George Armstrong Custer, Battle of Little Bighorn, American Civil War
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Introduction

George Armstrong Custer, a U.S. cavalry officer who served with distinction in the American Civil War, is better known for leading more than 200 of his men to their deaths in the notorious Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. The battle, also known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” was part of the Black Hills War against a confederation of Plains Indians, including the Cheyenne and Dakota Sioux. It remains one of the most controversial battles in U.S. history.

(1839-1876), Civil War cavalry commander and Indian fighter. Born in New Rumley, Ohio, Custer entered West Point in 1857. Upon graduation in 1861 he was assigned immediately to duty as an aide to Gen. George McClellan. Next he drew a cavalry assignment, and his boldness in battle brought rapid promotions. At twenty-three he was the youngest brevet brigadier general in the Union army. While on furlough he met and soon married Elizabeth Bacon, who was to play a significant role in shaping his career and perpetuating his memory.

When the war ended, Custer was returned to the permanent rank of captain. After serving several months in Texas, he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and assigned to the Seventh Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Riley, Kansas. Accompanied by Elizabeth, he reported for duty early in 1867. Under Gen. Winfield Hancock’s command, Custer led the Seventh Cavalry in several skirmishes against Indians in Kansas and Nebraska. Soon after the campaign closed, his uxoriousness came near to ending his career. Instead of remaining with his troops at Fort Wallace as ordered, he made a hasty journey to Fort Riley to see Elizabeth. As a result he was suspended for one year.

In 1868 Gen. Philip Sheridan replaced Hancock and soon arranged for Custer’s reinstatement. That November, after raiding Black Kettle’s Cheyenne village, he was in trouble again for leaving the field without searching for a missing reconnaissance unit that had been ambushed and slain. Among other activities during the next six years, Custer wrote My Life on the Plains in which he attempted to justify his actions, and in 1874 he violated the treaty of 1868 by taking an expedition into the Indians’ sacred Black Hills where gold was discovered. The gold rush that followed created intense Indian hostility and precipitated the government’s decision to confine all northern Plains tribes to reservations.

In 1876, under command of Gen. Alfred Terry, Custer led the Seventh Cavalry as one force in a three-pronged campaign against Sitting Bull’s alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne camps in Montana. During the morning of June 25, Custer’s scouts reported spotting smoke from cooking fires and other signs of Indians in the valley of the Little Bighorn. Disregarding Terry’s orders, Custer decided to attack before infantry and other support arrived. Although scouts warned that he was facing superior numbers (perhaps 2,500 warriors), Custer divided his regiment of 647 men, ordering Capt. Frederick Benteen’s battalion to scout along a ridge to the left and sending Maj. Marcus Reno’s battalion up the valley of the Little Bighorn to attack the Indian encampment. With the remainder of the regiment, Custer continued along high ground on the right side of the valley. In the resulting battle, he and about 250 of his men, outnumbered by the warriors of Crazy Horse and Gall, were surrounded and annihilated. Reno and Benteen suffered heavy casualties but managed to escape to a defensive position. Since that day, ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ has become an American legend. The battle site attracts thousands of visitors yearly.

Throughout his career, Custer exhibited a reckless temperament that kept him in almost constant trouble with superior officers. Yet his courage has rarely been questioned. In life he was a flamboyant man who attracted ardent admirers and severe critics. In death it has been the same. His wife, Elizabeth, through her publications and lectures during the half century she survived him, did much to create the image of a beau sabreur that still persists. Probably more words, pro and con, have been written about George Armstrong Custer than any of his military contemporaries of comparable rank.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.