CUSTER LETTERS The letters cover a period from 1859- when Custer was a cadet at West Point, until 1876, just weeks before the fatal battle at the Little Big Horn River. The letters were penned to Augusta Ward Frerry, Custer's cousin on his mother's side,who lived in Canandaigua, New York. No reference of these letters have been found until now. The correspondence reinforces the stereotyped Custer- confident to the point of arrogant, and fearless in his pursuit of war. But writings by a 19-year old George at officer's school revealed a devilish, comical side. Once, he boasted about the prank he pulled: the old bedroll-under-the-blanket trick to sneak off to a party. BENOIT: While at West Point, he writes on December 13th, 1859: "Do not imagine that we intended to go with the consent of the commandant and other authorities, because we never have permission to go anywhere beyond a half-mile from our barracks. We had to be in our rooms and in bed precisely at 10 o'clock at night as on all other nights. As at that time an officer enters our room with a dark lantern to see that we are all present. But because we are in our bed at 10 o'clock is no reason we should remain there until revellie at 5 o'clock." BENOIT: We don't usually get the image as George as a party animal, willing to get in trouble, sneaking out of the barracks- commiting a very heinous offense. But he was not what we would call a model student at West Point. He graduated dead last in his class of '34 and racked up more demarets than any other cadet in West Point history- a record that holds to this day. He later said that the only thing his career at West Point offered for future students was an indication of things that should not be done. Despite his school record, Custer rose swiftly up the chain of command with the Union forces during the Civil War, becoming the youngest brigadeer general. Up against the Confederates or Indians, his method of attack was a simple one: charge. BENOIT: He was a motivator of men- we can't take that away from him. He was an influential figure on the battle field. He was colorful, he did lead the men. He wasn't a back seat general- he was right out in front. Fortunately for him it was always in times he was successful. At a time in history when the North needed victories, you needed a colorful leader that was willing to charge and take those chances. George was in the right place at the right time. He really wasn't a brilliant tactician.. it was the one way: straight in, with sabre drawn and right into the breech was the way he fought. Although he was hated by his men, absolutely despised. His unit had the highest desertion rate out of any in the cavalry after the Civil War in the Indian Wars time period. His men called him "Old Hard Butt" because he would just force them to work incredible rates and for long periods of time. He expected as much from his men as he expected from himself. And since he expected super-human levels from himself, well, any man who could not keep up with him was not good enough. It was during a Civil War letter to his cousin that Custer expresses his feelings regarding the ultimate end to the battle between the states. BENOIT: He does write one letter from General McClellan's headquarters, "Friday October 30th, 1862... You ask me if will not be glad when the last battle is fought. So far as my country is concerned, I of course must wish for peace and will be glad when the war is ended. But if I answer for myself alone, I must say that I shall regret to see the war end, and would be willing- yes, glad- to see a battle every day during my life. Now, do not misunderstand me. I only speak of my own interests and desires.." BENOIT: It's interesting that he has underlined "interests and desires" in that passage. He wants everyone to know that if it were just up to.. me.. he certainly would like to fight battles every day. Augusta Frerry lost a brother at an early age and seems to have expressed her unfulfilled desire to Custer to have a warrior to cheer on during the conflict. George and his ego complied. "You spoke of having no one in your family to answer the call to arms. Why can you not consider me your representative in the army and center on me the interest or a portion which you would have done upon your brother? I should certainly strive you and your's with credit. Shall I become your protege in the army?" BENOIT: Now, at first that sounds like, Aw, George, what a way to comfort Augusta when she's feeling bad about her brother. But you can also read it, fitting more with his ego: center on me, Augusta your attention, and notice me, and think about me. His ego was as big as his reputation. The last letter found was dated about a month before Custer and over 200 of his men were killed at the Little Big Horn in Montana, and again backs up the Custer courage. April 30th, 1876. He writes from the Arlington Hotel that.. "Serious Indian difficulties call me quickly to the Dakotas". BENOIT: That doesn't seem to phase him and he doesn't seem to have any fear about his success there. He seemed to believe that "I'm coming back" as he writes in that same letter: "However we must not give up the idea of a visit." BENOIT: He was hoping to visit Augusta Frerry here in Rochester. "Mrs. Custer and I expect to return to the East early in the fall, in which event we will not be hurried in our movements but will surely consent upon making you and yours a satisfactory visit." BENOIT: No hint of "Gee, I hope I can make it back to the East" or "Gosh, I hope everything goes well over there, I'm a little nervous"... Just: there's serious Indian difficulties. I'm going to take care of it. I'll be back.. be back in the Fall, no problem. You can't read these letters without coming away from imagining a man that stood tall, although he was short. And walked with a swagger.. and spoke a certain way- that must have exuded this confidence, which may have made his men feel better. It certainly didn't bother the Indians much. Charles Benoit is in his second year of teaching at the School Without Walls. He spent ten days in Montana this past summer to gather information on General Custer. He says the discovery of the letters has turned class activities into a scavenger hunt, as students find new angles to research, based on the correspondence. Benoit and his students have tied some amazing local links to this flamboyant figure in American history. BENOIT: We're doing original research on Custer in Rochester. We didn't know for example, that he stayed over in Rochester on his honeymoon and saw Uncle Tom's Cabin somewhere in Rochester. My students are trying to find out where. He stayed in Rochester many times. He was through here on his recruitment for the Civil War... little things like this that most people in this area don't realize.. how often this person- we associate with the far West, was in Western New York. Bill Flynn, WXXI 1370.