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 American Indian Wars.
Raised in Michigan and Ohio, Custer was admitted to West Point in 1858, where he graduated last in his class. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Custer was called to serve with the Union Army.
Custer developed a strong reputation during the Civil War. He fought in the first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Run. His association with several important officers helped his career, as did his success as a highly effective cavalry commander.
Custer was eventually promoted to the temporary rank (brevet) of major general and promoted major general of Volunteers. (At war’s end, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain.) At the conclusion of the Appomattox Campaign, in which he and his troops played a decisive role, Custer was present at General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
After the Civil War, Custer was dispatched to the west to fight in the American Indian Wars and appointed lieutenant colonel of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment where he and all his men were killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 fighting against a coalition of Native American tribes.
The battle is popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Custer and his men were defeated so decisively at the Little Bighorn that it has overshadowed all of his prior achievements.
Custer’s ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Küster, emigrated to North America around 1693 from the Rhineland in Germany, probably among thousands of Palatine refugees whose passage was arranged by the English government to gain settlers.
According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout father’s hope that his son might join the clergy.
Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806–1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807–1882).
He had two younger brothers, Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, who both died with him on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. His other full siblings were the family’s youngest child, Margaret Custer, and Nevin Custer, who suffered from asthma and rheumatism. Custer also had several older half-siblings.
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.
During the Civil War, Custer was frequently termed “The Boy General” in the press, reflecting his promotion to brigadier general at the age of 23; during his years on the Great Plains in the American Indian Wars, his troopers often referred to him with grudging admiration as “Iron Butt” and “Hard Ass” for his physical stamina in the saddle and his strict discipline, as well as with the more derisive “Ringlets” for his vanity about his appearance in general and his long, curling blond hair in particular.
Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school.
Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio. 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 Cadiz, Ohio.
Custer entered West Point in June 1857 as a member of the class of 1862. At the time, West Point’s course of study was five years long. With the outbreak of the American Civil War the course was shortened to four years, allowing Custer to graduate a year earlier than anticipated. He was last in a class of 34 cadets.
Throughout his life, Custer tested boundaries and rules. In his four years at West Point, he amassed a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy. A fellow cadet recalled Custer as declaring there were only two places in a class, the head and the foot, and since he had no desire to be the head, he aspired to be the foot. A roommate noted, “It was all right with George Custer, whether he knew his lesson or not: he simply did not allow it to trouble him.”
Under ordinary national conditions, Custer’s low class rank would represent a ticket to an obscure posting, but Custer had the ironic fortune to graduate as the Civil War broke out. During his rocky tenure at the Academy, Custer came close to expulsion in each of his three years, due to excessive demerits. Many of these were awarded for pulling pranks on fellow cadets.[citat
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 the rank of brevet brigadier general that he gained the approval of Judge Bacon. He married Elizabeth Bacon fourteen months after they formally met.
In November 1868, following the Battle of Washita River, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have unofficially married Mo-nah-se-tah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock in the winter or early spring of 1868–1869. (Little Rock was killed in the Washita battle.) Mo-nah-se-tah 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.
Some historians, however, believe that Custer had become sterile after contracting gonorrhea while at West Point and that the father was, in actuality, his brother Thomas. A descendant of the second child, who goes by the name Gail Custer, wrote a book about the affair.
Some eyewitness reports state that Custer was not identified until after his death by the Native Americans who killed him. Several individuals claimed personal responsibility for the killing, 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 said that according to their oral tradition, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Northern Cheyenne heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud, struck the final blow against Custer, which knocked him off his horse before he died.
A contrasting version of Custer’s death is suggested by the testimony of an Oglala named Joseph White Cow Bull, according to novelist and Custer biographer Evan Connell, who relates that Joseph White Bull stated he had shot a rider at the riverside wearing a buckskin jacket and big hat when the soldiers first approached the village from the east. The initial force facing the soldiers, according to this version, was quite small (possibly as few as four warriors) yet challenged Custer’s command.
The rider who was hit, mounted next to a rider who bore a flag, had shouted orders that prompted the soldiers to attack, but when the buckskin-clad rider fell off his horse after being shot, many of the attackers reined up. The allegation that the buckskin-clad officer was Custer, if accurate, might explain the supposed rapid disintegration of Custer’s forces.
However, several other officers of the Seventh, including William Cooke and Tom Custer, were also dressed in buckskin on the day of the battle, and the fact that each of the non-mutilation wounds to Custer’s body (a bullet wound below the heart and a shot to the left temple) would have been instantly fatal casts doubt on his being wounded or killed at the ford, more than a mile from where his body was found.
The circumstances are, however, consistent with David Humphreys Miller’s suggestion that Custer’s attendants would not have left his dead body behind to be desecrated.
During the 1920s, two elderly Cheyenne women spoke briefly with oral historians about their having recognized Custer’s body on the battlefield, and had stopped a Sioux warrior from desecrating the body. The women were relatives of Mo-nah-se-tah, who was alleged to have been Custer’s one-time lover.
In the Cheyenne culture of the time, such a relationship was considered a marriage. The women allegedly told the warrior to “Stop, he is a relative of ours,” and then shooed him away. The two women then shoved their sewing awls into his ears, to permit Custer’s corpse to ‘hear better in the afterlife’ because he had broken his promise to Stone Forehead never to fight against Native Americans again.
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 below the heart. Capt. Benteen, who inspected the body, stated that in his opinion the fatal injuries had not been the result of .45 caliber ammunition, which implies the bullet holes had been caused by ranged rifle fire.
Following the recovery of Custer’s body and that of his brother Tom, the remains were buried on the battlefield side by side in a shallow grave, after being covered by pieces of tent canvas and blankets.
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 buried again with full military honors at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877.
The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.