Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

Black and white portrait of George Custer in a military uniform
Lt Col George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1839. For his entire life he would be called "Autie" by his loved ones, stemming from his own mispronunciation of his middle name. As a boy, he was always distracted by other pursuits and rarely, if ever, established himself from the pack as a student. In 1855 he attended a Normal School and by the following year had his teaching certificate to instruct grammar school. It was not long before he grew tired of his profession and soon applied to attend West Point, the U.S. Military Academy. It was not long before Custer's appointment was secured.

Custer entered the academy in the fall of 1857. He graduated last in a class of 34 in June of 1861. As the Civil War broke out, Custer emerged from the academy. He chose the Cavalry as his branch of service. Initially Custer was assigned staff duty with the Army of the Potomac. He soon distinguished himself as a man quick to volunteer and easily relied upon.

In November of 1862, Custer was introduced to a sought-after young woman Elizabeth "Libbie" the daughter of a judge. Initially Libbie fended off the confident young officer's advances, but soon the two soon became sweethearts. Libbie's father, Judge Daniel Bacon, did not approve of his daughter courting someone beneath her station. Nevertheless, the two soon began to court writing letters to one another frequently.

In the two years since the war had broken out, he had been promoted several times all the way to the rank of Brigadier General of Volunteers, commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. Now a General, Libbie's father began to cool his objections to the young couple. In February 1864, the two were married in Monroe. After the honeymoon, Custer again returned to his obligations as an officer, but the two corresponded incessantly and spent time together whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Through the rest of the war he steadily advanced in responsibility and rank. By war's end in 1865, Custer commanded an entire Cavalry Division, holding the rank of Major General. In many cases, Generals led their troops on the battlefield by commanding movements from the rear. Custer, however, distinguished himself as a leader who commanded his troops from the front. Often times in a charge he was the very first soldier to engage the enemy. In one instance, he extended so far ahead of his own men that the enemy cut him off from the rest of his command. Men found in Custer a gallant leader worthy of following into battle. In the majority of the battles where he fought against Confederate forces he was victorious. On many occasions, he narrowly escaped harm in battle having 11 horses shot from under him. He incured only one wound from a Confederate artillery shell during the Battle of Culpepper Courthouse. As a result he became known for his legendary "Custer Luck." After the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, the huge Volunteer Army was demobilized and Custer assumed his regular army rank as Captain.

In 1866, when the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment was created at Fort Riley Kansas, Custer was promoted to the position of Lt. Colonel of the regiment. The first Colonel of the 7th was Col. Andrew Smith, (1866-1869) and the second Colonel was Col. Samuel Sturgis (1869-1886). Col. Smith and Col. Sturgis were usually on detached service, which placed Custer in command of the Regiment until his death on June 25th, 1876.

In 1867, serving under General Winfield Hancock, Custer would see his first real experience in the west. Ostensibly, the campaign was to enter into peace negotiations with the Southern Cheyennes and Kiowas along the Arkansas River. Hancock's men and Custer set out "to confer with them to ascertain if they want to fight, in which case he [Hancock] will indulge them." While he scarcely saw combat during his Kansas/Colorado campaign, school was in session, and Custer had begun to learn the nuances of Indian fighting.

At the end of the campaign, he was promptly placed under arrest and charged with: absence without leave from his command, conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, as well as for ordering deserters shot without trial and refusing them medical attention. The court-martial found him guilty of all charges and he was sentenced to one year of suspension from rank without pay. A dishonored Custer was now plagued with a very different reputation from the venerable one he enjoyed during the Civil War.

In 1868, conflict between Cheyennes and homesteaders raged. The U.S. Army dispatched a winter campaign in response to Indian raids along the Arkansas valley. Custer, now reinstated, was to command the 7th for the campaign which culminated with the Battle of the Washita on November 27th, 1868. At dawn, Custer's 7th attacked an unsuspecting village of Southern Cheyennes led by Chief Black Kettle. Killing all warriors, as per his orders, Custer's men spared women and children whenever possible.

In 1873, the 7th would be called into action again. This time, they were charged with protecting the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey as it moved along the Yellowstone investigating sites to lay rail. The Lakota, among other tribes, took particular issue with the construction of the railroad. Soon, the Lakotas were attacking survey sites regularly. While neither party realized it at the time, this would be the first contact between Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall and other notable Lakota figures and their famous opponent; Custer.

The following summer of 1874, the 7th was sent to survey the Lakota's Black Hills. In a time of economic depression, rumors had begun circulating that the Black Hills were ripe with gold. Opportunistic men began to enter the hills in search of riches. Meanwhile, homesteaders had been frequently raided by Lakota war-parties. The army sought to establish a fort in the Black Hills to deter mining invasions and protect Lakota land, as well as have a site within the Sioux lands for the purposes of preventing further raiding. The 7th was charged with finding a proper site for a fort to be built. Along for the expedition, at the behest of General Custer, were two professional miners. During the summer expedition, gold was discovered and accompanying journalists quickly sent word back east of pay dirt. The rumors of gold in the Black Hills that had been circulating for over fifty years had now been confirmed, and a new gold rush was on.

By late 1875, information had become public that high ranking officials in Washington were involved in a scandal that involved the selling of exclusive trading rights at forts and posts along the upper Missouri region. The licenses needed to trade at military forts were issued by the Secretary of War, William Belknap. In March and April of 1876, Custer testified before a congressional committee that Secretary Belknap was involved in the graft. In addition, Custer's testimony attached President Grant's own brother Orville to the corruption. This put Custer in a precarious situation with the Commander and Chief, who was presently overseeing the final planning stages of an offensive on non-treaty Lakotas and Cheyennes for the upcoming spring.

Custer was eventually allowed to command his 7th Cavalry for the upcoming campaign. In the spring of 1876, the U.S. Army dispatched 3 massive columns comprising multiple regiments of Cavalry, Infantry, and Artillery. Their objective was to clear the area of the Lakota and Cheyenne and force them onto the Great Sioux Reservation. Custer's regiment was part of the largest column, coming from Fort Abraham Lincoln. General Alfred Terry commanded the campaign, and Custer was Terry's subordinate. On June 22nd, under orders from Terry, Custer's 7th was sent ahead of the rest of the column in hopes that they could be the striking force for what was most assuredly a large collection of Lakotas not far ahead of them.

On the morning of June 25th, based on intelligence suggesting that the Lakotas and Cheyennes were about to flee, Custer ordered his 7th Cavalry to attack. By the end of the day, 263 soldiers and approximately 80 Lakotas and Cheyennes lay dead. Custer was among them. Less than two weeks later on July 4th, Philadelphia was bursting at the seams with pride and nationalism. On the 100th birthday of the United States people had come from all over the world to share in the theme of "100 Years of Progress." On that day, they would receive word that their famous Civil War hero had been killed along a narrow stream in the Montana Territory. Americans were confounded in shock and stricken with grief.

Americans were devastated, but none more than Libbie, the wife of the fallen General. Libbie lived another 57 years after her beloved husband's death. For the rest of her days, she tirelessly lobbied public opinion portraying her husband as a brave, gallant, and noble figure struck down before his time. In spite of his early death, Custer's name would continue to live on in dime novels, art, music and film. Thanks in large part to Libbie, her husband achieved in death the infamy he sought in life. Since the day of his death in 1876, Custer has and will forever remain a lightning-rod of controversy. Regardless of his merit, Custer has been and will forever remain at the forefront of American historical discourse.

Last updated: January 7, 2020

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