George Armstrong Custer was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the Civil War and 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 Native American tribes in a battle that has come to be popularly known in American history as “Custer’s Last Stand”.
George 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.
Custer 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 relied upon.
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 command.
Men found in Custer a gallant leader worthy of following into battle. In the majority of the battles he fought against Confederate 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 Fort Riley, 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 Cheyenne and 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 fighting.
At the end of the campaign, he was suspended from duty for one year. Custer was court-martialed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 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 Civil War. At the request of Major 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.
In 1868, a 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 Lakota Sioux, among other tribes, took particular issue with the construction of the railroad. Soon, the Lakota were attacking survey sites regularly. While neither party realized it at the time, this would be the first contact between Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Gall, and other notable Lakota figures and their famous opponent — George Armstrong Custer.
The following summer of 1874, Custer led a 1,200 person expedition to the Black Hills of South Dakota, 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 Black Hills were ripe with gold. Opportunistic men began to enter the area in search of riches. In the meantime, homesteaders had been frequently raided by Lakota war-parties.
The army sought to establish a fort in the Black Hills to determining 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.