Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer (1839-1876)

George Armstrong Custer Photograph
George Armstrong Custer

Courtesy Library of Congress

George Armstrong Custer was born December 5th, 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio. He attended the Military Academy at West Point and graduated last in his class in 1861. During the Civil War, Custer rose rapidly through the ranks, participating in many battles in the Eastern Theatre. At the age of 23 year he was promoted to Brigadier General, thus making him the youngest general at that time.

After the Civil War, Custer spent military duties in the south before being appointed a lieutenant colonel in charge of the newly formed 7th U.S. Cavalry. Custer was assigned postings in Kansas, and his 7th Cavalry participated in the ill-fated Hancock expedition in the spring of 1867, looking for Cheyenne and Lakota warriors. During the summer of that year, his regiment faced problems with desertion and Custer - ever the disciplinarian, used harsh measures. During one instance, he gave the order to shoot down deserters, and initially refused to give the survivors medical treatment. For Custer, the second major event that summer was when he left his assigned post without orders - by all accounts to be with his wife Libbie. Custer was promptly arrested and “charged with absence without leave, conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, and the unmerciful treatment of deserters." During his court-martial in October of 1867, he was found guilty on all charges and sentenced with suspension of rank and pay for one year.

While Custer was still completing his sentence, new plans were being developed for a winter campaign against the Southern Plains Indian tribes. On September 24, 1868, two months before his sentence was up, Custer was reinstated to command the 7th Cavalry once again by General Phillip Sheridan with orders to find and attack the villages of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers.
On November 12, 1868, Custer and a combined group of infantry and cavalry (including the 7th Cavalry) left Fort Dodge, Kansas and travelled south to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) where they established a supply base. After spending eleven days there they marched for three days, and on the 26th of November Custer’s Osage Scouts discovered a trail in the snow leading to the village of Black Kettle and his mostly peaceful Cheyennes.

The consequent attack on the village at dawn on November 27th, 1868, would be known as the Battle of the Washita. While the attack was taking place, Custer’s Chief Scout Ben Clark informed Custer that Captain Meyers’ command was killing women and children without mercy, which caused Custer to order a stop to the killing of women and children. The attack on the camp lasted less than thirty minutes, but by now Custer was becoming increasingly aware that he was being surrounded by a large force of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Kiowa warriors. Custer and his regiment were able to extract themselves from the predicament later that day, taking with them the Cheyenne women and children as captives.

Two important controversies followed Custer after the Washita attack. First was the death of the Cheyenne peace chief Black Kettle, who was killed in the village, along with other peaceful Cheyennes. Second was the supposed abandonment of Major Joel Elliott and his men during the attack, who were cut off and killed. This would follow Custer to his doom eight years later at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In the ensuing years after 1868, Custer found himself staying busy by leading hunting parties with such celebrities as the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, Buffalo Bill Cody, and even General Philip Sheridan. In this time Custer wrote his most famous work, My Life on the Plains, which was first published as a series of articles for the magazine The Galaxy and made into a book. In 1873 he and his regiment partipipated in General Stanley's Yellowstone expedition, and the following year in an expedition to the Black Hills of present day South Dakota.

On June 25th, 1876, Custer finally met his demise at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in Montana Territory, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.



Bibliography

Greene, Jerome A. Washita: the U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. (pgs 32-33, 72-73, 79-81, 116-128, 127-128, 193)

Frost, Lawrence A. The Court-Martial of General George Armstrong Custer.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968. (pgs 81, 88-89, 99-100, 245-246)

Hardoff, Richard. Washita memories: eyewitness views of Custer's attack on Black Kettle's village.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. (pgs 9-13, 15-18, 23-24, 27-28, 58-95, 198)

Last updated: February 5, 2018

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