Born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio, George Armstrong Custer first achieved renown as a young Civil War hero before gaining everlasting fame a decade later from his spectacular defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. On the 175th anniversary of Custer’s birth, explore 10 surprising facts about the general who remains one of the most controversial figures in American history.
1. Four other members of the Custer family died at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Among the force of more than 200 men wiped out by the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors on June 25, 1876, were Custer’s 18-year-old nephew, Henry Reed, brother-in-law James Calhoun and two younger brothers, Boston and Thomas (a Civil War veteran and two-time Medal of Honor recipient).
2. His nickname was “Autie.”
Custer’s mispronunciation of his middle name when he first began to speak was adopted by his family as his nickname. The moniker stuck with him for his entire life and was used by his wife, Libbie, as a term of endearment.
3. Custer graduated last in his class at West Point.
Custer was known by his fellow cadets at the U.S. Military Academy as the “dare-devil of the class” who devoted more energy to pranks than to his academic studies. Custer’s voluminous record of demerits earned him extra guard duty on most Saturdays, but he did manage to graduate from West Point in 1861, albeit as the lowest-ranking cadet, now known as “the goat.”
4. Custer was the youngest Civil War general in the Union Army.
Although Custer struggled in the classroom, he excelled on the battlefield. After joining the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry following his graduation, he gained notice for his daring cavalry charges, bold leadership style and tactical brilliance. In June 1863, Custer was promoted to the rank of brigadier general at the age of 23, and he cemented his reputation as the “Boy General” days later at the Battle of Gettysburg when he repelled a pivotal Confederate assault led by J.E.B. Stuart. By the end of the Civil War, Custer had risen to the rank of major general.
5. His wife received the table on which the Civil War surrender terms were drafted.
Custer served the Army of the Potomac with distinction from the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 to Appomattox Court House four years later. Custer’s forces blocked Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s final retreat, and he received the white truce flag signifying Lee’s wish to meet with Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Custer was present in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant. General Philip Sheridan purchased the small spool-turned table used by Grant to draft and sign the terms of surrender and gave it to Libbie Custer in gratitude for her husband’s service. “Permit me to say, Madam,” Sheridan wrote to Libbie, “that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.” After Libbie’s death in 1933, her will specified that the table be given to the Smithsonian Institution.
6. Custer scented his hair with cinnamon oil.
The flamboyant Custer paid great attention to his appearance. He wore a black velvet uniform with coils of gold lace, spurs on his boots, a red scarf around his neck and a large, broad-brimmed sombrero. Custer took particular pride in his cascading golden locks, which he perfumed with cinnamon oil.
7. Custer was twice court-martialed.
Prior to graduating from West Point, Custer was court-martialed for neglect of duty in failing to stop a fight between two cadets when he was officer of the guard and received a light punishment. Much more serious was his 1867 court-martial in which he was convicted on eight counts that included conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, and absence without leave from his command after he left part of his regiment on the Kansas frontier while he returned without orders to Fort Riley in order to see Libbie. Custer was suspended from rank and command without pay for a year, but Sheridan reinstated him after 10 months to lead a bloody campaign against the Cheyenne.
8. Buffalo Bill helped to mythologize Custer’s Last Stand.
After Custer’s death, his widow devoted the remaining 57 years of her life writing books and delivering lectures that cast her husband as a martyr who gallantly staged his “Last Stand.” William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who had briefly scouted for Custer, also contributed to the mythmaking. Weeks after the Battle of Little Bighorn, he killed and scalped a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair and declared it “the first scalp for Custer.” Buffalo Bill replayed the scene repeatedly throughout his theatrical career and incorporated a re-enactment of “Custer’s Last Rally,” complete with several Native Americans who had actually been present at the Battle of Little Bighorn, into his famed Wild West show.
9. Custer was thought to have lived a charmed life.
During the Civil War, the “Boy General” seemed to have such a streak of good fortune, which included his avoidance of serious injury in spite of his daring command and having 11 horses shot out from under him, that is was referred to as “Custer’s luck.” The revival of his military career after his 1867 court-martial furthered the perception that Custer lived a charmed life, but Custer’s luck ran out at Little Bighorn.
10. Ronald Reagan played Custer on the big screen.
The future president played the role of a young Custer in the 1940 western “Santa Fe Trail,” a box-office success that abounded in historical inaccuracies. Reagan starred opposite Errol Flynn, who played J.E.B. Stuart, on the hunt for abolitionist John Brown in pre-Civil War Kansas. A year later, Flynn starred as Custer in the highly mythologized biopic “They Died With Their Boots On.”