Custer House draws visitors to Fort Dodge
by Charlene Scott Myers
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer walked with high hopes through the door of the two-story stone and frame house, Officers Quarters at Fort Dodge, Kansas, that years later would be named for him. Had he known of that future honor, Custer would have been elated.
When he strode out of the house, he was hoping to redeem himself with the American public from the scandal of his 1867 court-martial. He aspired to a victory against American Indians, and to someday becoming president of the United States.
On Oct. 6, 1868, Custer camped with his Osage Indian scouts on Bluff Creek near Fort Dodge, eager to commence his assault against Native Americans in a portion of Indian Territory that would not become Oklahoma until 1907.
General Philip Sheridan had summoned Custer to command a winter campaign of the Seventh U.S. Calvary against Indians after Custer's court-martial and nearly a year of suspension spent at Fort Leavenworth and Custer's home in Michigan. A brash hero at the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, Custer later disgraced himself by going AWOL to visit his wife Libbie and ordering deserters shot without benefit of a military court trial.
On Nov. 12, 1868, Custer and his men left from near Fort Dodge to begin their march in bitter cold and deep snow. They launched a surprise attack at dawn Nov. 27, 1868 at Washita, Indian Territory, bringing death to Chief Black Kettle and more than 100 persons--75 of them women and children--of his 250 Southern Cheyenne Indians. (Custer wisely avoided the huge camps of 6,000 Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche Indians along the Upper Washita River.)
Black Kettle, a survivor of the Nov. 8, 1864 brutal Sand Creek massacre of Indians in Colorado, had signed the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty in the state of Kansas Oct. 28, 1867. He was widely known as the southwest's foremost peace chief, but a year later he would be murdered. (Custer was absent from the Medicine Lodge Council due to his court-martial.)
Custer achieved only a minor victory at the small Cheyenne camp at Washita, but the frigid Washita River was stained with Indian blood and tears. Black Kettle, his wife, and people were found riddled with bullets, floating in the river. Soldiers on horseback chased and shot women and children fleeing on foot alongside the river, a scene immortalized in the movie Little Big Man. (Pioneers later would be baptized in Washita's once bloodied waters.)
Custer captured 53 Washita women and children as hostages to be used as human shields for his retreat, a tactic that proved disastrous when he attempted it again nearly six years later at the Little Big Horn in Montana. The 53 Washita women and children were forced 100 miles to Fort Supply, and then 90 miles further to Fort Dodge.
Custer and his regiment returned to Fort Dodge on April 1869, but he never was assigned to the fort. The frustrated Custer still was searching for a major victory to establish himself again as an American hero.
Instead, at the age of 36, he would bring death or grievous injury upon himself and many of his expedition of 28 officers and 747 men at the Little Big Horn River in Montana. By dividing his troops into three columns that he sent in different directions, Custer weakened their thrusts against Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse -- and 2,000 Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians hidden in the hills.
Custer achieved lasting fame at the Little Big Horn, but a total of 268 officers, troops, and scouts died and 55 were wounded on June 25-26, 1876. (The more than 200 soldiers in Custer's column perished with him.)
The stately structure in which Custer is said to have spent the night at Fort Dodge survives to this day, however. The Custer House is located at 228 Custer Street at the historic fort, which was established as a 43,000-acre military post to provide protection from Indians along the Santa Fe Trail.
The house which Custer visited draws visitors from around the country, according to Fort Dodge Superintendent Carlos Diaz, a native of El Salvador and former U.S. Army captain who participated in the first Iraqi war and served the U.S. military for 14 years. The house is home to Diaz.
"Custer House is popular with people who visit the fort, and is open for holidays about twice a year." he said. "People talk more about the house, but rarely about Custer himself."
The U.S. Army abandoned the fort April 5, 1882. In 1889, Fort Dodge was deeded to the State of Kansas for a Soldiers' Home, which now has approximately 125 residents, 94 full-time and 10 part-time employees.
Diaz is not a superstitious man, but he does hear noises at the Custer House. "Sometimes I hear very loud noises, but I tell myself that the noises are coming from the wind," he said.
Perhaps it's the ghost of the controversial Custer, returning now and then to a fort and a house on the Plains where he was welcome and safe from Indians – and from himself.