General Custer’s Religious Experience
In the Shenandoah Valley in the Fall of 1864, the Union Army was hard-pressed by the guerilla tactics of Confederate Lt. Col. John Singleton Mosby and his Rangers. The response from the armies of Sherman and Sheridan was ruthless, none more so than that of Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer and his colleague, Brigadier General Wesley Merritt.
Both commanders adopted the practice of having suspected spies and bushwhackers summarily shot or hanged, reflecting the attitude of Sheridan that local residents “have furnished too many meals to guerrillas to expect much sympathy.” On one occasion, an unseen sniper killed a Federal trooper in the vicinity of two farmhouses. Custer had the owners of both houses arrested and shot. Federal reprisals were not mitigated until, after the execution of seven Confederates, Mosby had seven Union prisoners hanged. A note was left that read, “These men have been hung in retaliation for an equal number of Colonel Mosby’s men hung by order of General Custer.”
That winter, as heavy weather imposed a dormancy on both camps, Custer took a trip to visit family in Monroe, Michigan. As historian Roy Morris, Jr., writes,
. . . Custer took advantage of his furlough to put himself right with God. At a Sunday evening service at the Monroe Presbyterian Church, he experienced a religious conversion, one that left him feeling, Custer said, “somewhat like the pilot of a vessel who has been steering his ship upon familiar and safe waters but has been called upon to make a voyage fraught with danger. Having in safety and with success completed one voyage, he is imbued with confidence and renewed courage, and the second voyage is robbed of half its terror. So it is with me.”
Perhaps it is characteristic of Custer that his religious sensibilities would, apparently, focus more on himself than on the Lord. But then, that is probably true of most of us, most of the time. If Custer’s conversion was genuine and lasting, how did it affect his subsequent decisions leading to his demise at the Little Big Horn?
Source: Roy Morris, Jr., “Last Stand in the Shenandoah,” America’s Civil War, March 2001.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes