George Custer....weightlifter?

General George Armstrong Custer. The name evokes many emotions and descriptions in a person’s mind. Depending on your views, General Custer can be called a great leader, a brave soldier, a murderer, a lunatic, shameless boaster, rugged plainsman, martyr, and more. Perhaps here’s one you haven’t heard of: weightlifter! Yes I said weightlifter. Descriptions of General Custer agree he was approximately six feet tall, weighed 165 to 170 pounds, and possessed a sinewy muscular frame. This description seems to reinforce his reputation as tireless and not prone to fatigue, able to ride on endlessly, stopping only because others needed to stop. How did Autie Custer get this physique? Hard work, exercise, genetics, and probably a good dose of willpower. And a dumbbell. Yes, I indeed said, dumbbell.

General Custer was sent to Kansas in 1866 as Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 7th U.S. Cavalry. While in Kansas, General Custer and the 7th Cavalry spent many long months at Fort Hays, Kansas. Frontier life was often quite boring for the US Army Soldiers stationed there, when not out on patrol or other duties. Many of the enlisted men spent their free hours gambling, playing cards, and consuming alcohol. Inactivity, restlessness and dissatisfaction were contributors to the high desertion rates of the frontier army. The commissioned officers had more leeway and would leave the grounds to hunt or whatever met their fancy that particular day.

Either to maintain his fitness levels or help pass time, General Custer had a Fort Hays blacksmith forge him a dumbbell. When General Custer and the 7th Cavalry left Kansas the dumbbell was left behind. Already possibly the most famous man in America, General Custer’s enduring fame was ensured at the Little Big Horn. At the conclusion of the Plains Indian Wars, many of the forts were shut down - Fort Hays in 1889. August Schutte, a lad of 15, was given General Custer’s dumbbell shortly before Fort Hayes ceased operation. Thomas Kennedy, Fort Hays blacksmith, identified the dumbbell as the one he had fashioned for General Custer.

Fort Hays, Kansas

The dumbbell currently is exhibited at the Kansas Museum of History.

Update: I visited the Kansas Museum of History in July 2009 and the dumbbell is no longer on display. Click here to read a review of the museum and see photos.

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