General George Armstrong Custer. The mere mention of his name evokes strong opinions of condemnation or admiration, depending on one’s perspective. Was he a brave, daring and innovative tactician or was he an impulsive, arrogant and reckless one? He was a complicated man by all accounts, so evidence can be marshaled for either side. Recent historians have argued that grading his military experience as a whole is inaccurate and fruitless. Rather, he must be judged in the context of the Civil War as a successful general, while in the context of the Indian wars as an ultimately failed cavalry commander. His decisions and actions at Gettysburg in June 1863 must be judged separately from his decisions and actions at the Little Big Horn in June 1876.
Essentially, the current argument posits that the Civil War and the Indian wars were two fundamentally different types of warfare. Therefore the qualities that made him a successful commander in one did not automatically carry over to the other. The Civil War was a conventional war with large massed armies arrayed against each other in set battles. These battles were more or less governed by accepted rules of war. The tactics followed by both sides were Napoleonic in nature and everyone knew what to expect. It was this type of war that West Point graduates, such as Custer, studied and ultimately excelled at.
The Indian war was quite different. “This was an insurgency, a guerilla war in which the enemy typically attacked civilians rather than military units, and quickly disappeared, melting into the countryside….And in this type of warfare, U.S. troops could not effectively operate in large, massed armies, as they had done in the Civil War; rather, they operated in small, isolated, and fortified units, and all territory beyond a fort’s walls had to be considered hostile” (Custer: Lessons in Leadership by Duane Schultz, 2010, p. 181).
Custer, like other Civil War veterans certainly had his difficulties adjusting to the Indian wars. However, plaguing Custer was a much deeper leadership problem. Unlike during the Civil War where his men idolized him and were committed to following him into the worst of battles, the 7th Cavalry troopers (and many of its officers) despised him in 1876. Although the 7th Cavalry marched under one pennant, it was far from a well-oiled, fine-tuned, cohesive unit.
In a recent issue of the Civil War magazine, The Civil War Monitor (Winter 2011) historian Glenn LaFantasie analyzed why Custer experienced such different relationships with his various commands. During the Civil War Custer commanded volunteer regiments from Michigan. These soldiers knew each other, often coming from the same towns. They were motivated by a sense of patriotism and, although they forever maintained the free spirit of volunteer soldiers, as the war wore on they developed a true professionalism. Custer realized that these men had to be inspired and inspire them he did. With his courage and daring Custer was the perfect role model for them.
The cavalry of the Indian war was a different reality. Many of the soldiers were immigrants – some of whom barely spoke English. They joined the army not out of a sense of duty or patriotism but as a means of escaping their wretched economic existence. Other soldiers were criminals and social outcasts who fled proper society. Even those soldiers who were veterans of the Civil War remained in the army or rejoined because they could not readjust to civilian life. “There was no cohesion as had existed in Civil War regiments drawn from a single state…The men of Custer’s 7th Cavalry, including the officers, had nothing in common, nothing that bound them together…” (p.32). Custer was never able to find a way to inspire them…so he stopped trying. It was under these conditions that he led his men to defeat at the Little Big Horn.
Among Custer’s character flaws was his inability to look inward. When a problem arose he blamed others. In the case of the 7th Cavalry he never considered that he needed to find a new way to inspire his troops. He just assumed that what had worked during the Civil War would work in the Indian war as well. Fortunately for Bnei Yisrael when Moshe Rabbeinu was faced with a similar situation of not successfully inspiring his people, he became introspective and accepted responsibility.
The Torah relates at the beginning of the parsha that Hashem described to Moshe His plan for Bnei Yisrael. He would first take them out of Egypt and ultimately bring them to Eretz Yisrael where they would serve Hashem as the successors to the legacy of the Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Moshe immediately delivered the prophecy to his brethren but was met with a disappointing response. The pasuk states (6:9): “And Moshe spoke thus to Bnei Yisrael but they did not respond to (literally hear) Moshe due to their shortness of spirit and the hard labor.”
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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