George Armstrong Custer: Biography

George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839–June 25, 1876) was a United States Army cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. He is remembered for his defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against a coalition of Native American tribes led by Crazy Horse.

 

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Birth

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806-1892), a farmer and blacksmith; and Maria Kirkpatrick Ward (1807-1882). Through his life George was known by a variety of nicknames: Armstrong, Autie (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name), Fanny, Curley, Yellow Hair and Son of the Morning Star. His brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer would accompany him at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The other two siblings were Nevin and Margaret Custer.

 

 

Early life

Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and his brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school and is now honored by a statue in the center of town. Before entering the United States Military Academy, he taught school in Ohio. A local legend suggests that Custer obtained his appointment to the Academy due to the influence of a prominent resident who wished to keep Custer away from his daughter.

 

Custer graduated from West Point, last of a class of 34 cadets, in 1861, just after the start of the Civil War. His tenure at the academy was a rocky one and he came close to expulsion each of his four years due to excessive demerits, many from pulling pranks on fellow cadets. But he began a path to a distinguished war record, one that has been overshadowed in history by his role and fate in the Indian Wars.

 

 

Civil War

 

McClellan and Pleasonton

Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry {in 2005 the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment} and immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle he was reassigned to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, with which he served through the early days of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. During the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, on May 24, 1862, Custer persuaded a colonel into allowing him to lead an attack with four companies of Michigan infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, capturing 50 Confederates. Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, termed it a "very gallant affair", congratulated Custer personally, and brought him onto his staff as an aide-de-camp in the temporary rank of captain. In this role, Custer continued his lifelong pursuit of publicity. On one occasion when McClellan 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, General!"

 

When McClellan was relieved of command, Custer reverted to the rank of first lieutenant and returned to the 5th Cavalry for the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Chancellorsville. Custer fell into the orbit of Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding a cavalry division. The general was Custer's introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering and the young lieutenant became his protégé, serving on Pleasonton's staff while continuing his assignment with his regiment. Custer was quoted as saying that "no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me." After Chancellorsville, Pleasonton became the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and his first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Station and Aldie.

 

 

Brigade command and Gettysburg

Three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, General Meade promoted Custer from first lieutenant to brevet brigadier general (temporary rank) of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23.

 

(Contrary to popular belief, Custer was not the youngest general in the Union Army in the Civil War. The youngest was 20 year old Galusha Pennypacker, brevet major general... or acting two-star general. Custer was a brevet brigadier general, an acting one-star general. And after the Civil War when Custer was fighting native Americans, he had already been reduced in rank to Lieutenant Colonel due to less need for generals.)

 

Two captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—received the same promotion 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 Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.

 

Custer's style of battle sometimes bordered on reckless or foolhardy. He often impulsively gathered up whatever cavalrymen he could find in his vicinity and led them personally in bold assaults directly into enemy positions. One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was luck and he needed it to survive some of these charges. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick (but one that Custer did not protest) 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 the bugler of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, Norville Churchill, who galloped up, shot Custer's nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.

 

Possibly Custer's finest hour in the Civil War was just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett's Charge to the west, Robert E. Lee dispatched Stuart's cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of David McM. 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 bold mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, "sabers flashing in the sun," breaking the back of the Confederate assault, foiling Lee's plan. Considering the havoc that Stuart could have caused astride the Union lines of communication if he had succeeded, Custer was one of the unsung heroes of the battle of Gettysburg. Custer's brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade.

 

 

Marriage

He married Elizabeth Clift Bacon (1842–1933) on February 9, 1864. She was born in Monroe, Michigan, to Daniel Stanton Bacon and Eleanor Sophia Page.

 

 

The Valley and Appomattox

When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Philip Sheridan in 1864, Custer retained his command, and took part in the various actions of the cavalry in the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which he ascended to division command), the Battle of Yellow Tavern, where Jeb Stuart was mortally wounded, and the Battle of Trevilian Station, where Custer was humiliated by having his division trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the Confederates. When Confederate General Jubal A. Early moved down the Shenandoah Valley and threatened Washington, D.C., Custer's division was dispatched along with Sheridan to the Valley Campaigns of 1864. They pursued the Confederates at Winchester and effectively destroyed Early's army during Sheridan's counterattack at Cedar Creek.

 

Custer and Sheridan, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April of 1865, the Confederate lines were finally broken and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued unmercifully 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, received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force, and Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to Custer as a gift for his gallantry. Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier and major general in the Regular Army and major general in the volunteers. But as with most wartime promotions, these senior ranks were only temporary.

 

 

Indian Wars

In 1866, Custer was mustered out of the volunteer service, reduced to the rank of lieutenant colonel and assigned to the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. His career took a brief detour in 1867 when he was court-martialed for being AWOL and suspended for one year, returning to the Army in 1868. He took part in General Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition against the Cheyenne, who he defeated at the Battle of Washita River on November 27, 1868. This was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Indian Wars and the entire Cheyenne tribe was forced to return to the U.S. appointed reservation. In 1873, he was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Sioux. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Sioux. Only 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 and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood, South Dakota. In 1875, Custer swore by White Buffalo Calf Pipe, a pipe sacred to the Lakota, that he would not fight Native Americans again. "He who swears by the pipe and breaks oaths, comes to destruction, and his whole family dies, or sickness comes upon them."

 

Battle of the Little Bighorn

For more details on this topic, see Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In 1876, Hiester Clymer, Chairman of the House Committee on Military Expenditures, commenced an investigation of various acts of Secretary of War William W. Belknap. Custer was called to testify in the proceedings, despite his statement that what he knew was only by hearsay. But his testimony seemed to confirm the accusations not only against Belknap, but even against President Ulysses S. Grant's brother, Orville Grant. The president ordered Custer placed under arrest. This delayed a scheduled expedition against the hostile Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes, in which Custer was to be involved. Grant relieved Custer of command and ordered the expedition to proceed without him. Custer wrote to the president:

 

As my entire Regiment forms a part of the expedition and I am the senior officer of the regiment on duty in this department, I respectfully but most earnestly request that while not allowed to go in command of the expedition I may be permitted to serve with my regiment in the field. I appeal to you as a soldier to spare me the humiliation of seeing my regiment march to meet the enemy and I not share its dangers.

Grant relented and gave his permission for Custer to go. The 7th Cavalry departed from Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876. Crow Indian scouts identified to Custer what they claimed was a large encampment of Native Americans. Following the common thinking of the time that Native Americans would flee if attacked by a strong force of cavalry, he decided to attack immediately, despite the fact that the primary task of the mission was to return the Native Americans to their reservations, and despite his orders, which stated that he was supposed to locate the Native Americans and then wait for the infantry column to meet him. Some sources say that Custer, aware of his great popularity with the American public at the time, thought that he needed only one more victory over the Native Americans to get him nominated for President of the United States; this, together with his somewhat vainglorious ego, led him to foolhardy decisions in his last battle.

 

Custer knew he was outnumbered, though he did not know by how much (probably something on the order of 3 to 1), but despite that knowledge he recklessly split his forces in three parts: one led by Major Marcus Reno, one by Captain Frederick Benteen, and one by himself. Reno was ordered to attack from south of the village, while Benteen was ordered to go west, scouting for any fleeing Native Americans, while Custer himself went north, in what was intended to be a classical pincer movement. But Reno failed in his action, retreating after a timid charge with the loss of a quarter of his command. Meanwhile, Custer, having located the encampment, requested Benteen to come on for the second time. He sent the message: "Benteen, come on, big village, be quick. Bring packs."

 

Benteen instead halted with Reno in a defensive position on the bluffs. All of the Native Americans that had been facing Reno were freed by his retreat, and now faced Custer. It is believed at this point that Custer attempted a diversionary attack on the flank of the village, deploying other companies on the ridges in order to give Benteen the time to join him. But Benteen never came and so the company trying to ford the river was repulsed. Other groups of Native Americans made encircling attacks so that the cavalry companies on the hills collapsed and fell back together on what is now called "Custer Hill". There, the survivors of the command exchanged in long-range fire with the Native Americans and fell to the last man when they ran out of ammunition. Custer was said by some historians to be already dead while attempting to cross the river, but the shell casings under his body suggest otherwise. Many of the corpses and wounded were mutilated, stripped, and had their skulls crushed. Lt. Edward Godfrey initially reported that Custer was not so molested. He had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one in the breast. According to a reputed subsequent letter, Godfrey admitted misstating the condition of Custer's body to protect Custer's wife, Elizabeth. However, it is unlikely that the temple wound was self-inflicted as Custer was right-handed.

 

Following the recovery of Custer's body, he was given a funeral with full military honors. He was buried on the battlefield, which was designated a National Cemetery in 1876, but was reinterred to the West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877.

 

 

Controversial legacy

After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that eluded him in life. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer's wife, Elizabeth, who 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). General Custer himself wrote about the Indian wars in My Life on the Plains (1874) and was the posthumous co-author of The Custer Story (1950).

 

Custer would be called today a "media personality" who understood the value of good public relations—he frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns, and their favorable reportage contributed to his high reputation that lasted well into the 20th century. It is believed that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer. He was fond of flamboyant dress; a witness described his appearance as "one of the funniest looking beings you ever saw ... like a circus rider gone mad." After being promoted to brigadier general, Custer sported a uniform that included shiny jackboots, tight olive corduroy trousers, a wide-brimmed slouch hat, tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver piping on the sleeves, a sailor shirt with silver stars on his collar, and a red cravat. He wore his hair in long glistening ringlets liberally sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil.

 

The assessment of Custer's actions during the Indian Wars has undergone substantial reconsideration in modern times. For many critics, Custer was the personification and culmination of the U.S. Government's ill-treatment of the Native American tribes. Others equate the actions of the 7th Cavalry under his command with Holocaust-type atrocities perpetrated during World War II, or with ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. Recent films and books including Little Big Man and Son of the Morning Star depict Custer as a cruel and murderous military commander whose actions today would warrant possible dismissal and court-martial.

 

Within the context of postbellum expansion, however, Custer's actions differed little from the standard military strategy of the time, which ultimately fragmented Native American culture in the American West.

 

 

Monuments and memorials

Counties are named in Custer's honor in five states: Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Custer County, Idaho, is named for the General Custer mine, which, in turn, was named after General George Armstrong Custer. Custer National Cemetery is within Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the site of the General's death. There is a statue of Custer on horseback in Monroe, Michigan, which was his boyhood home. There is also a portion of Monroe County, Michigan, which is informally referred to as "Custerville."

 

Fort Custer National Military Reservation, near Augusta, Michigan, was built in 1917 on 130 parcels of land, mainly small farms leased to the government by the local chamber of commerce as part of the military mobilization for World War I. During World War I, some 90,000 troops passed through Camp Custer. Following the Armistice of 1918, the camp became a demobilization base for over 100,000 men. In the years following World War I, the camp was used to train the Officer Reserve Corps and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On August 17, 1940, Camp Custer was designated Fort Custer and became a permanent military training base. During World War II, more than 300,000 troops trained there, including the famed 5th Infantry Division (also know as the "Red Diamond Division") which left for combat in Normandy, France, June 1944. Fort Custer also served as a prisoner of war camp for 5,000 German soldiers until 1945. Today Fort Custer's training facilities are used by the Michigan National Guard and other branches of the armed forces, primarily from Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Many Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students from colleges in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana also train at this facility, as well as do the FBI, the Michigan State Police, and various other law enforcement agencies. (https://www.mi.ngb.army.mil/ftcuster/default.asp)

 

Fort Custer National Cemetery: The establishment of Fort Custer Post Cemetery took place on September 18, 1943, with the first interment. As early as the 1960s, local politicians and veterans organizations advocated the establishment of a national cemetery at Fort Custer. The National Cemeteries Act of 1973 directed the Veteran's Administration to develop a plan to provide burial space to all veterans who desired interment in a national cemetery. After much study, the NCS adopted what became the regional concept. Fort Custer became the Veteran Administration's choice for its Region V national cemetery. Toward this goal, Congress created Fort Custer National Cemetery in September 1981. The cemetery received 566 acres from the Fort Custer Military Reservation and 203 acres from the VA Medical Center. The first burial took place on June 1, 1982. At the same time, approximately 2,600 gravesites were available in the post cemetery, which made it possible for veterans to be buried there while the new facility was being developed. On Memorial Day 1982, more than 33 years after the first resolution had been introduced in Congress, impressive ceremonies marked the official opening of the cemetery.(http://www.cem.va.gov/nchp/ftcuster.htm)

 

Custer Hill is the main troop billeting area at Fort Riley, Kansas.

 

 

Family tree

 

First generation

George Armstrong Custer was a fifth-generation descendant of Arnold Küster and his third wife Rebecca. Arnold was born in Kaldenkirchen, Westphalia, Holy Roman Empire on June 9, 1669. He later emigrated to Hanover, Pennsylvania. Rebecca was a native of the city born in 1671. They had eight children. Arnold is known to have died in 1739.

 

 

Second generation

Their fourth child, Nicholas Kuster, was born in Germantown, Philadelphia, on December 4, 1706. In 1732, Nicholas married Susanna Margaretta Hoppe (1714 – 1787), daughter of Anna Elizabeth Sprogell. They were parents to nine children. Nicholas died on December 9, 1784.

 

 

Third generation

Their ninth and last child Emmanuel Custer was born in Limerick Township on September 29, 1754. On February 17, 1778, Emmanuel married Anna Maria Fedele (August 6, 1759 – October 15, 1799), daughter of Peter Fedele and Susanna Nyce. They were parents to eight children. Emmanuel died in Jessup's Cut, Maryland in 1834.

 

 

Fourth generation

Their eldest son John Custer was born in Colebrookdale Township on February 26, 1782. On May 11, 1802, John married Catherine Valentine (October 10, 1783 – August 15, 1877). They were parents to seven children. John died in Cresaptown on December 16, 1830.

 

 

Fifth generation

Their second child and eldest son Emanuel Henry Custer was born in Cresaptown, Maryland on December 10, 1806. On August 7, 1828 in New Rumley, Ohio Emanuel married Matilda Viers (1804-1835) and they had the following childen: James Custer (c1829-?); Brice Custer (1831-?); and John A. Custer (1833-?). On February 23, 1836, the widowed Emanuel married Marie Kirkpatrick Ward (May 31, 1807 – January 13, 1882), daughter of James Grier Ward and Catherine Rogers. Emanuel and Marie had the following children: George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876); Thomas Ward Custer; Nevin Custer; Boston Custer and Margaret Custer. Emanuel died in Monroe, Michigan, on November 17, 1892.

 

 

Custer in popular culture

 

Films

George Custer has been played in motion pictures by Francis Ford (1912 twice), Ned Finley (1916), Dustin Farnum (1926), John Beck (1926), Clay Clement (1933). John Miljan (1936), Frank McGlynn (1936), Paul Kelly (1940), Addison Richards (1940), Ronald Reagan (1940), Errol Flynn (1941), James Millican (1942), Sheb Wooley (1952), Douglas Kennedy (1954), Britt Lomond (1958), Philip Carey (1965), Leslie Nielsen (1966), Robert Shaw (1967), Wayne Maunder (1967 & 1990), Richard Mulligan (1970), Marcello Mastroianni (1974), Ken Howard (1977), James Olsen (1977), Gary Cole (1991), Josh Lucas (1993), Peter Horton (1996) and William Shockley (1997.

 

General Custer was a recurring character on the TV drama series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

 

Thomas Custer, or Tom as he was called, has been represented by John Napier (1965), Ed Lauter (1977) and Tim Ransom (1991).

 

George Custer was mentioned in The Last Samurai.

 

Boston Custer was portrayed by Patrick Johnston (1991).

 

General Custer was portrayed by Jonathan Scharfe on the mini-series Into the West (2006).

 

Fictional Portrayals

 

A number of Westerns have featured characters that, while not specifically Custer, are very closely based on his character. Some of the more noteworthy examples:

 

Fort Apache (1948, John Ford) featured Henry Fonda as Colonel Owen Thursday, a West Point-educated cavalryman who provokes a war with the Apache Indian chief Cochise and is killed in a suicidal charge and last stand, a la Custer.

 

Major Dundee (1965, Sam Peckinpah) had Charlton Heston playing the main character, a cavalry officer who leads an illegal raid into Mexico in pursuit of a gang of renegade Apaches during the Civil War. The character was not specifically Custer, nor was his command completely wiped out, but the screenwriters - and Heston - based the portrayal of the character on historical accounts of Custer's personality.

 

The Glory Guys (1965, Arnold Laven) saw Andrew Duggan playing General Frederick McCabe, a US cavalry officer who leads his outfit in yet another suicidal campaign against the Apaches. (For some reason, revisionist portrayals of Custer seem to favor the Apaches as antagonists.)

 

 

Custer's Revenge

A controversial adult video game known as Custer's Revenge was published for the Atari 2600.

 

 

Music

Influential American punk/alternative band The Minutemen mocked Custer's defeat and questioned the dignity - or lack thereof - in which he died during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on the title track of their 1981 LP The Punch Line: "I believe when they found the body of General George A. Custer/Quilled like a porcupine with Indian arrows/He didn't die with any honor, dignity, or valor/I believe when they found the body of George A. Custer/American general, patriot, and Indian fighter/That he died with shit in his pants."

 

In The Arrogant Worm's song, History is Made By Stupid People, he is mocked by the line "General Custer's a national hero, for not knowing when to run"

 

Similarly, on his 1996 album Cowboy Celtic, Canadian singer David Wilkie sang "Custer Died A-Runnin'".

 

On Johnny Cash's 1964 album 'Bitter Tears', the song 'Custer' had lines such as "General George A.Custer, oh, his yellow hair had lustre, But the General he don't ride well anymore, For now the General's silent he got barbered violent...".

 

 

Alternate history

The larger than life nature of Custer's life has made him a popular subject for alternate history stories.

 

The short story Custer's Last Jump by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley is set in an alternate history that takes as its point of departure the use of aircraft in the American Civil War.

 

In Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 alternate history novels, George Custer was never killed at the Little Bighorn, and became a Colonel in Kansas by 1881, chasing Indians and then doing battle with rebel Mormons in Utah Territory and an Anglo-Canadian column invading Montana in the Second War Between the States, becoming a war hero. In World War I, he led a tank offensive that crushed the Confederate States of America, and later became Governor-General of occupied Canada, dying of old age in early 1930.

 

Wes Anderson satirizes such portrayals of Custer-as-survivor in his film The Royal Tenenbaums, in which the character Eli Cash writes a book called “Old Custer".

 

 

Timeline

1839 Birth of George Armstrong Custer in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5th

1850 US Census in North Township, Ohio

1860 US Census at West Point

1863 Graduation from West Point

1870 US Census in Monroe, Michigan

1876 Death of George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn on June 25th

1877 Body reinterred at West Point on October 10th

 

References

Eicher, John H. and David J. Eicher (2001). Civil War High Commands, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804736413.

Longacre, Edward G. (2000). Lincoln's Cavalrymen, A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac, Stackpole Books. ISBN 0811710491.

Tagg, Larry (1998). The Generals of Gettysburg, Savas Publishing. ISBN 1882810309.

Warner, Ezra J. (1964). Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807108827.

Welch, James and Paul Stekler (1994). Killing Custer, W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 039303657X.

 

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