Wednesday, March 19, 2008


George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839June 25, 1876) was a United States Army cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. Promoted at an early age to a temporary war-time rank of brigadier general, and later made a permanent Lt. Colonel, he was a flamboyant and aggressive commander during numerous Civil War battles, known for his personal bravery in leading charges against opposing cavalry. He led the Michigan Brigade whom he called the "Wolverines" during the Civil War. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, against a coalition of Native American tribes comprised almost exclusively of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors, and led by the Sioux chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall and by the Hunkpapa seer and medicine man, Sitting Bull. This confrontation has come to be popularly known and enshrined in American history as Custer's Last Stand.

Birth and family
Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and his brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school and is now honored by a statue in the center of town. Ordinarily, such a showing would be a ticket to an obscure posting and career, but he had the fortune to graduate just as the war caused the army to experience a sudden need for new officers. His tenure at the academy was a rocky one and he came close to expulsion each of his four years due to excessive demerits, many from pulling pranks on fellow cadets. But he began a path to a distinguished war record, one that has been overshadowed in history by his role and fate in the Indian Wars.

George Armstrong Custer Early life

Civil War
Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle he was reassigned to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, with which he served through the early days of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. During the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, on May 24, 1862, Custer persuaded a colonel to allow him to lead an attack with four companies of Michigan infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, capturing 50 Confederates. Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, termed it a "very gallant affair", congratulated Custer personally, and brought him onto his staff as an aide-de-camp with the temporary rank of captain. In this role, Custer began his lifelong pursuit of publicity. On one occasion when McClellan and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped and Custer overheard his commander mutter to himself, "I wish I knew how deep it is." Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river and turned to the astonished officers of the staff and shouted triumphantly, "That's how deep it is, General!"
When McClellan was relieved of command in November 1862, Custer reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. Custer fell into the orbit of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who was commanding a cavalry division. The general was Custer's introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering and the young lieutenant became his protégé, serving on Pleasonton's staff while continuing his assignment with his regiment. Custer was quoted as saying that "no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me." After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Pleasonton became the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and his first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. In his first command, Custer affected a showy, personalized uniform style that alienated his men, but he won them over with his readiness to lead attacks (a contrast to the many officers who would hang back, hoping to avoid being hit); his men began to adopt elements of his uniform customization. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Station and Aldie.

McClellan and Pleasonton
Three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, General Pleasonton promoted Custer from captain to brevet brigadier general (temporary rank) of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23.
Two captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—received the same promotion along with Custer, although they did have command experience. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.
Custer's style of battle sometimes bordered on reckless or foolhardy. He often impulsively gathered up whatever cavalrymen he could find in his vicinity and led them personally in bold assaults directly into enemy positions. One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was luck and he needed it to survive some of these charges. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick (but one that Custer did not protest) against the brigade of Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the enemy and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by the bugler of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, Norville Churchill, who galloped up, shot Custer's nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.
Possibly Custer's finest hour in the Civil War was just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett's Charge to the west, Robert E. Lee dispatched Stuart's cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of David McM. Gregg, directly in the path of Stuart's horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault, foiling Lee's plan. Custer's brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade.

Marriage
When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Philip Sheridan in 1864, Custer retained his command, and took part in the various actions of the cavalry in the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which he ascended to division command), the Battle of Yellow Tavern, where Jeb Stuart was mortally wounded, and the Battle of Trevilian Station, where Custer was humiliated by having his division trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the Confederates. When Confederate General Jubal A. Early moved down the Shenandoah Valley and threatened Washington, D.C., Custer's division was dispatched along with Sheridan to the Valley Campaigns of 1864. They pursued the Confederates at Winchester and effectively destroyed Early's army during Sheridan's counterattack at Cedar Creek.
Custer and Sheridan, 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 were finally broken and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued mercilessly by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie 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. 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 gallantry. Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier and major general in the Regular Army and major general in the volunteers. As with most wartime promotions, these senior ranks were only temporary.

The Valley and Appomattox
In 1866, Custer was mustered out of the volunteer service, reduced to the rank of captain in the regular army. At the request of Maj. Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan, a bill was introduced into congress to promote Custer to major general, but the bill failed. Custer was offered command of the 10th U.S. Cavalry (otherwise known as the Buffalo Soldiers) with the rank of full colonel, but turned the command down in favor of a lieutenant colonelcy of the 7th U.S. Cavalry and was assigned to that unit at Fort Riley, Kansas.
His career took a brief detour in 1867 when he was court-martialed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for being AWOL. Abandoning post to return to his wife, along with 10 other soldiers and suspended for one year (staying with his wife for the year at Fort Leavenworth), returning to the Army in 1868.
He then took part in General Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition against the Cheyenne. Marching from Fort Supply, Indian Territory, he successfully attacked an encampment of Cheyennes and Arapahos - the Battle of Washita River on November 27, 1868. This was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Indian Wars and a significant portion to the southern branch of the Cheyenne Nation was forced onto a U.S. appointed reservation. On the Washita three Indian women and six children were killed. Custer had his men shoot the 875 Indian ponies the troops had captured.
In 1873, he was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Sioux. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Sioux. Only one man on each side was killed. In 1874, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custer's announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood, South Dakota.
In 1875, Custer swore by White Buffalo Calf Pipe, a pipe sacred to the Lakota, that he would not fight Native Americans again. A medicine man then told Custer that if he ever broke his promise he would die on that day. Forgetting his promise, Custer attacked the encampment of Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 and he died on that day. To the Native Americans, "the inevitable outcome -- Custer's personal annihilation ... -- was proof of the working of great spiritual power."

Indian Wars

For more details on this topic, see Battle of the Little Bighorn. Battle of the Little Bighorn
After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that eluded him in life. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer's wife, Elizabeth, who accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, did much to advance this view with the publication of several books about her late husband: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1891). General Custer himself wrote about the Indian wars in My Life on the Plains (1874) and was the posthumous co-author of The Custer Story (1950).
Custer would be called today a "media personality" who understood the value of good public relations and exploited media for his own ends; he frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns, and their favorable reportage contributed to his high reputation that lasted well into the 20th century. It is believed that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer, The controversy over who is to blame for the disaster at Little Bighorn rages to this day.

Controversial legacy

Counties are named in Custer's honor in five states: Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Custer County, Idaho, is named for the General Custer mine, which, in turn, was named after Custer. There are several townships named for Custer in Minnesota and Michigan. There are also the towns of Custer, Michigan, Custar, Ohio, and the unincorporated town of Custer, Wisconsin. A portion of Monroe County, Michigan, is informally referred to as "Custerville." [1]
Custer National Cemetery is within Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the site of Custer's death.
There is an equestrian statue of Custer in Monroe, Michigan, his boyhood home. Originally located near city hall, in the center of town, it was moved years later to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Park, a small park near the River Raisin and away from the main thoroughfares of the city. Due to lobbying by Libbie Custer and others, it was eventually moved to its current location, on the corner of Monroe and Elm Streets, on the edge of downtown Monroe.
Fort Custer National Military Reservation, near Augusta, Michigan, was built in 1917 on 130 parcels of land, mainly small farms leased to the government by the local chamber of commerce as part of the military mobilization for World War I. During the war, some 90,000 troops passed through Camp Custer. Following the Armistice of 1918, the camp became a demobilization base for over 100,000 men. In the years following World War I, the camp was used to train the Officer Reserve Corps and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On August 17, 1940, Camp Custer was designated Fort Custer and became a permanent military training base. During World War II, more than 300,000 troops trained there, including the famed 5th Infantry Division (also known as the "Red Diamond Division") which left for combat in Normandy, France, June 1944. Fort Custer also served as a prisoner of war camp for 5,000 German soldiers until 1945. Today Fort Custer's training facilities are used by the Michigan National Guard and other branches of the armed forces, primarily from Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Many Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students from colleges in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana also train at this facility, as well as do the FBI, the Michigan State Police, and various other law enforcement agencies. (https://www.mi.ngb.army.mil/ftcuster/default.asp)
The establishment of Fort Custer National Cemetery (originally Fort Custer Post Cemetery) took place on September 18, 1943, with the first interment. As early as the 1960s, local politicians and veterans organizations advocated the establishment of a national cemetery at Fort Custer. The National Cemeteries Act of 1973 directed the Veterans' Administration to develop a plan to provide burial space to all veterans who desired interment in a national cemetery. After much study, the NCS adopted what became the regional concept. Fort Custer became the Veterans' Administration's choice for its Region V national cemetery. Toward this goal, Congress created Fort Custer National Cemetery in September 1981. The cemetery received 566 acres from the Fort Custer Military Reservation and 203 acres from the VA Medical Center. The first burial took place on June 1, 1982. At the same time, approximately 2,600 gravesites were available in the post cemetery, which made it possible for veterans to be buried there while the new facility was being developed. On Memorial Day 1982, more than 33 years after the first resolution had been introduced in Congress, impressive ceremonies marked the official opening of the cemetery.(http://www.cem.va.gov/nchp/ftcuster.htm)
Custer Hill is the main troop billeting area at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The US 85th Infantry Division was nicknamed The Custer Division.
The Black Hills of South Dakota is full of evidence of Custer, with a county, town, and the Custer State Park all located in the area.
Custer Observatory is the oldest observatory on Long Island. Located in Southold, New York, it was founded in 1927 by Charles Elmer (co-founder of the Perkin-Elmer Optical Company ), along with a group of fellow amateur-astronomers. This name was chosen to honor the hospitality of Mrs. Elmer, formerly May Custer, the Grand Niece of General George Armstrong Custer. See also

Eicher, John H. and David J. Eicher (2001). Civil War High Commands. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3. 
Gray, John S. (1993). Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Remembered. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-7040-2. 
Longacre, Edward G. (2000) Lincoln's Cavalrymen, A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac. Stackpole Books; ISBN 0-8117-1049-1
Michno, Gregory F. (1997) Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat. Mountain Press Publishing Company; ISBN-10: 0878423494; ISBN-13: 978-0878423491
Scott, Douglas D. and Richard A. Fox and Melissa A. Connor and Dick Harmon (1989). Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3292-2. 
Tagg, Larry, The Generals of Gettysburg, Savas Publishing, 1998, ISBN 1-882810-30-9.
Utley, Robert M. (1964). Custer, cavalier in buckskin. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3347-3. 
Warner, Ezra J. (1964). Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7. 
Wert, Jeffry (1964). Custer, the controversial life of George Armstrong Custer. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-83275-5. 
Wittenberg, Eric J. (2001). Glory Enough for All : Sheridan's Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station. Brassey's Inc. ISBN 1-57488-353-4. 

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