Custer’s Vanity and Distinctive Appearance
Myth #3. “His vanity, his desire to appear distinctive, led him to don whatever dress would make him most conspicuous and distinguish him from his companions.” A quote from Charles J. Brill, author of Conquest of the Southern Plains.
Answer: Custer permitted his curly, blond hair to grow long, cutting it short when he married Libbie Bacon, and vowed not to cut it again until he entered Richmond. And later as Custer prepared to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1876, he cut it short, presumably because they would be within a country known to be quite warm at that time of year. Barbers were not a common complement of the service. Shaves and haircuts were often self-administered. In addition to the practical reasons he kept his hair short, Custer knew he had attractive hair and wasn’t embarrassed to wear it long.
Custer’s choice of a hat had to do with his having a light complexion that burned readily with sun exposure. Instead of the regulation dress hat, he usually wore a broad-brimmed, flat topped, sombrero, either of straw or light colored felt. At West Point, his fair skin with pink tones earned him the name Fanny. The Southern cavalryman had learned that straw was cooler than felt, and that a light color reflected the warm rays of the sun. The Northern army did not adopt this style.
While campaigning on the plains, Custer found a pair of buckskin trousers and a fringed buckskin jacket that was waist length both comfortable and durable. At times, he wore moccasins but preferred Wellington cavalry boots that afforded protection for his legs while on the trail.
The cavalry officers and enlisted men were permitted to dress informally while campaigning. Many men would have canvas sewed onto their trousers at the points of wear on the seat and inner thighs. Government issued shirts were not mandatory. Checkered black and white shirts were popular as were navy blue. Hats were seen in numerous shapes and sizes, because everyone disliked the regulation black felt hat. The hat was hot and unshapely after being in the rain.
For a time, Custer wore red flannel shirts until Libbie begged him to give them up for obvious reasons. He became an even more noticeable target, wearing the bright red shirts.
At the post, Custer wore the standard and accepted uniforms that lieutenant colonels customarily wore. While on garrison duty, he dressed smartly and expected his officers to do likewise. He wanted them to respect themselves in the way they dressed and that would result in respect for the outfit they served. This was just one of many requirements Custer used in developing esprit de corps in the Seventh Cavalry.
When Custer visited New York, during the winter, he would wear civilian clothes. When he was elevated to the rank of brigadier general in the Civil War, he had the prerogative of designing his own uniform. Some called it a bizarre uniform. General James H. Kidd, then a colonel in the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, described Custer after viewing him when he first took command.
“I saw an officer superbly mounted who sat his charger as if to the manner born. Tall, lithe, active, muscular, straight as an Indian and as quick in his movements, he had the fair complexion of a schoolgirl.
Custer was clad in a suit of black velvet, elaborately trimmed with gold lace, which ran down the outer seams of his trousers, and almost covered the sleeves of his cavalry jacket. The wide collar of the blue navy shirt was turned down over the collar of his velvet jacket, and a necktie of brilliant crimson was tied in a graceful knot at the throat, the long ends falling carelessly in front. The double row of buttons on his breast was arranged in groups of two, indicating the rank of a brigadier general. A soft, black hat with wide brim adorned with a gilt cord, and a rosette encircling a silver star was worn turned down on one side giving him a rakish air. His golden hair fell in graceful luxuriance nearly to his shoulders, and his upper lip was garnished with a blond mustache. A sword and belt, gilt spurs and top boots, completed his unique outfit.
That garb, fantastic as at first sight it appeared to be was to be, the distinguishing mark which, during all the remaining years of that war, like the white plume of Henry of Navarre, was to show us where, in the thickest of the fight, we were to seek our leader – for, where danger was . . . there was he, always.”
Like the company guidon, the personal designating flag or the regimental standard, Custer was the rallying point and none could fail to see where he was located. He once said that by being in front where his men would see him in that uniform and red necktie, sharing their dangers and inviting the enemies’ bullets, he served to set an example.
General George Patton, in more recent time, used a similar psychology. Patton used to ride in a jeep at the head of a tank advance. When Patton was seen standing in the lead tank or jeep, a pair of ivory handled revolvers strapped to him, his men took on new courage. The faintest of hearts beat faster when they saw their commanding general up in front sharing their hardships and danger. Obviously, the revolvers were symbolic of his horse cavalry days, because they had no use in tank warfare. Who would doubt it was Patton when they spotted those revolvers?
Frost, Lawrence A., CUSTER LEGENDS, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981