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George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer

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George Armstrong Custer
Custer, circa 1865
BornDecember 5, 1839
New Rumley, Ohio, U.S.
DiedJune 25, 1876 (aged 36)
Little Bighorn, Montana, U.S.
BuriedInitially on the battlefield;
Later reinterred in West Point Cemetery
AllegianceUnited States
Union
Service/branchUnited States Army
Union Army
Years of service1861–1876
Rank Lieutenant ColonelUSA
 Major GeneralUSV
Commands heldMichigan Cavalry Brigade
3rd Cavalry Division
2nd Cavalry Division
7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment
Battles/warsAmerican Civil WarFirst Battle of Bull RunPeninsula CampaignBattle of AntietamBattle of ChancellorsvilleGettysburg CampaignBattle of GettysburgBattle of Wapping HeightsOverland CampaignBattle of the WildernessBattle of Yellow TavernBattle of Trevilian StationValley Campaigns of 1864Battle of Guard HillThird Battle of WinchesterBattle of Cedar CreekBattle of Tom’s BrookSiege of PetersburgAppomattox CampaignAmerican Indian WarsBattle of Washita RiverBattle of the Little Bighorn 
AwardsSee below
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Bacon Custer​(m. 1864)
RelationsThomas Custer, brother
Boston Custer, brother
James Calhoun, brother-in-law
Signature

George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War[1] and the American Indian Wars.[2]

Custer graduated from West Point in 1861 at the bottom of his class,[3] but as the Civil War was just starting, trained officers were in immediate demand. He worked closely with General McClellan and the future General Pleasonton, both of whom recognized his qualities as a cavalry leader, and he was brevetted brigadier general of volunteers at age 23. Only a few days after his promotion, he fought at Gettysburg, where he commanded the Michigan Cavalry Brigade and despite being outnumbered, defeated J. E. B. Stuart‘s attack at what is now known as the East Cavalry Field. In 1864, Custer served in the Overland Campaign and in Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, defeating Jubal Early at Cedar Creek. His division blocked the Army of Northern Virginia‘s final retreat and received the first flag of truce from the Confederates, and Custer was present at Robert E. Lee‘s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

After the war, Custer was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the Regular Army and was sent west to fight in the Indian Wars. On June 25, 1876, while leading the 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory against a coalition of Native American tribes,[4] he was killed along with all of the five companies he led after splitting the regiment into three battalions. This action became romanticized as “Custer’s Last Stand”.[5]

His dramatic end was as controversial as the rest of his career, and reaction to his life and career remains deeply divided. Custer’s legend was partly of his own fabrication through his extensive journalism, and perhaps more through the energetic lobbying of his wife Libbie Custer throughout her long widowhood [6].

Contents

Family and ancestry[edit]

Custer’s paternal ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, came to the North American English colonies around 1693 from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatines whose passage was arranged by the English government to gain settlers in New York and Pennsylvania.[7][8]

According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout mother’s hope that her son might join the clergy.[9]

Birth, siblings, and childhood[edit]

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and his second wife, Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882), who was of English and Scots-Irish descent.[10] He had two younger brothers, Thomas and Boston. His other full siblings were the family’s youngest child, Margaret Custer, and Nevin Custer, who suffered from asthma and rheumatism. Custer also had three older half-siblings.[11] Custer and his brothers acquired a life-long love of practical jokes, which they played out among the close family members.

Emanuel Custer was an outspoken Jacksonian Democrat, who taught his children politics and toughness at an early age.[12]

In a February 3, 1887 letter to his son’s widow, Libby, he related an incident from when George Custer (known as Autie) was about four years old:

“He had to have a tooth drawn, and he was very much afraid of blood. When I took him to the doctor to have the tooth pulled, it was in the night and I told him if it bled well it would get well right away, and he must be a good soldier. When he got to the doctor he took his seat, and the pulling began. The forceps slipped off and he had to make a second trial. He pulled it out, and Autie never even scrunched. Going home, I led him by the arm. He jumped and skipped, and said ‘Father you and me can whip all the Whigs in Michigan.’ I thought that was saying a good deal but I did not contradict him.” [13]

Education[edit]

USMA Cadet George Armstrong “Autie” Custer, ca. 1859 with a Colt Model 1855 Sidehammer Pocket Revolver.

In order to attend school, Custer lived with an older half-sister and her husband in Monroe, Michigan. Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio. It was to train teachers for elementary schools. While attending Hopedale, Custer and classmate William Enos Emery were known to have carried coal to help pay for their room and board. After graduating from McNeely Normal School in 1856, Custer taught school in Cadiz, Ohio.[14] His first sweetheart was Mary Jane Holland.[15]

Custer entered West Point as a cadet on July 1, 1857, as a member of the class of 1862. His class numbered seventy-nine cadets embarking on a five-year course of study. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the course was shortened to four years, and Custer and his class graduated on June 24, 1861. He was 34th in a class of 34 graduates: 23 classmates had dropped out for academic reasons while 22 classmates had already resigned to join the Confederacy.[16]

Throughout his life, Custer tested boundaries and rules. In his four years at West Point, he amassed a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy. The local minister remembered Custer as ““the instigator of devilish plots both during the service and in Sunday school. On the surface he appeared attentive and respectful, but underneath the mind boiled with disruptive ideas.[17] ”A fellow cadet recalled Custer as declaring there were only two places in a class, the head and the foot, and since he had no desire to be the head, he aspired to be the foot. A roommate noted, “It was alright with George Custer, whether he knew his lesson or not; he simply did not allow it to trouble him.”[18] Under ordinary conditions, Custer’s low class rank would result in an obscure posting, the first step in a dead-end career, but Custer had the “fortune” to graduate as the Civil War broke out, and the Army had a sudden need for many junior officers.

Civil War[edit]

McClellan and Pleasanton[edit]

Custer with ex-classmate, friend, and captured Confederate prisoner, Lieutenant James Barroll Washington, an aide to General Johnston, at Fair Oaks, Virginia, 1862

Like the other graduates, Custer was commissioned as a second lieutenant; he was assigned to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment and tasked with drilling volunteers in Washington, D.C. On July 21, 1861, he was with his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run during the Manassas Campaign, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle, Custer continued participating in the defenses of Washington D.C. until October, when he became ill. He was absent from his unit until February 1862. In March, he participated with the 2nd Cavalry in the Peninsula Campaign (March to August) in Virginia until April 4.

On April 5, Custer served in the 5th Cavalry Regiment and participated in the Siege of Yorktown, from April 5 to May 4 and was aide to Major General George B. McClellan; McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign. On May 24, 1862, during the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, when General McClellan and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped, and Custer overheard Barnard mutter, “I wish I knew how deep it is.” Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river, turned to the astonished officers, and shouted triumphantly, “McClellan, that’s how deep it is, General!”[19]

Custer was allowed to lead an attack with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, resulting in the capture of 50 Confederate soldiers and the seizing of the first Confederate battle flag of the war. McClellan termed it a “very gallant affair” and congratulated Custer personally. In his role as aide-de-camp to McClellan, Custer began his life-long pursuit of publicity.[19] Custer was promoted to the rank of captain on June 5, 1862. On July 17, he was reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. He participated in the Maryland Campaign in September to October, the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, the Battle of Antietam on September 17, and the March to Warrenton, Virginia, in October.Custer (extreme right) with President LincolnGeneral McClellan and other officers at the Battle of Antietam, 1862

On June 9, 1863, Custer became aide to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Pleasonton, who was commanding the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. Recalling his service under Pleasonton, Custer was quoted as saying that “I do not believe a father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me.”[20] Pleasonton’s first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of what was to become the Gettysburg Campaign.

Brigade command[edit]

Custer (left) with General Pleasonton on horseback in Falmouth, Virginia, 1863Custer (left) with Alfred Pleasonton in Autumn 1863

Pleasonton was promoted on June 22, 1863, to major general of U.S. Volunteers. On June 29, after consulting with his new commander, George Meade, Pleasanton began replacing political generals with “commanders who were prepared to fight, to personally lead mounted attacks”.[21] He found just the kind of aggressive fighters he wanted in three of his aides: Wesley MerrittElon J. Farnsworth (both of whom had command experience) and George A. Custer. All received immediate promotions; Custer to brigadier general of volunteers, commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade (“Wolverines”).[22] Despite having no direct command experience, Custer became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick.

Now a general officer, Custer had great latitude in choosing his uniform. Though often criticized as gaudy, it was more than personal vanity. “A showy uniform for Custer was one of command presence on the battlefield: he wanted to be readily distinguishable at first glance from all other soldiers. He intended to lead from the front, and to him it was a crucial issue of unit morale that his men be able to look up in the middle of a charge, or at any other time on the battlefield, and instantly see him leading the way into danger.” [23]

Some have claimed Custer’s leadership in battle as reckless or foolhardy. However, he “meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemies [sic] weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the ‘Custer Dash’ with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time.”[24]

Hanover and Abbottstown[edit]

On June 30, 1863, Custer and the First and Seventh Michigan Cavalry had just passed through Hanover, Pennsylvania, while the Fifth and Sixth Michigan Cavalry followed about seven miles behind. Hearing gunfire, he turned and started to the sound of the guns. A courier reported that Farnsworth’s Brigade had been attacked by rebel cavalry from side streets in the town. Reassembling his command, he received orders from Kilpatrick to engage the enemy northeast of town near the railway station. Custer deployed his troops and began to advance. After a brief firefight, the rebels withdrew to the northeast. This seemed odd, since it was supposed that Lee and his army were somewhere to the west. Though seemingly of little consequence, this skirmish further delayed Stuart from joining Lee. Further, as Captain James H. Kidd, commander of F troop, Sixth Michigan Cavalry, later wrote: “Under [Custer’s] skillful hand the four regiments were soon welded into a cohesive unit….” [25]

Next morning, July 1, they passed through Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, still searching for Stuart’s cavalry. Late in the morning they heard sounds of gunfire from the direction of Gettysburg. At Heidlersburg, Pennsylvania, that night they learned that General John Buford‘s cavalry had found Lee’s army at Gettysburg. The next morning, July 2, orders came to hurry north to disrupt General Richard S. Ewell‘s communications and relieve the pressure on the union forces. By mid afternoon, as they approached Hunterstown, Pennsylvania, they encountered Stuart’s cavalry.[26] Custer rode alone ahead to investigate and found that the rebels were unaware of the arrival of his troops. Returning to his men, he carefully positioned them along both sides of the road where they would be hidden from the rebels. Further along the road, behind a low rise, he positioned the First and Fifth Michigan Cavalry and his artillery, under the command of Lieutenant Alexander Cummings McWhorter Pennington, Jr. To bait his trap, he gathered A Troop, Sixth Michigan Cavalry, called out, “Come on boys, I’ll lead you this time!” and galloped directly at the unsuspecting rebels. As he had expected, the rebels, “more than two hundred horsemen, came racing down the country road” after Custer and his men. He lost half of his men in the deadly rebel fire and his horse went down, leaving him on foot.[27] He was rescued by Private Norvell Francis Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot Custer’s nearest assailant, and pulled Custer up behind him.[28] Custer and his remaining men reached safety, while the pursuing rebels were cut down by slashing rifle fire, then canister from six cannons. The rebels broke off their attack, and both sides withdrew.

After spending most of the night in the saddle, Custer’s brigade arrived at Two Taverns, Pennsylvania, roughly five miles southeast of Gettysburg around 3 a.m. July 3. There he was joined by Farnsworth’s brigade. By daybreak they received orders to protect Meade’s flanks. He was about to experience perhaps his finest hours during the war.

Gettysburg[edit]

Lee‘s battle plan, shared with less than a handful of subordinates, was to defeat Meade through a combined assault by all of his resources. General James Longstreet would attack Cemetery Hill from the west, Stuart would attack Culp’s Hill from the southeast and Ewell would attack Culp’s Hill from the north. Once the Union forces holding Culp’s Hill had collapsed, the rebels would “roll up” the remaining Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge. To accomplish this, he sent Stuart with six thousand cavalrymen and mounted infantry on a long, flanking maneuver.[29]

By mid-morning, Custer had arrived at the intersection of Old Dutch road and Hanover Road. He was later joined by Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg, who had him deploy his men at the northeast corner. Custer then sent out scouts to investigate nearby wooded areas. Gregg, meanwhile, placed Colonel John Baillie McIntosh‘s brigade near the intersection and sent the rest of his command to picket duty along two miles to the southwest. After making additional deployments, that left 2,400 cavalry under McIntosh and 1,200 under Custer, together with Colonel Alexander Cummings McWhorter Pennington, Jr.‘s and Captain Alanson Merwin Randol‘s artillery, a total of ten three-inch guns.

About noon Custer’s men heard cannon fire, Stuart’s signal to Lee that he was in position and had not been detected. About the same time Gregg received a message warning that a large body of rebel cavalry had moved out the York Pike and might be trying to get around the Union right. A second message, from Pleasonton, ordered Gregg to send Custer to cover the Union far left. Since Gregg had already sent most of his force off to other duties, it was clear to both Gregg and Custer that Custer must remain. They had about 2700 men facing 6000 Confederates.

Soon afterward fighting broke out between the skirmish lines. Stuart ordered an attack by his mounted infantry under General Albert G. Jenkins, but the Union line- men from the First Michigan cavalry, the First New Jersey Cavalry and the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry held. Stuart ordered Jackson’s four gun battery into action. Custer ordered Pennington to answer. After a brief exchange in which two of Jackson’s guns were destroyed, there was a lull.

About one o’clock, the massive Confederate artillery barrage in support of the upcoming assault on Cemetery Ridge began. Jenkins’ men renewed the attack, but soon ran out of ammunition and fell back. Resupplied, they again pressed the attack. Outnumbered, the Union cavalry fell back, firing as they went. Custer sent most of his Fifth Michigan cavalry ahead on foot, forcing Jenkins’ men to fall back. Jenkins’ men were reinforced by about 150 sharpshooters from General Fitzhugh Lee‘s brigade and, shortly after, Stuart ordered a mounted charge by the Ninth Virginia Cavalry and the Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry. Now it was Custer’s men who were running out of ammunition. The Fifth Michigan was forced back and the battle was reduced to vicious, hand-to-hand combat.

Seeing this, Custer mounted a counter- attack, riding ahead of the fewer than 400 new troopers of the Seventh Michigan Cavalry, shouting, “Come on, you Wolverines!” As he swept forward, he formed a line of squadrons five ranks deep- five rows of eighty horsemen side by side- chasing the retreating rebels until their charge was stopped by a wood rail fence. The horses and men became jammed into a solid mass and were soon attacked on their left flank by the dismounted Ninth and Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry and on the right flank by the mounted First Virginia cavalry. Custer extricated his men and raced south to the protection of Pennington’s artillery near Hanover Road. The pursuing Confederates were cut down by canister, then driven back by the remounted Fifth Michigan Cavalry. Both forces withdrew to a safe distance to regroup.

It was then about three o’clock. The artillery barrage to the west had suddenly stopped. Union soldiers were surprised to see Stuart’s entire force about a half mile away, coming toward them, not in line of battle, but “formed in close column of squadrons… A grander spectacle than their advance has rarely been beheld”.[30] Stuart recognized he now had little time to reach and attack the Union rear along Cemetery Ridge. He must make one, last effort to break through the Union cavalry.

Stuart passed by McIntosh’s cavalry- the First New Jersey, Third Pennsylvania and Company A of Purnell’s Legion- posted about half way down the field, with relative ease. As he approached, they were ordered back into the woods, without slowing down Stuart’s column, “advancing as if in review, with sabers drawn and glistening like silver in the bright sunlight….” [31]

Stuart’s last obstacle was Custer, with four hundred veteran troopers of the First Michigan Cavalry, directly in his path. Outnumbered but undaunted, Custer rode to the head of the regiment, “drew his saber, threw off his hat so they could see his long yellow hair” and shouted… “Come on, you Wolverines!”[32] Custer formed his men in line of battle and charged. “So sudden was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them….”[33] As the Confederate advance stopped, their right flank was struck by troopers of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Michigan. McIntosh was able to gather some of his men from the First New Jersey and Third Pennsylvania and charged the rebel left flank. “Seeing that the situation was becoming critical, I [Captain Miller] turned to [Lieutenant Brooke-Rawle] and said: “I have been ordered to hold this position, but, if you will back me up in case I am court-martialed for disobedience, I will order a charge.”[34] The rebel column disintegrated into individual saber and pistol fights.

Within twenty minutes the combatants heard the sound of the Union artillery opening up on Pickett’s men. Stuart knew that whatever chance he had of joining the Confederate assault was gone. He withdrew his men to Cress Ridge.[35]

Custer’s brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade.[36] “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry”, Custer wrote in his report.[37] “For Gallant And Meritorious Services”, he was awarded a regular army brevet promotion to Major.

The Valley and Appomattox[edit]

General Custer participated in Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. The civilian population was specifically targeted in what is known as the Burning.[38][39][40]

In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac reorganized under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan, Custer (now commanding the 3rd Division) led his “Wolverines” to the Shenandoah Valley where by the year’s end they defeated the army of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. During May and June, Sheridan and Custer (Captain, 5th Cavalry, May 8 and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel, May 11) took part in cavalry actions supporting the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which Custer ascended to division command), and the Battle of Yellow Tavern (where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded). In the largest all-cavalry engagement of the war, the Battle of Trevilian Station, in which Sheridan sought to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad and the Confederates’ western resupply route, Custer captured Hampton’s divisional train, but was then cut off and suffered heavy losses (including having his division’s trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the enemy) before being relieved. When Lieutenant General Early was then ordered to move down the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington, D.C., Custer’s division was again dispatched under Sheridan. In the Valley Campaigns of 1864, they pursued the Confederates at the Third Battle of Winchester and effectively destroyed Early’s army during Sheridan’s counterattack at Cedar Creek.

Sheridan and Custer, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April 1865 the Confederate lines finally broke, and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at WaynesboroDinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lee’s retreat on its final day and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force. After a truce was arranged Custer was escorted through the lines to meet Longstreet, who described Custer as having flaxen locks flowing over his shoulders, and Custer said “in the name of General Sheridan I demand the unconditional surrender of this army.” Longstreet replied that he was not in command of the army, but if he was he would not deal with messages from Sheridan. Custer responded it would be a pity to have more blood upon the field to which Longstreet suggested the truce be respected, and then added “General Lee has gone to meet General Grant, and it is for them to determine the future of the armies.”[41] Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to him as a gift for his wife by Sheridan, who included a note to her praising Custer’s gallantry. She treasured the gift of the historical table, which is now in the Smithsonian Institution.[42]

On April 25, after the war officially ended, Custer had his men search for, then illegally seize a large, prize racehorse “Don Juan” near Clarksville, Virginia, worth then an estimated $10,000 (several hundred thousand today), along with his written pedigree. Custer rode Don Juan in the grand review victory parade in Washington, D.C. on May 23, creating a sensation when the scared thoroughbred bolted. The owner, Richard Gaines, wrote to General Grant, who then ordered Custer to return the horse to Gaines, but he did not, instead hiding the horse and winning a race with it the next year, before the horse died suddenly.[43]

Promotions and ranks[edit]

Custer’s promotions and ranks including his six brevet [honorary] promotions which were all for gallant and meritorious services at five different battles and one campaign:[44]

Second lieutenant, 2nd Cavalry: June 24, 1861
First lieutenant, 5th Cavalry: July 17, 1862
Captain staff, additional aide-de-camp: June 5, 1862
Brigadier general, U.S. Volunteers: June 29, 1863
Brevet major, July 3, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)

Captain, 5th Cavalry: May 8, 1864
Brevet lieutenant colonel: May 11, 1864 (Battle of Yellow Tavern – Combat at Meadow)

Brevet colonel: September 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Volunteers: October 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, Virginia)
Brevet brigadier general, U.S. Army, March 13, 1865 (Battle of Five Forks, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Army: March 13, 1865 (The campaign ending in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia)

Major general, U.S. Volunteers: April 15, 1865
Mustered out of Volunteer Service: February 1, 1866

Lieutenant colonel, 7th Cavalry: July 28, 1866 (killed at the Battle of

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