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On April 25,a man named Junius Garland watched a group of Union cavalrymen ride out of the woods near Clarksville, Virginia, and approach. Garland, a skilled groom, tended to a beautiful thoroughbred stallion: more than 15 hands high; solid bay with black legs, mane and pert tail; and a proud, erect head. Garland had hidden Don Juan at a farm in the woods on behalf of its owners, but another freedman told the soldiers where to find it. They took it and drove the horse away. Two weeks later, Dr.

Brock visited the camp of the 3rd Cavalry Division, about five miles from Richmond. His horse had been impounded, too, and he went to see the division commander, Maj. George A. Custer, to ask for it. Custer received him, but he was distracted, excited. Have you heard of Don Juan? Have you ever seen him? Custer said that that was the horse, that he had him, and that he also had his pedigree.

For years, it has been public knowledge that Custer owned Don Juan, but not how he acquired it.

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Until now, the truth has remained hidden in the open, told in correspondence and affidavits archived in the library of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and the National Archives that have aroused little curiosity among those biographers. But the truth raises important questions about the man and his place in American history. This story is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian magazine. During the Civil War, Custer had fought courageously and commanded skillfully—but now, with the war over, he used his military authority to take what was not his, for no official purpose.

Was it greed that corrupted him? A passion for fine horseflesh—common to most Americans inbut particularly intense in this cavalryman? Was it power—the fact that he could take it? But the theft was not impulsive. It had required investigation, planning and henchmen. It may help explain his self-destructive actions in the months and years that followed.

More than that, the story of Don Juan reveals a glimpse of Custer as a very different figure from the familiar Western soldier on a dead-end march to the Little Bighorn—different even from the Boy General of the Civil War, whose success as a Union cavalry commander was exceeded only by his flamboyance. It shows him as a man on a frontier in time, living on the crest of a great transformation of American society. In the Civil War and its aftermath, the nation we know today began to emerge, hotly disputed but clearly recognizable, with a corporate economy, industrial technology, national media, strong central government and civil rights laws.

It supplanted an earlier America that was more romantic, individualistic and informal—and had enslaved some four million people based on their race. Custer pushed this change forward in every aspect of his surprisingly diverse career, yet he never adapted to the very modernity he helped to create. This was the secret to his contemporary fame and notoriety. Like much of the public, he held to old virtues but thrilled to new possibilities. Yet whenever he tried to capitalize on the new America, he failed—beginning with a stolen horse named Don Juan.

Beginning on May 23, tens of thousands of spectators crowded toward Pennsylvania Avenue for the great parade. Flags and bunting hung everywhere. The first day Looking for someone in Custer la married the parade belonged to the Army of the Potomac. The legions of veterans formed up east of the Capitol, the men dressed as they had in the field, though now they were clean and tidy. Custer wore his wide-brimmed slouch hat over his long curly hair and the proper uniform of a major general.

George G. Meade led the way, followed by the general staff and the leadership of the Cavalry Corps. The march of units began, led by the 3rd Cavalry Division, each man in a red necktie. Bands marched ahead of each brigade, filling the air with brass notes.

Battle flags, tattered by bullets, embroidered with the names of victories, rose on wooden staffs, a moving grove of memory. As the procession wound around the north side of the Capitol, it passed by thousands of schoolchildren who burst into song—the girls in white dresses, the boys in blue jackets. Down the wide avenue the horsemen rode, shoulder to shoulder, curb to curb. Custer led them. His sword rested loosely on his lap and over his left arm, with which he held the reins.

It was Don Juan, the powerful, beautiful, stolen stallion. Custer had had only a month with the horse, which had been raised solely to sprint down a track and to mate. Neither capacity particularly suited it to the cacophony and distractions of the Grand Review. The crowd roared for Custer—the champion, the hero, gallantry incarnate.

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Women threw him flowers. As he approached the reviewing stand, a young lady hurled a wreath of blossoms at him. He caught it with his free hand—and Don Juan panicked. His sword clattered to the street. He held the wreath in his right hand as he fought for control with the reins in his left. Custar [sic] should have lived in a less sordid age. It was a splendid display of horsemanship, but also an embarrassing break in decorum. An orderly had to fetch his hat and sword off the street. Custer sat astride his sin, and it had nearly proved too much for him.

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Lying to oneself is a nearly universal human trait, to one degree or another. But some consciousness of the truth usually lurks; reminders make the liar brittle and defensive. He was the principal owner of Don Juan. Brock to the War Department, which was receptive. The disconsolate owner follows immediately. He had left the horse in his adopted hometown of Monroe, Michigan, where it was safe for the time being. And he began to claim that the horse had been captured during one of Gen. It was a conundrum.

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But his possession of it undermined his alibi; it implicated him in precisely the theft the owner alleged. Custer had gone to Monroe immediately after the Grand Review, together with his wife, Libbie, and Eliza Brown, who had escaped slavery and become their cook and household manager. They soon departed for Louisiana. As June turned into July, they lingered in the town of Alexandria, where Custer organized a cavalry division for a march into Texas, still unoccupied by Union troops. All the while Gaines pressed his claim to Don Juan.

The matter rose to the attention of General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, who sent a direct order to Sheridan that Custer must deliver up the horse. Whatever he thought, he did not try to determine the truth. He led five regiments of troops who had never served under him in combat—volunteers who wished to go home, now that the war was over, and resented being kept under arms. Eager to placate Southern civilians, Custer attempted to suppress foraging by his troops through such punishments as flogging and head-shaving, and put one officer through a mock execution after the man circulated a petition complaining about his regimental commander.

Rumors circulated of assassination plots by his men. Custer even had to put down a mutiny by homesick troops in the 3rd Michigan Cavalry, which was kept in service as other volunteer regiments disbanded. On January 27,with the Texas Looking for someone in Custer la married winding down, Custer received orders to report to Washington.

Mustered out of the U. Volunteers, the temporary force created for the duration of the Civil War, he reverted to his permanent Regular Army rank of captain and returned to the East. With the future in doubt, Custer went to New York as his wife tended to her ailing father in Michigan. It pioneered such innovations as private bathrooms and the passenger elevator.

He told Libbie that he socialized with Senator Chandler and his wife, visited the actress Maggie Mitchell, looked at paintings, attended the theater, shopped at A. The politically influential men of Wall Street cultivated Custer. They took him to eat at the Manhattan Club, for example. Located in a palatial building on Fifth Avenue at 15th Street, its rooms decorated with marble and hardwood paneling, the club was organized in by a group of Democratic financiers, including August Belmont and Samuel L.

They provided national leadership for a party struggling with its reputation for disloyalty. And like Custer, they strongly supported President Johnson, who opposed any attempt to extend citizenship and civil rights to African-Americans. Barlow invited him to a reception at his house one Sunday evening, where he mingled with Paul Morphy, the great chess prodigy of the era, along with rich and famous men. They say I must not leave the army until I am ready to settle here.

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