Custer Goes Hunting

He may have been a hero..or the worst cavalry general ever to wear stars. One thing is certain: he loved the pursuit of game as much as the pursuit of glory

Field & Stream Online Editors

On the plains of Kansas on an April morning in 1867, George Armstrong Custer went looking for sport. Posted to the frontier only a few months before, the 27-year-old commander of the Seventh Cavalry was new to this stark landscape and eager to test his riding and shooting skills against its game. Astride a thoroughbred horse and escorted by a pack of hunting dogs that were his constant companions in the field, he galloped off from the column he was leading to run some antelope.

The pronghorns soon left hunter and hounds in the dust, but on a nearby bluff Custer spied a big bull buffalo and another chase was on. Horse and bison thundered neck and neck over the rolling prairie. His blood up and yelling like a Comanche, Custer cocked and aimed his revolver at a vital spot behind the shoulder. When unexpectedly the buffalo wheeled, the horse veered to avoid it. Custer grabbed for the reins with his gun hand and accidentally fired, sending a bullet into his mount's brain.

The horse dropped like a stone and its rider went flying. Although he later admitted that the incident "came very near costing me my life," the golden-locked cavalryman survived with all but his dignity intact. He might have broken his neck in the fall, or been gored to death, but instead the buffalo gave him a beady-eyed glance and sauntered off. Custer was lost and horseless in Indian territory and miles from his command, which a more prudent officer would not have left in the first place. With no real sense of direction he started walking and within an hour saw dust on the horizon. Instead of hostiles, it was the Seventh.

Custer's Luck
The misadventure was typical of Custer's luck and reckless physical courage-attributes that during the Civil War had worked for him as the Union's dashing "boy general" (at 24, he had been the youngest brigadier in Army history) and that, for a time at least, would continue working for him as an Indian fighter. The Great Plains would be home to Custer for most of the remaining nine years of his life, and between now and his disastrous defeat and death at the Little Big Horn in 1876 he would spend more time chasing game than he would successfully pursuing Sioux and Cheyenne.

In those years following the Civil War railroads had begun to penetrate the prairies. Sodbusters and cow towns followed in their wake, but most of the vast grasslands between the Missouri and the Rockies were still the hunter's paradise that Lewis and Clark had known 60 years before. For a cavalryman of that time and place, hunting helped make tolerable an otherwise mean and hardscrabble existence. It was an antidote to the boredom of camp routine and provided the mess with fresh game to leaven a diet of salt pork and hardtack. Hunting was also training-running buffalo, which Custer likened to the "wild, maddening, glorious excitement" of a cavalry charge, challenged his courage and horsemanship, and taking a bead on an elk or pronghorn at 500 yards sharpened his shooting eye.

For officers especially, hunting was part of a martial lifestyle as old as the profession of arms. The ambitious Custer used it to further his career and cultivate his cavalier image. He wrote about his exploits in the sporting press and organized buffalo hunts for visiting VIPs, while inviting reporters along to cover the spectacle.

Glory Hound/Hero
People who knew Custer either loved or hated him, and few figures in American history have remained more controversial. To his legions of detractors, then and now, he was an egotistical glory hunter-rash, immature, irresponsible-whose misjudgments led directly to the debacle on the Little Big Horn and the loss of 268 lives, his own included. Custer was once court-martialed and suspended from duty for a year for abandoning his command in the field to return to his wife, whom he desperately missed. (Libbie Custer and her beloved "Autie" had a passionatrelationship, and as a widow she defended him fiercely for 57 years, until her death at age 90, in 1933.) In official reports Custer wasn't above altering facts to vindicate himself and place blame for his failures on others, and in his hunting tales he was prone to exaggeration. Whether he lied or merely embellished depended on one's view of him: An Army friend said Custer didn't distort the truth so much as magnify it.

In many ways Custer, who was just 36 when Crazy Horse and his Oglala warriors cut him down on Last Stand Hill, never grew up, but retained throughout his life the energy and headlong enthusiasm of an 8-year-old. His endurance in the saddle was beyond belief. "Iron ass" his men called him, not with affection. He could ride hard from dawn to dusk, then stay up most of the night writing hunting stories and letters to Libbie which could run to 120 pages overflowing with wonder about the world around him. He reveled in the sweep and austere beauty of the plains, a landscape other Army men saw as tedious and threatening.

Endlessly curious about its wildlife, he kept a menagerie that at various times included a pronghorn calf, a porcupine, a burrowing owl, a badger, a black bear, and a pelican.

Soldier/Hunter
Most of all Custer loved hunting on the plains, and as the Army's most colorful and charismatic officer, he was the natural choice to host a hunt arranged for a Russian royal son and his entourage on a U.S. tour. Staged on the prairies west of Omaha in 1872, the two-day shoot was an extravagant affair supplied with wagonloads of champagne and caviar and escorted by cavalry and infantry, with a band of friendly Brul¿¿ Sioux adding a touch of the exotic. At the center of it all was the Grand Duke Alexis, an affable 21-year-old with muttonchop whiskers and a lust to shoot a buffalo from horseback-a feat he accomplished on the first morning with coaching from Bill Cody, the famed hunter and scout, who also lent him his best horse and gun.

The young duke was so excited about his kill that he jumped to the ground, whacked off the buffalo's tail, and held the dripping trophy aloft while howling like a steppe wolf. Later, when he expressed doubts about an Indian's ability to down a buffalo with his light bow and arrow, Custer arranged for a demonstration: A mounted Brul¿¿ hunter chased a buffalo into camp and before the Russian's astonished eyes sent an arrow clean through it. That night the Brul¿¿s danced before a blazing campfire while the white hunters feasted on buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, turkey, duck, and prairie dog.

On a second hunt, held a week later in Colorado, Custer wowed Alexis with his horsemanship, using only his knees to turn his mount at full gallop while firing his pistol both right- and left-handed. The admiring duke exclaimed that his friend rode like a Cossack. Approaching a herd of buffalo, Custer and Alexis were leading a large party that included soldiers, civilians, and Custer's boss, the volatile General Phil Sheridan. When Custer got it in his head to show Alexis how the Army fought Indians, he yelled out orders to attack the herd as if it were a band of redskins. Alexis and Custer led the charge, blasting with their six-shooters and dropping one buffalo after another. Everyone fired with abandon as the herd panicked. With bullets zinging around him, Sheridan threw himself to the ground while cursing these two boy-men in invective recalled by one eyewitness as "a liberal education in profanity." When at last the shooting ended, Alexis had downed a dozen buffalo, which were promptly butchered and placed on ice for shipment back to St. Petersburg. Bursting with joy, the young royal grabbed Custer in a bear hug and planted a kiss on the cheek of his comrade in arms.

Into the Black Hills
The year following Alexis' hunt found Custer operating on the northern plains out of Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory. The Seventh Cavalry spent the summer in the vanguard of a 1,900-man force protecting survey crews plotting the course of the Northern Pacific Railroad. General Alfred Terry, the regional commander, predicted the expedition would be a "big picnic," and so it proved. Although the cavalry twice skirmished with war parties, the Indians mostly left the bluecoats alone.

Custer had ample opportunity to hunt, both for sport and to keep the expedition supplied with meat. He led hunting parties almost daily, and game was so plentiful that they seldom ventured out of sight of the wagon trains. In a letter to Libbie written after a month in the field, he boasted, "I have done some of the most remarkable shooting...and it is admitted to be such by all." His bag: forty-one antelope, four buffalo, four elk, seven deer, two wolves, and a fox, plus geese, ducks, prairie chickens, and sage hens "without number."

A taxidermist on the expedition taught his craft to Custer, who took to it with his usual zeal. As he reported to Libbie, "I can take the head and neck of an antelope, fresh from the body, and in two hours have it fully ready for preservation." He was especially proud of the job he did on the carcass of a huge bull elk he killed with the help of his greyhounds. After Custer wounded the elk, the dogs pursued it into the Yellowstone River and tore into it. Custer watched from shore, anxious that one or more of his canine corps might be killed in the melee, and was relieved when his second shot dropped the elk for good.

Although Custer doesn't name her in his later account of this elk hunt, the greyhound that led the charge was probably his favorite, a bitch named Tuck. In one of his endless letters to Libbie he asked, "Did I tell you of her catching a full-grown antelope-buck, and pulling her down after a run of over a mile?"

Tuck was one of some 40 hunting dogs Custer owned at this point in his life, and he treated them all like members of his extended family. Back home at Fort Lincoln they had the run of the Custers' big frame house-tracking mud on the floors, leaving prints on the bedspread, stealing and wolfing down meat intended for the Custer table. Libbie tolerated her home being turned into a kennel and cast a bemused eye on her husband's penchant for sleeping with his dogs: "I have seen them stretched at his back and curled around his head, while the nose and paws of one rested on his breast."

A visitor recalled Custer's hounds following their master wherever he went on the post: On the spur of the moment he would throw himself on the ground and instantly come to resemble "a human island, entirely surrounded by crowding, panting dogs." When one of his hounds died in a hunting accident, Custer was moved to pen an elegy to his "Poor Maida, in life the finest friend / The first to welcome, foremost to dn Dakota Territory. The Seventh Cavalry spent the summer in the vanguard of a 1,900-man force protecting survey crews plotting the course of the Northern Pacific Railroad. General Alfred Terry, the regional commander, predicted the expedition would be a "big picnic," and so it proved. Although the cavalry twice skirmished with war parties, the Indians mostly left the bluecoats alone.

Custer had ample opportunity to hunt, both for sport and to keep the expedition supplied with meat. He led hunting parties almost daily, and game was so plentiful that they seldom ventured out of sight of the wagon trains. In a letter to Libbie written after a month in the field, he boasted, "I have done some of the most remarkable shooting...and it is admitted to be such by all." His bag: forty-one antelope, four buffalo, four elk, seven deer, two wolves, and a fox, plus geese, ducks, prairie chickens, and sage hens "without number."

A taxidermist on the expedition taught his craft to Custer, who took to it with his usual zeal. As he reported to Libbie, "I can take the head and neck of an antelope, fresh from the body, and in two hours have it fully ready for preservation." He was especially proud of the job he did on the carcass of a huge bull elk he killed with the help of his greyhounds. After Custer wounded the elk, the dogs pursued it into the Yellowstone River and tore into it. Custer watched from shore, anxious that one or more of his canine corps might be killed in the melee, and was relieved when his second shot dropped the elk for good.

Although Custer doesn't name her in his later account of this elk hunt, the greyhound that led the charge was probably his favorite, a bitch named Tuck. In one of his endless letters to Libbie he asked, "Did I tell you of her catching a full-grown antelope-buck, and pulling her down after a run of over a mile?"

Tuck was one of some 40 hunting dogs Custer owned at this point in his life, and he treated them all like members of his extended family. Back home at Fort Lincoln they had the run of the Custers' big frame house-tracking mud on the floors, leaving prints on the bedspread, stealing and wolfing down meat intended for the Custer table. Libbie tolerated her home being turned into a kennel and cast a bemused eye on her husband's penchant for sleeping with his dogs: "I have seen them stretched at his back and curled around his head, while the nose and paws of one rested on his breast."

A visitor recalled Custer's hounds following their master wherever he went on the post: On the spur of the moment he would throw himself on the ground and instantly come to resemble "a human island, entirely surrounded by crowding, panting dogs." When one of his hounds died in a hunting accident, Custer was moved to pen an elegy to his "Poor Maida, in life the finest friend / The first to welcome, foremost to d