A Friend’s Memorial to Custer

Morris Schaff, USMA class of 1862, wrote affectionately of West Point and of his fellow cadets.

Morris Schaff, USMA class of 1862, wrote affectionately of West Point and of his fellow cadets.

Like George Armstrong Custer, Morris Schaff was an Ohioan, but being some months younger, Schaff did not arrive at the U.S. Military Academy until a year after Custer had begun his storied and infamous career of academic delinquency. Schaff, like many others, fell under the spell of the likeable Custer, and when decades later Schaff wrote his recollections in The Spirit of Old West Point, 1858-1962, he portrayed Custer as a picaresque-but-irresistible rogue who wriggled his way out of one scrape after another while also proving a loyal and devoted friend. Custer finished last in the class of 1861, of course, but the bright and diligent Schaff worked his way toward the opposite extremity and was graduated 9th in the class of the following year.
After Custer’s death in 1876, Schaff wrote the following tribute for the members of a very small fraternity: his brother officers who had been graduated from West Point and who had known Custer at the Academy. The memorial appeared in the Eighth Annual Reunion of the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 14, 1877, pp. 18-19.

GEORGE A. CUSTER.
No. 1966—Class of 1861 (June). Killed in battle June 25, 1876, on the Little Big Horn, M. T., aged 37

Such is the wide fame of General Custer that it is not deemed necessary to recount it here; for those who are living need not be told of his exploits, and those who come after, attracted by the brilliancy of his career, will not seek their information in his obituary but in his memoirs, where whatever pertains to his youth, family, his services and untimely death, is all set forth with tenderness and simple length.
But in the nature of things this seems a fitting place to give expression to youthful friendship, on the close of what will always seem to have been a wonderful life, where youth, bravery, adventure and success mingled in strong and glowing proportions; and when we consider that with all this was united an individuality that in itself made him conspicuous, and which reminded his admirers of the Knights of old, it seems reasonable to predict that the life he lived will appeal to the spirits of youth beyond his day and generation. He was born in obscurity at New Rumley, Ohio, December 5th, 1839, and was killed in battle June 25, 1876. In that short space of 37 years and before he was 28, he had advanced to the front of the stage and was recognized and greeted as one of the first actors on it.
To say that this career was a surprise to those who knew him as a cadet is no discredit to his memory. It is only an acknowledgment of the fallibility of human foresight, partially excused in his case by the exuberance of good fellowship in his nature, which masked the hero as the quick and sure cavalry leader from us all.
But now, at the foot of the pedestal of his high fame, every one who knew him then can lay the honest tribute that as a cadet he was as unassuming, frank, genial and kind-hearted as his achievements prove him to have been capable of command and of exercising all the stern qualities of high rank.
To those who watched his rapid advancement with friendly eyes, nothing gave them more satisfaction than as he rose to see that the impulsiveness of his spirit never betrayed him into seeking excitement through dissipation. To the last he was true to himself; and to those who, through a similarity of taste and endowment, will imitate him as a cavalryman, this feature of his life is a splendid example.
Throughout, from the day he joined the army at Bull Run until he made his final charge, he brought to the execution of his duties an enthusiasm with which an officer cannot fail to be distinguished, and without which no course has ever succeeded. It is not eulogy to declare he had genius — it is fact, plain, forcible fact; for is it eulogy to pay his greatness the honor that it never gave room to jealously, nor is it yielding overmuch to enthusiasm to say as a leader of a charge he was matchless.
Finally, such was his place in the heart of the great public, that when it learned he had charged for the last time, more than one of its poets were quickened to lay memorial verses upon his grave.
There is no higher nor more infallible proof of the quality of greatness than when it stirs the poetic impulse. It is the verdict of the highest court of public opinion.
Captain Morris Schaff.

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