G.A. Custer, Lieutenant Colonel Seventh Cavalry, is young, very brave, even to rashness, a good trait for a cavalry officer–William T. Sherman
On June 25, 1876, while leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes, he and all his regiment—which included two of his brothers—were killed. The battle is popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer and his regiment was defeated so decisively at the little bighorn that is has overshadowed all his prior achievements.
George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars. Armstrong Custer’s first charge as a General, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, was a disaster, and he barely managed to escape with his hide (though not his horse). His final charge, against a large Plains Indian village on the banks of a winding river, was also calamitous. Between the two, he led a charmed life, attributable by some to chance – “Custer’s luck,” as he and both friends and enemies termed it — and by others to good fortune’s true components: preparation, analysis, confidence, and decisive action.
During the Civil War, Custer was frequently termed “The Boy General” in the press, reflecting his promotion to brigadier general at the age of 23.
During his years on the Great Plains in the American Indian Wars, his troopers often referred to him with grudging admiration as “Iron Butt” and “Hard Ass” for his physical stamina in the saddle and his strict discipline, as well as with the more derisive “Ringlets” for his vanity about his appearance in general and his long, curling blond hair.
His detractors claimed that he loved nothing better than a charge. They were right. They also accused him of recklessness, of acting without thought or deliberation. They were wrong about that. Custer had an uncanny ability to process what he saw, what he heard, and what he knew — the intelligence available in a situation — and then make a considered decision in an incredibly short amount of time. “He was certainly the model of a light cavalry officer,” said one of General Wesley Merritt’s staff members, “quick in observation, clear in judgement, and resolute and determined in execution.” Time and again in the last two years of the Civil War, after his promotion to Brigadier General, his subordinate officers observed ” the Boy General” decide on a split-second course of action that turned out to be the right thing to do at the time. It did not take more than a charge or two to make a believer out of anyone. By war’s end, only a few skeptics remained, and they tended to be resentful officers who were older and less successful. The men who served under Custer swore by him and claimed that they would follow him into hell itself.
After the Civil War, Custer remained a major general in the United States Volunteers until they were mustered out in February 1866. He reverted to his permanent rank of captain and was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the 7th Cavalry Regiment in July 1866. He was dispatched to the west in 1867 to fight in the American Indian Wars. On June 25, 1876, while leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes, he and all his regiment—which included two of his brothers—were killed. The battle is popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer and his regiment were defeated so decisively at the Little Bighorn that it has overshadowed all his prior achievements.
On July 28, 1866, Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas. He served on frontier duty at Fort Riley from October 18 to March 26, and scouted in Kansas and Colorado to July 28. 1867. He took part in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s expedition against the Cheyenne. On June 26, Lt. Lyman Kidder’s party, made up of ten troopers and one scout, were massacred while en route to Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was to deliver dispatches to Custer from General Sherman, but his party was attacked by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne (see Kidder massacre). Days later, Custer and a search party found the bodies of Kidder’s patrol.
Following the Hancock campaign, Custer was arrested and suspended at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to August 12, 1868 for being AWOL, after having abandoned his post to see his wife. At the request of Major General Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne, Custer could return to duty before his one-year term of suspension had expired and joined his regiment to October 7, 1868. He then went on frontier duty, scouting in Kansas and Indian Territory to October 1869.
Under Sheridan’s orders, Custer took part in establishing Camp Supply in Indian Territory in early November 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign. On November 27, 1868, Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment in an attack on the Cheyenne encampment of Chief Black Kettle — the Battle of Washita River. Custer reported killing 103 warriors and some women and children; 53 women and children were taken as prisoners. Estimates by the Cheyenne of their casualties were substantially lower (11 warriors plus 19 women and children). Custer had his men shoot most of the 875 Indian ponies they had captured. The Battle of Washita River was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Southern Plains War, and it helped force a significant portion of the Southern Cheyenne onto a U.S.-assigned reservation.
In 1873, Custer was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Lakota. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment clashed for the first time with the Lakota. One man on each side was killed. In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custer’s announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. Among the towns that immediately grew up was Deadwood, South Dakota, notorious for lawlessness.
Grant, Belknap and politics
Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, 7th U.S. Cavalry, ca. 1875
The expedition against the Sioux was originally scheduled to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln on April 6, 1876, but on March 15 Custer was summoned to Washington to testify at congressional hearings. These concerned the corruption scandal involving U.S. Secretary of War William W. Belknap (who had resigned March 2), President Grant’s brother Orville, and traders at Army posts in Indian Country, who were charging troops double what they would have paid for the same goods in Bismarck, North Dakota. (Soldiers were required by regulations to purchase goods from the traders.) Belknap had been selling trading post positions.
After Custer testified on March 29 and April 4 before the Clymer Committee, Belknap was impeached and sent to the Senate for trial. Custer left Washington on April 20, but instead of immediately returning to Fort Lincoln, he visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and planned to travel to New York City to meet with publishers. Custer’s testimony was a sensation, both because of what he said and because he was the one saying it. Custer was sharply criticized by the Republican press and praised by Democratic editors.
President Grant held up Custer’s departure from Washington. Grant and Custer did not get along. Earlier, Custer had arrested Grant’s son, Fred Grant, for drunkenness. Now, Custer was accusing Grant’s brother and Secretary of War of corruption. Additionally, Custer was writing magazine articles criticizing Grant’s peace policy towards the Indians.
Brigadier General Alfred Terry determined there were no available officers of rank to take command, but Sherman refused to intercede. Stunned that he would not be in command, Custer approached the impeachment managers and secured his release. General Sherman advised Custer not to leave Washington before meeting personally with President Grant. Three times Custer requested meetings with Grant, but was always turned down.
Custer gave up and took a train to Chicago on May 2, planning to rejoin his regiment. On May 3, a member of Sheridan’s staff greeted Custer in Chicago. President Grant had ordered Custer’s arrest for leaving Washington without permission. President Grant had designated General Terry to command the expedition in Custer’s place. Custer took a train to St. Paul to meet General Terry.
Brigadier General Terry met Custer in Fort Snelling, Minnesota on May 6. He later recalled, “(Custer) with tears in his eyes, begged for my aid. How could I resist it?” Terry wrote to Grant attesting to the advantages of Custer’s leading the expedition. Sheridan endorsed his effort, accepting Custer’s “guilt” and suggesting his restraint in future.
Grant was already under pressure for his treatment of Custer. His administration worried that if the “Sioux campaign” failed without Custer, then Grant would be blamed for ignoring the recommendations of senior Army officers. On May 8, Custer was informed at Fort Snelling that he was to lead the 7th Cavalry, but under Terry’s direct supervision.
President Ulysses S. Grant
Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer’s mentor
By the time of Custer’s Black Hills expedition in 1874, the level of conflict and tension between the U.S. and many of the Plains Indians tribes (including the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne) had become exceedingly high. Americans continually broke treaty agreements and advanced further westward, resulting in violence and acts of depredation by both sides. To take possession of the Black Hills (and thus the gold deposits), and to stop Indian attacks, the U.S. decided to corral all remaining free Plains Indians. The Grant government set a deadline of January 31, 1876 for all Lakota and Arapaho wintering in the “unceded territory” to report to their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered “hostile”.
Sheridan to Terry & Crook at Omaha HQ: order for operations against hostiles on Feb 8. 1876. Before leaving Fort Snelling, Custer spoke to General Terry’s chief engineer, Captain Ludlow, saying he would “cut loose” from Terry and operate independently from him. Several companies of infantry will accompany the 7th to man the supply depots while Custer searched for the enemy from his base up the Yellowstone River. Steamers would freight supplies up the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Dakota Column comprised 12 companies of 7th Cavalry, 3 infantry companies & battery of Gatling Guns.
Sioux War Country 1876; The Little Bighorn Campaign 1876; Area in Detail; The Battlefield 25 June 1876.
June 25, 1876
Battle of the Little Bighorn
Montana Column from Fort Ellis– eastwards in western Montana Territory; Colonel John Gibbon; 5 companies of infantry & 4 cavalry troops under Major James Brisbin, 400 men, 2 Gatling Guns.
At the outset of the campaign, Terry had ordered Gibbon’s smaller command to move down the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn River, prevent any Indians from getting away to the north, and strike a hostile camp only if the opportunity arose. His Montana column had been encamped some twenty miles east of the mouth of the Bighorn since April 20. The next day a dispatch from Terry ordered him to stay put until the weather delayed Dakota column got underway.
May 16: Lieutenant James Bradley spotted an immense Lakota camp on Rosebud Creek. Upon hearing Bradley’s report, Gibbon ordered his command on May 17 to cross the Yellowstone and strike at the encampment but the fast flowing river prevented a surprise attack.
Gibbon moved his command downstream to the mouth of the Rosebud on May 21, four days after the failed river crossing in response to his scout’s report of a large body of Indians headed that way. He found no Indians but established a new camp there.
On May 27, Bradley reported that the village he had espied eleven days earlier had now grown to almost five hundred lodges and moved from the Tongue River to Rosebud, the next waterway to the west. Gibbon did not take any action but wrote to Terry about the sighting of a large enemy village. The report was delivered to Terry by courier a week later.
On May 28 pursuant to fresh orders from Terry to move east toward the Little Missouri, he began marching downriver Yellowstone to join the Dakota column against the hostiles then believed to be in the vicinity. After more tan 5 weeks on the Yellowstone, Gibbon’s command of almost 500 men had accomplished little. Indians seemed indifferent to the soldiers in the north.
Wyoming Column from Fort Fetterman-north from Wyoming, Brigadier General George
March 1. two companies of infantry & ten troops of cavalry under Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds (55 years age).
March 8: wagon train sent back with all tents and bedding to increase mobility.
March 16-Crook splits command into Reynolds with strike force of 400 men and remained behind with 4 companies.
Cheyenne band of 50 lodges led by Old Bear attacked Crook’s column which blundered and returned to Fort Fetterman.
June 11: Crook reached Goose Creek to establish a base camp there.
June 16: Crook marches out with four days rations leaving wagon train and pack train behind under guard to increase mobility. (1300 men, including 175 infantrymen mounted on green wagon mules). Spots the Indian camp which shifted from Rosebud to Little Big Horn on June 15.
On the afternoon of June 16, two Cheyenne hunting parties stalking a herd of buffalo came upon Crook’s Wyoming column. The chiefs of all the tribal circles met in one large council and after a discussion advised prudence. A course of action was decided upon the insistence of young warriors. The Indian force comprised at least seven hundred warriors and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse rode with them. But Sitting Bull would not participate in the battle, and for good reason.
Battle of Rosebud is a debacle for Crook, and he turns back to Goose Creek. Crook loses strategically for he retreats the next day and abandons the mission. No attempt made to communicate with Terry or Gibbon though he notifies Sheridan on June 19. Intelligence reached Terry on July 9.
Dakota Column from Fort Abraham Lincoln: west from Dakota Territory.
May 17: Custer & 7th Cavalry + 1 infantry battalion & artillery departed from Fort Abraham Lincoln, part of a larger army force planning to round up remaining free Indians.
June 7: reached Powder River,a few miles below the Yellowstone. Three scouts from Gibbon’s command rode up and delivered the news that the Indians were in considerable force south of Yellowstone. Supplies received at Stanley’s Stockade (Yellowstone & Glendive Creek) by river steamers.
Meanwhile, in the spring and summer of 1876, the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull had called together the largest ever gathering of Plains Indians at Ash Creek, Montana (later moved to the Little Bighorn River) to discuss what to do about the whites. It was this united encampment of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians that the 7th met at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
About June 15, Reno, while on a scout, discovered the trail of a large village on the Rosebud River.
On June 22, Custer’s entire regiment was detached to follow this trail.
On June 25, some of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts identified what they claimed was a large Indian encampment in the valley near the Little Bighorn River. Custer had first intended to attack the Indian village the next day, but since his presence was known, he decided to attack immediately and divided his forces into three battalions:
- One led by Major Marcus Reno, sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment.
- One by Captain Frederick Benteen sent south and west to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians.
- One by himself; rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs and planning to circle around and attack from the north.
Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train.
Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village but halted some 500–600 yards short of the camp, and had his men dismount and form a skirmish line. They were soon overcome by mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who counterattacked en masse against Reno’s exposed left flank, forcing Reno and his men to take cover in the trees along the river. Eventually, however, this position became untenable, and the troopers were forced into a bloody retreat up onto the bluffs above the river, where they made their own stand. This, the opening action of the battle, cost Reno a quarter of his command.
Custer may have seen Reno stop and form a skirmish line as he (Custer) led his command to the northern end of the main encampment, where he apparently planned to sandwich the Indians between his attacking troopers and Reno’s command in a “hammer and anvil” maneuver. According to Grinnell’s account, based on the testimony of the Cheyenne warriors who survived the fight, at least part of Custer’s command attempted to ford the river at the north end of the camp but were driven off by stiff resistance from Indian sharpshooters firing from the brush along the west bank of the river. From that point, the soldiers were pursued by hundreds of warriors onto a ridge north of the encampment.
Custer and his command were prevented from digging in by Crazy Horse, however, whose warriors had outflanked him and were now to his north, at the crest of the ridge. Traditional white accounts attribute to Gall the attack that drove Custer up onto the ridge, but Indian witnesses have disputed that account.
“Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”—Famous words reportedly said by General Custer shortly before being killed.
For a time, Custer’s men appear to have been deployed by company, in standard cavalry fighting formation—the skirmish line, with every fourth man holding the horses, though this arrangement would have robbed Custer of a quarter of his firepower. Worse, as the fight intensified, many soldiers could have taken to holding their own horses or hobbling them, further reducing the 7th’s effective fire.
When Crazy Horse and White Bull mounted the charge that broke through the center of Custer’s lines, pandemonium may have broken out among the soldiers of Calhoun’s command, though Myles Keogh’s men seem to have fought and died where they stood. According to some Lakota accounts, many of the panicking soldiers threw down their weapons and either rode or ran towards the knoll where Custer, the other officers, and about 40 men were making a stand. Along the way, the warriors rode them down, counting coup by striking the fleeing troopers with their quirts or lances.
Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota-Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors. Historian Gregory Michno settles on a low number around 1000, based on contemporary Lakota testimony, but other sources place the number at 1800 or 2000, especially in the works by Utley and Fox. The 1800–2000 figure is substantially lower than the higher numbers of 3000 or more postulated by Ambrose, Gray, Scott, and others.
As the troopers were cut down, the native warriors stripped the dead of their firearms and ammunition, with the result that the return fire from the cavalry steadily decreased, while the fire from the Indians constantly increased. The surviving troopers apparently shot their remaining horses to use as breastworks for a final stand on the knoll at the north end of the ridge. The warriors closed in for the final attack and killed every man in Custer’s command. As a result, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”.
Some eyewitness reports state that Custer was not identified until after his death by the Native Americans who killed him. Several individuals claimed personal responsibility for the killing, including White Bull of the Miniconjous, Rain-in-the-Face, Flat Lip, and Brave Bear. In June 2005, at a public meeting, the Northern Cheyenne broke almost 130 years of silence about the battle. Storytellers said that according to their oral tradition, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Northern Cheyenne heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud, struck the final blow against Custer, which knocked him off his horse before he died.
A contrasting version of Custer’s death is suggested by the testimony of an Oglala named Joseph White Cow Bull, according to novelist and Custer biographer Evan Connell, who relates that Joseph White Bull stated he had shot a rider wearing a buckskin jacket and big hat at the riverside when the soldiers first approached the village from the east. The initial force facing the soldiers, according to this version, was quite small (possibly as few as four warriors) yet challenged Custer’s command. The rider who was hit was mounted next to a rider who bore a flag and had shouted orders that prompted the soldiers to attack, but when the buckskin-clad rider fell off his horse after being shot, many of the attackers reined up. The allegation that the buckskin-clad officer was Custer, if accurate, might explain the supposed rapid disintegration of Custer’s forces. However, several other officers of the Seventh, including William Cooke and Tom Custer, were also dressed in buckskin on the day of the battle, and the fact that each of the non-mutilation wounds to George Custer’s body (a bullet wound below the heart and a shot to the left temple) would have been instantly fatal casts doubt on his being wounded or killed at the ford, more than a mile from where his body was found. The circumstances are, however, consistent with David Humphreys Miller’s suggestion that Custer’s attendants would not have left his dead body behind to be desecrated.
During the 1920s, two elderly Cheyenne women spoke briefly with oral historians about their having recognized Custer’s body on the battlefield and had stopped a Sioux warrior from desecrating the body. The women were relatives of Mo-nah-se-tah’s, who was alleged to have been Custer’s one-time lover. In the Cheyenne culture of the time, such a relationship was considered a marriage. The women allegedly told the warrior: “Stop, he is a relative of ours,” and then shooed him away. The two women then shoved their sewing awls into his ears to permit Custer’s corpse to “hear better in the afterlife” because he had broken his promise to Stone Forehead never to fight against Native Americans again.
When the main column under General Terry arrived two days later, the army found most of the soldiers’ corpses stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Custer’s body had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one just below the heart. Capt. Benteen, who inspected the body, stated that in his opinion the fatal injuries had not been the result of .45 caliber ammunition, which implies the bullet holes had been caused by ranged rifle fire.
Following the recovery of their remains, Custer’s body and that of his brother Tom were buried on the battlefield, side-by-side in a shallow grave, after being covered by pieces of tent canvas and blankets. One year later, Custer’s remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back east for re internment in more formal burials. Custer was buried again with full military honors at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877. The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.
Criticism and controversy
President Grant, a highly successful general, bluntly criticized Custer’s actions in the battle of the Little Bighorn. Quoted in the New York Herald on September 2, 1876, Grant said, “I regard Custer’s Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.”
General Nelson Miles (who inherited Custer’s mantle of famed Indian fighter) and others praised him as a fallen hero betrayed by the incompetence of subordinate officers. Miles noted the difficulty of winning a fight “with seven-twelfths of the command remaining out of the engagement when within sound of his rifle shots.“
The controversy over blame for the disaster at Little Bighorn continues to this day. Major Marcus Reno’s failure to press his attack on the south end of the Lakota/Cheyenne village and his flight to the timber along the river, after a single casualty, have been cited as a causal factor in the destruction of Custer’s battalion, as has Captain Frederick Benteen’s allegedly tardy arrival on the field, and the failure of the two officers’ combined forces to move toward the relief of Custer.
“When writing about Custer, neutral ground is elusive. What should Custer have done at any of the critical junctures that rapidly presented themselves, each now the subject of endless speculation and rumination? There will always be a variety of opinions based upon what Custer knew, what he did not know, and what he could not have known…”—from Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer by Louise Barnett.
General Phillip Sheridan and other critics have asserted several tactical errors in Custer’s final military actions. While camped at Powder River, Custer refused the support offered by General Terry on June 21, of an additional four companies of the Second Cavalry. Custer stated that he “could whip any Indian village on the Plains” with his own regiment, and that extra troops would simply be a burden. At the same time, he left behind at the steamer Far West, on the Yellowstone, a battery of Gatling guns, knowing he was facing superior numbers. Before leaving the camp all the troops, including the officers, also boxed their sabers and sent them back with the wagons.
On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command, despite being faced with vastly superior numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne. The refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.
Custer’s defenders, however, including historian Charles K. Hofling, have asserted that Gatling guns would have been slow and cumbersome as the troops crossed the rough country between the Yellowstone and the Little Bighorn. Custer rated speed in gaining the battlefield as essential and more important. The additional firepower had the potential of turning the tide of the fight, given the Indians’ propensity for withdrawing in the face of new military technology. Other Custer supporters have claimed that splitting the forces was a standard tactic, to demoralize the enemy with the appearance of the cavalry in different places all at once, especially when a contingent threatened the line of retreat.
Custer monument in Ohio
After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that he had sought on the battlefield. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and exemplary gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, who had accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, did much to advance this view with the publication of several books about her late husband:
Boots and Saddles,
Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885),
Tenting on the Plains (1887), and
Following the Guidon (1891).
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an adoring (and often erroneous) poem.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s lavish praise pleased Custer’s widow.
Connell concludes: “These days it is stylish to denigrate the general, whose stock sells for nothing. Nineteenth-century Americans thought differently. At that time, he was a cavalier without fear and beyond reproach.”
Family, ancestry and early life
From the beginning of his life, Custer never lacked for confidence. Its source, as with anyone, can only be guessed at–what a man is born with, what he develops, what he is accorded– but a good portion of Custer’s share of that attribute likely was his upbringing. A middle child of a large family, he was loved, encouraged, and admired by his parents and all his siblings.
Custer’s ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, immigrated to North America around 1693 from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatine refugees whose passage was arranged by the English government to gain settlers. According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout mother’s hope that her son might join the clergy.
Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882). He had two younger brothers, Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, who both died with him on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. His other full siblings were the family’s youngest child, Margaret Custer, and Nevin Custer, who suffered from asthma and rheumatism. Custer also had several older half-siblings. Throughout his life Custer was known by a variety of nicknames. He was called “Autie” (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name) and Armstrong.
USMA Cadet George Armstrong ‘Autie’ Custer 1859
Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school. Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio.
Custer entered West Point as a cadet on July 1, 1857, to become a member of the class of 1862. At the time, West Point’s course of study was five years long. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, the course was shortened to four years allowing Custer and his class to graduate on June 24, 1861. He was last in a class of 34 cadets. Throughout his life, Custer tested boundaries and rules. In his four years at West Point, he amassed a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy.
Under ordinary national conditions, Custer’s low-class rank would represent a ticket to an obscure posting, but Custer had the ironic fortune to graduate as the Civil War broke out. During his rocky tenure at the Academy, Custer came close to expulsion in each of his three years, due to excessive demerits. Many of these were awarded for pulling pranks on fellow cadets.
Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment and was assigned to drilling volunteers in Washington, D.C.
On July 21, 1861, he was with his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run during the Manassas Campaign, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle, he continued participating in the defenses of Washington D.C. until October when he was sick and absent from his unit until February 1862.
In March 1862, he participated with the 2nd Cavalry in the Peninsula Campaign (March to August) in Virginia until April 4.
On April 5, he served in the 5th Cavalry Regiment and participated in the Siege of Yorktown, from April 5 to and May 4 and was aide to Major General George B. McClellan; McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign. On May 24, 1862, during the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, when General Barnard and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped, and Custer overheard his commander mutter to himself, “I wish I knew how deep it is.” Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river and turned to the astonished officers of the staff and shouted triumphantly, “That’s how deep it is, Mr. General!” Custer then could lead an attack with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, resulting in the capture of 50 Confederate soldiers and the seizing of the first Confederate battle flag of the war.
McClellan termed it a “very gallant affair” and congratulated Custer personally. In his role as aide-de-camp to McClellan, Custer began his life-long pursuit of publicity. Custer was promoted to the rank of captain on June 5, 1862. On July 17, he was reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. He participated in the Maryland Campaign in September to October, the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, the Battle of Antietam on September 17, and the March to Warrenton, Virginia in October.
Lincoln and generals at Antietam (Custer (extreme right) with President Lincoln, General McClellan and other officers at the Battle of Antietam, 1862)
On June 9, 1863, Custer became aide to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Pleasonton (rank since September 17, 1862), who was now commanding the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac (June 7 to March 26, 1864); after the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), Pleasonton’s (Brigadier General, July 16, 1862, U.S. Volunteers) first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Brigade command and Gettysburg
Custer (left) with General Pleasonton on horseback in Falmouth, Virginia
Pleasonton was promoted on June 22, 1863 to Major General of U.S. Volunteers. On June 29, two days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3), Pleasonton promoted Custer to brigadier general of volunteers, commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade (“Wolverines“). Despite having no direct command experience, Custer became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Two other captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—were promoted along with Custer, although they did have command experience. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Major General J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.
In his first command, Custer affected a showy, personalized uniform style that alienated his men, but he won them over with his readiness to lead attacks from the front (in contrast to many other officers); his men began to adopt elements of his uniform, especially the red neckerchief. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, beginning with the Battle of Aldie on June 17. Pleasonton was Custer’s introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant had become his protégé, serving on Pleasonton’s staff. Custer was quoted as saying that “no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me.”
Custer’s style of battle was often claimed to be reckless or foolhardy, but military planning was always the basis of every Custer “dash”. As Marguerite Merrington explains in The Custer Story in Letters, “George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemy’s weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the ‘Custer Dash’ with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time.” One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was what Custer wrote of as “luck” and he needed it to survive some of these charges.
Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick against the brigade of Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the enemy and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by Private Norvell Francis Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot Custer’s nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.
One of Custer’s finest hours in the Civil War occurred just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett’s Charge to the west, Robert E. Lee had dispatched Stuart’s cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg directly in the path of Stuart’s horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault. Custer’s brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry”, Custer wrote in his report. On July 3, he received the rank of Brevet Major, “For Gallant and Meritorious Services at The Battle of Gettysburg, PA.” Custer was wounded during action at the Battle of Culpeper Court House in Virginia on September 13.
Elizabeth (Libbie) Bacon
George and Libbie Custer, 1864
On February 9, 1864, Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon(1842–1933), whom he had first seen when he was ten years old. He had been socially introduced to her in November 1862, when home in Monroe on leave. She was not initially impressed with him, and her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, disapproved of Custer as a match because he was the son of a blacksmith. It was not until well after Custer had been promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general that he gained the approval of Judge Bacon. He married Elizabeth Bacon fourteen months after they formally met.
In November 1868, following the Battle of Washita River, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have unofficially married Mo-nah-se-tah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock in the winter or early spring of 1868–1869 (Little Rock was killed in the one-day action at Washita on November 27). Mo-nah-se-tah gave birth to a child in January 1869, two months after the Washita battle. Cheyenne oral history tells that she also bore a second child, fathered by Custer in late 1869. Some historians, however, believe that Custer had become sterile after contracting gonorrhea while at West Point and that the father was his brother Thomas. A descendant of the second child, who goes by the name Gail Custer, wrote a book about the affair.
The Valley and Appomattox
In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac reorganized under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer (now commanding the 3rd Division) led his “Wolverines” to the Shenandoah Valley where by the year’s end they defeated the army of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. During May and June, Sheridan and Custer (Captain, 5th Cavalry, May 8 and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel, May 11) took part in cavalry actions supporting the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which Custer ascended to division command), and the Battle of Yellow Tavern (where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded). In the largest all-cavalry engagement of the war, the Battle of Trevilian Station, in which Sheridan sought to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the Confederates’ western resupply route, Custer captured Hampton’s divisional train, but was then cut off and suffered heavy losses (including having his division’s trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the enemy) before being relieved. When Lieutenant General Early was then ordered to move down the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington, D.C., Custer’s division was again dispatched under Sheridan. In the Valley Campaigns of 1864, they pursued the Confederates at the Third Battle of Winchester and effectively destroyed Early’s army during Sheridan’s counterattack at Cedar Creek.
Sheridan and Custer, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April 1865, the Confederate lines finally broke, and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued by the Union cavalry.
Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lee’s retreat on its final day and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force.
Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to him as a gift for his wife by General Philip Sheridan, who included a note to her praising Custer’s gallantry. She treasured the gift of the historical table, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier general and major general (because of a plea by his patron General Sheridan) on March 13, 1865, in the regular army, and major general of volunteers on April 15, 1865. As with most wartime promotions, even when issued under the regular army, these senior ranks were only temporary.
On April 25, after the war officially ended, Custer had his men search for, then illegally seize a large, prize racehorse “Don Juan” near Clarksville, Virginia, worth then an estimated $10,000 (several hundred thousand today), along with his written pedigree. Custer rode Don Juan in the grand review victory parade in Washington, D.C. on May 23, creating a sensation when the scared thoroughbred bolted. The owner, Richard Gaines, wrote to General Grant, who then ordered Custer to return the horse to Gaines, but he did not, instead hid the horse, and winning a race with it the next year, before the horse died suddenly.
Reconstruction duties in Texas
On June 3, 1865, at Sheridan’s behest, Major General Custer accepted command of the 2nd Division of Cavalry, Military Division of the Southwest, to march from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Hempstead, Texas, as part of the Union occupation forces. Custer arrived at Alexandria on June 27 and began assembling his units, which took more than a month to gather and remount. On July 17, he assumed command of the Cavalry Division of the Military Division of the Gulf (on August 5, officially named the 2nd Division of Cavalry of the Military Division of the Gulf), and accompanied by his wife, he led the division (five regiments of veteran Western Theater cavalrymen) to Texas on an arduous 18-day march in August. On October 27, the division departed to Austin. On October 29, Custer moved the division from Hempstead to Austin, arriving on November 4. Major General Custer became Chief of Cavalry of the Department of Texas, from November 13 to February 1, 1866, succeeding Major General Wesley Merritt.
During his entire period of command of the division, Custer encountered considerable friction and near mutiny from the volunteer cavalry regiments who had campaigned along the Gulf coast. They desired to be mustered out of Federal service rather than continue campaigning, resented imposition of discipline (particularly from an Eastern Theater general), and considered Custer nothing more than a vain dandy.
Custer’s division was mustered out beginning in November 1865, replaced by the regulars of the U.S. 6th Cavalry Regiment. Although their occupation of Austin had apparently been pleasant, many veterans harbored deep resentments against Custer, particularly in the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, because of his attempts to maintain discipline. Upon its mustering out, several members planned to ambush Custer, but he was warned the night before and the attempt thwarted.
American Indian Wars
On February 1, 1866, Major General Custer mustered out of the U.S. volunteer service and took an extended leave of absence and awaited orders to September 24. He explored options in New York City, where he considered careers in railroads and mining. Offered a position (and $10,000 in gold) as adjutant general of the army of Benito Juárez of Mexico, who was then in a struggle with the Mexican Emperor Maximilian I (a satellite ruler of French Emperor Napoleon III), Custer applied for a one-year leave of absence from the U.S. Army, which was endorsed by Grant and Secretary of War Stanton. Sheridan and Mrs. Custer disapproved, however, and when his request for leave was opposed by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was against having an American officer commanding foreign troops, Custer refused the alternative of resignation from the Army to take the lucrative post.
Following the death of his father-in-law in May 1866, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he considered running for Congress. He took part in public discussion over the treatment of the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War, advocating a policy of moderation. He was named head of the Soldiers and Sailors Union, regarded as a response to the hyper-partisan Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Also formed in 1866, it was led by Republican activist John Alexander Logan. In September 1866 Custer accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a journey by train known as the “Swing Around the Circle” to build up public support for Johnson’s policies towards the South. Custer denied a charge by the newspapers that Johnson had promised him a colonel’s commission in return for his support, but Custer had written to Johnson some weeks before seeking such a commission. Custer and his wife stayed with the president during most of the trip. At one point Custer confronted a small group of Ohio men who repeatedly jeered Johnson, saying to them: “I was born two miles and a half from here, but I am ashamed of you.”
Custer and Bloody Knife (kneeling left), Custer’s favorite Indian Scout
Custer presented Bloody Knife, his Arikara (“Ree”) scout, with several gifts. Custer told Bloody Knife and some Arikara scouts this would be his last Indian campaign. Custer further stated that if the scouts helped him win a victory, then he would become president and look after the Arikaras from the White House.
Sitting Bull, spiritual leader of the Plains Indians, had been a renowned warrior in his prime
Low Dog, Oglala war chief
Wooden Leg, noted northern Cheyenne warrior
Spotted Eagle, Sans arc war chief
Major Marcus Reno, Custer’s second in command on the expedition
Captain Frederick Benteen, chafed at serving under Custer, whom he despised
Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, United States Army, 1865
George Armstrong Custer
- Born: December 5, 1839, New Rumley, Ohio
- Died: June 25, 1876 (aged 36), Little Bighorn, Montana
- Buried at: initially on the battlefield; later reinterred in West Point Cemetery
Allegiance: United States of America
- United States Army
- Union Army
Years of service-1861–1876
American Civil War
- First Battle of Bull Run
- Peninsula Campaign
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Chancellorsville
- Gettysburg Campaign
- Battle of Gettysburg
- Overland Campaign
- Battle of the Wilderness
- Battle of Yellow Tavern
- Battle of Trevilian Station
- Valley Campaigns of 1864
- Siege of Petersburg
- Appomattox Campaign
American Indian Wars
- Battle of Washita River
- Battle of the Little Bighorn
Promotions and ranks
Custer’s promotions and ranks including his six brevet [temporary] promotions which were all for gallant and meritorious services at five different battles and one campaign:
- Second Lieutenant, 2nd Cavalry: June 24, 1861
- First Lieutenant, 5th Cavalry: July 17, 1862
- Captain Staff, Additional Aide-De-Camp: June 5, 1862
- Brigadier General, U.S. Volunteers: June 29, 1863
- Brevet Major, July 3, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)
- Captain, 5th Cavalry: May 8, 1864
- Brevet Lieutenant Colonel: May 11, 1864 (Battle of Yellow Tavern – Combat at Meadow)
- Brevet Colonel: September 19, 1864(Battle of Winchester, Virginia)
- Brevet Major General, U.S. Volunteers: October 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, Virginia)
- Brevet Brigadier General, U.S. Army, March 13, 1865 (Battle of Five Forks, Virginia)
- Brevet Major General, U.S. Army: March 13, 1865 (The campaign ending in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia)
- Major General, U.S. Volunteers: April 15, 1865
- Mustered out of Volunteer Service: February 1, 1866
- Lieutenant Colonel, 7th Cavalry: July 28, 1866 (killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25, 1876)
- Michigan Brigade
- 3rd Cavalry Division
- 2nd Cavalry Division
- 7th Cavalry Regiment
- Elizabeth Bacon Custer
- Thomas Custer, brother
- Boston Custer, brother
- James Calhoun, brother-in-law
- A Terrible Glory by James Donovan, Little Brown & Company, New York, London, Boston, 2008