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George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer

No figure of the Indian wars in America so typifies that era as George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876).He is known universally for the massacre that bears his name and for the blundering that brought it about.

George Custer was born in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio, on Dec. 5, 1839. His ambition from youth was to be a soldier, and he secured an appointment to West Point in 1857. A poor, mischievous student, he graduated at the bottom of his class in 1861, but was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2d Cavalry.

The Civil War was in progress, and Custer fought on the Union side. For gallant conduct at the engagement at Aldie on June 16, 1863, he was breveted a brigadier general and given command of a brigade from Michigan. By the end of the war, at the age of only 25, he had been promoted to brevet major general. During the war he had married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Bacon.

The conflict over, Custer reverted to his permanent rank of captain in the 5th Cavalry but soon was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 7th Cavalry; he would actively hold this command until his death. In 1867 he was charged with absence from duty and suspended for a year but was reinstated by Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in 1868. On November 27 of that year he achieved a startling victory over Chief Black Kettle and the Cheyenne Indians at the battle of the Washita. His regiment was then fragmented, and he spent 2 years in Kentucky. In 1873 the regiment was reunited in the Dakota Territory. He was described at this time as tall, slender, energetic, and dashing, with blue eyes and long golden hair and mustache. At the post he wore velveteen uniforms decorated with gold braid, but in the field he affected buckskins. He rarely drank or used tobacco and spent his spare hours reading military history and studying tactics.

Rumors of gold in the Black Hills led to a government expedition in 1874, which Custer commanded. Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution confirmed the rumors, and the swarm of gold seekers to the area caused the Sioux Indians to go on the attack. Custer was to lead the campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne in early 1876, but instead he was summoned to Washington to testify before a congressional committee investigating fraud in the Indian Bureau. Custer's testimony, unfavorable to Secretary of War W. W. Belknap, so angered President Grant that he removed Custer from command of the expedition to punish the Native Americans. Public outcry at the President's act, along with the request of Gen. Alfred Terry that Custer accompany the campaign, caused Grant to restore Custer to command of the 7th Cavalry, which then took the field.

On the Yellowstone River, Terry's scouts reported Indians in the vicinity, and Custer was sent to investigate, with orders to exercise caution. On the morning of June 25, 1876, he came upon a village later estimated to have contained from 2,500 to 4,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors under Chief Crazy Horse. Splitting his command into three parts, Custer personally led 264 men into battle. His force was surrounded on the hill that now bears his name, overlooking the valley of the Little Bighorn River. He and all the men under his personal command were massacred there, while Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen took refuge on the bluffs overlooking the river and escaped.

The Custer massacre electrified the nation, although it had little effect on the outcome of the Sioux wars. Reno and Benteen were accused of cowardice by admirers of Custer, while Custer's detractors bemoaned the death of the troops under his command due to his rash order to charge so superior a Native American force. This controversy continues, for Custer was a man so paradoxical that he could fight corruption in the Indian Bureau to the disservice of his own carrier, yet also order a charge to kill Native Americans.

Further Reading

So many books have been written about Custer that no one book can be singled out as best. Custer's autobiography, My Life on the Plains: or, Personal Experiences with Indians (1874), gives insights into his character, as do the books by his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Boots and Saddle: or, Life in Dakota with General Custer (1885) and Tenting on the Plains: or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas (1887). See also Marguerite Merington, ed., The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth (1950). □

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Custer, George Armstrong

George Armstrong Custer, 1839–76, American army officer, b. New Rumley, Ohio, grad. West Point, 1861.

Civil War Service

Custer fought in the Civil War at the first battle of Bull Run, distinguished himself as a member of General McClellan's staff in the Peninsular campaign, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers in June, 1863. The youngest general in the Union army, Custer ably led a cavalry brigade in the Gettysburg campaign. He fought in Virginia in the great cavalry battle at Yellow Tavern and in General Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign. Made a divisional commander in Oct., 1864, he defeated (Oct. 9) Gen. Thomas L. Rosser at Woodstock. After dispersing the remnants of Gen. Jubal A. Early's command at Waynesboro on Mar. 2, 1865, he was in the advance in pursuit of Lee's army beyond Richmond. Custer received the Confederate flag of truce, was present at the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, and was promoted major general of volunteers. His record (he had also been brevetted a major general in the regular army), considering his youth, was one of the most spectacular of the war.

The 7th Cavalry

In the reorganization of the U.S. army after the war Custer was assigned to the 7th Cavalry with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and he remained the acting commander of this regiment until his death. In 1867 he was court-martialed and removed from command for leaving his command at Fort Wallace, Kans., without permission, but in Sept., 1868, he was reinstated, mostly through the efforts of Sheridan, with whom he had always been a favorite. In the massacre of the Cheyenne and their allies at the battle of the Washita (Nov., 1868), he was accused of abandoning a small detachment of his men, who were annihilated. He served (1873) in Dakota Territory and in 1874 commanded the expedition into the Black Hills that led to renewed hostilities with the Sioux.

In the comprehensive campaign against the Sioux planned in 1876, Custer's regiment was detailed to the column under the commanding general, Alfred H. Terry, that marched from Bismarck to the Yellowstone River. At the mouth of the Rosebud, Terry sent Custer forward to locate the enemy while he marched on to join the column under Gen. John Gibbon. Custer came upon the warrior encampment on the Little Bighorn on June 25 and decided to attack at once. Not realizing the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Native Americans, most of whom lay concealed in ravines, he divided his regiment into three parts, sending two of them, under Major Marcus A. Reno and Capt. Frederick W. Benteen, to attack farther upstream, while he himself led the third (over 200 men) in a direct charge. Every one of them was killed in battle. Reno and Benteen were themselves kept on the defensive, and not until Terry's arrival was the extent of the tragedy known. The men (except Custer, whose remains were reinterred at West Point) were buried on the battlefield, now a national monument in Montana. Custer's spectacular death made him a popular but controversial hero, still the subject of much dispute as to his actions and character.

Bibliography

Custer wrote My Life on the Plains (1874), and his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, 1842–1933, who devoted much of her life to upholding his memory, wrote Boots and Saddles (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1890). See also biographies by F. Hunt (1928), J. Monaghan (1959, repr. 1971), and L. McMurtry (2012); C. A. Windolph, I Fought with Custer (as told to F. and R. Hunt, 1947); W. A. Graham, The Story of the Little Big Horn (1959); E. I. Stewart, Custer's Luck (1955, repr. 1971); E. S. Connell, Son of the Morningstar (1984); J. D. Wert, Custer (1996); N. Philbrick, The Last Stand (2010).

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"Custer, George Armstrong." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Custer, George Armstrong

Custer, George Armstrong (1839–1876), U.S. military leader in the Civil War and Indian wars.An 1861 West Point graduate, Custer rose to fame and high rank during the Civil War as a flamboyant and successful cavalry chief. He ended the war a major general at the age of twenty‐five. In the postwar regular army he was a lieutenant colonel in command of the 7th Cavalry. His introduction to the Plains Indians Wars came in Kansas in 1867. The campaign ended in failure and court‐martial on charges of misconduct. Sentenced to a year's suspension, Custer was recalled in the fall of 1868 by Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to lead his regiment in a winter campaign against the southern Plains tribes. At the Battle of the Washita, 27 November 1868, Custer surprised and destroyed Black Kettle's Cheyenne village and laid the groundwork for his reputation as an Indian fighter.

Assigned to Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory, Custer led the 7th in the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873, protecting surveyors of the Northern Pacific Railroad; he fought two actions with Sitting Bull's Sioux. In 1874, Custer's Black Hills Expedition discovered gold. The rush to the hills, part of the Great Sioux Reservation, inflamed the Sioux and led to the Sioux War of 1876. The 7th Cavalry formed part of Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry's column, one of three converging on the Indians. On 25 June, Custer attacked a large camp of Sioux and Cheyennes at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He and the five companies under his immediate command, about 225 men, were wiped out. The other seven companies, under Maj. Marcus A. Reno, held out on a hilltop four miles away until relieved two days later. Custer's actions at the Little Bighorn were and remain bitterly controversial, but he and his “last stand” gained lasting renown.
[See also Crazy Horse; Sitting Bull.]

Bibliography

Robert M. Utley , Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, 1988.
Paul Andrew Hutton, ed., The Custer Reader, 1992.

Robert M. Utley

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"Custer, George Armstrong." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Custer, George Armstrong

Custer, George Armstrong (1839–76) US military leader. A flamboyant, headstrong character, Custer served with the Union and became the youngest brigadier general in the US Civil War. Following the war, he was posted to the frontier, but was court-martialled for disobeying orders in 1867 and suspended. In 1868, he returned to service and led attacks on the Cheyenne. In 1876, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, his force was attacked by the Sioux and every man killed.

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