History of Major General George A. Custer

George Armstrong Custer, the son of blacksmith Emanuel Henry Custer and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick, was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839. At a young age, George was sent to live with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, MI. After graduating in 1856, he returned to Ohio and taught school.  Custer wanted to become a lawyer but his family could not afford the training so he decided to become a soldier instead. After leaving West Point he joined the staff of General George B. McClellan and during the American Civil War he saw action at Bull Run (August, 1862), Antietam (September, 1862) and Gettysburg (June, 1863). Custer emerged as an outstanding cavalry leader and at the age of 23, was given the rank of brigadier general and took command of the Michigan Brigade.
 
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.
 
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 Custer to brevet brigadier general.  With this promotion, Custer was assigned to lead a brigade of Michigan cavalry in the division of Major 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.  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.
 
   

​(Left photo)  L to R: Generals Philip Sheridan, James W. Forsyth, Wesley Merritt, Thomas C. Devin, and George Armstrong Custer (Center) Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan; (Right) Photo of Generals: (L to R) Wesley Merritt, Philip Sheridan, George Crook, James William Forsyth, and George Armstrong Custer around a table examining a document. Harpers Weekly, 1865
 
In August, 1864, Custer joined Major General Philip Sheridan in the final Shenandoah Valley campaign. Sheridan and 40,000 soldiers entered the valley and soon encountered troops led by Lt. General Jubal Early who had just returned from Washington. After pursuing Early's forces after the victory at Opequon, he was promoted to divisional command. After a series of minor defeats the Union Army eventually gained the upper hand. The Union Army took control of the Shenandoah Valley on October 19, 1864. In January 1866, his commission as major-general expired and he reverted to his 1862 rank of captain in the Regular Army. 
 
After his final battle in Petersburg, they 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.
 
Indian Wars:
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.  In July, 1866, he was re-commissioned lieutenant colonel (he was also given the honorary rank of major general) and made second in command of the newly created Seventh Cavalry. He was posted to Fort Riley in Kansas and spent the winter of 1866-67 preparing his troops to take part in the Indian Wars.
 
General Philip H. Sheridan recalled Lt. Col. George Custer to duty and on 27th November, 1868; Lt. Col. Custer won the Battle of Washita River against Black Kettle and the Cheyenne that November. 
 
In August 1873, Custer was involved in protecting a group of railroad surveyors. The group was attacked by a Sioux war party near the mouth of Tongue River. During the raid two of the surveyors were killed. Later, Charley Reynolds, an Indian scout, told Custer that a Sioux warrior named Rain in the Face had led the attack at Tongue River. Rain in the Face was living on the Standing Rock Reservation at the time and so Custer had him arrested. Custer forced Rain in the Face to confess but before he could appear in court he managed to escape. In 1873 Custer was a member of General David Stanley's Yellowstone expedition. Later that year he took command of Fort Abraham Lincoln on the River Missouri. In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota. 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.  Later he published an autobiography, My Life on the Plains (1874).
 
​Map of Custer's last stand; Custer's Battlefield can be seen in the box in upper left corner
 
On June 22, 1876, Custer and 655 men of the 7th Cavalry were sent out to locate the villages of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. 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.  It was over 15 miles away and even with field glasses Custer was unable to discover the number of warriors the camp contained.
Instead of waiting for the arrival of the rest of the army led by General Alfred Terry, Custer decided to act straight way. He divided his force into three battalions in order to attack the camp from three different directions. One group led by Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to march to the left. A second group led by Major Marcus Reno was sent to attack the encampment via the Little Big Horn River.
 
(​Left) painting of Custer's Last stand by Mark Churms; (right) painting of Custer's Last stand by Michael Schrock
   
 
Major Reno was the first to charge the village. When he discovered that the camp was far larger than was expected he retreated to the other side of the Little Big Horn River. He was later joined by Captain Benteen and although they suffered heavy casualties they were able to fight off the attack.
 
George Armstrong Custer and his men rode north on the east side of the Little Big Horn River. The Sioux and Cheyenne saw Custer's men and swarmed out of the village. Custer was forced to retreat into the bluffs to the east where he was attacked by about 4,000 warriors. At the battle of the Little Bighorn, George Armstrong Custer and all his 231 men were killed. This included his two brothers, Tom and Boston, his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and his nephew, Autie Reed.
 
The soldiers under Reno and Benteen continued to be attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and his army. It was claimed afterwards that Custer had been killed by his old enemy, Rain in the Face. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that this is true.
 
George Armstrong Custer was buried initially at the “Last Stand” Hill of the Battle of Little Big Horn, two days after his death.  He was later given a hero's burial at West Point the United States Military Academy in October 1877.