George Armstrong Custer

No figure of the Indian wars in America so typifies that era as George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876).He is known universally for the massacre that bears his name and for the blundering that brought it about.

George Custer was born in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio, on Dec. 5, 1839. His ambition from youth was to be a soldier, and he secured an appointment to West Point in 1857. A poor, mischievous student, he graduated at the bottom of his class in 1861, but was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2d Cavalry.

The Civil War was in progress, and Custer fought on the Union side. For gallant conduct at the engagement at Aldie on June 16, 1863, he was breveted a brigadier general and given command of a brigade from Michigan. By the end of the war, at the age of only 25, he had been promoted to brevet major general. During the war he had married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Bacon.

The conflict over, Custer reverted to his permanent rank of captain in the 5th Cavalry but soon was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 7th Cavalry; he would actively hold this command until his death. In 1867 he was charged with absence from duty and suspended for a year but was reinstated by Gen. Philip H. Sheridan in 1868. On November 27 of that year he achieved a startling victory over Chief Black Kettle and the Cheyenne Indians at the battle of the Washita. His regiment was then fragmented, and he spent 2 years in Kentucky. In 1873 the regiment was reunited in the Dakota Territory. He was described at this time as tall, slender, energetic, and dashing, with blue eyes and long golden hair and mustache. At the post he wore velveteen uniforms decorated with gold braid, but in the field he affected buckskins. He rarely drank or used tobacco and spent his spare hours reading military history and studying tactics.

Rumors of gold in the Black Hills led to a government expedition in 1874, which Custer commanded. Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution confirmed the rumors, and the swarm of gold seekers to the area caused the Sioux Indians to go on the attack. Custer was to lead the campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne in early 1876, but instead he was summoned to Washington to testify before a congressional committee investigating fraud in the Indian Bureau. Custer's testimony, unfavorable to Secretary of War W. W. Belknap, so angered President Grant that he removed Custer from command of the expedition to punish the Native Americans. Public outcry at the President's act, along with the request of Gen. Alfred Terry that Custer accompany the campaign, caused Grant to restore Custer to command of the 7th Cavalry, which then took the field.

On the Yellowstone River, Terry's scouts reported Indians in the vicinity, and Custer was sent to investigate, with orders to exercise caution. On the morning of June 25, 1876, he came upon a village later estimated to have contained from 2,500 to 4,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors under Chief Crazy Horse. Splitting his command into three parts, Custer personally led 264 men into battle. His force was surrounded on the hill that now bears his name, overlooking the valley of the Little Bighorn River. He and all the men under his personal command were massacred there, while Maj. Marcus Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen took refuge on the bluffs overlooking the river and escaped.

The Custer massacre electrified the nation, although it had little effect on the outcome of the Sioux wars. Reno and Benteen were accused of cowardice by admirers of Custer, while Custer's detractors bemoaned the death of the troops under his command due to his rash order to charge so superior a Native American force. This controversy continues, for Custer was a man so paradoxical that he could fight corruption in the Indian Bureau to the disservice of his own carrier, yet also order a charge to kill Native Americans.


Further Reading on George Armstrong Custer

So many books have been written about Custer that no one book can be singled out as best. Custer's autobiography, My Life on the Plains: or, Personal Experiences with Indians (1874), gives insights into his character, as do the books by his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Boots and Saddle: or, Life in Dakota with General Custer (1885) and Tenting on the Plains: or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas (1887). See also Marguerite Merington, ed., The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth (1950).