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George Armstrong Custer Court-Martial: 1867 - The Court-martial

charges fort specifications deserters

On September 16, the charges with the specifications were read aloud in the court. Under the charge of "absence without leave from his command," it was specified that he left Fort Wallace for Fort Harker without proper authority from his superiors. Many of the other specifications fell under the charge of "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline." Two of these specifications claimed that he had marched some of his men "upon private business" and that he had used two ambulances and four mules to travel the last leg of the journey to Fort Harker. Behind these charges, however, lay the larger accusation that Custer should have been devoting his time and energy and forces and resources to pursuing Indians.

These might be considered almost administrative issues, but the remaining specifications were more serious. One claimed that on the trip from Fort Wallace to Fort Harker, after receiving a report that two of his men had been killed by Indians who had attacked a detachment, Custer neglected to pursue the Indians or to recover and bury the bodies. Another claimed that, on his long trip to Fort Wallace earlier in July, he ordered some of his men to pursue and shoot three known deserters, without conducting any trial; that after these wounded men were hauled 18 miles in a wagon to Custer's encampment, he refused to allow the doctor to treat them; and that one of these wounded men, Charles Johnson, subsequently died because of Custer's orders.

Custer pleaded not guilty to all charges and the trial proceeded. The prosecution called witness after witness, and although not all were antagonistic to Custer, their testimony tended to support the general outlines of the charges. Numerous differences involving distances and dates and other details inevitably emerged, and some testimony actually aided Custer. Although Custer's own brother, Lt. Thomas Custer, a member of his staff, testified that George had said, "I want you to get on your horse and go after those deserters and shoot them down," the officers who first fired at three deserters claimed they had done so in self-defense. The doctor who treated the three wounded men testified that Custer had only forced him to wait about a half hour and that Custer had in fact quietly told him to give the men proper medical treatment.

When it came time for Custer to mount his defense, in addition to several witnesses who offered testimony in his support, he submitted a series of official military orders showing that other U.S. Army officers—including his superior, Major General Hancock—had authorized killing deserters. He also offered an elaborate table showing the high numbers of desertions from the Seventh Cavalry.

Custer himself never took the stand but he submitted a long report in which he justified his action against the deserters by stating that, after these three men were shot, "Not a single desertion took place from that time so long as I remained with command." Aside from that, he presented what he regarded as more than reasonable explanations for all the charges against himself.

On October 11, the court went into deliberation and within hours returned to announce they had found Custer guilty on five of the charges and specifications. He was immediately sentenced to be suspended from his rank and command for one year and to forfeit his pay for the same period.

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