as it was was wiped out by a bunch of preindustrial nomads, but that it was led by this great, beloved, notorious celebrity whom Americans had put so much meaning on as they argued and fought over the nature of America, over our basic values, over the direction the country was taking. Custer symbolized all of those things during his lifetime. And then he died. And now he takes on new symbolic meaning. Still as controversial as ever and yet in that bright sunlight of Little Bighorn we can forget all of the great crises that ran through his life and all of the meaning that he had for his fellow Americans and how much his life tells us about the way our country is that exists now came into being. Thank you very much. >> [Applause] >> T.J. Stiles: If you have any questions -- if you don't, I'll just keep talking for another 15 minutes. There are two microphones on the side. Please feel free to come up and ask even if it's completely unrelated to anything I've said so far. >> You mentioned on several occasions that Custer fought well. I had heard that he was careless with his soldiers in battle. Is that true? Have you found any evidence of that? >> T.J. Stiles: No. I have think it was more that he was careless with his soldiers out of battle actually. In battle he was an aggressive commander but he did not recklessly throw his men's lives away. And during the Civil War, remember, this is a people's war. He fought with volunteers who went off to work as they wanted to win. When Custer was put in command from his regiment took command of the division, the men wrote things like now we can expect to win though it's going to cost us. Winning requires attacking and that's going to cost lives but they wanted to win. They liked him because he won. The situation where he actually was much less loved by his men is when he's got to manage rather than lead. And Custer actually had conflict with his division commander. Kilpatrick was reckless. He ordered Custer to make charges when Custer didn't want to. He got one of Custer's fellow brigade commanders killed when he ordered a reckless charge on the last day of Gettysburg on another part of the battlefield. But when Custer was in charge of just maintaining discipline, of volunteers after the war when they wanted to go home or of these underpaid, often recent immigrant soldiers in the regular Army who deserted in double-digit percentages every year, that required real tact in management skill. And there custard did not feel confident. He was a young man who rose to high rank in his 20s. He didn't have the confidence to maintain stability and the tact required of long-term management as opposed to combat leadership. So he often lashed out with incredibly harsh discipline, shaving heads, ordering whippings which were actually illegal. It was really something. His harshness toward his men in peacetime was something that really earned him a lot of controversy and I think deservedly so. >> I've done a lot of research on the medical aspects, battle of the Little Bighorn and Henry porter. So in doing the research for that, I got some research on the battle. And why Custer was not in charge. Isn't it true that basically what really got him in trouble, he was testifying before the committee investigating the Department of Indian Aaffairs being run by Orville Grant? And when you testify against the President's brother, you're in trouble already. I think that's one of the things that really got him in trouble, that he testified against the President's brother. As far as the military skill and winning that battle, you know, it was 200 versus 2,000 basically. And Custer had intelligence from I think Bloody Knife who told him from the crow's nest, General, I've been doing this 30 years and there's more Indians out there than I've ever seen. And Custer just said, I don't see them. And he wouldn't see it. I think he blinded himself to what he was facing. He thought he was attacking the end of the Indian village and he was attacking the middle. >> T.J. Stiles: Two things about that. First question -- the first point you made regarded --say it again? >> [Inaudible] >> T.J. Stiles: That's right. Orville Grant was President Grant's brother, was not in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs but he was -- what had happened was he was trying to profit, clearly. And, in fact -- as the great biographer William McFeely points out, Grant more than one time had to reprimand Orville because he was trying to profit off his connection with Grant. >> His dad, too. >> T.J. Stiles: And not just the fight against Orville but Grant had had a series of scandals and political wounds that had been inflicted upon him. And by the time that that committee was launching its investigation, Grant really felt besieged in general in that he really felt betrayed by Benjamin Bristow who interestingly is the guy who was helping to coordinate the offensive against the Klan when he was solicitor general. But Benjamin Bristow came into his administration and began to attack other parts of Grant's administration. There was a whole consolation of politics that I go into that surrounds Custer's testimony, that helps explain -- it's more than just he testified against Orville Grant. It's also that -- you know, here is a serving regular Army officer who was taking part in what Grant saw as a very partisan -- very much partisan witch-hunt. That's the way Grant saw it. He felt very defensive and besieged by that point. And also, frankly, like I said, I think Custer went far beyond any formal duties in being called to testify honestly. He really was a partisan. He was acting as one. He was feeding information to "The New York Herald." I think he was probably actually writing articles against the Grant Administration at the time. He deserved to be pulled off his duty, frankly, I think, even though Grant was very defensive. >> He was sort of right, though about what was going on in the Department of Indian Affairs. >> T.J. Stiles: Yes -- yes and no. That's a whole other story. There was definitely a lot of substance to it. But that gets us down to another swamp. >> [Laughter] >> T.J. Stiles: As far as the battle goes, you know, Custer was happy that there were tons of Indians there. I quote the last telegram that Terry received the day before they marched out from General Sheridan. He said -- he said -- Sheridan said your column I believe to be equal to any number of Indians that it may run into. Let's see. I can quote it exactly here. Here we go. He says to Terry, General Sheridan, "You must rely on the ability of your own calm for your best success. I believe it to be fully equal to all the Sioux which can be brought against it and only hope they will hold fast to meet it. You know the impossibility of any large number of Indians keeping together as a hostile body for even one week." So, you know, when there were a huge number of Indians, you have to remember that it was at a population censor. It was a village. All of Custer's experience, they would be frantic to defend their non-combatants. So he wanted to reach them before they escaped. That was the big concern. >> Oh, I know. Yeah. >> T.J. Stiles: So -- and so, in fact, when the translator testified at the inquire, he said Custer wants to make sure you don't let go of any trails, even the small ones. He wanted to make sure he got everyone. He said, "He'll find plenty of Sioux, believe me; you won't have to worry about that." So Custer was warned but he didn't believe it would be more than they could handle. No one in the Army believed there would be more than he could handle. >> [Multi-voice overlap] >> T.J. Stiles: If he had held his regiment together and attacked in one mass, probably he would have had a defeat like crook at the rose but shortly before. There would have been a standoff at best and they would have had to retreat. But he might have survived. >> I don't want to take too much time but do you think he did that just because he didn't want Reno and -- to get any glory? >> T.J. Stiles: No. I think he thought it was best so they could not escape and so that he could carry out a two-pronged attack. I think that's why he divided up his men. I think that's very -- it makes sense in light of a lot of his other experience as an Indian fighter. Clearly made a mistake. He underestimated the enemy. But it's not like it was some craziness. People say: Was he crazy? Was there some wild, emotional state? No. He acted logically according to his past experience and his past experience did not apply in this. He didn't realize that. Yes, sir? >> Since the battle was going to be my question, I'll give you a different one. What happens to the marriage? >> T.J. Stiles: Well, what's interesting about the marriage is that -- there's a letter that is known by historians that I sort of highlight in a slightly different way. In 1869 there was yet another crisis in the Custer marriage. Custer wrote to his wife a very distraught letter. He had gone off yet again to New York without her. He wrote back and said, you know, I can barely write this letter because my eyes are filled with tears. They had had a huge fight at the Southern Hotel in St. Louis. What happens is that, you know, Custer has created yet another crisis in his marriage by, you know, gambling and by his dalliances with other women. And to the extent -- whether they were affairs, for the most part, whether they were affairs or merely extreme flirtations, it's hard to say. There's very good evidence that he actually slept with a southern Cheyenne woman who was a captive usually referred to as Mo-nah-se-tah. There's good evidence he was sleeping with her. And Libby was interestingly particularly interested to meet this young woman when she showed up at the camp. So Libby is dealing with the fact that her needy husband is -- wants female attention and he's also gambling. They had a huge fight over it. In this letter he says, "My eyes are filled with tears. I know I used a profane word with you at the Southern Hotel. You told me I can't reform myself and stop gambling but I tell you I can." Then he says something really interesting. He says, you know, "Your manner toward me has been merely mechanical for a while now. You haven't shown me any real warmth. And I know you used to feel sincerely love me. I know you used to feel that way. I'm desperate for you to feel that way again." So this is a guy who all of his flaws are creating crises in his marriage and yet the letter reflects the fact that he's also emotionally attuned to his wife and that, you know, he needs her desperately. And she needs him as well. There's real passion in their marriage. And real sexual passion. There's real, you know -- the letters they wrote to each other really totally belie the stereotype of Victorian ideas about sexuality and intimacy. They're very sexually intimate. He has to reprimand her during the Civil War for the letters of double -- a couple of times his letters got captured by the Confederate who had great fun with him. So this passion and the sensitivity they had -- that he had toward her is the other side of his personal flaws. It's why she takes him back. That he is attuned to her. That he does love her. He does need her. That he's not just, you know, yelling at her and walking away and expecting her to follow him. This is a real emotional, complicated emotional relationship between the two of them. That was a real part of the point of writing this book. With Custer, even though he's so well written about, there's so much material that really gets at his interior state and that also bring the women in his life to the foreground and the relationships with each other. In a way that's often very difficult in the 19th Century. Some women, their letters are preserved in a lot of cases with prominent men. The women, you know, they're there but you don't know what they're thinking and writing. Libby Custer is not only a good memoirist but she saved everything. She produced volumes of letters herself. So the amount of information about them and their intimate relationship and the relationship between Libby and Eliza Brown and other people is very much a part of the book. What happens is when he dies, she finds out that he left her with a $9,000 debt from his gambling on the stock market. As I point out, that's larger than the annual salaries of the presidents of the nation's largest corporations. It's a big debt. And also she has to fight with his life insurance company because he had gone out on the Great Plains at the ends of May and he didn't pay his June premium. They said, well, he didn't pay his June premium so it's invalid. It's like, really? So she has to fight and fight and get people to compromise. She's left with barely anything afterwards. There's not much of a pension. She has to go to work as a secretary. She finally gets a little bit of money from the final settlement of her father's estate that allows her to quit her job so she can write her first volume of her memoir. It becomes a bestseller of she becomes a public speaker. She begins to do well. And then that leads her to have a reunion with Eliza Brown who she had fired out on the Great Plains when she finally got fed up with the fact that Eliza Brown outmaneuvered her for six years. And her meeting with Eliza Brown is the way I conclude the book. Interestingly, her second memoir is by far the best because it benefits from this reunion in which she uses Eliza Brown's memories and recollections to enrich her book. And Eliza Brown emerges as a real full character in that second memoir and makes it, by far, the best of the three books that she wrote about their lives together. So, you know, she goes on and becomes a public speaker and a public figure. She does much more than merely protect her husband's image which she does. And she also manages her money very well. This was pointed out to me by Shirley Lecky Reid, Libby's biography and very good scholar. And she points out that Libby invested money in real estate in Bronxville, New York, a developing wealthy suburb of New York city. She manages her money far better than the men in her life had, her father, her husband. So she ends up being quite comfortable by the end of her life. Though she never remarries. She has no children. One of the great painful aspects of her life. She always wanted children. She never had them. Historians suspect that Custer himself was probably infertile because he got gonorrhea at West Point. And then not only that but they treated gonorrhea in those days by doing things like injecting you with mercury in places that have to do with reproduction. So between the two, there's a good chance that he was infertile. So she never had children. And she's a fascinating character. Shirley Lecky, the book is out under her previous name, Shirley Lecky, really wrote a good book. If you're interested in her, it's the book to go to. Any other questions? Thank you very much. >> [Applause]


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