Authors: Robert Conroy
1882: Custer In Chains
Following his unlikely but decisive (and immensely popular) 1876 victory over Sitting Bull and the Sioux at the Little Big Horn, George Armstrong Custer is propelled into the White House in 1880.
Two years later, he finds himself bored and seeks new worlds to conquer. He and his wife Libbie fixate on Spain’s decaying empire as his source for immortality. What President Custer doesn’t quite comprehend is that the U.S. military isn’t up to such a venture. When a group of Americans on a ship headed for Cuba is massacred, war becomes inevitable—and unless calmer, patriotic citizens and soldiers can find a way to avoid debacle, this war may be
BAEN BOOKS by ROBERT CONROY
1920: America’s Great War
1882: Custer in Chains
1882: CUSTER IN CHAINS
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Conroy
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Book
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Kurt Miller
First Baen printing, May 2015
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
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New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Conroy, Robert (Joseph Robert), 1938–
1882 : Custer in chains / Robert Conroy.
pages ; cm.
ISBN 978-1-4767-8051-1 (hardcover)
1. Custer, George A. (George Armstrong), 1839–1876—Fiction. 2. Little Bighorn, Battle of the, Mont.,
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Pages by Joy Freeman (
Printed in the United States of America
Electronic Version by Baen Books
n order to be successful, an alternate history novel has to be plausible, accurate, and relevant. While plausibility and accuracy are more or less self-explanatory, relevancy might not be. For instance, had I studied harder in high school (or at all when I first started college) my life might have turned out significantly different, although not necessarily for the better. The world, however, would have neither noted nor long remembered my changed efforts, to misuse Lincoln’s immortal words at Gettysburg.
Thus, I had always felt that if George Armstrong Custer had somehow survived his very bad day at the Little Big Horn, the world wouldn’t have given it—or him—a second thought. Like many old soldiers, Custer would have simply faded away, eking out an existence on his miserable pension. In sum, not much would have happened to change the world had he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
But would that really have been the case?
First, victory over the Sioux was always within his grasp. He underestimated his enemy and had foolishly split his forces. And he also had a pair of Gatling guns that he refused to take with him because he felt they would slow him down. This was a problem that could have been solved simply by using decent horses to pull them instead of the sickly nags he did use. My own feeling is that he didn’t want to bring the Gatlings because they weren’t glamorous enough for the hard-charging Seventh Cavalry.
Second, Custer and his wife Libbie were ambitious to a fault. They also loved each other deeply. The very lovely Libbie Custer was far more cunning and politically attuned than he, and, after getting a medal for his heroic achievements in defeating the Sioux, I believe she would have urged him to run for the presidency in 1880 as the Republican nominee. With her backing and conniving, he would likely have won.
And how lovely was Libbie? Photographic technology of the period often resulted in people looking stark and severe, and this is the case with most photos of Libbie. However, there are a few that can be viewed on the internet in which she looks absolutely stunning and sensual.
What would have happened to the United States if he, the nation’s newest war hero, had won that election?
Custer was no dummy. He had graduated from West Point and had risen in rank through his courage and his abilities to become a very young brigadier general in the Civil War. Nor was he a coward. His exploits in battle prove that he was brave. He was, however, headstrong, impetuous, and heartily disliked by many of his peers. What mischief would President George Armstrong Custer have brought us? In my opinion, Custer would have gone looking for another war not just to get reelected for a second term, but make him a major historical figure and not just a peacetime caretaker. I think he would have found peacetime very boring.
One historical note: What we now call the White House was called a number of things back then. The term “White House” was just beginning to become common. I have used it for simplicity’s sake.
he spent bullet slammed into Custer’s shoulder, spinning him and dropping him face down on the ground where he tasted dirt and blood through split lips. He staggered to his knees. Blood streamed from a cut in his scalp, which, he thought ruefully, might not be his for very much longer. At least the redskinned savages would have a difficult time lifting it. He’d cut his hair short in anticipation of the fight, although not his death. His long golden locks, now graying slightly, had been thrown away and were blowing around the Dakotas. The Indians would never get them.
Custer snapped an order and Sergeant Haney helped him to his feet. If he had to die, Custer thought, he would do so standing up. “What the devil are they waiting for, Haney?” The blood from the cut was dripping into his eyes and he couldn’t see very clearly. Being blind, however, was the least of his problems.
“Fucked if I know, General dearest,” muttered the short, stocky sergeant who’d been with him since the Civil War. Custer usually yelled at him when Haney referred to him as “General” dearest, but it didn’t seem to matter this sunny day of June 25, 1876. And the hell with him if it did, Haney thought. He’d been wounded several times this day and the next could finish him. Custer, the stupid bastard who commanded the Seventh Cavalry, had just gone and gotten all of them killed. Why the hell hadn’t Custer waited for General Terry and the rest of the army to come up before attacking? Because he wanted the glory of victory and he was afraid that the Indians would flee before he could be reinforced.
Custer’s vision cleared a little. The Sioux were riding their ponies in swirling clusters, whooping and shooting wildly at the small number of men still alive on the grassy knob. He looked around and counted only a dozen of his men still standing with him. Several others lay prone on the ground along with an almost equal number of Indians. He had taken five companies of his Seventh Cavalry to attack the main Sioux camp while other units hit them from the other side of the river. He’d figured that two hundred and ten soldiers were more than enough for this part of the attack. The savages wouldn’t stand up to an assault on their homes. In previous battles, they’d broken up in attempts to save their families and had fled. Custer had laughed when planning the assault. Only fools would take their women and children along on a war. His own wife, Libbie, along with a number of others, was safely ensconced on a steamer in the Missouri.
Only he hadn’t counted on there being so damned many of the Indians. There must be at least a thousand warriors, not the few hundred he expected to find on this side of the Little Big Horn. He’d also anticipated that Reno, with the rest of the regiment, would support him by attacking from the other side of the river. Caught in a vise, the Indians would break. But where the hell was Reno? And where was Benteen? Reno was just across the river, so why didn’t he come and help? Benteen was farther away, but he too should be arriving soon. Benteen was junior to Reno, so maybe he was coming with Reno. But where the hell were they? If they didn’t arrive in the next few minutes it would all be over.
Custer swore and called Reno a son of a bitch. Reno hated Custer but he always obeyed orders. Custer rarely swore, even to himself, but this day was an exception. Of course, he laughed ruefully, being surrounded by a thousand angry Indians will do that to a man.
Custer checked his pistol. He had two bullets left. Should he save one for himself? Yes. If taken prisoner, they’d cut him into little pieces and then roast what remained of his still living carcass over a small, slow fire. Or maybe they’d parade him naked all throughout the Great Plains and defer cutting him into those little living pieces for agonizing, humiliating weeks. No, he’d rather be dead this day.
“Haney, if I fail, kill me.”
Haney snorted and checked his Springfield. It was loaded and wasn’t jammed.
Bullets fired from a long distance rained down on the knob, kicking up dust and only occasionally hitting someone. Only the fact that many of the Indians were unused to rifles and, therefore, poor shots, had kept them alive for this long. Haney had one of Mr. Colt’s big revolvers stuck in his waistband and a bullet was intended for himself—Custer could go to hell. After all, hadn’t the arrogant son of a bitch gotten them into this mess? Let him solve his own damned problems.
“Look, General, they’re gathering a lot of them together. They’re going to ride right over us and there isn’t a damn thing we can do.”
“We can die well,” Custer announced. Haney looked away and almost fell over. He’d taken three arrows and one bullet already. Fortunately the arrows had barely penetrated flesh and the bullet had gone through the meat of this thigh without hitting an artery, but fatigue and loss of blood were weakening him. He didn’t want to pass out and be scalped alive. Or worse, be taken by the savages for their sadistic entertainment.
Nor did Sergeant Haney particularly wish to die well. If given a choice, he’d choose to live poorly rather than die in any way. It was all well and good for an Irish Catholic to believe in the afterlife, but did it have to begin today? Besides, he hadn’t been to Confession in several months of Sundays.
“They’re coming,” a trooper said. The Indians were moving slowly towards them. Haney estimated maybe two hundred horsemen in the bunch, including some leaders. It would be more than enough to trample them into the dirt beside the Little Big Horn River.
The Indians were howling and picking up speed. They were only a few hundred yards away. Haney shook his rifle at them. “Come on, you fuckers! Mike Haney ain’t gonna die all that easily. Some of you are going to die as well.”
Custer laughed, his voice a cackle. He was about to say something when a harsh screeching sound erupted. Suddenly, the Sioux horde seemed to shudder as if it’d been punched. Warriors and horses tumbled and fell. Screams of fear and dismay, mingled with pain, came from Indian throats. Horses screamed in agony and there was chaos.
More bodies fell and formed ghastly piles. Some Indians tried to get up and were trampled by their panic-stricken horses.
“Bloody fucking hell, General dearest, would you mind telling me just what is happening?”
Custer turned to his left and began to cackle even more loudly. At first he couldn’t see because of the gunsmoke, but then it cleared. “Gatlings. Somebody disobeyed my orders and brought the Gatling battery along. It must be Lieutenant Low.”
Despite his wounds, Haney’s eyesight was much better than Custer’s. “No sir, it ain’t Low. It looks like that young pup, Lieutenant Ryder.”
The two hand-cranked machine guns were several hundred yards away and each was firing at three hundred and fifty rounds a minute, spraying the close-packed Indians like watering a lawn with a hose and dropping the Sioux warriors into piles of bodies.
It was enough. The Sioux began to pull back, slowly at first and then at a gallop as the Gatlings’ bullets followed them.
Custer sagged to his knees. “We’re going to live.”
“Indeed we are. At least for a while, General dearest.”
Custer swung his good arm and hit Haney on the thigh. “Then quit calling me ‘General dearest’ you bow-legged shanty Irish bastard.”
* * *
Second Lieutenant Martin Ryder, Seventh U.S. Cavalry, walked among the dead and was appalled. So many of them were men he’d known and now they were mere lumps of meat. A number had already been scalped or mutilated by the Indians before the rain of death from his guns had chased them away. The Indians liked to disembowel their victims as well as slicing the muscles of their arms and legs. He’d heard that it was supposed to hamper them in the afterlife. Whatever the reason, the wounds were hideous. General Terry had arrived with the rest of the column and men were just beginning to gather up the dead. They had bloated in the sun and already stank to high heaven.
Among the dead, Ryder had recognized Custer’s two brothers and he’d been informed that all of Custer’s officers had been killed. The death total was one hundred and eighty seven out of the two hundred and ten men who’d accompanied Custer, and it was likely to go higher, since some of the survivors were severely wounded. There were additional casualties from the two detachments commanded by Benteen and Reno that had fought desperately on the other side of the Little Big Horn. They too had almost been overrun by larger than expected numbers of Indians.
“If I’d arrived an hour earlier, how many others would still be alive?” Ryder wondered out loud.
“The survivors are lucky you arrived at all.”
Ryder wheeled. He hadn’t noticed the man in civilian clothes who was slowly walking up to him.
“Who the devil are you?”
“James Kendrick,” the other man said with a warm smile, “and I’m a freelance reporter who’s been following the campaign. I’m attached to General Terry’s headquarters. I’m surprised you didn’t notice me.”
“My mind was elsewhere, Mr. Kendrick. I was thinking of so many dead friends. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
Kendrick shook his head sadly. “I’m a decade older than you and I haven’t either, and the reporter in me says I have to find out what happened. For instance, why the devil did Custer divide his forces when confronted by a vastly superior enemy? For that matter, why did he attack in the first place? Then why didn’t Benteen and Reno come to his assistance sooner instead of waiting until you arrived with your guns?”
“Have you talked to Custer?”
“He’s still recovering and dictating a report to his aide. His physical wounds will heal, but I fear the loss of his brothers will be harder for him. I also feel that the official report will show General George Armstrong Custer in a most favorable light. I want the truth, Lieutenant. For instance, is it true that your guns were left behind because only miserable nags were assigned to pull them?”
“Cavalry always gets first crack at the good mounts. Cavalry is supposed to ride ahead of the army; dragging artillery—and Gatlings are defined as artillery—would definitely slow them down. I did convince Lieutenant Low and General Terry that, with better horses, I would be able to keep up with Custer. Terry agreed after Custer left and he gave me good mounts, some remounts, and a total of fifty men. Low didn’t want to do it. He felt that he had to obey Custer’s orders and leave them behind. Riding hard and alternating horses, I was able to make up the lost time. I only wish I had gotten here sooner.”
“As do the almost two hundred men of the Seventh Cavalry who are now dead. The savages aren’t stupid, Lieutenant. They retreated because it was obvious they were going to suffer heavy casualties if they didn’t, and that’s something they don’t want to do. The Indians realize that there are far more white men than red and they don’t want a stand-up fight if they can possibly avoid it. Every dead white man can and will be replaced but that’s not true for a dead red man. By the way, it looks like your guns managed to kill Crazy Horse, which further demoralized them.”
“Another good reason for them to pull back,” said Ryder.
“I’m going to do you a favor and give you some information for free. Custer’s first draft of his report indicted you for dereliction of duty. It said that the reason you were late was because you were responsible for the poor horses and then took your own sweet time getting to the battle. You’re not alone. He also condemned Benteen and Reno.”
Ryder was stunned. “You can’t be serious. He was the one who insisted on the poor horses. It was a joke around the regiment that he hated the idea of machine guns taking the glory away from his cavalry.”
“He felt you should be court-martialed.”
“Son of a bitch!”
Kendrick laughed. “Don’t worry, it won’t happen. That report will never leave the camp. Terry knows the truth, as do a number of others. A sergeant named Haney told them what was happening and they put a halt to that nonsense. The only one in trouble is Reno and that’s because there are rumors that he was drunk. In the new and latest official version, you will be commended for recognizing the problem with the horses, replacing them, and riding like a bat out of hell to rescue Custer and what remained of his men. Along with a commendation, you will likely be promoted.”
“So why are you telling me all this?”
“I’m a reporter and I like to report the truth, and the truth is that Custer’s responsible for all the dead and wounded currently rotting on this hill. I’m going to write articles and perhaps even a book on this battle, only with my version showing the world just what a headstrong bastard Custer is. And I wouldn’t mind making a lot of money and a name for myself with it. On the other hand, I’m going to have to move quickly. Some very important people want him to run for president. If he becomes too powerful politically, his friends will protect him and the truth will never come out.”
“Thank you, I guess, but any early promotion will be resented by others.”
“Christ, Ryder, they’re not making you a general, just a first lieutenant. Even Sergeant Haney thinks you deserve it for saving his Irish ass. He’s recovering nicely and sends his regards.”
Ryder laughed. The last he’d seen of Haney was on the knob where Custer was making his final stand. He’d had arrows sticking out of him and looked like a human pincushion. Haney was highly regarded and it was good to have the older NCO’s concurrence with his actions.
“Assuming I actually am promoted, what will happen to me then?”
“If the political part of this gets as messy as I think it will, the Army is going to circle the wagons to protect one of their own, Custer, and you will be sent far, far away so nobody can ask you difficult questions. My guess would be Oregon or even Alaska, at least until things settle down.”
Oregon? Alaska? Ryder’s mind whirled. They were at the end of the world. What the hell had he done to deserve this? Why not just send him to Siberia? So much for being rewarded for doing the right thing, he mused. What the hell, at least he’d be promoted.