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George Armstrong Custer

Although he served with distinction during the Civil War, George Custer is most commonly remembered for leading his men into a massacre.

George Custer

George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumsley, Ohio, in 1839, and spent most of his childhood living with a half-sister in Monroe, Michigan. Immediately after high school he enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he failed to distinguish himself in any positive way. Several days after graduating last in his class, he failed in his duty as an officer of the guard to stop a fight between two cadets. He was court-martialed, but outbreak of the Civil War saved him from punishment.

Despite his less-than-stellar performance at West Point, Custer acquitted himself quite well as a Civil War officer. Although his units suffered enormously high casualty rates, his fearless aggression in battle earned him the respect of his commanding generals and increasingly put him in the public eye. At the age of 23, he became the Union Army's youngest General. He fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, and served with distinction in the Virginia and Gettysburg campaigns. His cavalry units played a critical role in forcing the retreat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's forces; in gratitude, General Philip Henry Sheridan purchased and made a gift of the Appomattox surrender table to Custer and his wife.

After the war, the Army dropped Custer to his permanent rank of Captain. He joined the Seventh Cavalry Regiment in 1866, of which he was subsequently made Lieutenant Colonel in command. The next year he led his regiment in a muddled campaign against the Southern Cheyenne. Custer was court-martialed and suspended from duty for a year for being absent from duty during the campaign. Custer, however, maintained that he was simply being made a scapegoat for a failed campaign. His old friend General Sheridan agreed, and called Custer back to duty in 1868. Custer redeemed himself with the army by his November 1868 attack on Black Kettle's band on the banks of the Washita River.

Sent to the Northern Plains in 1873, Custer participated in a few minor skirmishes with the Lakota in the Yellowstone area. In 1874 he led a 1,200-person expedition into the Black Hills to remove the Lakota from lands they had been given just six years before. In 1876, the Army planned to round up the Lakota, Sioux and Cheyenne and bring them onto reservations. Custer's regiment joined the expedition, which was commanded by General Alfred H. Terry.

As the troops moved into the Montana Territory, scouts reported that an Indian village lay somewhere ahead. Terry ordered Custer to find it. Four days later, on June 25, Custer saw the village about 15 miles away, laying in a valley along the Little Bighorn River. Believing there to be no more than about 1,000 Indians in the village, Custer ordered an immediate attack. He divided his regiment into three columns -- one under Captain Frederick W. Benteen, one under Major Marcus A. Reno, and one under himself. Benteen was ordered off to the left to search the mountain valleys for Indians. Reno was ordered to charge ahead across the river and attack the village head-on. Custer's column advanced into the bluffs to the right, presumably to attack the side or the rear of the village.

Unfortunately for Custer and his men, there were actually between 2,500 and 5,000 Indians in the camp -- the largest gathering of hostile tribes in Western history. After bloody fighting in the valley, Reno's column retreated across the river and up the bluffs, where they were joined by Benteen's column. The soldiers held off the Indians until Terry arrived on June 27. Neither Custer nor any of his men returned. Search parties eventually found Custer's men about five miles away. Sometime during the fighting in the valley and the first shooting on the bluffs, all 210 of Custer's men, as well as Custer himself, had been killed.

Custer's Last Rally at the Little Big Horn, by John Mulvany
Custer's Last Rally at the Little Big Horn by John Mulvany

Controversy over the battle began almost immediately after the scene was discovered. Custer's enemies accused him of disobeying Terry and of seeking greater glory by attacking the Indians. However, Terry's written orders had given Custer full discretion. Custer's supporters charged that Reno had been a coward, and could have rescued Custer if he had not retreated. Many authors have defended Custer, and many others have supported Reno. Various historians and military strategists have theorized about Custer's plans after dividing his regiment, and about the events of the battle in which he was killed, but exactly what happened that day will likely never be known.

SOURCES
Civil War Home www.civilwarhome.com/custerbi.htm
New Perspectives on the West www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/a_c/custer.htm

SEE ALSO
U.S. Military Academy at West Point
Robert Edward Lee
Philip Henry Sheridan
Battle of the Little Bighorn

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on June 25, 2017.