George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876)

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Custer’s last stand and defeat is one of the most famous military blunders in history, yet compared with most events in military history it is a very small affair with a mere 250 dead, but it is as well known to most people as the D Day landings, or the battle of Waterloo. Custer was born 5th December 1839 near New Rumley Ohio and entered the West Point military academy in July 1857. In a shadow of things to come his West Point career was filled with demerits and near dismissals. With many of his class mates heading south for commissions in the Confederate cause (American Civil War) he passed out last in his class of 34 in June 1861 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US 2nd Cavalry.

Civil War service


George Armstrong Custer

He was present at the First Battle of Bull Run but did not see action. He transferred in August to the 5th Cavalry and was promoted to a 1st Lieutenant in July 1862. Since the June he had been an aide to General McClellan with the acting rank of captain and he remained as the Generals aide until March 1863. In June 1863 he was made Brigadier-General of volunteers while he was only 23. He distinguished himself while in command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade at the battle of Gettysburg and leading a cavalry charge 2 days later with the 7th Michigan Cavalry. In typical Custer style he described this by saying “ I challenge the annals of war to produce a more brilliant charge of cavalry” Custer served with the Army of the Potomac throughout 1864 and gained further renown during the battles of the Shenandoah Valley. He ended the civil war as a major general of volunteers leading a cavalry division. He was an over the top character who loved publicity and gained more than other more accomplished officers, the press for their part loved him a young showman with long red hair and a taste for velvet jackets with gold braid he would not have been out of place in Napoleon's cavalry of half a century earlier. Already he was autocratic and a dictatorial leader, who had risen so quickly through the ranks he had had little time to learn from his mistakes, although his incredible arrogance would have probably prevented him recognising any mistakes as his own.

Post War service

Custer’s first post war command ended when his Michigan Cavalry was disbanded after a mutiny, which was partly caused by his heavy-handed discipline. Many volunteer units were pushing for disbandment but Custer had reintroduced the lash as a form of discipline. He mustered out of voluntary service in Feb 1866 and reverted to his army rank of captain but he still liked to be referred to as General Custer.  He made some moves to becoming the Commander of the Mexican cavalry and was offered but refused command of the 9th Negro Cavalry and in July 1866 took command as a Lt-Colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry, its Colonels being mainly on detached duties.

In early 1867 while on a recon mission Custer’s behaviour led to a courts martial and he was found guilty of absenting himself from his command, and using some troopers as an escort while on unofficial business, abandoning two men reported killed on the march and failing to pursue the Indians responsible, failing recover the bodies, and ordering a party going after deserters to shoot to kill which resulted in 1 death and 3 wounded, and finally unjustifiable cruelty to those wounded. He was sentenced to suspension from rank and pay for a year, but a lack of a replacement meant he was returned to duty early. The incident caused much bad feeling among the regiment’s officers for several years. The regiment saw minor skirmishes against the native Indians for the next few years. Custer didn’t see any action but published exaggerated accounts of the 7th cavalry’s actions. In November 1868 the 7th cavalry fought at the battle of Washita during which over a hundred Indians were killed including some women and children which the Cheyenne nicknamed Custer ‘Squaw killer” for.  Custer’s incompetence led to some deaths during the campaign, which also increased ill feeling towards him.

In spring 1873 the Regiment was moved to Dakota under command of Col D.S Stanley at fort Rice. While protecting some railway engineers the regiment skirmished with local Indians and during these Custer was charged with insubordination but his friends persuaded the Col to drop the charges. In 1874 a ‘Scientific’ expedition was sent to the Black Hill country with Custer leading the escort of ten companies of the 7th, some infantry and scouts and a detachment of Gatling guns.  He was charged with recon of a site for a new fort by the size of his force suggests another agenda. Some have accused Custer of spreading stories of a gold find and although the force was too strong the Indians attacked the gaggle of lawless prospectors that followed.  In 1875 the government tried to get the Indians to sell the area but by 1876 this had been abandoned and a military campaign was planned. The attacks on the trespassing prospectors were used as an excuse and the campaign was under General A Terry with Custer commanding the whole of the 7th Cavalry 600 men.

Custer had command only because of Terry’s support; he was in disgrace again having offended President (former General) Grant, Army Commander General William Sherman and his division commander Sheridan. The allegations are complex but centred around irregularities in trading post allocation. Custer always looking for publicity had repeated rumours and hearsay to the press but was found to know nothing under oath. The battle of Little Big Horn will be covered in detail elsewhere but basically Custer was ordered specifically to continue south to prevent any break out of Indian forces under Crazy horse as two main armies tried to trap them. On 24th June Custer found the enemies trail lead towards Little Big Horn and typically he choose not to follow orders. On the 25th he could see the Indians in the valley below probably around 15,000 strong, he then decided to split his force into 3 and attack the encampment from three directions. Considering the size of the enemy force this was pure lunacy. The other two parts of his attack were driven back but made it to the safety of high ground to be relieved by the main force the next day. Custer’s force was cut off and slaughtered by Crazy Horse’s Sioux.

Custer’s actions that day were typical of one of the worse commanders in history, and typical of his glory seeking, arrogant incompetent character. He had risen to a position of power due to friends and supporters at a time when in the aftermath of the American Civil war the press wanted a hero and the Army had a shortage of good commanders. Custer would have been pleased his name went down in history but this is little comfort to the families of those that died to serve his glory.

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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (3 May 2006), George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_custer.html

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