Custer, George Armstrong

views updated Jun 11 2018

Custer, George Armstrong

Born December 5, 1839

New Rumley, Ohio

Died June 25, 1876


U.S. Army officer

Despite his early achievements as the "Boy General," the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer is most remembered for his death.

George Armstrong Custer made a name for himself early. As the youngest general in the Union army during the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery), he achieved fame as the "Boy General." Custer coveted such fame. He dressed to be noticed, with elaborate uniforms, sometimes made of velvet, and long, curly golden locks. Indians identified him as "Long Hair." Newspapers eagerly reported on his life and adventures. The flamboyant Custer's early fame was well grounded by his abilities in the field, however. He earned his reputation as "the best Cavalry General in the Army," according to Jeffry D. Wert in Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer.

Despite his impressive achievements, Custer is most remembered for his dramatic death. In 1876 he led the charge at the battle against the northern Plains Indians at Little Bighorn. In a hard-fought battle, his forces were slaughtered. The Indians had rallied to defeat one of America's most recognized war heroes. Controversy about Custer's last command continues: Some historians portray him as a frontier hero who died at his post; others, Wert observes, consider Custer as "the singular symbol of the nation's guilt over its sad history of continental conquest." In either case, Custer's abysmal failure at Little Bighorn overshadows his excellence as a Civil War general.

Private life of a soldier

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839. He grew up in Monroe, Michigan. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a soldier, and a year after graduating from high school he won an appointment to West Point Academy. Despite his keen interest in the military, Custer spent his time at West Point on the verge of being expelled for poor academic performance, cheating, and dangerous pranks. He graduated at the bottom of his class.

Gettysburg heroism

After his graduation from West Point, Custer excelled as a soldier in some of the more crucial battles of the Civil War. Under the command of General Alfred Pleasonton, Custer showed cool steadiness in combat and demonstrated inspiring leadership. At Pleasonton's urging, Custer was jumped four ranks—from captain to brigadier general—on the eve of the battle of Gettysburg. During this decisive battle, Custer's volunteer regiment of Michigan cavalry charged Jeb Stuart's Confederate cavalry and, for the first time in the war, sent Stuart into retreat. This clash was one of the turning points of the Civil War. Another victory against Jeb Stuart in late 1863 cemented Custer's reputation as one of the best Union cavalrymen.

Custer's victories won him early career advancement but also inspired his own high regard for his abilities. As biographer Robert Utley notes:

"Custer's luck" became his hallmark, a phenomenon for incredulous wonder by friends and observers, an article of faith in his self-appraisal. He came genuinely to believe himself fated to win regardless of the risks.

The press seized on Custer as a "Boy General" and lauded his exploits, his elaborate style of dress, and his flowing golden curls. Custer's fame grew to such an extent that people would stop him on the street. His overwhelming popularity was enjoyed by few other military officers.

In 1864 Custer married his sweetheart, Elizabeth "Libbie" Clift Bacon. Libbie would remain his steadfast companion, following him throughout his military campaigns. On the few occasions that they were separated during their marriage, the couple wrote almost daily letters to each other. Although Elizabeth would die more than fifty years after her husband, she never remarried. Instead she devoted herself to Custer's memory and promoted him as an American hero, writing three books about his exploits.

Under General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888), Custer quickly impressed his new superior with victories at the battles of Winchester and Cedar Creek in late 1864. As a reward, Sheridan granted Custer command of a division. As the Civil War continued, Custer had more success in battle. In addition, on April 9, 1865, by being in the right place at the right time, Custer happened to be the Union officer who received the news of General Lee's wish to surrender to General Ulysses Grant. Custer's military skill and evident luck built his reputation as one of the Union heroes of the Civil War.

Peacetime troubles

After the glory and excitement of war, Custer found it difficult to deal with the boring daily routine of peacetime. He knew how to rally men for battle, but he lacked the finesse required to inspire peacetime troops. He was also criticized for being a harsh disciplinarian. While on a command in Texas, Custer ordered the heads of misbehaving soldiers to be shaved and ordered deserters to be shot without a trial. Moreover, his habit of promoting friends and family members made fellow officers angry.

To make matters worse, Custer's rank was reduced to that of captain in the rapidly shrinking peacetime army. The prospects for promotion seemed to disappear. Custer resigned his command on January 31, 1866, and left Texas for New Orleans, where he briefly entered politics. After months of uncertainty about his future, Custer was offered the post of lieutenant colonel of the Seventh Cavalry.

Returning to the army in the summer of 1866, Custer prepared to join his troops in Kansas to guard settlements against Indian attack. However, his style of command continued to offend his men; in addition, his good luck in battle was gone. He led a disastrous campaign against the Sioux, which led to desertions among his soldiers. When he left his post to greet his wife in the middle of another campaign, Custer was court-martialed for absence without leave and "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline," according to Wert. Found guilty on both charges, he could have been ruined permanently, but thanks to General Philip Sheridan, he was reinstated in 1868.

Crazy Horse

Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse (1842–1877; see main entry) led the Sioux to their greatest victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. A quiet, distant leader, Crazy Horse was noted for his uncommon bravery and rose to a position of leadership not only within his own people but within the confederacy of tribes that came together in the 1860s and 1870s to combat the white advance onto Indian lands in present-day South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana.

Crazy Horse had predicted the battle over the Black Hills. Consequently, he prepared his warriors for battle with the whites. When General George Custer attacked the Indian encampment at Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse and his men were ready. Sweeping down on the white soldiers in the new battle formations that Crazy Horse had taught them, the Indians first routed a band of men led by Major Marcus Reno. Then, calling out to his warriors "Hoka hey! It is a good day to fight! It is a good day to die!" Crazy Horse led his warriors in the utter destruction of Custer's band of 225 men. Only about twenty Indian warriors lost their lives, while Custer and all of his troops were killed. However, the U.S. military intensified their efforts to fight the Native American groups in the area. Within a year of the Indians' Little Bighorn victory over forces led by General George Armstrong Custer, the Indian forces were divided. Crazy Horse was killed by Indian police while being held at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, on September 5, 1877.

The Indian Wars

Under pressure from settlers and railroaders to eliminate Indians from the Great Plains, the army had adopted a "total warfare" policy against the Indians. Custer was placed in charge of patrolling part of Kansas and began to relentlessly pursue Indian groups. In the winter of 1868, he came upon a Cheyenne village on the Washita River. He attacked at once. In this surprise attack Custer's forces wiped out the warriors, captured a large number of women and children, massacred all the Indians' horses, and destroyed winter food supplies. However, Custer had not bothered to make a full survey of the surrounding area and did not know that large numbers of Kiowas and Arapahos were camped just downstream. One of his officers, Major Joel Elliott, and a detachment of nineteen men, were ambushed by warriors from these villages and wiped out. It was the only blemish on a battle that brought Custer and the Seventh Cavalry national fame as Indian fighters.

In 1867 Custer started writing adventure stories for magazines. He thrived as a writer and "dashed off" pages, according to his wife. The true stories he wrote for Galaxy magazine were published as his autobiography, My Life on thePlains, in 1874. Custer was a natural showman, and accompanied Buffalo Bill as a guide to Grand Duke Alexis of Russia on an 1871 buffalo hunt. As a military officer, he skirmished with Indians throughout the early 1870s, chasing the northern Plains Indians across the vast grasslands.

Battle of Little Bighorn

With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the United States wanted the land opened to white settlement. A treaty had already granted the land to the Sioux and the Indians, who considered the land sacred and refused to sign a new agreement. Military might was the only way to secure the land. At a White House meeting on November 3, 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) and high-ranking army officials "'contrived' a war against the Sioux," according to Wert.

Custer's last campaign was a part of this strategy. From Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, he took command of the Seventh Cavalry. He prepared for the aggressive campaign like "a boy with a new red sled," as one private observed, according to Wert. Wert also notes that as the cavalry prepared for departure, an eyewitness declared that "probably never had a more eager command started for hostile Indians."

In Custer's experience with the northern Plains Indians over the years, the Indians usually scattered at the first sight of army troops. Unknown to Custer, the Indians were prepared to make a stand this time. An unprecedented concentration of Teton Sioux and northern Cheyennes—approximately seven thousand men—had gathered to fight near the Little Bighorn River. Yet the numbers of Indians did not tell the whole story. "Never before or after were the northern Plains tribes better prepared for war," maintains Robert M. Utley. "They were numerous, united, confident, superbly led, emotionally charged to defend their homeland and freedom."

On June 25, 1876, Custer's scouts caught sight of a huge Indian encampment. Fearing that the enemy might be fleeing, Custer decided—just as he had at Washita—to attack at once, confident that his outnumbered men would prevail without difficulty. He split his command and sent three companies to surround the Indians. Instead of fleeing, the Indians attacked "like bees swarming out of a hive," one Lakota Indian observed, according to Wert. The Seventh Cavalry was soon overrun, and all 225 of the men who had joined Custer were killed. Custer himself, America's greatest Indian fighter, also was dead.

Horrified by the massacre, the army retaliated against the Sioux. Throughout the following winter, under the brutal and efficient Colonel Nelson Miles, the Sioux were hunted, their villages burned down, food supplies destroyed, and women and children killed. In the spring of 1877, the battered Sioux surrendered and the war came to an end.

Custer had sustained the worst loss in the history of the U.S. Army. Controversy about the battle has hardly subsided, even after many years. To some, Custer is a martyr to duty and country. To others, Custer is the symbol of Americans' vicious treatment of Indians.

For More Information

Bailey, John W. Pacifying the Plains: General Alfred Terry and the Decline of the Sioux: 1866–1890. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Howard, James. The Warrior Who Killed Custer: The Personal Narrative of Chief Joseph White Bull. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

Monaghan, Jay. Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.

Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Van de Water, Frederic. Glory Hunter: A Life of General Custer. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1934.

Wert, Jeffry D. Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

George Armstrong Custer

views updated May 21 2018

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). □

Custer, George Armstrong

views updated May 14 2018

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.]


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

Custer, George Armstrong

views updated May 23 2018

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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