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George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars who today is most remembered for a disastrous military engagement known as the Battle of the Little Bighornmarker. Raised in Michiganmarker and Ohiomarker, Custer was admitted to West Pointmarker in 1858, where he was a low-ranked student. However, with the outbreak of the Civil War, all potential officers were needed, and Custer was called to serve.

Custer acquired a solid reputation during the Civil War. He fought in the first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Runmarker. His association with several important officers helped his career, as did his performance as an aggressive commander. Before war's end, Custer was promoted to the temporary rank (brevet) of major general. (At war's end, this was reduced to the permanent rank of captain). At the conclusion of the Appomattox Campaignmarker, in which he and his troops played a decisive role, Custer was on hand at General Robert E. Lee's surrender.

After the Civil War, Custer was dispatched to the West to fight in the Indian Wars. The overwhelming defeat in his final battle overshadowed his achievements in the Civil War. Custer was defeated and killed at the Battle of the Little Bighornmarker in 1876, against a coalition of Native American tribes in a battle that has come to be popularly known in American history as Custer's Last Stand.

Family and ancestors

According to late 20th century research, Custer ancestors had immigrated to North America in the late 17th century from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatine refugees whose passage was arranged by the Englishmarker government of Queen Anne to gain settlers. Their surname originally was spelled "Küster". George Armstrong Custer was a 3xgreat-grandson of Paulus Küster from Kaltenkirchen, Duchy of Jülichmarker (today North Rhine-Westphaliamarker state), who settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania.

A 1909 history of Germans in the US stated that Custer's immigrant ancestor was a Hessian soldier fighting for the British, who was paroled in 1778 after Burgoyne's surrender. The soldier was said to have changed his name to Custer because it was easier for his English neighbors to pronounce and perhaps also to remove the stigma attaching to a Hessian, so offensive then to American sensibilities.

Custer's mother was Marie Ward. At the age of 16, she married Israel Kirkpatrick, who died in 1835. She married Emanuel Henry Custer in 1836. Marie's grandparents, George Ward (1724–1811) and Mary Ward (née Grier) (1733–1811), were from County Durham, Englandmarker. Their son James Grier Ward (1765–1824) was born in Dauphin, Pennsylvania and married Catherine Rogers (1776–1829). Their daughter Marie Ward was Custer's mother. Catherine Rogers was a daughter of Thomas Rogers and Sarah Armstrong. According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout father's hopes that his son might become part of the clergy.

Birth, nicknames and siblings

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohiomarker, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882). Throughout his life Custer was known by a variety of nicknames. He was called "Autie" (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name) and Armstrong.

He had younger brothers Thomas and his other full siblings were the family's youngest child, Margaret Custer, and the weak and unhealthy Nevin Custer. Custer also had several older half-siblings.

Early life

Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michiganmarker, where he attended school. (After Custer's death in the Indian Wars, the town erected a statue in his honor.) Before entering the United States Military Academymarker, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohiomarker. While attending Hopedale, Custer, together with classmate William Enos Emery, was known to have carried coal to help pay for their room and board. After graduating from McNeely Normal School in 1856, Custer taught school in Ohio.

Custer was graduated a year early, last of 34 cadets in the Class of 1861 from the United States Military Academymarker, just after the start of the Civil War. Ordinarily, such a class rank would be a ticket to an obscure posting and mundane career, but Custer had the fortune to graduate just as the Civil War broke out. The Army needed new officers. Custer's tenure at the Academy had been rocky, as he came close to expulsion in each of his four years due to excessive demerits, many from pulling pranks on fellow cadets.

Civil War

McClellan and Pleasonton

Second Lieutenant George A.
Custer has photo taken with ex-classmate, friend and captured Confederate prisoner, Lt.
Washington, aide to Gen.
Johnston at Fair Oaks, 1862.
Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Runmarker, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell. After the battle he was reassigned to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, with which he served through the early days of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. As a staff officer for Major General George B. McClellan, Custer was promoted to the rank of Captain during the Army of the Potomac's 1862 Peninsula Campaign. During the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, on May 24, 1862 when Gen. Barnard and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy Rivermarker, they stopped and Custer overheard his commander mutter to himself, "I wish I knew how deep it is." Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river and turned to the astonished officers of the staff and shouted triumphantly, "That's how deep it is, Mr General!" Custer then was allowed to lead an attack with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry across the Chickahominy Rivermarker above New Bridge. The attack was successful, resulting in the capture of 50 Confederates seizing the first Confederate battle flag of the war. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, termed it a "very gallant affair", congratulated Custer personally, and brought him onto his staff as an aide-de-camp with the temporary rank of captain. In this role, Custer began his life-long pursuit of publicity.

When McClellan was relieved of command in November 1862, Custer reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. Custer fell into the orbit of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who was commanding a cavalry division. The general was Custer's introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant became his protégé, serving on Pleasonton's staff while continuing his assignment with his regiment. Custer was quoted as saying that "no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me." After the Battle of Chancellorsvillemarker, Pleasonton became the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and his first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valleymarker in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. In his first command, Custer affected a showy, personalized uniform style that alienated his men, but he won them over with his readiness to lead attacks (a contrast to the many officers who would hang back, hoping to avoid being hit); his men began to adopt elements of his uniform, especially the red neckerchief. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Stationmarker and Aldiemarker.

Brigade command and Gettysburg

Union Cavalry Generals George A.
Custer and Alfred Pleasonton in Autumn 1863
On June 28, 1863, three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburgmarker, General Pleasonton promoted Custer from lieutenant to brigadier general of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Two captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—were promoted along with Custer, although they did have command experience. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.

Custer's style of battle was often claimed to be reckless or foolhardy, but military planning was always the basis of every Custer "dash". As Marguerite Merrington explains in The Custer Story in Letters, "George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemiessic? weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the 'Custer Dash' with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time." One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was what Custer wrote of as "luck" and he needed it to survive some of these charges.

Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburgmarker. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick against the brigade of Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the enemy and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by Norville Churchill of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, who galloped up, shot Custer's nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety. One of Custer's finest hours in the Civil War occurred just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett's Chargemarker to the west, Robert E. Lee dispatched Stuart's cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg, directly in the path of Stuart's horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault. Custer's brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry", Custer wrote in his report.


George and Libbie Custer, 1864
Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon (1842–1933) (whom he first saw when he was ten years old) on February 9, 1864. He had been socially introduced to her in November 1862, when home in Monroe on leave. She was not initially impressed with him, and her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, disapproved of Custer as a match because he was the son of a blacksmith. It was not until well after Custer had been promoted to brevet General (with a famed reputation for personal bravery) that he gained the approval of Judge Bacon. He married Elizabeth fourteen months after they formally met.

Following the Battle of Washita Rivermarker in November 1868, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have unofficially 'married' Monaseetah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock in the winter or early spring of 1868–1869. (Little Rock was killed in the Washita battle.) Monaseetah gave birth to a child in January 1869, two months after the Washita battle. Cheyenne oral history tells that she also bore a second child, fathered by Custer in late 1869.

The Valley and Appomattox

In 1864, with the Cavalry Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, Custer led his "Wolverines" through the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of Trevilian Station. Custer, now commanding the 3rd Division, followed Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley where they defeated the Confederate army of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early in the Valley Campaigns of 1864. When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1864, Custer took part in the various actions of the cavalry in the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which he ascended to division command), the Battle of Yellow Tavernmarker, where Jeb Stuart was mortally wounded, and the Battle of Trevilian Station, where Custer was humiliated by having his division trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the enemy. When Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early moved down the Shenandoah Valley and threatened Washington, D.C.marker, Custer's division was dispatched along with Sheridan to the Valley Campaigns of 1864. They pursued the Confederates at Third Winchestermarker and effectively destroyed Early's army during Sheridan's counterattack at Cedar Creekmarker.

Custer and Sheridan, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburgmarker, where they spent the winter. In April 1865 the Confederate lines were finally broken and Robert E. Lee began his retreatmarker to Appomattox Court Housemarker, pursued by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboromarker, Dinwiddie Court Housemarker, and Five Forksmarker. His division blocked Lee's retreat on its final day and received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force. Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to him as a gift for his wife by General Sheridan, who included a note to her praising Custer's gallantry. She treasured the gift, which is now in the Smithsonian Institutionmarker.

Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier general and major general in the regular army (March 13, 1865) and major general of volunteers (April 15, 1865). As with most wartime promotions, even when issued under the regular army, these senior ranks were only temporary.

Indian Wars

Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, US Army, 1865
On February 1, 1866, Custer was mustered out of the volunteer service and returned to his permanent rank of captain in the regular army, assigned to the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Custer took an extended leave, exploring options in New York Citymarker, where he considered careers in railroads and mining. Offered a position as adjutant general of the army of Benito Juárez of Mexicomarker, who was then in a struggle with the self-proclaimed Maximilian I (a foil of French Emperor Napoleon III), Custer applied for a one-year leave of absence from the U.S. Army, but his appointment was blocked by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who feared offending Francemarker.

Following the death of his father-in-law in May 1866, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he considered running for Congress. He took part in public discussion over the treatment of the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War, advocating a policy of moderation. He was named head of the Soldiers and Sailors Union, regarded as a response to the hyper-partisan Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Also formed in 1866, it was led by Republican activist John Alexander Logan. In September 1866 Custer accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a journey by train known as the "Swing Around the Circle" to build up public support for Johnson's policies towards the South. Custer denied a charge by the newspapers that Johnson had promised him a colonel's commission in return for his support, but Custer had written to Johnson some weeks before seeking such a commission. Custer and his wife Libbie stayed with the president during most of the trip. At one point Custer confronted a small group of Ohio men who repeatedly jeered Johnson, saying, "I was born two miles and a half from here, but I am ashamed of you."

Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, headquartered at Fort Rileymarker, Kansasmarker. As a result of a plea by his patron General Philip Sheridan, Custer was also appointed brevet major general. He took part in Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition against the Cheyenne in 1867. On June 26, 1867 Lt. Lyman Kidder's party, made up of ten troopers and one scout, were massacred while in route to Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was to deliver dispatches to Custer from Gen. William Sherman, but his party was attacked by Sioux and Cheyenne. Their deaths were called the Kidder massacre. Days later, Custer and a search party found the bodies of Kidder's patrol.

Following the Hancock campaign, Custer was court-martialed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansasmarker for being AWOL, after having abandoned his post to see his wife. He was suspended from duty for one year. At the request of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne, Custer was allowed to return to duty in 1868, before his term of suspension had expired.

Under Sheridan's orders, Custer took part in establishing Camp Supplymarker in Indian Territory in early November 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry in an attack on the Cheyenne encampment of Black Kettle — the Battle of Washita Rivermarker on November 27, 1868. Custer reported killing 103 warriors; estimates by the Cheyenne of their casualties were substantially lower ; some women and children were also killed, and US troops took 53 women and children prisoner. Custer had his men shoot most of the 875 Indian ponies they had captured. The Battle of Washita River was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Southern Plains War, and it helped force a significant portion of the Southern Cheyennes onto a U.S.-assigned reservation.

In 1873, Custer was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Sioux. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Sioux. Only one man on each side was killed. In 1874, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hillsmarker and announced the discovery of gold on French Creekmarker near present-day Custer, South Dakotamarker. Custer's announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. Among the towns that immediately grew up was Deadwood, South Dakotamarker, notorious for lawlessness.

Grant, Belknap and Politics

Lieutenant Colonel George A.
Custer, 7th U.S.
Cavalry, ca. 1875
The expedition against the Sioux was originally scheduled to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln on April 6, 1876, but on March 15, Custer was summoned to Washington to testify at Congressional hearings regarding the scandal involving U.S. Secretary of War William W. Belknap and President Grant's brother Orville. After testifying on March 29 and April 4, Custer testified in support of the Democrats before the Banning Committee. After Belknap was indicted, Custer secured release and left Washington on April 20. Instead of immediately returning to Fort Lincoln, he visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphiamarker and traveled to New Yorkmarker to meet with his publishers. While there, he was summoned to the US Senate, possibly a move instigated by President Grant.

Returning to Washington on April 21, Custer found he was the center of a campaign of vilification in the Republican media. He was accused of perjury and disparagement of brother officers. General Sherman asked the new Secretary of War, Alphonso Taft, to write a letter requesting Custer's release so Custer could take command of the Fort Lincoln expedition against the Sioux. President Grant prohibited sending the letter and ordered Taft to appoint another officer to take command. When Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry determined there were no available officers of rank to take command, Sherman ordered him to make an appointment. Stunned that he would not be in command, Custer approached the impeachment managers and secured his release. General Sherman advised Custer not to leave Washington before meeting personally with President Grant. Custer arranged for Colonel Rufus Ingalls to request a meeting, which Grant refused. On the evening of May 3, Custer took a train to Chicagomarker.

The following morning General Sherman sent a telegram to General Sheridan ordering him to intercept Custer and hold him until further orders. Sheridan was also ordered to arrange for the expedition against the Sioux to depart with Major Reno's replacing Custer. Sherman, Sheridan, and Terry all wanted Custer in command but had to support Grant. Sherman wrote Terry: "Custer's political activity has compromised his best friends here, and almost deprived us of the ability to serve him".

Brig. Gen. Terry met Custer in Fort Snelling, Minnesotamarker on May 6. He later recalled, "(Custer) with tears in his eyes, begged for my aid. How could I resist it?"{{Fact. Terry wrote to Grant attesting to the advantages of Custer's leading the expedition. Sheridan endorsed his effort, accepting Custer's "guilt" and suggesting his restraint in future. Grant was already under pressure for his treatment of Custer and his administration worried about failure of the Sioux campaign without him. Grant would be blamed if perceived as ignoring the recommendations of senior Army officers. On May 8 Custer was informed at Fort Snelling that he was to lead the 7th Cavalry, but under Terry's direct supervision.

Before leaving Fort Snelling, Custer spoke to General Terry's chief engineer, Captain Ludlow, saying he would "cut loose" from Terry the first chance he got. Critics have used this statement to conclude that Custer was to blame for the resulting disaster by seeking to claim independent victory.

Battle of the Little Bighorn

By the time of Custer's expedition to the Black Hills in 1874, the level of conflict and tension between the U.S. and many plains Indians tribes (including the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne) had become exceedingly high. Americans continually broke treaty agreements and advanced further westward, resulting in violence and acts of depredation by both sides. To take possession of the Black Hills (and thus the gold deposits), and to stop Indian attacks, the U.S. decided to corral all remaining free plains Indians. The Grant government set a deadline of January 31, 1876 for all Sioux and Arapaho wintering in the "unceded territory" to report to their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered "hostile".

The 7th Cavalry departed from Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876, part of a larger army force planning to round up remaining free Indians. Meanwhile, in the spring and summer of 1876, the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull had called together the largest ever gathering of plains Indians at Ash Creek, Montana (later moved to the Little Bighorn River) to discuss what to do about the whites. It was this united encampment of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians that the 7th met at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

On June 25, some of Custer's Crow Indian scouts identified what they claimed was a large Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn Rivermarker. Custer divided his forces into three battalions: one led by Major Marcus Reno, one by Captain Frederick Benteen, and one by himself. Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train. Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians, Reno was sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment, and Custer rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs, and planning to circle around and attack from the north.

Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village, but halted some 500-600 yards short of the camp, and had his men dismount and form a skirmish line. They were soon overcome by mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who counterattacked en masse against Reno's exposed left flank, forcing Reno and his men to take cover in the trees along the river. Eventually, however, this position became untenable and the troopers were forced into a bloody retreat up onto the bluffs above the river, where they made their own stand. This, the opening action of the battle, cost Reno a quarter of his command.

Custer may have seen Reno stop and form a skirmish line as Custer led his command to the northern end of the main encampment, where he apparently planned to sandwich the Indians between his attacking troopers and Reno's command in a "hammer and anvil" maneuver. According to Grinnell's account, based on the testimony of the Cheyenne warriors who survived the fight, at least part of Custer's command attempted to ford the river at the north end of the camp but were driven off by stiff resistance from Indian sharpshooters firing from the brush along the west bank of the river. From that point the soldiers were pursued by hundreds of warriors onto a ridge north of the encampment. Custer and his command were prevented from digging in by Crazy Horse, however, whose warriors had outflanked him and were now to his north, at the crest of the ridge. Traditional white accounts attribute to Gall the attack that drove Custer up onto the ridge, but Indian witnesses have disputed that account.

For a time, Custer's men were deployed by company, in standard cavalry fighting formation—the skirmish line, with every fourth man holding the horses. Yet this arrangement robbed Custer of a quarter of his firepower. Worse, as the fight intensified, many soldiers took to holding their own horses or hobbling them, further reducing the 7th's effective fire. When Crazy Horse and White Bull mounted the charge that broke through the center of Custer's lines, pandemonium broke out among the men of Calhoun's command, though Myles Keogh's men seem to have fought and died where they stood. Many of the panicking soldiers threw down their weapons and either rode or ran towards the knoll where Custer, the other officers, and about 40 men were making a stand. Along the way, the Indians rode them down, counting coup by whacking the fleeing troopers with their quirts or lances.

Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over a hundred under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall's rearguard, and 84 soldiers under Lieutenant Mathey with the pack train. The Indians may have fielded over 1800 warriors. Historian Gregory Michno settles on a low number around 1000 based on contemporary Lakota testimony, but other sources place the number at 1800 or 2000, especially in the works by Utley and Fox. The 1800–2000 figure is substantially lower than the higher numbers of 3000 or more postulated by Ambrose, Gray, Scott, and others. Some of the other participants in the battle gave these estimates:

Spotted Horn Bull 5,000 braves and chiefs
Maj. Reno 2,500 to 5,000 warriors
Capt. Moylan 3,500 to 4,000
Lt. Hare not under 4,000
Lt. Godfrey minimum between 2,500 and 3,000
Lt. Edgerly 4,000
Lt. Varnum not less than 4,000
Sgt. Kanipe fully 4,000
George Herendeen fully 3,000
Fred Gerard 2,500 to 3,000

An average of the above is 3,500 warriors and chiefs.

As the troopers were cut down, the Indians stripped the dead of their firearms and ammunition, with the result that the return fire from the cavalry steadily decreased, while the fire from the Indians constantly increased. With Custer and the survivors shooting the remaining horses to use them as breastworks and making a final stand on the knoll at the north end of the ridge, the Indians closed in for the final attack and killed every man in Custer's command. As a result, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand".

Some eyewitness reports state that Custer was killed by several Indians and not identified by them until after his death. Some individuals claimed personal responsibility for the killing, however, including White Bull of the Miniconjous, Rain-in-the-Face, Flat Lip and Brave Bear. In June 2005 at a public meeting, the Northern Cheyenne broke more than 100 years of silence about the battle. Storytellers told that according to their oral tradition, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Northern Cheyenne heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud, had struck the final blow against Custer.

When the main column under General Terry arrived two days later, the army found most of the soldiers' corpses stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Custer's body had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one just above the heart. Following the recovery of Custer's body, his remains were buried on the battlefield. One year later, Custer's remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back East for reinterment in more formal burials. Custer was reinterred with full military honors at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877. The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.

Controversial legacy

George A.
Custer in civilian clothes, ca. 1876

After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that he had sought on the battlefield. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and exemplary Victorian gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer's wife, Elizabeth, who had accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, did much to advance this view with the publication of several books about her late husband: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1891). Lt. Col. Custer wrote about the Indian wars in My Life on the Plains (1874).

The deaths of Custer and his troops became the best-known episode in the history of western Indian wars, due in part to a leading brewery’s advertising campaign. The enterprising company ordered reprints of a dramatic painting that depicted “Custer’s Last Stand” and had them framed and hung in many United States saloons. This created lasting impressions of the battle and the brewery’s products in the minds of many bar patrons.

Today Custer might be called a "media personality" who understood the value of good public relations and leveraged the print media of his era effectively. He frequently invited correspondents to accompany his campaigns (one died at the Little Bighorn), and their favorable reporting contributed to his high reputation, that lasted well into the 20th century. He paid attention to his image. After being promoted to brigadier general in the Civil War, Custer sported a uniform that included shiny cavalry boots, tight olive-colored corduroy trousers, a wide-brimmed slouch hat, tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver piping on the sleeves, a sailor shirt with silver stars on his collar, and a red cravat. He wore his hair in long ringlets liberally sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil. Later, in his campaigns against the Indians, Custer wore a buckskins outfit, along with his familiar red tie.

The assessment of Custer's actions during the Indian Wars has undergone substantial reconsideration in modern times. Documenting the arc of popular perception in his 1984 biography Son of the Morning Star, author Evan Connell notes the reverential tone of Custer's first biographer Frederick Whittaker (whose book was rushed out the year of Custer's death.) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an adoring (and often erroneous) poem. President Theodore Roosevelt's lavish praise pleased Custer's widow. Near the end of his book Connell concludes,
"These days it is stylish to denigrate the general, whose stock sells for nothing.
Nineteenth-century Americans thought differently.
At that time he was a cavalier without fear and beyond reproach."

Some historians criticize Custer as the personification of the U.S. Government's ill-treatment of the Native American tribes; others view him as a scapegoat for the Grant Indian policy, which he personally opposed. The Grant administration was so displeased by his testimony on behalf of the abuses sustained by the reservation Indians that it nearly prohibited his command.

President Grant, a highly successful general, bluntly criticized Custer's actions in the battle of the Little Bighorn. Quoted in the New York Herald on September 2, 1876, Grant said, "I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary - wholly unneccesary." Custer's superior and occasional apologist, Gen. Phillip Sheridan, likewise took a harsh view of Custer's final military actions. Gen. Nelson Miles (who inherited Custer's mantle of famed Indian fighter) and others praised him as a fallen hero betrayed by the incompetence of subordinate officers. Miles noted the difficulty of winning a fight "with seven-twelfths of the command remaining out of the engagement when within sound of his rifle shots." The controversy over blame for the disaster at Little Bighorn continues to this day. Maj. Reno's failure to press his attack on the south end of the Lakota/Cheyenne village and his flight to the timber along the river after a single casualty have been cited as a causal factor in the destruction of Custer's battalion, as has Capt. Benteen's allegedly tardy arrival on the field and the failure of the two officers' combined forces to move toward the relief of Custer.

"When writing about Custer, neutral ground is elusive. What should Custer have done at any of the critical junctures that rapidly presented themselves, each now the subject of endless speculation and rumination? There will always be a variety of opinions based upon what Custer knew, what he did not know, and what he could not have known...”

- from Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer by Louise Barnett.

In contrast, Custer's critics, including Gen. Sheridan, have asserted at least three clear military blunders.
  • First, while camped at Powder River, Custer refused the support offered by General Terry on June 21, of an additional four companies of the Second Cavalry. Custer stated that he "could whip any Indian village on the Plains" with his own regiment, and that extra troops would simply be a burden.

  • At the same time, he left behind at the steamer Far West on the Yellowstone a battery of Gatling guns, knowing he was facing superior numbers. Before leaving the camp all the troops, including the officers, also boxed their sabers and sent them back with the wagons.

  • On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command, despite being faced with vastly superior numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne.
The refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.

Custer's defenders, however, including historian Charles K. Hofling, have asserted that Gatling guns would have been slow and cumbersome as the troops crossed the rough country between the Yellowstone and the Little Bighorn. Custer rated speed in gaining the battlefield as essential and more importance. The additional firepower had the potential of turning the tide of the fight, given the Indians' propensity for withdrawing in the face of new military technology. Other Custer supporters have claimed that splitting the forces was a standard tactic, so as to demoralize the enemy with the appearance of the cavalry in different places all at once, especially when a contingent threatened the line of retreat.

The single indisputable fact is that Custer's tactical decisions, against an overwhelming and numerically superior adversary, led to the annihilation of his command and his own death.

In June 2005, the Northern Cheyenne broke more than 100 years of silence and held a presentation to tell their oral history of the battle. Storytellers said that a woman, Buffalo Calf Rode Woman, struck the last blow against Custer.

Monuments and memorials

See also


  1. Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star, North Point Press, 1984, ISBN 0-86547-160-0, p. 352.
  2. Albert Bernhardt Faust, The German Element in the United States, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909, vol. 1, p. 517.
  3. in the 1850 US Census in North Township, Ohio.
  4. in the 1870 US Census in Monroe, Michigan.
  5. Eicher, p. 196.
  6. in the 1860 US Census at West Point.
  7. Tagg, p. 184.
  8. Marguerite Merrington, The Custer Story In Letters|University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
  9. Tagg, p. 185.
  10. Robbins, James S., Last in their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point (2006), p. 268.
  11. Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star, North Point Press, 1984, ISBN 0-86547-160-0, p. 113.
  12. Utley 2001, p. 107.
  13. Utley 2001, p. 38.
  14. Utley 2001, p. 39.
  15. Utley 2001, pp. 39–40.
  16. Utley 2001, p. 40.
  17. Utley 2001, p. 41.
  18. 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The Cheyenne were not part of this treaty and had no designated agency. The reservation was for the Sioux and Arapaho.
  19. Marshall 2007, p. 15.
  20. Welch 2007, p. 149.
  21. Ambrose 1996, p. 437.
  22. Marshall 2007, p. 2.
  23. Testimony of Scout Billy Jackson, in Goodrich, Thomas. Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865-1879. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997. p. 242.
  24. Marshall 2007, p. 4.
  25. Ambrose 1996, p. 439.
  26. Vern Smalley, More Little Bighorn Mysteries, Chapter 14.
  27. Grinnell, 1915, pp. 300–301.
  28. Marshall 2007, pp. 7–8.
  29. cf. Michno, 1997, p. 168.
  30. Michno, 1997, pp. 205–206.
  31. Welch 2007, p. 183; cf. Grinnell, p. 301, whose sources say that by this time, about half the soldiers were without carbines and fought only with six-shooters.
  32. cf. Michno, 1997. pp. 205–206: testimony of White Bull; p. 215: testimony of Yellow Nose.
  33. cf. Michno, 1997, pp. 10–20;
  34. Vern Smalley, Little Bighorh Mysteries, p. 6.
  35. Dee Brown, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Vintage, 1991, ISBN 978-0-099-52640-7, p.296-297.
  36. MARTIN J. KIDSTON, "Northern Cheyenne break vow of silence", Helena Independent Record, 28 Jun 2005, accessed 23 Oct 2009
  37. Marshall 2007, p. 11; Welch 2007, pp. 175–181.
  38. Welch 2007, p. 175.
  39. Wert, Jeffry D. Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
  41. "William Slaper's Story of the Battle", Personal account by a trooper in M company 7th Cavalry.
  42. Goodrich, Scalp Dance, 1997, pp. 233–234.
  44. MARTIN J. KIDSTON, "Northern Cheyenne break vow of silence", Helena Independent Record, 28 June 2005, accessed 23 Oct 2009
  45. Toledo Blade article.
  46. The Free Libarary


  • Ambrose, Stephen E. (1996 [1975]). Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Barnett, Louise Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer (1996) New York, Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
  • Boulard, Garry "The Swing Around the Circle--Andrew Johnson and the Train Ride that Destroyed a Presidency" (2006) isbn=978-1-4401-0239-4
  • Goodrich, Thomas. Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains, 1865-1879. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.
  • Longacre, Edward G. (2000). Lincoln's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac. Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-1049-1.
  • Mails, Thomas E. Mystic Warriors of the Plains. New York: Marlowe & Co., 1996.
  • Marshall, Joseph M. III. (2007). The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History. New York: Viking Press.
  • Merington, Marguerite, Ed. The Custer Story: The Life and Intimate Letters of General Custer and his Wife Elizabeth. (1950)
  • Michno, Gregory F. (1997). Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat. Mountain Press Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8784-2349-4.
  • Perrett, Bryan. Last Stand: Famous Battles Against the Odds. London: Arms & Armour, 1993.
  • Punke, Michael, "Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West", Smithsonian Books, 2007, ISBN 978 0 06 089782 6
  • Tagg, Larry. (1988). The Generals of Gettysburg. Savas Publishing. ISBN 1-882810-30-9.
  • Urwin, Gregory J. W., Custer Victorious, University of Nebraska Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0803295568.
  • Utley, Robert M. (2001). Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, revised edition. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3387-2.
  • Vestal, Stanley. Warpath: The True Story of the Fighting Sioux Told in a Biography of Chief White Bull. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1934.
  • Welch, James, with Paul Stekler. (2007 [1994]). Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. ISBN 0-684-83275-5.

Further reading

  • Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Boots and Saddles: Or, Life in Dakota with General Custer, Harper & Brothers, NY., 1885 [15117]
  • Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Tenting on the Plains: General Custer in Kansas and Texas, Charles I.Webster & Co, 1887 [15118]

External links

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