CAGB BOOK REVIEW

CUSTER’S SOUTHERN OFFICER: Captain George D. Wallace, 7th U.S. Cavalry,

By John D. Mackintosh. Published by Cloud Creek Press, Lexington, South Carolina. 2002. 188pp.  Maps. Illus. Soft cover.  Price: $15.  

The name George D. Wallace is not one of those most familiar to students of the Custer fight. Generally, he did little that was controversial, was considered to be genial and sedate, and led an unexceptional, though creditable career. Unlike Custer, Reno, Benteen and French he was not court-martialled. He seems to have had no known vices, such as drunkenness, as did Weir. His death at Wounded Knee in December 1890, the only commissioned fatality in that now notorious engagement, brought to an end the career of an engaging, competent, conscientious, likeable officer. 

Like many of the subalterns in the 7th Cavalry he was a West Point graduate. He served with the Seventh on the Yellowstone campaign in 1873; accompanied the regiment on the Black Hills Expedition in 1874; served in the Little Big Horn and Nez Perce campaigns; then led a generally uneventful career in the more peaceful days of the 1880s, until his unexpected death at a time when the only wars the United States Army was planning for involved those against a possible European adversary. 

Although Wallace married and left behind a year old son, the author was unable to trace any descendants. He left few letters and apparently kept no diaries, though, like several contemporaries, he did evidently write anonymous articles for the press. Mackintosh has, therefore, had to rely essentially on much in the way of indirect evidence with regard to Wallace’s personal life; he has consulted his Appointment, Commission and personal Branch File (frequently a mine of information) and the records of several events that directly, or indirectly, impinged upon Wallace’s career. The work is as comprehensive as the material available would allow and there is no doubt that Mackintosh, a member of several specialist bodies immersed in the events in Montana of June 1876, has produced a worthwhile account of the life and career of this officer. 

But why Wallace?  Well, the answer would seem to be that at a certain crucial time in the early afternoon of a June Sabbath, Wallace, as acting topographical officer attached to headquarters, happened to be riding near HIM. It may be that Wallace may have heard conversations, instructions and remarks that HE may have had. Even worse, it seems that when, two and a half years later, Wallace was called upon to testify under oath what he had heard and did that Sunday afternoon, he seems to have completely forgotten what HE had said to his subordinates, (which may, or may not, have included a comprehensive battle plan possibly promulgated, directly or indirectly to the second-in-command) and, worse still like every officer in the 7th Regiment of Cavalry committed perjury to protect the honour and reputation of (either): Major Marcus Reno; or: the 7th Regiment of Cavalry; or the United States Army! 

Without dwelling too much on this particular area, it should be said that Mackintosh deals with this subject both competently and dispassionately. Wallace was an uncomfortable witness at Chicago, especially during direct examination by Recorder Lee. He clearly carefully made truthful comments, which excluded much that was relevant to the student of the battle, but probably less that was germane to the issues before the Court of Inquiry. (It might be useful to remember that the 1879 hearing was not convened for the benefit of historians.) Mackintosh is to be congratulated on tracking down the hidden story that Wallace told with tears in his eyes, which is referred to in “Varnum, Reno and the Little Big Horn.” Wallace evidently alluded to Custer’s plan of attack, involving a co-operating attack involving his own five companies and Reno’s three, to be delivered simultaneously when Custer had reached the lower end of the village. This review is not the forum to consider or weigh up the likelihood that Custer had developed such a plan before Reno was committed. But given that Custer’s order to Reno was predicated on the assumption that the Indians were “on the jump" and fleeing the village with great speed, such a plan seems unlikely. However, it is possible that Custer may have formulated a series of military options for Reno if the fluid situation developed in a manner different from that which he had originally anticipated; it may be the explanation for Reno’s decision to halt the battalion attack and go firm on the skirmish line in the face of a stationary village, the troops to remain in position until Custer’s diversionary attack was made further north.

If that is the case, why was this not disclosed at Chicago? Mackintosh does not tell us this. There are several possible reasons that, incidentally, fall a long way short of the conspiracy theories that abound this campaign.  There is a simple truth about this battle and the officers’ testimony. In many cases they realised that in protecting Reno’s reputation, they were protecting their own, and that of their colleagues.  

Wallace, when detached by Custer to join Reno, did not attach himself to his own company (G) but accompanied Lieutenants Varnum and Hare with the Arikara scouts. It is a strange phenomenon but true, nevertheless, that whilst Reno’s battalion comprised nine officers and an uncertain number of enlisted men and scouts, only four officers were serving with their companies, with three more shepherding 20 Arikara scouts who, having failed to stampede the Sioux pony herd, left the valley fight, creating three surplus officers! It was not until the battalion had withdrawn to the timber that Wallace decided to attach himself to his own company.  It had entered the fight with roughly 45 officers and men; when it left the valley up to 13 of its members were dead and four wounded. Yet, when Wallace set out to join Weir and the other companies on Weir Point an hour and a half later, he could only muster seven men. By the time he returned to Reno Hill an hour and a half after that he had “no troop, only three men.” Half of his company had decided to avoid further combat that afternoon.  Mackintosh follows Kuhlman on this and concludes that the absentees were “skulking among the packs.” This would seem to suggest that Wallace had, unlike Godfrey, failed to maintain company discipline and morale – a difficult assignment for an officer with less than four years’ experience. Yet Benteen considered, years later, that Wallace should have been brevetted before any other of the three officers he originally concluded informally were worthy of such commendation. One surmises that this was a reflection on his personal conduct on the 26th.rather than the disastrous sequence of events the day before. 

John Mackintosh has produced an interesting book; it is unlikely that he has put at rest the arguments and controversies surrounding the events immediately prior to the battle on 25th June, but it is possible that some readers may now conclude that there was no great conspiracy in Chicago, only a series of evasions and half-truths. 

Francis B. Taunton

Custer Association of Great Britain

Copyright © 2005 CAGB