On this day in 1839, Union General George Armstrong Custer is born in Harrison County, Ohio. Although he is best known for his demise at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Montana,in 1876, Custer built a reputation as a dashing and effective cavalry leader during the Civil War.
Custer entered West Point in 1857, where he earned low grades and numerous demerits for his mischievous behavior. He graduated last in the class of 1861. Despite his poor academic showing, Custer did not have to wait long to see military action. Less than two months after leaving West Point, Custer fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia,in July 1861.
Custer served the entire war in the Army of the Potomac. He was present for nearly all of the army’s major battles, and became, at age 23, the youngest general in the Union army in June 1863. He led the Michigan cavalry brigade in General Judson Kilpatrick’s 3rd Cavalry Division. Shortly after his promotion, Custer and his “Wolverines” played a key role in stopping Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry attack, which helped preserve the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As a leader, Custer earned the respect of his men because he personally led every charge in battle. Wrote one observer of Custer’s command, “So brave a man I never saw and as competent as brave. Under him a man is ashamed to be cowardly. Under him our men can achieve wonders.”
He achieved his greatest battlefield success in the campaigns of 1864. At the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Virginia, on May 11, 1864, Custer led the charge that resulted in the death of Stuart. One month later at Trevilian Station, Virginia, Custer’s command attacked a supply train before being surrounded by Confederate cavalry. His men formed a triangle and bravely held off the Rebels until help arrived. In October, Custer’s men scored a decisive victory over the Confederate cavalry at Tom’s Brook in the Shenandoah Valley, the most one-sided Yankee cavalry victory of the war in the East.
Custer was demoted to lieutenant colonel in the downsizing that took place after the Civil War ended. He was much less effective in his postwar assignments fighting Native Americans, and his reckless assault on the camp at Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, led to his death and earned him an unsavory reputation that overshadowed his earlier success in the Civil War.