Custer, George Armstrong

Custer, George Armstrong

Custer, George Armstrong, 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.


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); T. J. Stiles, Custer's Trials (2015).

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Custer, George Armstrong

(1839–76) soldier; born in New Rumley, Ohio. The son of a blacksmith, he graduated last in his West Point class of 1861 but went on to become a Civil War cavalry commander of deadly and aggressive efficiency; often flamboyant in appearance and behavior ("like a circus rider gone mad!" said a fellow officer), he participated in virtually every battle in northern Virginia from First Bull Run to Lee's surrender; at the head of Sheridan's cavalry, he led the pursuit to Appomattox in April 1865, and the Confederate flag of truce, passing through the Union lines, came first to him. Although wounded only once, he had 11 horses killed under him and his brigade sustained the highest casualties of any cavalry unit of the Federal army; he was made a brigadier general by age 23. Returned to his rank of captain, and later promoted to lieutenant colonel, he served on the frontier with the Seventh Cavalry Regiment; in 1867 he was court-martialed for leaving his post but he was restored to duty in 1868 and gained even more fame fighting the Plains Indians. A more thoughtful side of Custer emerged in his memoirs of war service and life on the plains (1874) and in his efforts to combat corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Participating in the government's campaign to force the Cheyenne and Sioux onto reservations, he came across a large encampment of Indians along the Little Bighorn River in Montana territory; dividing his forces, on June 25, 1876, he ordered an attack; Custer and the over 200 men in his command were annihilated by the vastly larger force. The controversy that shadowed his military career has never truly subsided, as people debate the proportions of bravery, egotism, and folly to assign him.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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