Articles/Biographies/Military Leaders/Custer, George
George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio. His father, Emanuel Henry, was a blacksmith and a farmer. He had four siblings, Thomas, Boston, Nevin, and Margaret. As a youth, he spent a lot of his time living with his half-sister in Monroe, Michigan. After graduating from school, he moved to Ohio and worked as a teacher for a while.
Custer entered the West Point Military Academy in the late 1857 and graduated at the bottom of his class in 1861. While studying there, he caused a lot of trouble and was constantly pulling pranks on other cadets. As a result, he was nearly expelled on several occasions, but managed to get through.
After getting out of West Point, Custer was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army's 2nd Cavalry. His first action was in the First Battle of Bull Run, where he carried messages from Winfield Scott to Irvin McDowell. Following the battle, he was transferred to the 5th Cavalry and served with them in the Peninsula Campaign.
On May 24, 1862, Custer managed to convince a colonel to let him lead an attack across the Chickahominy River using four companies of infantry. The attack was a success and managed to net them 50 Confederate prisoners. George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, commended Custer for the move and hired him into his personal staff.
After McClellan was relieved of his command, Custer returned to the 5th Cavalry and fought in the Battle of Antietam. His next action was in the Battle of Chancellorsville, where he caught the eye of Alfred Pleasanton. When Pleasanton was given command of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, he took Custer under his wing as a sort of protege. Custer used the opportunity to pursue Lee's forces and engage in some conflicts at Brandy Station and the city of Aldie.
Just before the Battle of Gettysburg, George Meade promoted Custer to the rank of Brigadier General. He led a brigade of cavalry to Gettysburg to reinforce Meade's troops and skirmished with JEB Stuart's forces along the way. After reaching the city, Custer led a charge on Stuart's forces again, preventing them from getting behind the Union line.
Somehow, Custer managed to marry a woman named Elizabeth Clift Bacon on February 9, 1864. Since they were married in the middle of the war, Custer didn't have much time to devote to their marriage and they had no children.
In 1864, Custer fought in the Overland Campaign with his cavalry brigade and was promoted to become a division commander. He served under Philip Sheridan for several important battles, including the Battle of the Wilderness, The Battle of Yellow Tavern, and the Battle of Trevilian Station. When Jubal Early advanced towards Washington DC, Custer moved to meet him and effectively destroyed his forces at the Battle of Cedar Creek.
Custer returned to the main Army of the Potomac for the Battle of Petersburg and spent the winter in the area. He then helped pursue Robert E Lee's forces into the south and was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was promoted to the rank of Major General before the end of the war in 1865.
After the war, Custer was assigned to the 7th Cavalry with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, but faced a court martial in 1867 for going AWOL. The court found him guilty and he was suspended from the military for a year, but returned in 1868. After his return, he joined Winfield Hancock's attack on the Cheyenne Indians, defeating them at the Battle of Washita River in late 1868.
In 1873, Custer was sent to the Dakotas to guard a party of railroad engineers against frequent attacks by Sioux Indians. They had a few small clashes, but few casualties resulted. In 1874, he explored the Black Hills and discovered gold nuggets in French Creek in South Dakota. The discovery led to the Black Hills Gold Rush and the establishment of the city of Deadwood.
In 1876, Custer was called to testify against Secretary of War William Belknap in an investigation by Congress. Custer's comments confirmed the suspicions held against Belknap, as well as Orville Grant, and Custer was arrested. While Custer was sitting in prison, Grant ordered his forces to advance on the Cheyenne Indians, which had become increasingly hostile.
Custer was distraught by the fact that his troops would be fighting without him and appealed to Grant to let him join them. Grant relented and Custer was allowed to return to command the 7th Cavalry at Fort Lincoln. They departed on May 17, 1876 and quickly found an encampment of Indians.
Custer realized that he was outnumbered, but decided to fight without infantry reinforcements. He split his troops into three parts and advanced on the village from several directions. However, the two parts led by his subordinates were repelled, leaving Custer's part to the full brunt of the Cheyenne forces. He fell back to a hill, where his group engaged in long range gunfire with the Cheyenne, until every soldier, including Custer, was dead.
George Custer died on June 25, 1876 and was given a funeral on the battlefield before being moved to the West Point Cemetery in late 1877.