Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Custer Recounts a "Field Expedition" against the Confederates

Headquarters Army Of The Potomac, Aug. 8th, 1862.

Dear Brother And Sister :

I received your letter of the 30th in due time, and found it quite interesting. I received it in the evening about dark, and would have answered it at once, but my horse was saddled and standing in front of my tent ready for me to mount.

I had returned the preceding day from a successful field expedition across the river, and was about to start upon another. My regiment formed a part of the troops that were to go. As we were to start at two o'clock in the morning, I deemed it best to join the regiment in the evening, and be ready to accompany them in the morning. Our force was not a large one, consisting of about three hundred cavalry and four guns (horse artillery) under the command of Colonel Averill. Our object was to go about twenty miles to " White Oak Swamp " and surprise a regiment of cavalry stationed there.

We arrived in sight of the enemy about eleven o'clock. I was the first to discover them. Our cavalry at once prepared to charge them, and away we went, whooping and yelling with all our might. The rebels broke and scattered in all directions, we following as fast as our horses could go. As soon as we came close enough, we began firing at them with our revolvers. Quite a number of them surrendered when they saw that their escape was cut off; others, who had good horses, were not of this way of thinking, but continued the race. I was mounted on my " black " who seemed to enjoy the sport as well as his master.

During the chase I became separated from all the command except a bugler boy of my company, who was at a short distance from me, but concealed from my view by bushes. I heard him call out " Captain ! Captain !" I could not see him but called to him, asking what was the matter. He replied, " here are two seccsh after me." I put spurs to my horse and started in the direction of his voice. I found him with his carbine in his hand, trying to keep off two secesh cavalry who were trying to capture or kill him. I drew my revolver and dashed at one of them, telling the bugler to manage the other. They both clapped spurs to their horses as soon as they saw me. I followed one, the bugler the other, and away we went down the hill. My horse was the fastest . I kept gaining on him until I was within ten steps, when I called out for him to surrender. He paid no attention to me, so I fired twice at him with my revolver. This brought him to a halt. I again pointed my revolver at him, and told him if he did not " surrender at once, I would kill him." He had a short rifle in his hand, and hesitated a moment whether to surrender or fire at me. He chose the former, and handed me his gun. I then made him ride in front of me until I placed him in charge of a guard.

Lieutenant Byrnes, of my regiment, myself and about ten men, then started out again. We had not gone far until we saw an officer and fifteen or twenty men riding toward us with the intention of cutting their way through and joining their main body. When they saw us coming toward them however, they wheeled suddenly to the left, and attempted to gallop around us. Byrnes called out, " Custer, you take the right hand and I'll take the left," which we did, and then followed the most exciting sport I ever engaged in. My pistol was fresh loaded. I recognized the rebel officer by his uniform. He rode in front of his men, and was mounted on a splendid horse. I selected him as my game, and gave my black the spur and rein. If I had been compelled to follow behind him I could never have overtaken him, but instead of doing so, I turned off with the intention of heading him. By this means I came very close to him. I could have fired at him then, but seeing a stout rail fence in front of him, I concluded to try him at it. I reasoned that he might attempt to leap it and be thrown, or if he could clear it so could I. The chase was now exciting in the extreme. I saw as he neared the fence that he was preparing for a leap, and what was more, I soon saw that the confidence he had in his horse was not misplaced, for he cleared the fence handsomely.

Now came my turn. I saw him look around just as I reached the fence, but he certainly derived no satisfaction by so doing, as my black seemed determined not to be outdone by a rebel, and cleared the fence as well as I could wish. By avoiding some soft ground which I saw was retarding him, I was enabled to get close upon him when I called to him to surrender, or I would shoot him. He paid no attention and I fired, taking as good aim as was possible on horseback. If I struck him he gave no indication of it, but pushed on. I again called to him to surrender, but received no reply. I took deliberate aim at his body and fired. He sat for a moment in his saddle, reeled and fell to the ground, his horse ran on and mine also. I stopped as soon as possible, but by this time Byrnes and his party were around me firing right and left.

I joined with them and captured another rebel who had leaped from his horse and endeavored to escape in the woods. We were now some distance from the main body; the colonel became alarmed for our safety, and caused the bugler to sound the " rally " when we were all compelled to join the main body. Before the " rally " was sounded, however, I saw the horse of the officer I had shot, but a short distance from me. I recognized him by a red morocco breast strap which I had noticed during the chase. Four other riderless horses were with him. I rode up to them, and selecting him from the rest, led him off, while the others were taken possession of by others of the party.

Owing to the confusion and excitement of such an occurrence, I was not able to see the officer after he fell from his horse, but Lieutenant Byrnes told me that he saw him after he fell, and that he rose to his feet, turned around, threw up his hands and fell to the ground with a stream of blood gushing from his mouth. I had either shot him in the neck or body; in either case the wound must have been mortal.

It was his own fault; I told him twice to surrender, but was compelled to shoot him. Our party then started to return home, as we were twenty miles from camp, and liable to be attacked at any moment. We did not lose a man of the party; two horses were killed by the rebels; we took about thirty prisoners, and killed and wounded quite a number besides.

My horse is a perfect beauty, a bright bay, and as fleet as a deer. I also captured a splendid double barreled shotgun, with which quite a number of the rebels are armed. I intend to send the shot-gun home to Boston. You may expect to hear "something" from me before long, perhaps we will move our headquarters.

Write soon.

Your affectionate Brother,

George Custer


Trooper York said...

It is always revealing to read the words of historical personages in their own hand.

Custer's work in the Civil War left a record to be envivied, but he would have been forgotten like
Wade Hampton and Randal Mckenzie.

His glorious failure is what lead him to be a figure of legend to the point where he is starring in
"Nighttime at the Museaum" on a par with Teddy Roosevelt.

Isn't that weird?

rcocean said...


It is weird what men go down in history and for what. Look at Custer and Forrest. Custer famous for "Little Big Horn" and N.B. Forrest for the KKK. Yet, Forrest was probably the greatest Calvary Commander the US ever had. And Custer did a lot more than die at "Little Big Horn".

Or WW II. How many remember Simpson, Clark, Truscott, Patch, Krueger, or Hodges? Yet, each had the same rank as Patton, and probably did as much to win WW II.

Trooper York said...

If someone wanted to make a great controversial movie, the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest is the guy to use.

Slave trader, soldier, political agiatator. Man what a story.