George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in the hamlet of New Rumley, three miles east of Scio, Harrison County, Ohio. Destined to become one of the most celebrated and controversial figures to emerge from the Civil War, he was called "Armstrong," "Autie" (his own childhood pronunciation of the former), "Fanny" (applied to him in his plebe year at West Point), or "Curly" (derived from the shoulder-length reddish locks he wore at times). During much of his boyhood he lived with his half-sister and his brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan. Prior to entering West Point in 1857, he taught school in Ohio. According to one story, Custer owed his appointment to the Military Academy to the father of a young lady who wished to get him out of the neighborhood. His career at West Point was not particularly impressive: he graduated last in the class of June, 1861; had been close to expulsion in each of his four years because of excessive demerits; and was under detention at the time of his graduation. He was immediately ordered to duty with the Army of the Potomac and on the eve of the battle of First Manassas, the young lieutenant was detailed by Lieutenant General Winfield Scott to carry dispatches to General Irwin McDowell at Centerville. Perhaps the best appraisal of Custer's career in the Civil War was written by his fellow commander, Major General James Harrison Wilson: "The modest man is not always the best soldier. . . . Some of the best, while shamelessly sounding their own praises, were brave, dashing, and enterprising to an unusual degree." Custer was all these things. He served on the staffs of Generals George B. McClellan and Alfred Pleasonton, with the temporary rank of captain, until the spring of 1863, distinguishing himself on a dozen occasions. On June 29, 1863, he was jumped from first lieutenant to brigadier general of volunteers and was assigned to command a brigade in Judson Kilpatrick's division, which he led a few days later at Gettysburg. Until the end of the war Custer fought with the utmost distinction in all the cavalry battles of the Army of the Potomac; he was in command of a division in the Shenandoah and cut off the last avenue of escape for Robert E. Lee's army at Appomattox. (Here Philip Sheridan purchased the table on which U. S. Grant wrote the terms of surrender, for presentation to Mrs. Custer.) A week later he was made a full major general of volunteers, having been previously brevetted to the same rank in both the regular and volunteer services. In 1866, Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly authorized 7th Cavalry, remaining its active commander until his death. He took part in Win-field S. Hancock's expedition of 1867 against the Sioux and Cheyenne, but was court-martialed and suspended from duty for paying an unauthorized visit to his wife, although he was restored to duty the following year by Sheridan. He bears the blame for destroying an unoffending Cheyenne village on the Washita in November, 1868. He also took part in Stanley's Yellowstone expedition in 1873 and the next year he led an exploring expedition into the Black Hills, which precipitated the great Sioux (and Cheyenne) outbreak of 1876 and culminated in the battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. The campaign envisioned two supporting columns, one under Custer, the other under General John Gibbon, with General Alfred H. Terry in over-all command. Upon discovering the huge Indian village, Custer divided his own command into three battalions and without waiting for his supports led an attack which resulted in the extermination of his immediate command and a total loss of some 266 officers and men. On June 28 the bodies were given hasty burial on the field. In the following year, what may have been Custer's remains were disinterred and given a military funeral at West Point. Custer had been a prolific writer and Mrs. Custer, who survived him by fifty-seven years, helped to create what might be called the Custer myth. When all is said on both sides, Custer's military philosophy, eminently successful on scores of fields, was to pitch in against any odds and then extricate himself and his command later if the going got too rough.

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Reference:  Generals in Blue.  Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner.  Louisiana State University Press.  Baton Rouge.