Less-well-traveled paths at the National Archives

Today’s guest blog post comes from T.J. Stiles, author of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.

TJ Stiles photo with Custer's Trials book cover

I could not have written my last book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America—nor have won the Pulitzer Prize for it—without the National Archives. But the reason may not be obvious.

George Armstrong Custer’s death at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, forever associates him with the western frontier. But the frontier that truly defined him, the one I refer to in my subtitle, was a frontier in time. He spent his life embroiled in the changes that gave rise to the modern United States, particularly through a career in the Army, which played a key role in creating the nation we know today.

Combat draws most of the attention in Custer’s life, from his starring role in the Civil War, to his controversial attack on Southern Cheyennes at the Washita, to his disastrous last day. Yet I also wanted to understand how Custer functioned within the institution of the Army. There are plenty of sources about battles, but the information I needed on Custer as middle manager could be found only in the National Archives.

In August 1863, for example, only a month after he emerged as a national hero at the head of his cavalry brigade at Gettysburg, he endured a series of reprimands from his division commander, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. Custer provoked Kilpatrick by going outside of the chain of command to communicate directly with Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, chief of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He also held an unauthorized parley with a Confederate colonel, who sent an embarrassing account of the meeting to a newspaper. I discovered these conflicts—small moments that presaged greater trouble to come—in a volume of the 3rd Cavalry Division’s Letters Sent, August 1863–June 1865, in Record Group 393.

A decade later, this kind of conflict appeared again when Custer led the cavalry detachment in the military escort for a survey party of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the Dakota and Montana territories. The expedition’s commander, Col. David S. Stanley, wrote to his wife of his disdain for Custer. At one point Stanley ordered his arrest, and Custer talked dangerously of arresting Stanley in turn—possibly a mutiny—for his superior’s drunkenness. This has always appeared as a kind of personal spat. But a deeper dive into military records reveals that he had developed a nasty reputation within the Army as a problem officer.

When I scrolled through Microfilm Publication M1495 (Special Files of Headquarters, Division of the Missouri, Relating to Military Operations and Administration), I found a brawl between Custer and Department of Dakota headquarters in St. Paul. He demanded more resources for marching his men from Yankton to Fort Rice, the staging point for the Northern Pacific expedition, and complained of other matters. “Custer’s request for wagons is absurd,” General Alfred Terry wrote to his adjutant, O.D. Greene. “He can have made no calculations.” Greene wired back that Custer had sent him “a telegram of ten pages . . . principally fault finding and making unnecessary difficulties in regard to the march. . . . I report it extremely difficult to get along with the present Commander [i.e., Custer].”

Interestingly, another officer investigated and largely backed Custer. But Custer’s reputation within the Army was so bad that his superiors assumed the worst about him. This otherwise pointless squabble tells us that his inability to get along with the chain of command—a problem that first appeared in those August 1863 reprimands—had grown worse over the years. His feud with Stanley reflected his difficulties with the institution of the Army, a personal quirk yet also an echo of the nation’s troubles in adapting to a more organizational future.

In my introduction, I wrote that I was trying to change the camera angle on Custer’s life. I was still interested in the episodes that had been written about so well before, but I wanted to find new significance in them. Thanks to the riches of the National Archives, I could place his high-profile battles and expeditions in a new context, to understand a man and a nation struggling into a new era.

T.J. Stiles received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History for Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Alfred A. Knopf), as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt