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Thank you for listening to the rest is history. For bonus episodes, early access ad free listening and access to our chat community, sign up at restish That's restish I have a very big and exciting announcement. Tom and I will be following in the footsteps of Adele, Jimi Hendrix and Jay Z, or JZ as I call them, to name but a few, because we will be performing at the Royal Albert hall. It's on Friday the 18 October. We will be accompanied by a live orchestra. Don't worry, Tom will not be singing, because what we will be doing is we will be diving into the lives of Mozart and Beethoven, arguably the two greatest composers in history, if you discount Bach. And we will be exploring their music, their lives, how the French Revolution overshadowed Mozart's final years, and how the napoleonic wars played their part in the making of Beta Urban's greatest symphonies. So you've got all that to look forward to.


Tickets are on sale now, and you can, of course, get and on that bombshell, on with the show. Below me, the hillside was covered with dead and dying, and with little clusters where shots still rang out, a few desperate wretches taking as many sioux with them as they could. There were hundreds of figures running, riding, and some just walking across the slope, and they were all Indians. Most of them were hurrying across my front, the struggle still boiling just below the hilltop where Custer's group were dying. There may have been a score of them, I can't tell, standing and lying and sprawling in a disordered mass, the pistols and carbines cracking while the mounted wave of war bonnets and eagle feathers rode round and through and over them, the clubs and lances rising and falling to the yells of hoon, hoon, while galls footmen grappled and stabbed and scalped at close quarters. There was no flag flying, no ring of blue shoulder to shoulder, no buckskin figure with flowing locks and saber. He was one of the still forms in that crawling melee. No, there was just a great hideous scrimmage of bodies like a big side maw when the balls were well hidden.


That was how the 7th cavalry ended. Hail, 7th Cavalry. Yes, Custer was dead, and every man who'd been on that slope with him. So, Dominic, that is the account of the battle of the Little Bighorn in 8th 1876, written by Sir Harry Flashman, one of victorian Britain's most distinguished soldiers. Of course, the fictional creation of George MacDonald Fraser. Yeah, and he wrote that in Flashman and the Redskins. Probably not a title that would pass muster these days?


No, definitely not.


But it describes one of the totemic moments in 19th century history, and particularly in american history, and it's the last great stand of, what do we call them? Harry Flashman calls them the Indians, the plain Indians, the Lakota, the Sioux. The Lakota is what they call themselves. So we will come to the kind of the nomenclature later on in this series. We're going to be looking at the story of Custer, of the Sioux, of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the tragic aftermath. And this is a topic that both of us are passionately interested in, isn't it?


That's a brilliant topic, Tom. So people of our generation will probably remember there was Lady Bird children's history book called the battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer's last stand. And one of the great things about this story is that it is, of course, famous in american historical folklore as the last stand of the 7th cavalry surrounded, butchered. But it's also, to some degree, the last stand of the Lakota, isn't it?


Yeah, absolutely.


It's perceived as being, I suppose, perhaps erroneously, the last stand of an old, you know, centuries old way of life at bay before the forces of modernity.


Kind of a last hurrah as well.




So, I mean, in the american accounts, traditionally, there's been a great emphasis on the horror of the slaughter, and it was terrible. But I always remember a comment made by one of the braves who fought there, called white bull, who said it was a glorious battle. I enjoyed it.




And I think that amid all the tragedy and the horror, one of the reasons why this story kind of does resonate, maybe with children, is that there is the sense that this is what history should be like.


Oh, totally.


It's painted in kind of primary colors.




It's drama, dash, people on horses.




All that kind of thing.




It is pure swashbuckling history, but it also has a kind of, like all great stories, it has a deeper political and historical resonance, because, of course, the news of Custer's defeat at the little bighorn on the great plains that reaches the east coast in the week that the United States is celebrating its centennial.




So we're in 1876, and the story ends up being seen as a kind of the last romantic but also tragic relic of a vanishing age that the United States is poised in this transition point. The frontier is closing. Capitalism, modernity, are carrying all before them. And this is one last moment of the old world, of flowing locks and tomahawks rising and falling and swords and sabers and all that stuff.


So you say flowing locks. Harry Flashman refers to Custer having flowing locks, and he refers to how the 7th cavalry are wearing blue jackets. I mean, actually, neither of those things are true.




Custer has shorn his locks off at this battle. The 7th cavalry are not wearing their blue jackets in this battle. And so the sense of the myth against the slightly more dusty reality is, of course, I mean, that's always what happens in history. But I think it's particularly strong with this and the process of mythologization. I mean, as you say, the fact that the news reaches the east coast on the very day when they're celebrating the centenary of the United States itself, I mean, it's incredible. But also the stories are being pumped out very, very fast. So the first biography of Custer, a complete life of General Custer by Frederick Whittaker, which is published that same December in 1876, and it sums up the way in which he will be commemorated in the United States for decades to come.


To Custer alone.


Was it given to join a romantic life of perfect success, to a death of perfect heroism, to unite the splendors of Austerlitz and Thermopylae, to charge like Murat, to die like Leonidas?


Wow. Yeah.


But that's a perspective that isn't entirely current today in the United States.


No, I don't think it is. And maybe we'll come on to discussing how Custer is now seen as, or in the last 50 years or so, has been transformed from a heroic figure to a sort of embodiment of what people see as the ills of american expansion. And actually, the reality, I think, is a little bit more complicated. So this story, I guess, that the story has three elements which we'll go into. It's a fantastic subject, for the rest is history, actually, because we were able to follow so many threads. So one of them, obviously, is the story of the Lakota and indeed the indigenous people of North America, more generally, the kind of Plains Indians, as they were called at the time, and what happens to them?


Because, Dominic, would you say that? I mean, one of the many fascinations of this story is that just as you have Custer on the one side, you have crazy horse on the other.




And sitting Bull.


And the parallels between their lives in particular are so intriguing.




And in a sense, as Custer's reputation has gone down, crazy horses has gone up.


Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's a huge crazy horse memorial near Mount Rushmore.




Being built, isn't it?


Yeah. Yeah.


And I think that's what makes it so satisfying a story, actually more satisfying even than I was thinking about comparisons with british imperial stories like Rorke's drift or the retreat from Kabul or the death of General Gordon. What arguably makes it even more satisfying as a sort of. As an adventure story is that you have great protagonists on both sides. So we'll come to sitting Bull and crazy horse. It's also a story sort of about deep historical forces, about the advance of american modernity, american capitalism, and so on. And it's about one particular man, which is Custer. Custer is a great character. He is a little bit like some of these characters we've talked about. Napoleon, General Gordon, people who are suffused with a kind of egotism and a drive that propels them into the front pages of the newspapers and into the history books, where other, maybe more talented people have sort of fallen by the wayside.


I mean, Dominic, I have to say that. I mean, one of the characteristics of Custer, and I'm interested to see whether this will stand up to putting him under the microscope, is that there is about him a sense of fun. He seems to have enjoyed himself.




And whether that's a mythological creation or not will be interesting to explore.


It is interesting, I think it's fair to say right at the beginning. What are the things about Custer? Custer is a prankster. We haven't done many sort of pranksters.




He's an absolute Japster, as we will discover. So there's tons of elements. I love stories like this, where you take one eventually and then you start to unpack it. There's the politics of reconstruction. There's the importance of the American Civil War. There's railroads, there's the mass media. There are all of these kinds of things. And when I was reading about it, I was thinking how much, weirdly, this series is like a bridge between two completely unconnected wrestlers. History series.




So on the one hand, last year we did Columbus, and then we did Cortez and the fall of the Aztecs, another adventure story with people with kind of, you know, flowing hair and floppy hats and stuff. So that's, you know, european colonialism and the new world.




The other series is actually Titanic, where we began with gilded Age America, with these great conglomerations, with this sense of, you know, the terrifying Leviathan of american capitalism and Wall street and modernity. And actually, Custer is the bridge between those two stories, because he's kind of inhabiting two worlds, I think. And I think that makes him a really fascinating character because he's trying to be part of the titanic world, the world of Wall street and big business and all of this, as we will see. But the public and the press want him to be a kind of American Cortez, an adventurer, a swashbuckler, a kind of a lone figure battling on the plains, all of that sort of stuff. So I guess we should start with Custer himself, shouldn't we?


Yeah, let's do that.


So Custer is a. He's often seen as this sort of romantic figure, this sort of medieval people call him a gallant knight, a medieval relic, all of this kind of stuff. One of his great biographers, TJ Styles, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book, said he seemed to represent the country's youth as it slipped away, the nation as it had been and never would be again. He was the exaggerated american because that language of knights.


Knights errant. Yes, cavaliers. So another brilliant biographer of Custer, Evan S. Connell, in his book Son of the Morning Star, describes him as this dashing cavalier embedded like a fossil in american folklore.


Yeah, I thought you'd like that.


But, I mean, that's what's said about the Confederacy.






And Custer is fighting for the Union.




So there is a sense in which he, despite being on the winning side in the Civil War, he is kind of bundled up into that sense of.


Totally. He totally is, Tom, as we'll see, his relationship with the Confederacy and the Union and his relationship with the politics of America is a very complicated and convoluted one. But you're absolutely right. He is the union's answer to people like Jeb Stuart, you know, the knight errant of the Confederacy. You know, the Confederacy saw themselves as kind of, you know, living in a Walter Scott world of arthurian knights.


And the same will come to be true of the way that, say, crazy horse is cast. Yes, again, as the last of a romantic breed of noble warrior.


Totally. Totally, Tom. Yes, exactly. That's what makes the antagonism between them, you know, so resonant, so richly symbolic, so satisfying. So Custer, if he isn't the kind of exaggerated American as TJ Styles calls him, it's fitting that he's born in the middle of America, in the middle of nowhere, really. He's born in a place called New Rumley, Ohio. His dad, Tom.


Did he have a beard?


He did, of course. He's very satisfying. He had a beard. His father is called Emmanuel. Hes a blacksmith. Hes a passionate Jacksonian Democrat. So small government, kind of independent yeoman farmers, super patriotic, very populist in the spirits of Andrew Jackson doesnt like interfering federal government, all of that kind of stuff. And Custer imbibes that completely. And its going to be really important in this story because it sets him at odds with some of the people who should have been his natural allies. Theyre also evangelical Christians. Theyre Methodists. And his father, although his father himself was a great lover of practical jokes.


He'S a massive Japester, isn't he?


Yes, but he's also quite a doorman in other respects. He hates the theater and he's always sort of telling his son to think about his soul and stuff like that.


So is his beard, Dominic, a 19th century Methodist beard?




It is Tom.




It's an Ohio Methodist beard.


So the listeners can imagine that.


Yeah, I don't approve of such a beard, but there you go. He wants his son, George Armstrong. Aughty, they call him. They often call him Armstrong Custer when he was a little boy. Couldn't pronounce Armstrong and he said Aughty. And they call him Aughty or Armstrong for the rest of his life. They initially wanted him to be an apprentice to a furniture maker. That didn't work out. Custer was obviously rubbish at lathes or whatever. He goes to live with his sister in Monroe, Michigan, which is just south of Detroit, I think. And that becomes a kind of second home to him and is important later on because it's where he'll meet his wife.




When he's there, he starts doing odd jobs, doesn't he, for the town's leading resident.




Who is a judge.




And this judge, what's he called? Judge Bacon, he will be featuring later in the story, I mean, a tremendous name.


He will indeed.


So Custer ends up, he goes back to Ohio, he becomes a teacher for a little bit, and then at the end of the 1850s, I mean, he's been a completely obscure figure up to this point. He applies to West Point, great military academy at West Point in New York state. And the way that worked was your congressman. Every congressman basically had the right to nominate a young man to the military academy, and usually they would nominate a political client because this is sort of patronage world. And the unusual thing is that Custer is from this very democratic family. But the republican congressman, it's a new party, the Republican Party, an anti slavery party. The republican congressman, John Binghamton, chooses Custer, and people are often wondered why. And basically it seems that it's because of Custer has a habit of interfering with the local girls.


Oh, right. Yes.


So Bingham has a friend called Alexander Holland. Alexander Holland runs an infirmary, and he has a daughter called Molly. And Custer has started seeing Molly secretly. We love her poem. The rest is history.


Yes, we do. We love a poem. And we love a discreet allusion to.




Lewd banter.


I think it's lewd banter, don't we?




So Custer wrote a poem is sweet. I've seen and kissed that crimson lip with honeyed smiles o'erflowing enchanted watch the opening rose upon thy soft cheek flowing. I think that's pretty good, actually, for a teenager.


I like it.


It's not bad. But also there's a letter, a surviving letter, with a lot of bants about Miss Lizzie.




And what do we think Miss Lizzie is?


And he says, yeah, I've done more with her, or rather to her and she to me than any other one. Not accepting your many days acquaintance with her. And if she had a husband, he could not have done but one thing more than I did. And I shall leave you to guess what that was.


He says, do you know, I think if I were a congressman.




You'd get rid of such a man.


And there was a young lad writing to the daughter of a friend about her, Miss Lizzie.




I would pack him off to West Point immediately.


That's exactly what happens. But there is, even at this stage, I think with Custer, a genuine drive, you know, an ambition. He is an ambitious young man. Many of the people we've talked about in rest is history podcast, people like Nelson or Napoleon, they were animated by a frankly quite egotistical sense of ambition. And Custer, I think, has that, too. Later on, he wrote a letter to his wife Libby, and he said, in years long numbered with the past, when I was verging upon manhood, my every thought was ambitious. Not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great.


And on top of the ambition, maybe one of the reasons why he gets the nomination is actually he's very charming, isn't he? He's very impressive, very dashing. He's fun.




And I mean, he's very good looking as well.




He's tall, blonde, blue eyed.


There is actually a girl who says he'd make a lovely girl.




So fans of gender fluidity. There is that.




Well, when he gets to West Point, his classmates call him Fanny.






And you can imagine how at a military academy with boys who are competing to be Marshall.


Yeah, but they also call him cinnamon, don't they? Because he has a hair pomade which smells of cinnamon.


He does. He does. And actually, his friend Tolly McRae said of Custer, you know, he always liked to stand out. You know, there are insecurities, but he doesn't mind being different or looking different.




He is the most romantic of men and delights in something odd. You know, he likes dressing up.


Boy, does he like dressing up.


He totally likes dressing up.


I mean, flamboyant and, dare I say, ludicrous. Costumes will very much be a theme of this, but also this idea. Again, I mean, you know, these parallels, say with crazy horse and the people, he will be fighting this obsession with hair.


Yeah, very true.


The cota wear their hair long. Custer makes a point of wearing his hair long.




Another of the nicknames he gets at West Point is Curly.




And that is one of the. The first names that the man who will go on to become crazy horse has. So it's so resonant, the sense of two extraordinary young men at opposite ends of the country kind of doomed to meet.


Yeah, I think. Absolutely. So Custer goes to West Point. You know, there's a definite boarding school aspect to this, isn't there? I mean, they're in dorms.


People are being tossed in blankets and things.


They're deviling each other and whatever they call it. They're sort of playing all these pranks.


Are they stealing apples?


Yeah, they totally are doing that. They're sneaking out to the tavern. They're going out to meet girls. It's great japes. Now, the great thing for which Custer is notable is he is incredibly badly behaved. So one of his classmates said that Custer once said to him, there are only two points of distinction in the class, the head and the foot, and he couldn't be the head. So he determined that he would support his class as a solid base, going.


To be the worst behaved.


And he accumulates, in four years, one of the worst records in West Point's history, 726 demerits. So black marks and the adjectives that come up says TJ styles again and again in the books are boyish and trifling.


Could I read some of the things for which he would, I think, give a wonderful sense of him, actually. So calling corporal in a boisterous tone of voice. Throwing bread at dinner.




Making boisterous noise in the sink.


Boisterous noise.


And long hair at inspection. So boisterous seems to be the word.




So trifling in ranks, marching in from parade, highly unmilitary and trifling conduct, throwing stones.


I mean, he does sound fun.


He's very fun.


Yeah. Yeah.


He's very fun. And people like him. He's got a thirst for attention. He's funny. He plays pranks on the teachers. He sneaks out.


So there's an excellent one about the spanish class, isn't there?




Where he says, what is class dismissed in Spanish? And so the teacher then says, class dismissed in Spanish? And up Custer goes and leads everyone out.


What a brilliant joke that is, Tom. It is a good joke. So he does all this. He's got a high sex drive. He sees a lot of girls, sneaks out to balls and things. He has a great obsession with what he calls the great sleep, which I will allow you to imagine what that is. He clearly gets gonorrhea at some point at West Point. And this may well have made him infertile because he and his wife have a very active marital life, but no children. And so people have speculated, you know, is this the reason why? The other thing that really occupies him at West Point, I think, is politics, because he has come of age in an era where, you know, the political scene in the United States has become polarized to the point, obviously, of civil war. His father is a Democrat. He is a Democrat. They are quite racist, I think, as a family. People talk again and again about his father's deep antipathy to the negro, and there's no sense that Custer doesn't share it, that he ever goes against it. He gets on very well with boys from the south.


He's in a largely southern company at West Point. His friends are from Texas, Mississippi, and so on. And we know from his letters that in that run up to the 1860 presidential election. So that's the election that will bring Abraham Lincoln to power, and it will split the country on the issue of slavery. Custer absolutely does not want Lincoln to win. He despises Lincoln and the Republicans.


What's his attitude to slavery?


He thinks it's fine. I don't think there's any sense whatsoever that he. He thinks the south has been traduced. He says Republicans are a sexual interest. They are oppressing the south. The South has had insult after insult heaped upon her. He talks about the John Brown.




Moldering in his grave.


Exactly. John Brown, who's the great folk hero to abolitionists. But I hate figure to the south. After his attempt to sort of launch an insurrection at Harper's Ferry, he says John Brown was a disgrace. Southern rights have been trampled. They are suffering northern aggression. He says they reasonably demand that northern abolitionists shall not interfere with their constitutional rights.


So states rights all that kind of thing.


He's a pure states rights guy. But actually, interestingly, you get to November, 1860. Abraham Lincoln is elected. Lots of Custer's southern mates say, right, that's it. We're resigning from West Point. We are going home. War is coming. Independence, succession is coming, and we want to be part of that. Our loyalty is to our state. Custer does not quit. His father is originally from Maryland, which is a kind of border state, and he's grown up in rural Ohio. He, I think, has some sympathy with his southern classmates, but he is a patriotic American. That's a Rubicon, as it were, Tom.


That he will not cross there is also, isn't there? I mean, I remember later in his career when he's on the plains, he sees, I think, the back of a black woman that is scarred with whip marks, and he says, essentially, that's what.


We fought the war for, to stop that.


So it's not like he's completely oblivious to the evils of slavery.




I think the fascinating thing with all this story, Tom, is that everybody is complicated and that actually, if you tell this whole story of the battle of the little big horn as a morality.


Tale in which there's goodies and baddies.


Yeah, goodies and baddies, then you have a problem, because some of the big baddies, as it were, are precisely the people who fought to demolish white supremacy and led the union cause, you know, like General Sherman or General Sheridan. People who are going to be really, you just use esque rant. People are so important in Custer's story. So everybody, I think, is fair to say, has complicated and often very contradictory views about race and about, you know, the future of the United States and all of this kind of business. And Custer is one of them.


He's not simple.


He's not uncomplicated. No, the war is coming. He obviously wants to be part of it because that's what he's trained for. And he has two final japes which basically come very close to ruling him out. Number one, the final exams. Custer, absolutely as could have been predicted, breaks into an office. It's real sort of Billy Bunter behavior. He breaks into an office trying to steal the exam paper and copy the exam paper. The instructor finds out. He changes the questions, but doesn't find.


Out that he's taken it, does he? He finds out that it's been. That the exam has been taken.


Yeah, exactly. So he changes the questions. I mean, it is the stuff of, like, a Harry Potter story or something. He changes all the questions. Loads of them fail. Custer's one of them who fails, and Custer as one of the very few people who is reinstated. Now, why this is, no one ever knows. Custer is lucky, and he's lucky throughout his career. Maybe he's lucky because he's charming, because he's. I don't know. What do you think, Tom?


Yeah, I'm sure that must be part of it. But also, I think that kind of book learning. Yeah, I mean, you need your book learning, but at the same time, you need a sense of swagger and self confidence and dash, which Custer clearly has. And I think that it's what we were talking about at the beginning that people come to admire and even love Custer because they see in him the kind of soldier they would like to be.


Yeah, I think you're right. I think even people who know he hasn't done his work and he's breaking all the rules, they can't help but be drawn to him. He's a magnetic personality.


Yeah. He'll be on his horse with his long golden curls, and it's as though, you know, he's leading the charge at Marston Moor or something. It's that kind of quality.


Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So he does the final exams in the summer of 1861. The war has now really getting underway. He comes, of course, bottom 34th out of 34. He has more demerits than he has correct answers. So he has 192 demerits for the year, which is eight short of the limit to be kicked out. But somehow he's scraped through, and then he contrives to shoot himself in the foot because he's doing some supervision of other cadets. Some of them start to have a fight, and it's the absolutely unbreakable rule that if you're in charge, you break up the fight. Custer says, brilliant. Bring it on. Let's have a ring.


It's so Tom Brown's school days.


It's very, you know, a fair fight, lads.




Meet behind the chapel and the authorities find out he is charged with neglect of duty and conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. And he has a trial. He has a trial on the 5 July 1861. And what is worth noting about this, this is a pattern. This anticipates in a really uncanny way what will happen in the build up to the battle of the little Bighorn.


But not just that, I mean, throughout his entire career, isn't it?




Happens again and again.


He has orders, he ignores them, and everyone says, oh, fine, whatever, and he's.


Actually in real danger, and he begs, just as he does before the battle of the little Bighorn. He begs and begs the authorities. He says, listen, there's a great war going on. There's a battle, and I've trained for this and I want to be part of it to help my friends. And they say, fine. They smile on him. So luck and charm and charisma have saved him, and he is let off. He's given orders to report for duty to Washington, DC. And as we will see in the second half, the civil war then changes his life completely.




It's the making of him.




Okay, so we will be back after the break and we will look at Custer's civil war. See you then.




Welcome back to the rest is history. We are in the first of what is going to be a series of episodes on Custer's last stand. And at the moment, we're looking at the early life of Custer. He has just graduated by the skin of his teeth from West Point. And Dominic, I guess, because his marks were so bad, he's effectively the most junior officer in the whole unionist army, isn't he?


He is. He's absolutely at the bottom. He looks dashing, he's blonde. You know, he's got his kind of flowing hair and stuff. He's tall, but as you say, he comes with a pretty poor cv. And at first, he's really a glorified messenger boy. He sees the first big battle, the battle of Bull Run, which is in July 1861. Manassas, as the Confederates call it, that is a crucial battle because it destroys any hope that there will be a quick end to the war. So the Confederates basically win it, and it ends with Union troops fleeing back to Washington. And after that. So Custer was told to protect this one gun battery, and I think they were almost all wiped out before he.


Could even get out his gun.


And so it's obvious to everybody, God, this is going to be, like, a big deal now. This is going to be like a grueling, brutal campaign.


But again, that is reminiscent of the, I don't know, sport loving public school boy going to the front in the first world war.




And, you know, his brigade being shot all around him before he's even stepped out of the trench. So there's an element to that. But the thing about Custer is he doesn't succumb to it.




I mean, he remains a kind of blaze of color, he does, moving through the gray and blood and smoke and dust. He maintains his sense of dash.


He totally does. I think he always sees himself. There's always an element of Custer that he sees himself as a character in an adventure story, and he's determined to live out that life, as we'll see with his costume later on. So the Union are facing a bigger challenge than they thought. They have to raise, effectively a sort of parallel army, a volunteer army, as well as their regular army. And a lot of people say, well, we'll serve as officers in the volunteer army, not the regulars, because maybe that'll be a quicker way to promotion, be able to rise more quickly. Custer does that. He volunteers to an infantry brigade of the volunteer army. And his luck. Custer is obsessed with this idea of him being lucky, and he falls very, very seriously ill. We don't know with what. This is very common, of course, in the American Civil War. I mean, disease kills thousands upon thousands of people, and Custer somehow pulls through even when he was being written off. And afterwards, he's obsessed with hygiene. So it's very unusual in a swashbuckling.


Hero because his wife says that he goes everywhere with a toothbrush, doesn't he?


He carries his toothbrush, Tom, into battle with him. Yeah, he brushes his teeth in battles. He also, she says, is obsessed with washing his hands. So he would do very well in COVID.


Yes, he would.


He would have impressed people with his hand washing and hand sanitizing routine.


And also the other thing that changes in these early months and which is good for his health is that he gives up alcohol, doesn't he? Because he's been sent off to recuperate with his sister from his illness.




And he gets absolutely blind drunk and kind of crawls home. And from that point on, he never drinks again, because you would think Custer's character, he would be a man for a glass or two. Clearly, he's up to that .1 of.


His biographers says of him, he's just drunk on his own self belief for the rest of us.


Yeah. So if he's asked, you know, at dinner, do you want a drink? He'll say, I'll have a glass of Alderney, which is an allusion to the cows on Alderney, really, in the Channel Islands, which give very good milk. So he's asking for a glass of milk.


Wow. A glass of milk.




Oh, my word. My sister in law once went out with an Irishman who only drank milk. I held him in low regard, Tom, I'll be honest with you, but would.


You have held Custer in low regard.


For that if his prankster side was uppermost?


His prankster side is definitely up.


That would counterbalance the milk.


The other thing that he has to guard against, of course, is gambling.




He's a great gambler and a stock exchange gambler.


His whole life is a series of gambles, and he tries to do that.




I think now that you've asked me this question, I actually think I'd be disconcerted if he was always washing his hands and brushing his teeth in front of me. That would put me off.


He brushes his teeth with salt. I mean, that would be very odd, wouldn't it?


I'd find that troubling. I don't like any eccentricity in a man, Tom, you know? Anyway, so Custer, he starts to rise. He makes a name for himself. He's still very romantic in a war, which is a very unromantic war, you know, in some ways, the first industrialized war, a war of mass slaughter, of camps, of disease, he's still. You know, there's a moment in the Peninsula campaign in 1862. They're digging a mass grave. That tells you what kind of war this is. They're digging a mass grave of Union soldiers. Custer sees this one boy, very young boy, and he leans over him and he cuts off a lock of his hair, and he takes off the guy's ring, and he gives them to a comrade who's come from the same town as this fallen boy.




So that's the romantic side, the chivalrous gesture.




But there is also this slightly homeric quality that when he's going out to fight, he is like a kind of warrior on the plain of Troy, looking out for individual enemies that he can face. So there's this extraordinary letter that he writes to his sister Anne, and he describes how he is chasing an officer who's mounted on a real thoroughbred, and he's picked this officer out because he knows it's going to be good sport to chase him. And he says, I selected him as my game.


Wow. Yeah.


So this idea, on the one hand, the chivalry, but on the other hand.


The sense that he's a killer, Tom, he loves it. He writes to his cousin. He says, I know the war is terrible and lots of people dying, he says, but I must say I shall regret to see the war end. I would be willing.




Glad to see a battle every day of my life.




And there are some people who enjoy wars and who enjoy the thrill, the adrenaline rush. Custer is one of them. He does fun things. He goes up in a balloon.


He does go up in a balloon.




There's a guy who's called Thaddeus Lowe, the chief aeronaut of the balloon corps. And Custer goes up in his craft to look at the confederate lines, and he really likes it. And then he says, well, I'll go up at night, you know. Unfortunately, the Confederates haven't lit enough fires, so he doesn't really get any.


So he goes up early in the morning, doesn't he?




So he gets up when they're having their breakfast. Breakfast. You know, he does all these things. He has larks, doesn't he? And there is a sort of weird gallantry sometimes to the civil war. So there's always moments when there's sort of a pause in the fighting, and he'll get invited to kind of confederate weddings and things.


Well, because, you know, lots of his friends from West Point are on the other side.




And again, there is that sense of a chivalrous rivalry. So right towards the end of the war, there's this friend of his, a former roommate of his at West Point, Thomas Tex Rosser. Did you come across him?


I don't know about Tex Rossa.


So they're busy fighting each other, and they're trying to capture each other's, you know, kit and wardrobes and things. So Tex sends a message to Custer. Dear Fanny, I'm sending you a pair of your drawers, which I captured at Trevelyan street. And Custer replies, asking Tex to direct his tailor to make the coattails a trifle shorter. And later, he writes to Elizabeth, saying that he's captured Tex's raccoon and squirrel from his private menagerie, and they are going hammer and tongs at each other, trying to kill each other, but at the same time, all kinds of japes involving raccoons and captured clothing. Yes, and that is clearly part of the drama, not just for Custer, but for people on the confederate side as well.


Yeah, because, of course, that's not the way that all union officers think of it, by any means.




Some are much more sort of grim and dogged and managerial. But Custer is determined to fight this as though it's a scene from Mallory or something, isn't he? I mean, he really believes in that.




Now, Tom, you mentioned Elizabeth. We haven't introduced her yet. Of course.


I was jumping the gun. Sorry.


Yeah. 1862. Custer has caught the eye of the union commander, General McClellan, and he's joined his staff as his kind of eyes and ears. Now, he's now hanging around with lots of very impressive people. Philippe d'Orleans, is it? The pretender to the throne of France is on his staff. So Custer's now moving a more elevated world. He gets a bit of leave and he goes to Monroe, Michigan, where his sister lives. And it's there, isn't it, that he meets Elizabeth Bacon? Are you a fan of Elizabeth Bacon?


He'd met her before, hadn't he, when he was working for the judge as a, you know, a nobody, a kind of young boy, supposedly.


They have a Thanksgiving party, and this is the real moment when he makes an impression because he's sort of standing there in his uniform and his big hair because he's refusing to cut his hair. He says, I won't cut my hair until we capture Richmond, Virginia, the sort of confederate capital. And he looks very gallant at this party. And he captures Elizabeth's attention. She is sort of small. She's brown haired. She's pretty. But she's very serious, isn't she, Elizabeth? Are you an Elizabeth fan, Libby?


Yeah, I'm absolutely an Elizabeth fan. I mean, spoiler alert. She adores Custer.




And burnishes his legend very, very effectively. She does, you know, and I like to see a successful marriage. But the judge doesn't approve.


Is not a Custer. He describes him as that mustached fellow. And he says he's already slept with three girls from the town. What do you want to have anything to do with him for?


I mean, he, again, if you think of, we talked about Custer's father looking absolutely like you would expect a mid to 19th century american Methodist to look like. If you imagine an intimidating judge from the same period. He's kind of very bald, isn't he?


Very. Kind of rock solid.


Very much not the kind of man who would enjoy a man who's allowing his hair to grow out.


Or japes. Or japes and pranks.




He wouldn't be a fan of that whatsoever.


He would not be a fan of that, especially not with his beloved daughter.


No, not at all. So actually, they say, no, Custer is rebuffed. He's basically sent back, you know, see if you can make something of yourself. And actually, he does make something of himself because he goes back to the front. And then the summer of 1863, he is promoted at the age of 23 to brigadier general. And it's at that point that he really goes to town on designing his own outfit. I love this, Tom. I love somebody who designs his own costume.


I love it, too.


It's very nelsonian, I think this. Or napoleonic. So he has his big hat, doesn't he?


It's a confederate hat.




Which he was. Wears sort of on one side, like a felt hat.


Well, because he says he has very fair skin, so he's worried about that. But as you say, he wears it at a jaunty angle.




And you've mentioned how he's growing his hair, and he says he won't cut it until he's, you know, Union have taken Richmond.




And of course, this is pure vanity, but also quite odd because his nickname is still Fanny.




You know, he's got a girl's hairstyle.




But he's setting it off with this sensational military uniform.


Well, he's got this black velvet jacket.


So his hussars jacket.


Isn't it embroidered with gold? Lots of gold on it.




Gold piping. And underneath the black sort of velvet hussars jacket, he wears a sailor's shirt with stars sewn into it. I think stars sewn into your sailor's shirt is an unusual look. And a huge red cravat.




And massive boots and spurs and all.


That gold lace on his pants.




All of that stuff. And the thing is, there is a sort of sense to this, because if you're the kind of commander that Custer is, that is someone who leads from the front, not somebody who's planning at the back, but somebody who is absolutely leading your men into action as, let's say, Nelson did you want to stand out? Now, people who listen to the Trafalgar episodes will remember that Nelson refused to change his coat at Trafalgar because he said, my men need to see me. They need to see the commander. And Custer, I think, operates with the same. He is the star, right. He is the hero of the story. Everybody needs to look at him.


I mean, you can absolutely make the military case for it. And Custer does make the military case for it. The difference between him and Nelson. Nelson is entitled to wear those medals. He is an officer in the navy. Custer is going absolutely freelance, as he always does throughout his entire career, and making up a costume. And I do think that, that the long hair, everything. Sure. It's about enabling people on the battlefield to see him, but clearly it's. I mean, he's.


Oh, yeah, totally, sensationally vain. He's very vain. He's very vain, but he's good. I don't think we should lose sight of that. And I think in his biography, TJ Styles says, one of the problems with writing about Custer, telling his story is everyone starts with his death. We started with his death. You know, we started with Harry Flashman.




So we start with the presumption of incompetence and failure or hubris and arrogance. But actually, the point about Custer in the civil war, he's good. He makes good decisions. He inspires his men. Armies need stars, and he is a star. And he doesn't make bad calls, he doesn't lose battles.


But could you reframe that? Yeah, I mean, he makes bold decisions. He gambles, and those gambles pay off. I mean, would it not be fair to say so? Connell, in his book, says in a tight situation, his response was instantaneous and predictable. He charged, is that unfair, do you think? Because looking at the moments that make his reputation in the civil war, that seems not untrue, and clearly they pay off. So that's brilliant. He becomes a superstar. But you could say that ultimately, every time you take a gamble, the odds are that at some point it's not going to work. And you could say that, little big horn, you know, you could.


Now, it's worth saying that other historians don't make that call. So, Peter Cousins, who's written a great book on the indian wars, Custer knew instinctively when to charge, when to hold fast, and when to retire. TJ Styles, he sometimes guessed wrong, but more often he judged right far more than most. He had a talent for choosing the correct course amidst chaos. Okay, so I think. I mean, obviously, it depends. Are you approaching it from the perspective of the little bighorn, where clearly he does make a very bad call and pays a heavy price for it? You're absolutely right, Tom, that you keep gambling and one day your luck may run out, but one day maybe it won't.


Yeah, and fair to say that Custer himself always denied that he was kind of rash. So he said, I'm not impetuous or impulsive. I resent that. Everything that I have ever done has been the result of the study that I've made of imaginary military situations that might arise. I still think that there is an impetuous quality. I think that he loves the glamor of a cavalry charge.


He does.


I mean, is it not the fact that if you're following Custer on a cavalry charge, you are likelier to die than if, you know, you're in some other commander's troop, but you're also more.


Likely to win because Custer always wins? I mean, the thing with war is you make gambles.


Yeah, I guess.


And as a commander, you know, a lot of your men will die. So let's focus in on the most famous example of this, one of the most famous battles in american, if not war, world history. Gettysburg, the crucial battle of the Civil War, July 1, second and third, 1863. Crucial moment. Lee, Robert E. Lee, another very swashbuckling commander, has invaded the North. General Meade is trying to find him. They finally find him. The great clash of the armies. On the second day, Custer leads a charge. Lots of his men are killed. Custer isn't killed. And the third day, the crucial third day, we talked about this in our American Civil War episodes. Pickets charge the high watermark of the Confederacy. The moment when the Confederacy look as though they might break the Union army. And then who knows what's going to happen? It's Custer who leads a crucial cavalry charge against his opposite number on the confederate side, a guy called Jeb Stuart, who is the knight errant of the Confederacy, dashing hat, cavalier, Prince Rupert, the Rhine, all that sort of stuff.


And presumably Custer knows that.


Yeah, it's a great moment for Custer.


But he's taking on the chevalier of the Confederacy.




Don't you think that would kind of make him even more determined to have a crack at him?


It does, and that's what you want.


But you don't always want it. That's all I'm saying.


But you absolutely want it. In this context, though, okay. I think it's harsh. If Custer hadn't died at Littlebighorn, no one would say of this, you know, Custer dodgy. You know, one day his luck will run out.


But if you look at his entire career after this and before this, Custer is always disobeying orders. He's always going off on his own whim. And you can say he has a brilliant instinct. He has the killer instinct. He charges in where a less self confident commander wouldn't. And that's brilliant. But I do think it leaves open the possibility that at some point, it's going to go wrong.


Sure it does, Tom. It does. I totally take your point, but I think a winning army needs people like this who will stand up at the crucial moment when people are hesitating. It's the most amazing scene, by the way. The first Virginia cavalry are charging at the Union troops. Custer is on his horse. Some people say he takes his hat off and waves at some people. He waves his sword and he shouts. I mean, he's a men in Michigan. He shouts to them, come on, you wolverines. And then off they go into battle. They charge. Once they knock the Confederates back. The Confederates come again under a guy called Wade Hampton, who ends up being governor of South Carolina much later. But that's by the by and again, they're massively outnumbered. Now, and again, Custer again. He orders a full gallop. Again. Come on, you wolverines. The Union troopers. This is from styles. This book roared and smashed their horses into the rebel ranks, sabring all who came within reach. The clashing of sabers filled the air. Custer fought in the center. All of this sort of stuff. Custer's horse is shot from under him.


He jumps on another horse.




His favorite horse, isn't it? Yeah, Roanoke.




He jumps another horse.




It's incredible stuff. He is an absolute superstar. After this for the union newspapers, the boy general with the golden locks and.


The hat and the sword. Because he loves the sword, doesn't he?


He loves all that waving his sword in the air.


The hair. Yeah.


The newspapers in the north, they're all over him. And interestingly, his soldiers don't say Custer is reckless. I feel unsafe with Custer. They say he's brilliant. They talk about him, Tom, like Nelson. Saylors talk about Nelson. So brave a man I never saw as competent, as brave under him. A man is ashamed to be cowardly under him. And men can achieve wonders.


But, I mean, again, Dominic, just to say that there will be officers who serve with him who do have a very different take on him, who do think that he's reckless, people who hate him.


I think, by and large, Custer is somebody who does make enemies. The most famous one is a guy who we'll be talking about a lot in later episodes called Major Benteen.




But also Major Reno, who also will feature in the battle of little vigor.


Unfortunately, the very men on whom Custer's life depends in the crucial hours. But I don't think there's any way of reasonably undermining his achievement in the civil war. He is quite reasonably, the star of the Union lines.


No, I'm not disputing that, but I'm just saying that what enables him to be successful in the civil war is also what will end up destroying him. And that's what makes him a kind of tragic hero, I guess. You're destroyed by your own virtues, aren't you? Your own qualities.


It's a greek tragedy, Tom.


It is. Yeah.


That's what it is. Yeah, that's what it is. So anyway, he's a bait star. The judge relents.




You can marry my daughter now. So he marries Libby.


The judge is Republican as well, though, isn't he?




The judge is a Republican. Very into the union cause. Exactly. He marries Libby. They have their honeymoon in New York, I think. Which is worth noting, because we always think of Custer on the frontier. The place Custer loves most of all is New York. He wants to be a success in New York, and this will come into play later on and be very important in his story and the story of the little Bighorn. Custer basically has failed attempt to turn himself into a New York tycoon.


Donald Trump.




Which ends disastrously. He and Libby, they have a brilliant time on the honeymoon. They're always writing each other kind of suggestive letters about what they've got up to.


And again, there's all this kind of code words for they're all over that.


They will write to each other all the time. Oh, I do want one so badly. I know where I would kiss somebody if I was with her tonight. All this kind of thing. At one point, his letters, it's one of that battle that you mentioned where the guy captures his clothes. Brilliant station. Their letters are captured. Custer has to write to Libby and say, I'm really sorry. We're going to have to use a more intricate code. This is very embarrassing.


It's like someone hacking into your WhatsApp or something.




So they have a very charged relationship. So just to tie up Custer in the civil war, in 1864, Lincoln is constantly kind of shuffling the Union pack because he's desperate to find generals who will actually win. And in 1864, he gets a new supreme commander in Ulysses S. Grant. And Grant is going to be a huge figure for Custer. And without getting too bogged down in Grant, the important thing here is that they could not be more different. And I think it's fair to say that Custer is the past, or he's the kind of romantic image of America and of its army, and Grant is the future. Grant is unostentatious. He's modest. He's a planner. He's utterly ruthless and methodical in the way he plans the war. He's a winner, as the New York world says, no napoleonic displays, no ostentation, no speech, no superfluous flummery. And his model of unheroic leadership, modern leadership, could not be more different from Custer's.


It's industrial leadership, isn't it?


Industrial. Exactly. That's the right way. Yeah. And as part of this change and a whole load of new people like William Sherman, who leads the scorched earth campaign in the south, are coming to the fore. The most important one from Custer's point of view is a chap called Philip Sheridan. Sheridan is going to be Grant's cavalry commander. So Custer's boss, little Phil Sheridan, is extremely short, isn't he? Five foot five. He's of irish extraction. He's incredibly fierce, but he's also politically radical. He really hates the confederacy. He wants to demolish white supremacy. He will end up being Custer's great patron. But, of course, politically, they're slightly at odds. Sheridan and Custer are fighting through the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, kind of driving the Confederates back. General William T. Sherman is marching to the coast through Georgia, sort of ravaging the land. Step by step, they are squeezing the confederacy. So finally, we get to 1865 once again, the last great battle of the war. Sailors, Greek. April 1965. Custer's horse, yet again, is shot from under him. His brother Tom is with him now as Tom gets shot in the cheek. He's a tragic figure, isn't he?




Custer has three brothers, two of whom will end up at Bighorn, little Bighorn. So he's got Tom Custer and his younger brother Boston, who isn't actually in the army, but is kind of a supplier. But Tom Custer is incredibly heroic, isn't he? I mean, he gets all kinds of medals for courage.


He does. And Tom adores George Armstrong Custer. He thinks he's brilliant. And the Custers are the very kind of tight knit group. So we get to the 9 April 1865 Appomattox courthouse. Lee's army, the big confederate army, is now finally, basically cut off, surrounded, no supplies. It is Custer who goes forward to demand a surrender, and he goes to see Lee's deputy, General Longstreet, and says, you know, do you want to surrender to me? And Longstreet apparently looks at this bloke with his long blonde hair, and Custer looks about ten because he's still only 25.




And he says, I will never surrender to you. I'll surrender to Grant, but I won't surrender to you. Custer finally agrees, but there's then a really, really telling moment. So at 04:00 that afternoon, Lee does surrender to Grant, this very famous moment in american history. And when Lee does that, he sees standing next to Grant, Grant's military secretary, he's a guy called Eli Parker. And Eli Parker is a Native American. He's from the Seneca, so he's from New York. And Lee sees this, and he says to this guy, I am glad to see that there's at least r1 American here. And Parker says, well, we're all Americans, you know, very Hollywood. But the thing is, are they? You know, this is an unresolved question at this point.


When you say they, do you mean the Native Americans or the Confederates or.


I'm deliberately being ambiguous, right? Because where do the Confederates sit in the future of this reunited nation?


But also, where will the Native Americans sit?


Right? And where will the Native Americans? Because, of course, not just the Seneca, but there are a lot of other people, a lot of other nations out there in the west to whom the civil war has been a sideshow and an interesting civil war. They have much bigger fish to fry as they see it. So all of this lies in the future. And Parker is going to be a very important figure in this because he's very close to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant is going to become president eventually, and he will bring Parker with him and get him to, as he sees it, settle the question of european born Americans relationship with their indigenous neighbors, that he was going to settle this question once and for all. And the unraveling of that policy will have a massive impact on Custer's life and death. But, of course, for the time being, all that lies in the future, the war is over. General Sheridan buys the table on which Grant and Lee signed the deal, and he gives it to Custer's wife, doesn't he, tom?


He does, yeah.


Incredible thing. And he says, permit me to say, madam, there is scarcely an individual in our service who's contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.


I know.


I mean, there is your answer. Like Sheridan thinks, Custer really played a massive role in this. He's not doing that just to be nice to Libby. He doesn't give a damn about Libby.


It's often said, isn't it, that Custer is kind of murat too, Sheridan's Napoleon, that Sheridan clearly responds to the sense of dash and gallantry that he recognizes in Custer and admires it.


Yeah, they need it.


They need it. Yeah.


Even grant. They need a card like that to play. And Custer is that card.




And Dominic, this is perfectly summed up when Elizabeth Custer meets with Abraham Lincoln shortly before Lincoln gets shot. And Lincoln says to Elizabeth Custer, oh, so this is the young man whose husband goes into a charge with a WHOOP and a shout. So that's clear, really very much his reputation of WHOOP and a shout. And Elizabeth Custer replies to this, yes, and I hope he will always do so. And Lincoln says in turn, I see, so you hope to be a widow. Well, that is an amazing exchange.




Ominous. Ominous. Tom, TJ Styles in his biography ends this section by saying, custer was only 25. He held the second highest rank in the army, disregarding seniority. He'd killed men and won battles. He was a celebrity. His success had taught him many lessons about himself and the world, and he'd spend the rest of his life learning that they were wrong.




So it's basically the same thing as Lincoln's comments, isn't it? Everything you've learned up till now is what will lead you to disaster in the future. And next time we'll get Custer to the frontier and we'll see how he becomes absorbed in the turmoil of reconstruction and the snake pit of post war politics. And he will have his first encounters, Tom, with the Plains Indians. An amazing story. And of course, if people want to hear that right now, is there anything they can do? Are you aware of anything they can.


Absolutely sign up to? The rest is history club at.


What is it?


The rest is


The rest is history. How can you not know? I forgot the at the restish


And Dominic, if you do that, you don't only get immediate access to all the episodes, but you also get a host of other benefits, don't you? So unbelievable. Unbelievable value.




Truly unbelievable.


But you don't have to. Either way, we will be carrying on this extraordinary story and we look forward to you joining us very soon. Bye bye.


Bye bye. Tom, I've just learned some absolutely extraordinary and exciting news. And anybody who's a history lover, anybody who, like me, loves spending their summer at festivals, will delight and rejoice at this news, won't they?


They absolutely will. And the news is that in June, it is the chalk history festival in Broadchalk in the Chalk Valley, the very village in which I grew up. My brother James and I, we talked about this the other day on a rest is history bonus episode. But for all of you who didn't hear that, I can't recommend the festival enough. There's an unbelievable array of talks from top historians and others besides, plus a mass of other things to see and do. Live music every day, living history performances, and of course, lots of food, drink, camping, all historically themed. And an absolutely stunning setting.


It's an amazing setting, Tom, and it's a real highlight of my year. I've had it inked into my diary for months. Really looking forward to it. And the highlight of the week, I have to say, has to be our special live performance of the rest is history, which we will be doing on the Tuesday, won't we? Tuesday, the 25 June.




So that's the day you'll be there. Dominic, I know you've got to head off after that, but I will be still there doing a host of other things. And basically, I'll be there for most of the week, so please do join us. Tickets are on sale now and you can get and that's c H a l K e. So chalk with an e on it. It'll be wonderful to see you there.