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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Custer at the Alamo

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

If it really happened and could be proven, many would find the irony irresistibly delicious. Did George Armstrong Custer visit the Alamo when he was stationed in Texas? Yes, that George Armstrong Custer.

In August 1865, only a few months after the end of the Civil War, then brevet Maj. Gen. Custer led a large occupation force of U.S. volunteer soldiers into Texas via Louisiana. A little more than a decade later, he and 209 of his fellow 7th Cavalry soldiers would die in the Battle of Little Big Horn, far better known as Custer's Last Stand.

Custer and his troops maintained a camp near Hempstead, in East Texas, before marching into Austin early that November. His soldiers bivouacked along Shoal Creek, at that time just west of town, and Custer and his wife Libby settled into the temporarily empty Texas State Blind Asylum. The building served as his headquarters and residence. (The 1857 limestone building still stands on the University of Texas campus.)

When Custer arrived in Texas, it had been less than 30 years since the 13-day siege of the old Spanish mission known as the Alamo had ended in the deaths of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William B. Travis and 180-plus other Texas defenders. Many knew the story, but many did not. The Alamo got a name-recognition boost on March 5, 1866 when the New York Times carried a front-page article on Texas, a long dispatch from an unnamed visitor that contained several paragraphs on San Antonio.

"It is the largest and most delightful, as well as the most interesting city in Texas, and contains about 15,000 people, a larger number of whom are Germans, Mexicans and Indians," the article noted. "Among the attractions of this city are….," the piece continued, "Fortress Alamo…where, in 1836, Santa Anna, after a successful siege, butchered 188 Americans…"

Only 10 years after the battle, the U.S. opened a quartermaster supply depot in the Alamo. (At the same time adding the iconic hump on its front.) Though federal troops vacated San Antonio and the state at the beginning of the Civil War, roughly concurrent with Custer's arrival the military reopened the facility. As the ranking officer in Texas, Custer unquestionably knew of the old mission's present use.

As for the battle, if Custer had not learned about the Alamo in his history lectures at West Point, he most certainly saw the limestone and concrete monument commemorating the Alamo defenders that then stood in the center of the state capitol. The piece made the outcome of the battle quite clear. Too, in studying military tactics he had learned that sieges usually do not end well for the besieged.

But, as would Gen. George S. Patton in a future war, had Custer felt called to visit the scene of a famous battle? Now a war-hardened young cavalry officer, Custer found action more interesting than intellectual reflection. He enjoyed the outdoors, especially hunting. And he liked to drink, having developed a reputation as a boozer while a cadet at the military academy. That's what gives rise to at least the possibility that Custer spent some time in San Antonio, which means he could not have missed seeing and probably looking over the Alamo.

The perception that Custer did visit San Antonio came in late December 1865 or early in January 1866 when the National Republican published a letter accusing Custer of having been drunk in public in the town not yet known as the Alamo City. Worse, the letter writer said the young officer had spoken at a gathering of ex-rebel soldiers there and that he had "expressed disloyal sentiments" that bordered on treasonous.

Clearly, the unfavorable national exposure hit a nerve with the general. "There are several facts and reasons why the imputation is unjust, untrue and inapplicable," Custer wrote in the March 3, 1866 issue of the Army-Navy Journal. "First I have never been nearer San Antonio than I am at the present moment (eighty miles). Second the charge of drunkenness is wholly unfounded, whether at San Antonio or elsewhere, as I have abstained from the use of spiritous liquors for several years."

That said, was Custer telling the truth? Stagecoaches made regular runs between Austin and San Antonio, and the trip would have taken a seasoned horse soldier and his entourage no more than three days. Given that Custer often took long rides from his headquarters, and was an adventurous type, it's hard to picture why did he had not gone to San Antonio at least once while posted in Central Texas. He certainly could have had business at the Army depot in what the military referred to as the Alamo Building. But Custer's wife, who later wrote a book on their experiences in Texas and Kansas called "Tenting on the Plains," makes no mention of their having visited Bexar County.

In late January 1866, Congress ordered the disbanding of the nation's volunteer forces and cashiered the generals who led those commands, including Custer. By March, he was gone from Texas.

One thing is indisputable. On June 25, 1876, Custer learned first-hand what it was like for soldiers facing overwhelmingly superior numbers. And, like the defenders of the Alamo who also had gone down fighting, the so-called boy general would not be forgotten.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" May 28, 2019

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