George Armstrong Custer In the Civil War

The Young and Photogenic Civil War Hero

George Armstrong Custer holds a unique place in American history. A hero to some, a villain to others, he was controversial in life and even in death. Americans have never tired of reading or talking about Custer.

Presented here are some facts and photos pertaining to Custer's early life and career in the Civil War, when he first achieved fame as a dashing young cavalry commander.

Custer's Early Life

Portrait of George Armstrong Custer in West Point cadet's uniform in 1861
George Armstrong Custer at West Point in 1861. Getty Images

George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839. His childhood ambition was to be a soldier. According to family stories, Custer's father, a member of a local militia group, would dress him in a small soldier's uniform at the age of four.

Custer's half-sister Lydia married and moved to Monroe, Michigan, and young "Autie," as Custer was known, was sent to live with her.

Determined to join the military, Custer secured an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point at the age of 18.

Custer was not a stellar student at West Point, and graduated at the bottom of his class in 1861. In ordinary times, his military career might not have flourished, but his class immediately entered the Civil War.

For this 1861 photograph Custer posed in his West Point cadet's uniform.

Graduating Into the Civil War

George Custer photographed in Virginia in 1862
Custer in 1862. Library of Congress

Custer's West Point class graduated early and was ordered to Washington, DC in June 1861. Typically, Custer was detained, ordered to stay at West Point, because of a disciplinary infraction. With the intercession of friends he was released, and he reported to Washington in July 1861.

Custer was offered a chance to help train recruits, and reportedly said he'd rather report to a combat unit. So, as a new second lieutenant, he soon found himself at the First Battle of Bull Run, assigned to a cavalry unit.

The battle turned into a rout and Custer joined the long column of Union troops who retreated from the battlefield.

The following spring, a young Custer was photographed in Virginia. He is seated at left, cradling a cavalry saber and sporting impressive whiskers.

Custer as a Staff Officer

Custer posting with other Union officers in Virginia in 1862
Custer on military staff, 1862. Library of Congress

In early 1862, Custer served on the staff of General George McClellan, who led the Union Army into Virginia for the Peninsula Campaign.

At one point Custer was ordered to ascend in the basket of a tethered balloon with pioneering "aeronaut" Thaddeus Lowe to make observations of enemy positions. After some initial trepidation, Custer took to the daring practice and made many other ascents in the observation balloon.

In a photograph of Union staff officers taken in 1862, a 22-year-old Custer can be spotted in the left foreground, beside a dog.

The Photogenic Custer Emerged

Custer with dog, Virginia, 1862
Custer with Dog, Virginia, 1862. Library of Congress

During the Peninsula Campaign in the spring and early summer of 1862 Custer found himself in front of the camera several times.

In this photograph, taken in Virginia, Custer sits beside a camp dog.

It has been said that Custer was the most photographed officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.

A Pose with a Rebel Prisoner

Custer Posing with Captured Confederate Officer
Custer Posing with Captured Confederate Officer. Library of Congress

While in Virginia in 1862 Custer posed for this photograph by James Gibson, in which he poses with a captured Confederate, Lt. James B. Washington.

It's probable that the Confederate, rather than being incarcerated, had been put "on parole," meaning he was essentially free but had promised not to take up arms against the Union in the future. Especially in the early periods of the Civil War, officers, some of whom had known each other in the peacetime Army, treated captured enemy officers with deference and even hospitality.

Photographed After Antietam

Custer With Lincoln and McClellan
Custer With Lincoln and McClellan. Library of Congress

In September 1862 Custer would be present at the epic Battle of Antietam, though in a reserve unit which did not see action. In a photograph Alexander Gardner took of General McClellan and Abraham Lincoln, Custer can be spotted as a member of McClellan's staff.

It's interesting that Custer stood at the far right of the photograph. It appears that he did not want to blend in with McClellan's other staff officers, and he's essentially posing for his own portrait within the larger photograph.

A few months later, Custer returned for a time to Michigan, where he began courting his future wife, Elizabeth Bacon.

Cavalry Commander

Studio Portrait of General Custer
Studio Portrait of General Custer. Library of Congress

In early June 1863 Custer, assigned to a cavalry unit, showed particular bravery when confronting a Confederate force near Aldie, Virginia. Wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, Custer led a cavalry charge that put him, at one point, in the midst of the Confederate force. Legend has it that the enemy, seeing Custer's distinctive hat, took him for one of their own, and in the confusion he was able to spur his horse and escape.

As reward for his bravery, Custer was appointed a brigadier general, and given command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. He was only 23 years old.

Custer was known for natty uniforms, and for having portraits taken of himself, but his flair for showmanship was matched by brave action on the battlefield.

The Custer Legend Was Born

Custer on Cover of Harper's Weekly
Custer on Cover of Harper's Weekly. Library of Congress

Custer fought at Gettysburg, performing heroically in a cavalry battle that has been overshadowed by another action, Pickett's Charge, which happened on the same day. In the cavalry fight at Gettysburg Custer and his men thwarted a Confederate move to attack the rear positions of the Union Army with a cavalry charge. Had Custer and the Union cavalry not prevented that action, the Union position at the time of Pickett's Charge might have been severely compromised.

Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer showed initiative in capturing Confederates fleeing back to Virginia after the battle. At times Custer was described as "reckless," and he was known to lead men into dangerous situations to test their own courage.

Despite any flaws, Custer's skill as a cavalryman made him a noteworthy figure, and he appeared on the cover of the country's most popular magazine, Harper's Weekly on March 19, 1864.

A month earlier, on February 9, 1864, Custer had married Elizabeth Bacon. She was very devoted to him, and after his death she would keep his legend alive by writing about him.

Battlefield Exploits Captivated the Public

Custer by Alfred Waud
Custer by Alfred Waud. Library of Congress

Custer's daring on the battlefield garnered continued press coverage in late 1864 and early 1865.

In late October 1864, in a battle called the Woodstock Races, Custer was sketched by the noted battlefield artist Alfred Waud. In the pencil sketch, Custer is saluting the Confederate General Ramseur. Waud noted on the sketch that Custer had known the Confederate at West Point.

A Glorious Cavalry Raid

Custer Prepares to Charge
Custer Prepares to Charge. Library of Congress

In early April 1865, as the Civil War was coming to its conclusion, Custer was involved in a cavalry raid that was written up in the New York Times. A headline declared, "Another Brilliant Affair by General Custer." The article described how Custer and the Third Cavalry Division captured three locomotives as well as artillery and many Confederate prisoners.

Battlefield artist Alfred Waud sketched Custer just prior to that action. To provide a title, Waud had written below his sketch, "April 6. Custer ready for his 3rd charge at Sailors Creek 1865."

On the back of the pencil sketch, Waud wrote, "Custer charged and charged again here capturing and destroying trains and making many prisoners. On the left are his guns engaging the enemy."

Custer's Role in the Confederate Surrender

Custer Receives a Truce Flag
Custer Receives a Truce Flag. Library of Congress

On April 8, 1865, Alfred Waud sketched General Custer as he received a flag of truce from a Confederate officer. That first truce flag would lead to the parley that brought General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant together at Appomatox Courthouse for the Confederate surrender.

Custer's Uncertain Future at War's End

Custer in a Formal Portrait
Custer in a Formal Portrait. Library of Congress

As the Civil War ended, George Armstrong Custer was a 25-year-old with the battlefield rank of general. As he posed for this formal portrait in 1865, he may well have been contemplating his future in a nation at peace.

Custer, like many other officers, would have his rank reduced after the end of the war. And his career in the Army would continue. He would, as a colonel, go on to command the 7th Cavalry on the western plains.

And in June 1876 Custer would become an American icon when he led an attack on a large Indian village near a river called the Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory.