George Armstrong Custer - Dying at the Little
Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) - A United States Army officer and cavalry
commander in the
Indian Wars. In the Civil War,
he developed a strong reputation and when it was over, was dispatched to the
west to fight in the Indian Wars.
His disastrous final battle overshadowed his prior
achievements. Custer and all the men with him were killed at the
Battle of the
Little Bighorn in 1876, fighting against a coalition of
in a battle that has come to be popularly known in American history as "Custer's
Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1839. For his
entire life he would be called "Autie" by his loved ones; stemming from his
own mispronunciation of his middle name. As a boy, he was always distracted by
other pursuits and rarely, if ever, established himself from the rest of the
children as a student.
In 1855 he attended a Normal School and by the following year, had his
teaching certificate to instruct grammar school. It was not long
before he grew tired of this profession, and soon applied to attend
the West Point Military Academy.
entered the academy in the fall of 1857 and graduated last in a class of 34 in
June, 1861. As the Civil War
broke out, Custer chose the Cavalry as the branch
he wished to serve in and was first assigned staff duty with the
Army of the Potomac. He soon distinguished himself as a man quick to volunteer and easily
In November, 1862, Custer was introduced
to a sought-after young woman, the daughter of a judge named Elizabeth
"Libbie" Bacon. Initially, Libbie fended off the confident young
officer's advances, but soon, the two became sweethearts. Libbie's father, Judge Daniel Bacon, did not approve of his daughter
courting someone beneath her station, nevertheless, they did, writing
letters to one another frequently.
In the first two years of the Civil War,
Custer was promoted several times all the way to the rank of Brigadier
General of Volunteers, commanding the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. Now a
General, Libbie's father began to cool his objections to the young
couple. In February, 1864, the two were married in Monroe. After the
honeymoon, Custer again returned to his obligations as an officer, but
the two corresponded incessantly, and spent time together whenever the
opportunity presented itself.
Through the rest of the war he steadily advanced in responsibility and
rank. By war's end, in 1865, Custer commanded an entire Cavalry
Division holding the rank of Major General. In many cases, Generals
led their troops on the battlefield by commanding movements from the
rear. Custer, however, distinguished himself as a leader who commanded
his troops from the front. Oftentimes, in a charge, he was the very
first soldier to engage the enemy. In one instance, he extended so far
ahead of his own men that the enemy cut him off from the rest of his
Men found in Custer a gallant leader worthy of following into
battle. In the majority of the battles he fought against
forces he was victorious. On many occasions, he narrowly escaped with
his life; having 11 horses shot from under him and incurring only one
wound from a Confederate artillery shell during the Battle of
Culpepper Courthouse. As a result, he became known for his legendary
"Custer Luck." After the Civil War
ended on April 9, 1865, the huge Volunteer Army was demobilized and
Custer assumed his regular army rank as Captain.
In 1866, when the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment was created at
Kansas, Custer was promoted to the position of Lieutenant Colonel of
the regiment. The first Colonel of the 7th was Colonel Andrew Smith,
(1866-1869) and the second Colonel was Colonel Samuel Sturgis
(1869-1886). Colonel Smith and Colonel Sturgis were usually on
detached service which placed Custer in command of the Regiment until
his death on June 25th, 1876.
In 1867, serving under Major General Winfield Hancock, Custer would
see his first real experience in the west. Ostensibly, the campaign
was to enter into peace negotiations with the Southern
Kiowa along the
Arkansas River. Hancock's men and Custer set out "to
confer with them to ascertain if they want to fight, in which case
Hancock will indulge them." While he scarcely saw combat during his
Kansas/Colorado campaign, Custer began to learn the nuances of Indian
At the end of the campaign, he was
suspended from duty for one year.
Custer was court-martialed at
for being AWOL, after having abandoned his post to see his wife. He
was also charged with conduct to the prejudice of good order and
military discipline, as well as for ordering deserters shot without
trial and refusing them medical attention. The court-martial found him
guilty of all charges and he was sentenced to one year of suspension
from rank without pay. A dishonored Custer was then plagued with a
very different reputation from the venerable one he enjoyed during the
At the request of
General Philip H. 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.
1868, conflict between Cheyenne and homesteaders raged. The U.S. Army
dispatched a winter campaign in response to Indian raids along the Arkansas River Valley. Custer, now reinstated, was to command the 7th
Cavalry for the campaign which culminated with the Battle of the Washita, Oklahoma on November 27, 1868. At dawn, Custer's 7th attacked an
unsuspecting village of Southern Cheyenne led by Chief
Black Kettle. The Battle of Washita should probably be called a
massacre instead, as Custer and his men killed warriors, women and
children alike. Although some sources/articles indicate troops were told
to spare women and children, many were slaughtered, including Chief Black
Kettle and his wife.
In 1873 the 7th would be called into action again. This time, they were
charged with protecting the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey as it moved
along the Yellowstone River investigating sites to lay rail. The
Sioux, among other tribes,
took particular issue with the construction of the railroad. Soon, the
were attacking survey sites regularly. While neither party realized it at
the time, this would be the first contact between
Chief Gall and other notable
figures and their famous opponent -- George Armstrong Custer.
The following summer of 1874, Custer led a 1,200 person
expedition to the
whose possession the United States had guaranteed the Lakota
just six years before. In a time of economic depression, rumors had
begun circulating that the
were ripe with gold. Opportunistic men began to enter the area in search
of riches. In the meantime, homesteaders had been frequently raided by
The army sought to establish a fort in the
to deter mining invasions, protect Lakota
land, and provide a site within the Sioux lands for the purposes of
preventing further raiding. The 7th Cavalry was charged with finding a
proper site for a fort to be built.
Along for the expedition, at the behest of
General Custer, were two professional miners. During the summer
expedition, gold was discovered, and accompanying journalists quickly sent
word back east. The rumors of gold in the Black Hills
which had been circulating for over 50 years had now been confirmed, and a
new gold rush was on.
late 1875, information had become public that high ranking officials in
Washington were involved in a scandal that involved the selling of
exclusive trading rights at forts and posts along the upper
The licenses needed to trade at military forts were issued by the
Secretary of War, William Belknap. In March and April of 1876, Custer
testified before a congressional committee that Secretary Belknap was
involved in the graft. In addition, Custer's testimony attached President
Grant's own brother Orville to the corruption. This put Custer
in a precarious situation with the Commander and Chief, who was presently
overseeing the final planning stages of an offensive on the Lakota
Indians for the upcoming spring.
Custer was eventually allowed to command his 7th Cavalry for the upcoming
campaign. In the spring of 1876, the U.S. Army dispatched three massive
columns comprising multiple regiments of Cavalry, Infantry, and Artillery.
Their objective was to clear the area of Lakota
and Cheyenne Indians and force them onto the Great Sioux Reservation.
Custer's regiment was part of the largest column coming from Fort Abraham
North Dakota. General Alfred Terry commanded the campaign, and
Custer was Terry's subordinate. On June 22, 1876, under orders from Terry,
Custer's 7th Cavalry was sent ahead of the rest of the column in
hopes that they could be the striking force for what was most assuredly a
large collection of Lakota
warriors not far ahead of them.
original plan for defeating the Lakota
called for the three forces under the command of
General George Crook, John Gibbon, and Custer to trap the bulk of
and Cheyenne population between them and deal them a crushing defeat. Custer, however, advanced much more quickly than he had been
ordered to do, and neared what he thought was a large Indian village on the morning of June 25, 1876. Custer's rapid advance had put him far ahead of Gibbon's
slower-moving infantry brigades, and unbeknownst to him, General
Crook's forces had been turned back by Crazy Horse and his band at Rosebud Creek.
Based on intelligence
suggesting that the Lakota
and Cheyenne were about to flee, Custer ordered his 7th Cavalry to attack.
By the end of the day, 263 soldiers and approximately 80 Lakota
and Cheyenne lay dead. Custer was among them. Less than two weeks later on
July 4th, Philadelphia was bursting at the seams with pride and
nationalism. On the 100th birthday of the United States, people had come
from all over the world to share in the theme of "100 Years of Progress."
On that day, they would receive word that their famous Civil War
hero had been killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. Americans were confounded in
shock and stricken with grief.
Americans were devastated, but, none more than the wife of the fallen
General, Libbie. She lived on another 57 years after her beloved
husband's death. For the rest of her days, she tirelessly lobbied public
opinion; portraying her husband as a brave, gallant, and noble figure
struck down before his time. In spite of his early death, Custer's name
would continue to live on in dime novels, art, music and film. Thanks in
large part to Libbie, her husband achieved in death the infamy he sought
of America, updated May, 2017
Source: National Park Service
* Legends Of America Reader Steve Busch wrote an
article in October of 2012 we think is also worth sharing. Read about the
varying accounts of General Custer's death, the possible love affair and child
with a Cheyenne woman and more in History Revisited - Digging for the Truth.
the Little Bighorn
The Civil War
Campaigns and Battles
The Union in the Civil
There are not enough Indians in the
world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.
-- George Armstrong Custer
Generals Wesley Merritt,
Sheridan, George Crook, James William Forsyth, and George Armstrong Custer
around a table examining a document. This image available for photographic
prints & downloads
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