By Colonel Wes Martin

At one time or another, all of us have listened to the tune of "The Army Song." Its melody is the fast paced upbeat tune "Caisson Song" – "Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail" – composed in 1908 by Lieutenant (later Brigadier General) Edmund Gruber. Following World War II, and through the Korean War, a search went out for a song to honor the entire U.S. Army. The search not only paralleled the Korean War in time, but also in false hopes, setbacks, slow progress, and standstills.

In 1952, "The Army Goes Rolling Along" was accepted. For every soldier who served in the defense of the United States, the words to this song reflected the success and pride of the Army: "First to fight for the right, And to build the nation's might, And the Army goes rolling along. Proud of all we have done, Fighting ‘til the battle's won, and the Army goes rolling along."

"Proud of all we have done." These are fine words, until we advance to the next set of phrases: "Valley Force, Custer's ranks, San Juan Hill and Patton's tanks…" CUSTER'S RANK'S! What merits this honor, other than the old adage that history is a commonly agreed upon lie? This certainly is the case concerning Custer. The truth behind the legend of George Armstrong Custer is not a recent revelation. His own soldiers referred to Custer's autobiography, My Life on the Plains as "My Lies of the Plains."

Even in the 1950s, those who knew history also knew the truth about Custer. President Truman, while reflecting on the varied quality of Army leadership, expressed amazement that the same organization that could produce George Marshall and Omar Bradley could also produce Custer.

Defeat at the Little Big Horn provided Custer with the glory that he desperately needed and would stop at nothing to obtain. At the inquiry following the Little Big Horn, Colonel Samuel Sturgis provided the following testimony about his peer, "…a very selfish man. His was insanely ambitious of glory…and had no regard for the soldiers under him." One of his cavalrymen, Jacob Horner later characterized Custer as always changing his mind, never believing anyone other than himself could be right and never listening to his officers.

It was this refusal to listen to other officers, including General Terry who ordered him to avoid making contact with the unified Sioux and Cheyenne until reinforced by Terry, and Custer's own scouts that caused him to lead 225 men into the midst of 5,000 warriors. This could be perceived as an act of courage, if not for the fact Custer intended to attack a village. His subordinate officer, Major Reno, was in fact in the process of attacking the village when a counter-attack sent Reno into a retreat.

Attacking villages was not uncommon for Custer. In 1868, he led the attack on Black Kettle's Cheyennes at Washita Creek, in the Oklahoma Territory. Four years earlier, Black Kettle village had been attacked into the Colorado territory by Military militia under the command of Colonel John Chivington. This attack, known as the Sand Creek Massacre, became one of the most shameful chapters in American history. Black Kettle managed to escape and moved what was left of his tribe into Oklahoma. Although Black Kettle was no longer at peace with himself, he tried to make peace with the United States Army.

During November of 1868, Black Kettle travelled to Fort Cobb. He knew the peace of his tribe was being jeopardized by young warriors who had joined renegade raiding parties and were now returning to camp for winter lodging. Black Kettle wished to isolate his followers from these individuals. To General Hazen, Black Kettle stated, "I have done my best to keep my young men quiet, but some will not listen and since the fighting began, I have not been able to keep them at home. But we want peace. I would move all my people down this way. I could keep them all quietly near the camp."

General Hazen denied Black Kettle's request and sent them away with token blankets and flour. Hazen knew that General Sheridan was commencing a winter campaign. In a report, Hazen stated that allowing Black Kettle to move to Fort Cobb would have created a second "Chivington Affair." This report to Sheridan was dispatched the same day Custer was also dispatched with five hundred soldiers onto the plains.

At dawn on November 27, 1868 Custer initiated his attack on Black Kettle's sleeping camp. The major difference between this attack and Sand Creek was the way history recorded it. In My Life on the Plains, Custer condemned Chivington's attack while claiming to have used restraint on his own. As evidence of that restraint, Custer cited Captain Frederick Benteen's attempt to take a teenage boy prisoner, which resulted in the captain having his horde shot out from under him by the boy. In his report, Custer claimed that 103 warriors were killed. In a report to the Interior Department, the Native Americans claimed the numbers were 13 men, 16 women, and 9 children. The accuracy of the death toll remains as hidden as the graves of the Native Americans who died that morning.

Custer had a reason for inflating the "enemy" body count. In this attack by five hundred soldiers onto a sleeping village, Custer suffered 23 deaths. This could hardly be considered a successful attack. Also, without inflating the body count, Custer would be forced to acknowledge that the young warriors he sought and Black Kettle feared would destroy the peace were still alive. Custer did succeed in one major endeavor.

By taking temporary control of the camp site, burning the lodges, destroying all winter supplies, and slaughtering 875 horses, Custer finished the job started at Sand Creek. Following the battle, a sympathetic Captain Benteen stated, "There is no hope for that brave little band, the death doom is their's."

Prior to the Little Big Horn, Custer had been convicted at courts-martial for abuse of his soldiers and leaving those same soldiers on a campaign to be with his wife. Concerning the abuse of the soldiers, Benteen did not support Custer's behavior. Years later, Benteen wrote that Custer had a 30 x 30 foot hole, dug 15 feet deep and covered over, to use as a guard house while on campaign. Benteen also wrote that the prisoners were so many there was not room for them to lie down.

The honoring of Custer in the "Amy Song" is hypocritical. These ranks of soldiers that we sing about found it more convenient to go AWOL (away without leave) and risk execution than to be led by a self-serving brutal officer who saw those soldiers only as means to advance his own personal desire for glory.

One group of soldiers did benefit from Custer's twisted mind. Custer had been offered command of the 9th Cavalry. This position he refused because the soldiers of the 9th were former slaves and of a race Custer considered inferior. The command was then offered to, and readily accepted by, Colonel Edward Hatch. Under the leadership of an open-minded and professional officer, the members of 9th Cavalry went on to contribute to the legacy some of the finest warriors who ever lived, the "Buffalo Soldiers."

It is sad to realize an officer who brutalized his own men, led them to death because he was more interested in glory than listening to subordinates and seniors, had no guilt about attacking Native American women and children, and was a first class bigot is honored every time the band plays "The Army Goes Rolling Along." This is in keeping with Sir Thomas Carlyle's statement, "To recognize false merit, and crown it as true because a long tail runs after it, is the saddest operation under the sun."

The only time Custer was ever held fully accountable for his actions was at the Little Big Horn. Unfortunately, this accountability cost the lives of a lot of professional soldiers and caused massive retaliation on Native Americans. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors had no other option when Custer and Reno rode down on their families. Custer was practicing an American West version of genocide. The warriors fought back, for their families and their way of life. For this they were penalized. This wasn't just Custer's Last Stand. This because the Native American's Last Stand. This was the last time the northern nations would be able to stand together, fight, and defeat their ultimate opponent: the United States Army.

General George Patton wrote, "There has been a great deal of talk about loyalty from the bottom to the top. Loyalty from the top to the bottom is much more important and also much less prevalent." We know of Custer as being an officer who had loyalty only to himself. This alone totally defies every professional value and ethic that we have had drilled into us since basic training. We are also taught that selflessness, or selfless service, is putting the needs and goals of the nation, the Army, the unit, and the soldiers ahead of personal needs and interests. Custer failed in all areas, especially, "care of the soldier."

Every time a soldier stands to attention to "The Army Goes Rolling Along," honor is rendered to a man deserving of no honor. That honor is even less deserving when the soldier is either black or Native American. The only positive thing Custer provided us with is an excellent example of what Lieutenant William Calley had the potential to become, if not for the courts-martial following the My Lai massacre.

There exist times when we must look at ourselves and recognize when we are wrong. Honoring George Armstrong Custer is one of those time. The Army Song has a worthy purpose, with fine words cast to an excellent tune. Unfortunately it has one serious flaw that may be corrected with ease and honor, by replacing Custer's name with Pershing's. Both names maintain the same musical beat. Both officers served in the 19th Century Cavalry. Although Pershing did serve in two campaigns against Native Americans, he knew the value of negotiation, never made promises he couldn't keep, and never committed what would today be viewed as a war crime. Pershing willingly served with black soldiers. Pershing went on to greatness while caring for his soldiers and not trying to benefit only himself. This soldier, who started his commendable service in the 19th century, was the first American to command multinational forces and established the military standard for American commanders that will be carried on for generations. Honor should be rendered to someone who deserves it. When the band plays the tune of "Count the brave, Count the true, Who have fought to victory. We're the Army and proud of our name," let's do it with complete honesty.

©2021 Wes Martin