Indian Wars: Lt. Colonel George A. Custer

Custer during the Civil War
Major General George A. Custer. National Archives & Records Administration

George Custer - Early Life:

The son of Emanuel Henry Custer and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick, George Armstrong Custer was born at New Rumley, OH on December 5, 1839. A large family, the Custers had five children of their own as well as several from Marie's earlier marriage. At a young age, George was sent to live with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, MI. While living there, he attended McNeely Normal School and did menial jobs around the campus to help pay for his room and board. After graduating in 1856, he returned to Ohio and taught school.

George Custer - West Point:

Deciding that teaching did not suit him, Custer enrolled at the US Military Academy. A weak student, his time at West Point was plagued by near expulsion each term for excessive demerits. These were usually earned through his penchant for pulling pranks on fellow cadets. Graduating in June 1861, Custer finished last in his class. While such a performance normally would have landed him an obscure posting and a short career, Custer benefited from the outbreak of the Civil War and the US Army's desperate need for trained officers. Commissioned a second lieutenant, Custer was assigned to the 2nd US Cavalry.

George Custer - Civil War:

Reporting for duty, he saw service at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) where he acted as a runner between General Winfield Scott and Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle, Custer was reassigned to the 5th Cavalry and was sent south to participate in Major General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. On May 24, 1862, Custer convinced a colonel to allow him to attack a Confederate position across the Chickahominy River with four companies of Michigan infantry. The attack was a success and 50 Confederates were captured. Impressed, McClellan took Custer onto his staff as an aide-de-camp.

While serving on McClellan's staff, Custer developed his love of publicity and began working to attract attention to himself. Following McClellan's removal from command in the fall of 1862, Custer joined the staff Major General Alfred Pleasonton, who was then commanding a cavalry division. Quickly becoming his commander's protégé, Custer became enamored with flashy uniforms and was schooled in military politics. In May 1863, Pleasonton was promoted to command the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Though many of his men were alienated by Custer's showy ways, they were impressed by his coolness under fire.

After distinguishing himself as bold and aggressive commander at Brandy Station and Aldie, Pleasonton promoted him to brevet brigadier general despite his lack of command experience. With this promotion, Custer was assigned to lead a brigade of Michigan cavalry in the division of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. After fighting the Confederate cavalry at Hanover and Hunterstown, Custer and his brigade, which he nicknamed the "Wolverines," played a key role in the cavalry battle east of Gettysburg on July 3.

As Union troops south of the town were repulsing Longstreet's Assault (Pickett's Charge), Custer was fighting with Brigadier General David Gregg's division against Major General J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry. Personally leading his regiments into the fray on several occasions, Custer had two horses shot out from under him. The climax of the fight came when Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan which stopped the Confederate attack. His triumph as Gettysburg marked the high point of his career. The following winter, Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon on February 9, 1864.

In the spring, Custer retained his command after the Cavalry Corps was reorganized by its new commander Major General Philip Sheridan. Participating in Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign, Custer saw action at the Wilderness, Yellow Tavern, and Trevilian Station. In August, he traveled west with Sheridan as part of the forces sent to deal with Lt. General Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. After pursuing Early's forces after the victory at Opequon, he was promoted to divisional command. In this role he aided in destroying Early's army at Cedar Creek that October.

Returning to Petersburg after the campaign in the Valley, Custer's division saw action at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. After this final battle, it pursued General Robert E. Lee's retreating Army of Northern Virginia after Petersburg fell on April 2/3, 1865. Blocking Lee's retreat from Appomattox, Custer's men were the first to receive a flag of truce from the Confederates. Custer was present at Lee's surrender on April 9, and was given the table on which it was signed in recognition of his gallantry.

George Custer - Indian Wars:

After the war, Custer reverted back to the rank of captain and briefly considered leaving the military. He was offered the position of adjutant general in the Mexican army of Benito Juárez, who was then battling Emperor Maximilian, but was blocked from accepting it by the State Department. An advocate of President Andrew Johnson's reconstruction policy, he was criticized by hardliners who believed he was attempting to curry favor with the goal of receiving a promotion. In 1866, he turned down the colonelcy of the all-Black 10th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) in favor of the lieutenant colonelcy of the 7th Cavalry.

In addition, he was given the brevet rank of major general at the behest of Sheridan. After serving in Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's 1867 campaign against the Cheyenne, Custer was suspended for a year for leaving his post to see his wife. Returning to the regiment in 1868, Custer won the Battle of Washita River against Black Kettle and the Cheyenne that November.

George Custer - Battle of the Little Bighorn:

Six years later, in 1874, the Custer and the 7th Cavalry scouted the Black Hills of South Dakota and confirmed the discovery of gold at French Creek. This announcement touched off the Black Hills gold rush and further heightened tensions with the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne. In an effort to secure the hills, Custer was dispatched as part of a larger force with orders to round up the remaining Indians in the area and relocate them to reservations. Departing Ft. Lincoln, ND with Brigadier General Alfred Terry and a large force of infantry, the column moved west with the goal of linking up with forces coming from the west and south under Colonel John Gibbon and Brigadier General George Crook.

Encountering the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, Crook's column was delayed. Gibbon, Terry, and Custer met later that month and, based on a large Indian trail, decided to have Custer circle around the Indians while the other two approached with the main force. After refusing reinforcements, including Gatling guns, Custer and the approximately 650 men of the 7th Cavalry moved out. On June 25, Custer's scouts reported sighting the large camp (900-1,800 warriors) of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse along the Little Bighorn River.

Concerned that the Sioux and Cheyenne might escape, Custer recklessly decided to attack the camp with only the men on hand. Dividing his force, he ordered Major Marcus Reno to take one battalion and attack from the south, while he took another and circled around to the north end of the camp. Captain Frederick Benteen was sent southwest with a blocking force to prevent any escape. Charging up the valley, Reno's attack was stopped and he was forced to retreat, with Benteen's arrival saving his force. To the north, Custer too was stopped and superior numbers forced him to retreat. With his line broken, the retreat became disorganized and his entire 208-man force was killed while making their "last stand."

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Indian Wars: Lt. Colonel George A. Custer." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 9). Indian Wars: Lt. Colonel George A. Custer. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Indian Wars: Lt. Colonel George A. Custer." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).