John Bingham and George Armstrong Custer

I’m now writing the portion of the Bingham book that deals with “constituent service.”  (Yes, even he had to deal with lots of people asking for favors.)  The most significant of these requests came from George Custer, who lived in his congressional district.  Basically, John Bingham was responsible for Custer’s career, and they remained friendly until Custer’s death.

Custer wrote Bingham in 1856 asking for a reference letter to get into West Point.  As the young man’s family were all Democrats, that recommendation was unlikely.  But Custer flattered Bingham with letters and took a teaching job in Cadiz (the congressman’s home town) so that he could continue that effort in person. His big “break” came when he fell in love with the daughter of a prominent local Republican.  That man, who didn’t like Custer at all, asked Bingham to give him the reference to West Point to get him away from his daughter.

Bingham became quite fond of Custer.  When he was court-martialed at West Point for misconduct, Bingham interceded and got him a lenient sentence.  During the Civil War, Bingham pushed Custer for various promotions, even asking his friend Edwin Stanton (the Secretary of War) to make Custer a major general when the war ended.  And after the disaster  at Little Big Horn, Bingham wrote a condolence letter to Custer’s father.

Of course, given Custer’s poor performance as an officer, you might say this was not one of Bingham’s best judgments.


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1 Response

  1. Richard L. Aynes says:

    The conclusion confuses Custer’s performance as a Civil War soldier/General and his post-war performance. In the Civil War Custer was a hero and said to be the youngest of the Union Generals.

    At Gettysburg, for example, along with General Gregg, Custer’s unit blocked JEB Stuart’s attempt to reach the battlefield in the Union rear. In 1864 he particpated in the Battle of Yellow Tavern where Stuart was killed. He was one of Sheridan’s favorite cavalry generals in the Shenandoah Valley campaign. Custer is contorversial and there are disputes as to whether his Civil War success was the result of “Custer’s luck” and recklessness or tactics devleoped for the situations in which he found himself. But there can be no doubt he was a successful soldier and general in the Civil War.

    Hence, it is inappaririate to judge his military merits (“poor performance as an officer”) without including the Civil War battles and unfair to judge Bingham’s “judgment” in supporting Custer on the same grounds. It may be worthy of note that at the time of the Civil War battles Bingham was in the Congress. At the time of the Little Big Horn Bingham was in Japan as the U.S. Minister.