December 5, 1839–June 25, 1876
Forever linked with Custer's Last Stand, General George Armstrong Custer was a flamboyant and widely renowned American army officer during and after the American Civil War.
George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio. He was the son of Emanuel and Maria Custer. Custer's father was a blacksmith and farmer. As a youngster, Custer was sent to live with his half-sister's family in Monroe, Michigan. Later, he attended McNeely Normal School, in Hopedale, Ohio. After graduating from there, Custer briefly taught school in Cadiz, Ohio, before receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1857. Custer enrolled at West Point the following year and struggled academically, graduating last in his class of thirty-four cadets on June 24, 1861.
Following his graduation from West Point, Custer was commissioned as a second lieutenant attached to the 2ndU.S. Cavalry. He participated in the Battle of First Bull Run (July 21, 1861) with his unit, which had been re-designated as the 5thU.S. Cavalry. Following Bull Run, Custer briefly served on the staff of General Philip Kearney. In October 1861, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he remained until February 1862, while recuperating from an illness.
Custer returned to active duty in time to participate in Major General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in Virginia (March 17 to August 14, 1862). During that campaign, he became the first Union officer to engage in the use of hot-air balloons to spy on Confederate forces. Impressed with Custer's performance during the campaign, McClellan appointed Custer as his aide-de-camp and promoted him to the rank of captain. When McClellan lost his command following the disastrous Peninsula Campaign, Custer was reassigned to the staff of Major General Alfred Pleasanton and returned to the rank of first lieutenant.
Custer commanded a division of cavalry during the rest of 1862 and early 1863, participating in the Battles of Brandy Station and Aldie in Virginia. On June 29, 1863, Pleasanton promoted Custer to the rank of brigadier-general, making him the youngest officer to attain that rank and one of the younger generals in the Union Army. As commander of the Second Brigade, Third Division, of the Union Cavalry Corps, Custer participated in the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863) in Pennsylvania. During that battle, Custer exhibited great bravery, personally leading charges against J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry and having two horses shot from under him. During the course of the Civil War, Custer had had horses shot from under him, incurring only one wound from a Confederate artillery shell during the Battle of Culpepper Courthouse (September 13, 1863) in Virginia.
In the spring of 1864, native Ohioan and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant named Ohioan and Major General Philip Sheridan as commander of the freshly reorganized Union cavalry in the Eastern Theater. Custer retained his command and served under Sheridan with the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign (May 5 to June 24, 1864) in Virginia. During that campaign, Custer saw action at the Battles of the Wilderness (May 5 – 7, 1864), Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864), and Trevilian Station (June 11 and 12, 1864).
In July 1864, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched an offensive in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that eventually threatened Washington, DC. Grant sent enough reinforcements to Washington to halt Early's advance on the capital and to drive his army back into the Shenandoah Valley, where the Confederate force remained a threat during the summer. Consequently, on August 1, Grant sent Sheridan and the newly formed Army of the Shenandoah to the valley to deal with Early. Custer accompanied Sheridan and played key roles in numerous cavalry activities during September and October, including the battles of Opequon (September 19, 1864), Tom's Brook (October 9, 1864), and Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864).
Custer and his cavalry troopers were also leading participants in Sheridan's scorched earth campaign against Shenandoah Valley residents, locally known as "The Burning." The widespread destruction of civilian property during the autumn of 1864, incited acts of atrocity between Custer's soldiers and Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby's partisan rangers. On September 23, 1864, Custer's men captured six of Mosby's Rangers who, they believed, had participated in the wanton killing of a captured Union officer. The Federals summarily executed the six Confederates, four by shooting and two by hanging, when the Rebels refused to divulge information about Mosby's headquarters. It is unclear if Custer was present when the Rebels were condemned, but there is evidence to indicate that he was aware of the situation and was present for the two hangings. Custer came to be so disliked by Mosby's men and valley residents that Sheridan warned him "If the Rebs should ever lay you by the heels, they'll string you up directly."
On October 19, 1864, Sheridan's forces defeated Jubal Early's army at the Battle of Cedar Creek, forcing Early to evacuate the Shenandoah Valley. For his part in the successful campaign, Custer received a brevet promotion to major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865. That same month, Sheridan left the valley and joined the pursuit of Robert E. Lee's army in the Richmond, Virginia area. On April 1, 1865, Custer participated in the Battle of Five Forks, which is sometimes referred to as the "Waterloo of the Confederacy," because it triggered Lee's decision to abandon his entrenchments around Petersburg and begin the retreat that led to his surrender. When Lee finally capitulated, Custer received the first flag of truce from the Confederate army. Custer was also present when Lee signed the articles of surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Six days later, officials promoted Custer to the rank of major general of volunteers.
When the Civil War ended and the volunteer army was disbanded, Custer remained in the regular army, reverting to his rank of captain. He was first assigned to Texas, where he earned some enmity from his soldiers and gratitude from local residents for his strict discipline and hard stance against lawlessness and wanton destruction of civilian property. On July 28, 1866, Custer was promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of the newly created 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. From 1867 to 1871, the 7th Cavalry participated in several battles with Native Americans, principally against the Cheyenne Indians. Custer performed quite well in these conflicts. In 1867, Custer faced a court-martial for failing to follow orders and for being absent without leave when paying an unauthorized visit to his wife. The court found Custer guilty and suspended him from duty for one year without pay. In 1868, Sheridan recalled Custer to service and restored his command. On November 27, 1868, Custer led his cavalry to victory at the Battle of Washita River against Black Kettle and the Cheyenne Indians.
In 1874, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory led to illegal incursions upon sacred Native American ground, sparking hostilities between whites and the Cheyenne and Sioux Indians. The United States Army interceded to protect white trespassers. In 1876, Custer, serving under Brigadier General Alfred Terry, was ordered to join forces with units commanded by Brigadier General George Crook and Colonel John Gibbon and to drive the Sioux and Cheyenne onto reservations. On June 25, 1876, Custer discovered a Sioux village on the Little Bighorn River and recklessly decided to mount an independent attack, rather than waiting to act in conjunction with Crook and Gibbon. He divided his small force of approximately 650 men into three commands and advanced on the Sioux. Instead of a docile Indian village, Custer discovered that he had stumbled upon a major encampment defended by up to two thousand Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by numerous chiefs including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. No match for such a large force, Custer and the 210 men under his direct command were quickly annihilated. Along with Custer, his brothers Boston and Thomas, his brother-in-law James Calhoun, and his nephew Henry Reed died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25. An additional fifty-eight soldiers from Custer's other two deployments were also killed. American Indian losses are estimated at less than one hundred men.
U.S. soldiers identified and recovered Custer's body two days after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and interred it on the site of the battle. One year later, Custer's remains were removed to the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where Custer received a formal military burial.
- Jubal Anderson Early
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Philip Henry Sheridan
- Overland Campaign
- Peninsula Campaign
- Battle of Gettysburg
- George Brinton McClellan
- Battle of Appomattox Court House
- Battle of Five Forks
- George Crook
- Battle of Cedar Creek
- Battle of Opequon
- Robert Edward Lee
- Battle of Tom’s Brook
- James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart
- Army of the Shenandoah (USA) (1864)
- General Orders, No. 316 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 97 (U.S. War Department) (1865)