JF Ptak Science Books Post 1630
"...I would offer no compromise except that which is offered at the point of a bayonet. I...favor a war of extermination. I would hang every human being who had a drop of rebel blood in their veins whether they be men, women or children..."--G.A. Custer in Richard Slotkin Fatal Environment..., Harper, 1985, pg. 384.
Here’s a bit of Custer legend that is true and seldom heard—if left to his own devices in a Custer-filled world, the general would have “exterminated” everyone in the South, every one (“men, women or children”) , “with an ounce of rebel blood” flowing in their veins, hanged dead. At that point the South would be free, and would be repopulated with the “loyal and patriotic” people,l presumably from either up north or Southerners loyal to the Union.a
This was part of a long letter (transcript below) to U.S. Senator Jacob Howard, written on 19th January 1864, in the field. Custer was feeling on the ropes at the time, needing to defend his loyalty to Lincoln and his policies, and needing to distance himself from Lincoln’s election contender and inferior general, George McClellan. (Richard Slotkin, in his fabulous The Fatal Environment, the Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 notes that Custer needed “to justify himself…(and) disabled his previous affiliations and the nature of his relationship with McClellan…’)
Custer's relationship--real and imagined--with McClellan was putting him in a stench void, creating the possibility of distance between himself and the powers that be--particularly with Senators like Howard and Zachariah Chandler, "who controlled army promotions" (Slotkin, page 384), which meant distancing himself from the higher rank he thought he was destined for. Custer had been on McClellan's staff, and had aligned himself with his war policies, though not necessarily so his presidential ambitions. Howard, a Republican from Michigan and member of the Military Affairs Committee, believed that Custer was a "McClellan Man" and set against Lincoln, and for that was set to block his promotion to brigadier general. Custer's salvaging letter1 to Howard left no doubt about his supposed non-political feelings and where he stood on Lincoln, the Emancipation, and the treatment of the Confederates:
“If I could decide the questions, I would offer no compromise except that which is offense at the front of a bayonet, and rather than that we should accept peace, except on our own terms, I would, and do, favor a war of extermination. I would hang every human being who possesses a drop of rebel blood in their veins whether they be men, women or children. Then after having freed the country from the presence of every rebel, I would settle the whole Southern country with a population loyal and patriotic who would not soon forget their obligations to their country and to themselves.”
Slotkin points out that the letter to Howard was so well received that he wrote an update letter to the public-at-large, finding itself published in he Detroit Free Press in May 1865 ("and which was widely reprinted" (Slotkin, 384)) It read in part: "Extermination is the only true policy we can adopt towards the political leaders of the rebellion...Then, and not till then, may the avenging angel sheathe his sword, and our country will emerge from the struggle regenerated".
Custer left out the women and children part of his Southern bloodbath, but left the "extermination" part in. (As it turns out he would show--in the near-future--that he had no problem in killing women and children, as he would show in his great victory at Washita, killing many more of them than any Indian warriors he might have done in.)
Custer was a man of short bursts with little imagination or capacity for extended action or thought--a difficult character, a limited man with no limits. This would come up again and again, at the Massacre of Sand Creek, and more horribly so at Washita massacre2, and then, finally, the strength to endure his impulsive recklessness gone, at the Little Big Horn.
The entire letter (and notes) are included below:
Headquarters, 3rd Division Cav. Corps Army of the Potomac, Jan. 19th 1864.
Hon. J. M. Howard U.S.S.
Yours of the 16th has just been received, and I thank you for affording me an opportunity to give you a brief expression of my views regarding the war policy of the [Lincoln]administration. Having, at a very early age, adopted that profession of arms, I have never deemed it proper or advisable to assume an active part in politics. I have endeavored to be a soldier and not a politician. So far has this sentiment controlled me that, at the last Presidential election, of the three candidates who were nominated for the Presidency I never expressed nor entertained a preference for either.
Since the commencement of the war many questions and issues have sprung up which have such an important bearing upon the great work before us that it was to a certain extent necessary that I should merge something of the politician with the soldier, I refer to those important the proclamations of the Executive regarding slavery, confiscation, emancipation, etc. The President of the United States as Commander in Chief of the Army and as my superior officer cannot issue any decree or order which will not receive my unqualified support. Thus much would, to me as a soldier, be my duty, but I do not stop here. I do not merely tender my support to the war measures of the President, but all the acts, proclamations and decisions embraced in his war policy have received not only my support, but my most hearty, earnest and cordial approval. And furthermore I am convinced upon every principle of reason and by the light of experience, that it is only by the adoption and execution of the present policy of the President that we hope to establish and secure an honorable and lasting peace.
I seldom discuss political questions but my friends who have heard me, can testify that I have insisted that so long as a single slave was held in bondage, I for one, was opposed to peace on any terms, and to show that my acts agree with my words I can boast of having liberated more slaves from their masters then any other general in this army. This is a fact which can be verified by referring to Maj.Genl. Pleasanton and a host of other officers.
As to "compromise", I know of (no) compromise with rebels by which we could retain our dignity and self respect as a nation of freemen. If I could decide the questions, I would offer no compromise except that which is offence at the front of a bayonet, and rather than that we should accept peace, except on our own terms, I would, and do, favor a war of extermination. I would hang every human being who possesses a drop of rebel blood in their veins whether they be men, women or children. Then after having freed the country from the presence of every rebel, I would settle the whole Southern country with a population loyal and patriotic who would not soon forget their obligations to their country and to themselves. There is no measure which has for its object the weakening and destruction of the rebel forces that will not command my hearty support and approval. From what I have said you will have no difficulty in discerning my true sentiments, and to you as to others to whom I have expressed the same opinion, with regard to the coming presidential election, I say frankly that I am not committed to any one man, but that of all who have been prominently spoken of for the position I know of none who would in my estimation conduct that affairs of government as ably and successfully as Mr. Lincoln has the past three years. I regret Mr. Howard that it has become necessary for me to defend myself from such slanderous charges, and I regret that our personal acquaintance has not been more intimate, that you might see the absurdity of the charges you refer to in your letter. In my views as to the best and most effective method of injuring the rebels and of inflicting the most possible harm I am so far in advance of Mr. Lincoln's present policy as his policy in advance of that advocated by Seymour, Vallandigham & Co. I recognize no right of a rebel that I am bound to respect, and I think the more rebels we kill the fewer will be to pardon and the better for us. Another question which has excited considerable discussion is that of military arrests in states where the rebellion does not exist. If the President has erred at all it has been in making too few arrests. I can go to Michigan and arrest a larger number of disloyal persons in that one state than the President has throughout the United States. I will now explain how and why the rumors arose which have reached you, to the effect, that I was an opponent of the administration. I was promoted and appointed on the staff of Gen. McClellan for an act of gallantry, and at a time when I was almost a total stranger with McClellan he having seen me but twice before and never had spoken twenty words to me. During the time McClellan was in command I, as any soldier would, supported him, but I have never allowed my personal obligation to him for his kindness and favor towards me, to interfere with my duty. And I leave it to you to say whether my avowal of the sentiments expressed in the forepart of this letter can be considered as any endorsement of McClellan's policy. The real reason why this charge has been brought against me is simply for the lack of some other. There are those who desire to see me defeated and no effort has been spared to bring influences to bear with you and Hon. Z. Chandler to prejudice my case. My conduct in the field has afforded these enemies no opportunity to defame or impune (sic) me and as a last hope they have chosen the one more lacking in truth and correctness than other which they could bring. I have written freely and frankly and have been compelled to write more lengthily than I intended. I hope you will give this communication your careful consideration. To vouch for its correctness, I can refer you to Hon. I. P. Christiancy who has been in correspondence with me for a long period and probably knows me better than any man in Michigan.
Truly yours, G.A. Custer
a. Had this occurred it would have made it very difficult for me to have the family that I have right now, what with four direct relatives of my wife having fought in the CSA for almost the entire War.
1. I found the text for the letter--which was referred to but not included in its complete form in Slotkin--at the following site; http://www.worlds-wide-web.com/custeroutwest
*2. Some refer to the action at Washita as a "battle", but it was, really, a simple massacre. In addition to the killed and wounded Indians, Custer took 57 women and children to use as human shields in his continuing campaign against the Plains Tribes.