George A. Custer’s reputation as an American soldier is derived almost exclusively from Little Big Horn. His very name is synonymous with defeat, yet he is easily recognizable as one of the most important military figures emerging in the post-Civil War era.
The controversy surrounding Custer, hero or butcher, cannot be comprehended without a basic contextual understanding of the man. Little Big Horn created the Custer myth, but who was George A. Custer.
Born in New Rumley, eastern Ohio, on December 5, 1839, George Custer was the oldest child in the union of Emanuel Custer, a blacksmith and widower, and Maria Kirkpatrick, herself a widow. Young Custer spent the first ten years of his life in New Rumley before moving to Monroe, Michigan, to live with his half-sister, Lydia Reed, and her husband. Monroe offered better opportunities for formal education. For the next six years Custer split time between Michigan and Ohio. In 1855 he returned to New Rumley and Harrison County embarking on a temporary career as a schoolmaster at the Beech Point School. Between school terms, he attended McNeely Normal School in nearby Hopedale, intending to improve his comprehension in mathematics and earn an appointment to West Point. His perseverance paid off, for in 1857 Congressman John A. Bingham notified Custer of his admittance to West Point.
The Buckeye teenager entered West Point in the fall. Standing in at just under 5’ 9” tall, he was slightly larger than the average cadet. Large bones and broad shoulders developed from labors on the family farm enhanced Custer’s athletic abilities. In all of Custer’s West Point class, only the tall Texan, Thomas Rosser, possessed more athleticism. Less flattering, Custer earned the sobriquet, “Fanny,” from his fellow cadets—a reference to his light facial complexion (which matched, in color, another region of the body). Deep blue eyes and a shock of reddish blonde hair rounded out his features.
At West Point, Custer ranked near the bottom of his class in nearly every category except horsemanship. On several occasions he teetered on expulsion because of excessive demerits usually for tardiness, visiting after hours, or wearing a slovenly uniform. On the eve of the Civil War many of the academy’s Southern cadets tendered their resignations and departed for their native states. Custer’s class, scheduled for graduation in 1862, graduated in June 1861, a year earlier due to the onset of war. The young cadet from Ohio ranked thirty-fourth in a class of 34.
Custer found assignment in the cavalry a good fit for his temperament and abilities. Commissioned a second lieut-enant, his military career began with Company G, Second United States Cavalry. He arrived outside Manassas, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. three days removed from West Point, in time to witness the disintegration of the Union army at the Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
Custer joined the staff of Brigadier General Philip Kearny, a grizzled-old Army regular now in charge of a brigade of New Jersey volunteers, but soon departed Kearny, joining the Fifth U.S. Cavalry. In the fall Lieutenant Custer fell sick, returning to Monroe to recuperate. During his Michigan visit, Custer and a friend went on drinking sprees. The young lieutenant was seen staggering down the street by none other than his future bride, Elizabeth Bacon. Soon after, Custer made a pledge which he kept for the remainder of his life. He would never touch liquor again.
In March 1862, Custer accompanied his regiment to Yorktown, Virginia, as part of Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. Because of his West Point training, Custer was detailed to the Topographical Engineers where he served his superiors well, especially as a member of the aeronautics corps.
From his lofty perch, on May 4 the aerial balloonist (Custer) reported Confederates abandoning their Yorktown defenses. The next day during the assaults on Confederate fortifications below Williamsburg, Custer was everywhere demonstrating his potential and abilities to his superiors. He received two citations that same day for gallantry. During McClellan’s slow and methodical movements up the Peninsula toward Richmond, the ever-conspicuous Custer continued to serve as staff officer for the Topographical Engineers. He boldly waded into the Chickahominy River acquiring important details on an unsupported Confederate outpost. Custer’s luck prevailed, for General McClellan happened to be nearby. Impressed with Custer’s detailed reconnaissance, McClellan tendered him an immediate position on his staff, which the shocked lieutenant readily accepted. With it came the brevet rank of captain.
The two men took an instant liking to each other. McClellan found the energetic staff officer brave, devoted, and untiring. In his memoirs “Little Mac” recalled, “His head was always clear in danger and he always brought me clear and intelligible reports.” Custer reciprocated those feelings. He wrote of his mentor that, “I have more confidence in General McClellan than any man living . . . . Every officer and private worships him. I would fight anyone who would say a word against him.” Even after McClellan was sacked following Antietam, a loyal Custer steadfastly defended his chief.
Custer denounced McClellan’s firing but learned a valuable lesson over the vortex stemming from civilian and political manipulations for control over the military. Throughout his career Custer would clash with military and civilian authorities. With no job and permanent rank reduced to a first lieutenancy due to his chief’s dismissal, Custer went home to Monroe to await developments. Never one to be idle, Custer used the winter along Lake Erie to his advantage by beginning his courtship with one of Monroe’s most eligible females, Elizabeth Bacon. Libbie’s father, the stern Judge Bacon, disapproved. Custer was forbidden to correspond with Libbie, so when he returned east in the early spring, he circumvented the order by writing to her through a third party.
In the spring of 1863, Custer joined the staff of Major General Alfred H. Pleasonton, chief of cavalry, army of the Potomac. Pleasonton, an old Dragoon officer, took Custer under his wing. During the 1862 Maryland campaign, Custer had been temporarily assigned to Pleasonton’s staff and had impressed the veteran with his energy and daredevil attitude. He was no ordinary staff officer. Custer liked to mix it up. Combat excited his blood, impressing the new chief of cavalry. At Brandy Station June 9, 1863, Custer, the staff officer, galloped in front to spearhead a column that collided with Jeb Stuart’s vaunted invincibles. The mammoth battle involving 10,000 cavalrymen, was strategically a stalemate. Its outcome, however, reflected the new federal cavalry that would match Stuart’s horseman saber for saber, cavalryman for cavalryman.
In quick succession, Custer demonstrated his aggressive demeanor and leadership potential on other battlefields. At Aldie on June 16, and Upperville and Middleburg in days to come, Custer was conspicuous. No menial staff chores for him—Custer preferred action. He rallied Union cavalryman on the battlefields or personally assumed command of companies and regiments leading them into hell-for-leather cavalry charges. Pleasonton could not help but notice. Custer typified the cavalry officer Pleasonton coveted. He and two other young daredevils, Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farsnworth, manifested reckless courage, a willingness to fight and personal loyalty to their chief.
On June 28, 1863, the chief of cavalry rewarded the trio by pushing their names forward for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. At the time Custer had learned of his catapult in grade from a mere captain to brigadier general, he was 23—the youngest general in the Union army.
Custer’s command consisted of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade comprised of the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. The Boy General dubbed his regiments the Wolverine Brigade, but they were officially known as the Second Brigade, Third Cavalry Division. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania created a crisis, and on June 30 Custer’s Wolverines clashed with “Butternuts” at Hanover. The Confederates disengaged, retiring to the east. Hanover was Custer’s initial action as a brigade commander while also affording his brigade the first opportunity to see their boy commander in person under battle conditions.
Captain James H. Kidd, Sixth Michigan Cavalry, described Custer wearing a black velvet suit with gold braids running along the sleeves. Underneath, a blue navy sailor suit with wide collars and red necktie bedecked the general. A black hat topped off Custer’s long golden curls. He looked like a “circus rider gone mad,” wrote another officer. But in the days and months ahead, Kidd, other officers and the majority of the enlisted personnel grew to respect and admire their young leader. Youthfulness aside, they discovered that Custer was a fighter, and that he would lead them into battle.
For the first two July days of 1863, the opposing armies grappled with each other near the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. On July 3, Lee simultaneously launched a massive frontal assault under Major General George Pickett on the Union center while sending Jeb Stuart with 6,000 cavalrymen east to strike and confuse the federal rear. Custer’s brigade of more than 2,000 men formed part of the 5,000 bluecoats under Brigadier General David M. Gregg. As Stuart’s brigades charged the Union lines, Custer trotted out in front with the First Michigan Cavalry, the only regiment of his brigade immediately available for action. Brandishing his saber aloft, Custer turned and shouted to his Michiganders, “Come on, you Wolverines!” Spurring his horse Custer led a mad dash toward the surging Butternuts. Grey and blue riders collided, horses and combatants turned upside down by the violence of the collision; equipment, mounts, and cavalrymen all crashed together in a great crescendo. Stunned by the deliberations of Custer and 500 men of the First Michigan Cavalry, the Rebel horsemen of Brigadier Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee withdrew, their ranks and organization shattered.
Stuart’s rebuff coincided with Pickett’s retreat from the copse of trees at Gettysburg now symbolically recognized as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. The Boy General, as Custer was to be called in the press, had played a critical role in halting the Confederate cavalry, earning respect and well-deserved accolades from his troopers and superiors. One veteran campaigner remarked about Custer, “He is a glorious fellow, full of energy, quick to plan and bold to execute, and with us he has never failed in any attempt he has yet made.”
Custer’s brigade pursued Lee’s retreating infantry and cavalry and on the Potomac River near Falling Waters, caught up with the Confederate rearguard. In the ensuing melee Custer’s troopers captured more than 1,500 prisoners, killed 125 Butternuts, and wounded 50 while sustaining losses of less than 125.
With the Gettysburg campaign now officially over, Custer gave his command a much needed rest and a chance to refit. The respite did not last long. Long maneuvers and incessant skirmishing continued in northern Virginia through summer and fall. In September his brigade was involved in sharp fighting near Culpeper Courthouse, Virginia. Shrapnel struck Custer in the thigh inflicting a painful but not serious wound. Custer worked the injury to his advantage gaining a 20-day leave. Returning by railroad to Monroe, he began his final advance on Elizabeth Bacon’s heart. Libbie’s defenses were powerless at keeping this cavalier at bay. She surrendered her heart and agreed to marry the Boy General. Even the implacable Judge Bacon could not fight a war on two fronts. Besides, his future son-in-law had redeemed himself. Custer’s abstention from alcohol, as well as his new social standing owing to his accession to brigadier general left the Judge with little ammunition to deny the union. Libbie and George married in Monroe on February 9, 1864.
The Custers spent late winter and spring at a farmhouse outside of Culpeper Courthouse. While the newlyweds were getting acquainted, President Abraham Lincoln reorganized the Army of the Potomac. Ulysses S. Grant was summoned east to superintend overall operations. Gone was Pleasonton, replaced by the tough, diminutive Irishman with a bullet-shaped head, Philip H. Sheridan. A veteran campaigner in the West at Perryville, Stones River and Missionary Ridge, “Little Phil” let it be known to Grant that he wanted his cavalry corps to exercise independent command and not just support Meade’s infantry. Custer’s Wolverine brigade was transferred to the First Brigade, First Division commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Torbert.
Grant’s 100,000-man army plodded south in May 1864 to engage General Lee’s forces west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, at the Battle of the Wilderness. Sheridan’s cavalry corps, including Custer, initially did nothing more than screen infantry movements and spar with Rebels at critical road junctures. Grant finally allowed the aggressive Irishman to cut loose, and Sheridan’s 10,000-man cavalry plunged south on May 9. Sheridan’s objective: to draw Stuart’s cavalry out in the open and inflict as much damage as possible. On May 9, Custer’s troopers clattered into Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad where they intercepted two locomotives laden with over a million rations for Lee’s hungry soldiers in addition to large sums of medical supplies. Custer destroyed the railroads and set free almost 400 Union soldiers captured by Lee after the Battle of the Wilderness.
North of Richmond on May 11 Stuart made a defensive stand at Yellow Tavern. Custer’s brigade pierced the Confederate lines. Stuart personally rode forward, exhorting his troopers to stand. His men rallied, driving Custer back. A retreating Michigander, Private John Huff paused long enough to turn, aim, and fire a round from his revolver at a rebel officer shouting orders. The stricken Stuart died the next day.
For the next two months, the energetic Sheridan kept Custer and the cavalry corps clashing with the Confederates. As Grant slipped around Lee’s right flank drawing ever-closer to Richmond, Sheridan’s bluecoats collided with the rebels. Custer’s Wolverines contested the rebel cavalry at Haw’s Shop and Cold Harbor. Although these actions were indecisive, they resulted in wearing down the Confederate cavalry. Grant’s war of attrition began to take its toll on the Con-federates. Custer and other federal com-manders hammered the gray horsemen placing Lee’s cavalry in a defensive mode for the remainder of the war.
In June, Grant’s offensive sputtered against the Rebel infantry entrenched before Richmond and Petersburg. Offensive operations stagnated to siege warfare. With Grant bogged down, Sheridan raided central Virginia targeting the destruction of the Virginia Central Railway at Trevilian Station near Gordonsville. The Confederates were able to consolidate their horsemen at Trevilian Station in numbers that matched Sheridan’s. Custer’s brigade found itself sandwiched between two Confederate forces, the divisions of Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. In fierce fighting, Custer extricated himself by sheer will and determination. Nevertheless, the surprise cost him dearly, 416 troopers, headquarters wagon and Libbie’s personal love letters. So intense was the engagement, that Custer at one point rescued a stand of fallen colors by tucking them into his blouse to avoid their capture, a point not lost on war correspondents following the campaign. Even in defeat Custer looked heroic.
In July, Confederate general Jubal A. Early led his second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia into the Washington, D.C. suburbs. The boldness of Early resulted in Grant dispatching Sheridan with an independent army to wipe out the Butternuts. On September 19 Sheridan unleashed his infantry, penetrating Early’s lines at Winchester. The cavalry brigades of Merritt and Custer pursued the fleeing Rebels. Custer’s Wolverines scooped up 700 prisoners. Sheridan was extremely impressed with the Boy General. In only five months, Custer had won Sheridan’s favor. Following Custer’s success at Winchester, Little Phil rewarded his protégé with another star, giving him command of the Third Division.
Custer rewarded his mentor’s confidence with two outstanding performances in the field. At Tom’s Brook October 9, he routed his old West Point classmate Thomas Rosser and his celebrated Laurel Brigade. In the ensuing panic, Custer captured six pieces of artillery including Rosser’s personal headquarters wagon. Ten days later Early surprised Sheridan’s army while they were resting along Cedar Creek south of Winchester. Initially, the Confederates seized the initiative capturing everything in the camp and routing part of Major General George Crook’s Eighth Corps and portions of the Sixth. Custer and the cavalry helped stem the tide. General Sheridan, rushing to the battlefield from Winchester, grasped victory from the jaws of certain defeat. The infantry rallied behind Sheridan’s exhortations and converged on Early’s troops milling about the abandoned Union camps. By afternoon, with order restored, Sheridan directed Custer and his blue demons to smash the Confederate flank. The Confederate victory, which seemed so certain in the morning, turned into chaos as the Butternuts retreated southward along the Valley Pike. Custer’s Third Division plucked 45 cannons from the Confederates not counting great stands of small arms and hordes of prisoners. Sheridan rewarded Custer with a brevet promotion to major general. In March 1865, Early made one last stand against Sheridan at Waynesboro, but the thundering cavalry charges of Custer’s Third Division crumpled Early’s left flank sending the last remnants of his army fleeing across the mountains.
With resistance in the Shenandoah Valley eliminated, Sheridan trekked east to bolster Grant’s forces at Petersburg. Immediately, Grant unleashed his great war captain to seize Confederate positions that were defending this gateway to Richmond. On April 1, Sheridan ordered Custer and the other cavalry commands to assault Major General George Pickett’s army that was protecting Five Forks, an important crossroads southwest of Petersburg.
The joint cavalry and infantry attack crushed Pickett’s weak defenses. The aggressive Custer plunged into the swarming, Rebels, his men capturing hundreds of prisoners and several cannons. He loved the sting of battle and war, “glorious war,” as he once described it. Five Forks proved disastrous for Lee. He evacuated Petersburg under the cover of darkness April 2. Sheridan and Custer knew what Lee had to do: retreat west and hope to unite with General Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina. Grant vigorously pursued Lee hoping to place his faster-moving cavalry ahead of the Rebels to cut off escape. Sheridan relied heavily on Custer’s zeal and energy to outrun Lee.
Pushing hard, Custer’s command was conspicuous at the destruction of a major portion of Lee’s army at Sayler’s Creek, April 6. Custer’s cavalry then raced west attempting to beat Lee’s starving forces to Appomattox Station. The Boy General reached the station April 8, ahead of the Confederates. He found four trains at the yard packed with much-needed supplies for the Rebels. Lee’s cannoneers endeavored to scatter the blue cavalry and recapture the all-important supply trains. Despite horrific shelling, a gritty Custer refused to budge.
With escape routes blocked and supplies destroyed, principally due to Custer’s exertions, Lee, on the morning of April 9, faced the painful task of meeting General Grant to discuss surrender terms. Rebel riders carrying white flags galloped into Union lines. Fittingly, Custer, ever in the forefront, received the first of the white flags of truce. Custer remained on the lines awaiting news like thousands of men—gray and blue—for word. Lee accepted Grant’s generous surrender terms.
After Lee departed Wilmer McLean’s parlor where the surrender terms were signed, a horde of Union officers descended on poor Mr. McLean’s home to cart off mementos. An anxious Sheridan thrust $20 in gold into McLean’s hands and purchased the tiny wooden table upon which the terms of capitulation had been drafted. In forwarding the table on to Libbie Custer, Sheridan wrote a note that read: “I respectfully present to you the small writing-table on which the conditions for the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were written by Lt. General Grant—and permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring this about than your very gallant husband.”
Custer had demonstrated ability, leadership, courage and bravery on scores of battlefields. His success came neither by fluke nor luck. Custer finished the war as one of the brightest and most respected cavalry officers in the Union Army, bearing little resemblance to the Indian War officer we memorialize.
Custer’s reputation as the nation’s premier Indian fighter was built on the success of one encounter—Washita. But even his November 1868 victory over Black Kettle’s Cheyennes was tainted. Some denounced Washita as a massacre while others declared it a decisive victory against a diabolical foe deserving of extermination. A divided nation grappled with the dilemma of Native Americans—how to treat them honestly and objectively. The military, including Custer, were pawns in the government machinery which vacillated from loving the Indians to death, to beating them into submission. It is, indeed, unfortunate that what the public knows about George A. Custer is based almost exclusively on a hot June Sunday in 1876,. the reality of which is bears little resemblance to the real Custer and his contributions to history—particularly his success in the American Civil War.