George Armstrong Custer was a U.S. military officer and commander who rose to fame as a young officer during the American Civil War. He gained further fame for his post-war exploits against Native Americans in the West. Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 – now infamous as Custer’s Last Stand – made him a martyr for American expansionism, although he had been harshly criticized for his actions and remains a controversial figure.
Custer’s Early Years
George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839. Custer was part of a large extended family, and spent part of his youth in Michigan, with a half-sister and her husband, and would consider the state his adopted home.
He attended Michigan schools and taught for a short period. Despite his humble background and youthful indiscretions, a Michigan Congressman secured Custer a place at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when he was 18.
Custer arrived in 1857. While intelligent and talented, he dismissed the Academy’s disciplinary system and was a lazy student. He was nearly expelled several times. He racked up 726 demerits in just four years – one of the highest amounts in West Point history – and graduated last in his class, a position commonly known as the “goat.”
Despite his unimpressive record, the U.S. Army desperately needed officers to serve in the newly-begun Civil War. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and based in Washington, D.C.
‘Boy General’ of the Civil War
Custer got his first taste of war mere weeks after his graduation, at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, where he gained the attention of General George McClellan.
He soon joined McClellan’s staff, and fought during the Peninsula Campaign that began in the spring of 1862.
Custer earned a reputation for both bravery and brashness. He also became known as a publicity hound, taking every opportunity to get himself in front of the cameras and newspapermen documenting the war.
In the summer of 1863, the 23-year-old Custer was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, and took command of the Michigan Calvary Brigade. Soon after, he began sporting an unusual and flamboyant uniform, which brought him even more attention.
Custer played a key role at the Battle of Gettysburg, preventing General J.E.B. Stuart from attacking Union troops, and later capturing Confederates fleeing south after the Union victory.
But his brigade lost more than 250 men, the highest of any Union cavalry unit. Custer’s units would continue to rack up a disproportionate number of casualties throughout the war.
George and Libbie
George and Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon had briefly met as children in Michigan. They fell in love when Custer returned home on leave in 1862.
Libbie was from a wealthy and prominent local family, but Custer was still months away from the military actions that would first bring him fame. Despite her father’s misgivings, the couple married in December 1862.
They were devoted to each other, although Custer’s later gambling and possible affairs tested their relationship. Unlike most military wives of the time, Libbie happily accompanied Custer to his postings, and they both wrote each other constantly when separated.
The couple had no children. Instead, they poured their combined efforts into growing Custer’s fame. They held regular salons in their homes, and cultivated journalists back East.
Custer at Appomattox
In 1864, he fought alongside Major General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign and appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. After being transferred to Petersburg, he and his men took part in the Battle of Appomattox Court House that finally ended the war in the spring of April 1865.
He led a daring cavalry raid in the war’s final days, which was covered in national newspapers, and received his final promotion of the war, to major general of volunteers.
He was present at Lee’s surrender, and Phil Sheridan later gifted the table the surrender had been signed on to Custer’s wife, Libbie, in recognition of her husband’s service in the war.
Despite serving from the war’s earliest days to its end, Custer remained remarkably unscathed, which he and others chalked up to what he called “Custer’s Luck.”
Custer in the West
Custer served in the Southwest immediately after the war, where he clashed with his troops. He briefly considered leaving the army to pursue business opportunities or run for political office, but when a new 7th Cavalry Regiment was raised to pursue American aims in the West, Custer assumed command as a lieutenant colonel.
Custer and Libbie arrived in Kansas in the fall of 1866, and Custer participated in a campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne the following spring. When a group of American soldiers were massacred by Native Americans, some of Custer’s men accused him of abandoning his troops. This resentment would later have devastating consequences.
Shortly afterwards, he was court-martialed for leaving his command to visit Libbie. Sentenced to one year’s leave without pay, the Custer’s returned to Michigan. But by the fall of 1868, Custer was back, with Phil Sheridan having argued for his early return to fight in the Indian Wars.
In November 1868, Custer led a raid on a Cheyenne camp along the Washita River in what is now Oklahoma. There were disagreements over Custer’s claim that he had killed a significant number of warriors, but it was the Army’s first significant victory in the region, and brought Custer more fame.
In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered all Sioux out of the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming by the end of the following January. Well aware that they would be unable to make the trek during a harsh winter, the government planned to use this as an excuse to expand hostilities.
These actions broke the terms of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had recognized the Black Hills as Sioux land. But in 1874, gold had been discovered in the region – thanks to a mining expedition led by Custer – and the U.S. government wanted to permanently remove the Sioux. Among those who resisted American aggression was Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota chief and holy man.
‘Custer’s Luck’ Runs Out at the Little Big Horn
Custer almost didn’t fight in the campaign that led to his death. Due to lead the 7th Cavalry when it left on its campaign against the Sioux that spring, Custer was instead caught up in the controversies engulfing Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency.
His testimony at a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., implicated several members of the administration, including Grant’s brother. Custer did himself further damage by leaking additional details to the press.
A furious Grant removed Custer from command, and briefly had him arrested when he tried to return to his troops. Only after several high-ranking generals intervened was Custer allowed to return to his post.
In mid-May the U.S. campaign began, at the same time that a large group of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were converging for a meeting called by Sitting Bull and attended by Crazy Horse. An estimated 2,000 were gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River in what is now Montana.
Custer’s Last Stand
On June 25, after several long days spent marching, Custer’s scouts spotted the camp. Fearful that the Native Americans would escape, Custer chose to press on with an immediate attack. He divided his troops into three battalions, which were to attack the camp from different directions.
Custer and his 210 men headed north, into the Battle of the Little Bighorn, never to be seen alive again. The action of the other battalion commanders has been mired in controversy. Major Marcus Reno was one of the officers who harbored resentment against Custer for the 1867 incident that led to the massacre of Custer’s troops.
Ten years later, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Reno faltered, ordering his men to move to safety at the first sign of Indian attack. Captain Frederick Benteen, tasked with preventing the Sioux from retreating, soon met up with Reno.
The two commanders did not rush to Custer’s aid, leading to speculation that they played a role in his death.
The bodies of Custer and his men, which included his two brothers, weren’t found for two days. Custer was discovered naked, but unscalped, with a bullet to the chest and forehead.
The sole “survivors” were an Indian scout and a cavalry horse, Comanche, who would become a symbol of the American losses that day. The battle itself may have lasted for up to two hours, as the Americans faced off against a well-equipped Sioux force armed with powerful and deadly repeating rifles.
The news of Custer’s Last Stand stunned the nation. His death at just 36 made him a martyr, with newspaper stories, articles, books, advertisements and Hollywood movies glorifying his life and career.
Chief among those burnishing his fame was Libbie Custer, who spent her widowhood writing a series of best-sellers about their life, continuing to cultivate his legacy for more than 50 years until her own death in 1933.
As popular opinion about America’s mistreatment of Native Americans shifted, so to did attitudes about Custer, who remains a highly controversial figure.
George Armstrong Custer: American Battlefield Trust.
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer: National Park Service.