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  Custer, George Armstrong
NameGeorge Armstrong Custer
, Ohio , United States
Born December 05, 1839
DiedJune 25, 1876 (36 years)
ContributorThomas Walker
Last ModifedThomas Walker
Dec 06, 2007 01:18pm
InfoGeorge Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. Promoted at an early age to a temporary war-time rank of Major General, and later made a permanent Lieutenant Colonel, he was a flamboyant and aggressive commander during numerous Civil War battles, known for his personal bravery in leading charges against opposing cavalry. He led the Michigan Brigade whom he called the "Wolverines" during the Civil War. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, against a coalition of Native American tribes composed almost exclusively of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, and led by the Sioux chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall and by the Hunkpapa seer and medicine man, Sitting Bull. This confrontation has come to be popularly known and enshrined in American and European history as Custer's Last Stand.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, 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 alternately Autie (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name), Armstrong, Fanny, or Curley. When he went west, the Plains Indians called him Yellow Hair and Son of the Morning Star. His brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer died with him at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, as did his brother-in-law and nephew. His other full siblings were Nevin Custer and Margaret Custer; he also had several older half-siblings.

The Custer family had emigrated to America in the late 17th century from Westphalia, Germany. Their surname originally was "Küster". George Armstrong Custer was a great great grandson of Arnold Küster from Kaldenkirchen, Duchy of Jülich (today North Rhine-Westphalia state), who settled in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Custer's mother's maiden name 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 (nee Grier) (1733-1811), were from County Durham, England. Their son James Grier Ward (1765-1824) was born in Dauphin, Pennsylvania and married Catherine Rogers (1776-1829), and their daughter, Marie Ward, was Custer's mother. Catherine Rogers was a daughter of Thomas Rogers and Sarah Armstrong, which is the source of Custer's middle name.

Custer spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and his brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school and is now honored by a statue in the center of town. Before entering the United States Military Academy, Custer attended the McNeely Normal School, later known as Hopedale Normal College, in Hopedale, Ohio and known as the first coeducational college for teachers in eastern 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. Custer graduated from McNeely Normal School in 1856 and taught school in Ohio.

Custer graduated last in the Class of June 1861 from West Point, just after the start of the Civil War. Ordinarily, such a showing would be a ticket to an obscure posting and career, but he had the fortune to graduate just as the war caused the army to experience a sudden need for new officers. His tenure at the academy was a rocky one and he came close to expulsion each of his four years due to excessive demerits, many from pulling pranks on fellow cadets. But he began a path to a distinguished war record, one that has been overshadowed in history by his role and fate in the Indian Wars.

Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General 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. During the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, on May 24, 1862, Custer persuaded a colonel to allow him to lead an attack with four companies of Michigan infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, capturing 50 Confederates. Major General 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 lifelong pursuit of publicity. On one occasion when McClellan and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, 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, General!"

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 Chancellorsville, 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 Valley 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 customization. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Station and Aldie.

Three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, General Pleasonton promoted Custer from captain to brevet brigadier general (temporary rank) 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—received the same promotion 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 J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.

Custer's style of battle sometimes bordered on reckless or foolhardy. He often impulsively gathered up whatever cavalrymen he could find in his vicinity and led them personally in bold assaults directly into enemy positions. One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was luck and he needed it to survive some of these charges. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick (but one that Custer did not protest) 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 the bugler of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, Norville Churchill, who galloped up, shot Custer's nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.

Possibly Custer's finest hour in the Civil War was just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Pickett's Charge 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 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.

He married Elizabeth Clift Bacon (1842–1933) on February 9, 1864. She was born in Monroe, Michigan, to Daniel Stanton Bacon and Eleanor Sophia Page. They had no children together. Following the Battle of Wa****a River in November 1868, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have had a sexual relationship during the winter and early spring of 1868-1869 with Monaseetah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock (killed in the Wa****a battle). Monahsetah gave birth to a child in January 1869, two months after the Wa****a battle; Cheyenne oral history also alleges that she bore a second child, fathered by Custer, in late 1869.

When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Philip Sheridan in 1864, Custer retained his command, and 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 Tavern, 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 Confederates. When Confederate General Jubal A. Early moved down the Shenandoah Valley and threatened Washington, D.C., Custer's division was dispatched along with Sheridan to the Valley Campaigns of 1864. They pursued the Confederates at Winchester and effectively destroyed Early's army during Sheridan's counterattack at Cedar Creek.

Custer and Sheridan, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April 1865 the Confederate lines were finally broken and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. 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 gallantry. Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier and major general in the Regular Army and major general in the volunteers. As with most wartime promotions, these senior ranks were only temporary.

On February 1, 1866, Custer was mustered out of the volunteer service and was reduced to the rank of captain in the regular army, assigned to the Fifth U.S. Cavalry. Custer took an extended leave, exploring options in New York City, where he considered careers in railroads and mining. Offered a position as adjutant general of the army of Benito Juárez of Mexico, who was then in a struggle with Maximilian, 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 France. Following the death of his father-in-law in May 1866, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he considered running for Congress and took part in public discussion over the treatment of the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War, advocating a policy of moderation. In September 1866 he accompanied President Andrew Johnson on a train journey 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, though Custer had written to Johnson some weeks before seeking such a commission.

Custer was offered command of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment (otherwise known as the Buffalo Soldiers) with the rank of full colonel, but turned the command down in favor of a lieutenant colonelcy of the newly created U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, headquartered at Fort Riley, Kansas. As a result of a plea by his patron General Philip Sheridan, Custer was also recipient of a brevet rank of major general.[9] He then took part in General Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition against the Cheyenne in 1867.

His career took a brief detour following the Hancock campaign when he was court-martialed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for being AWOL, after abandoning his post to see his wife, and was suspended for duty for one year. He returned to duty in 1868, before his term of suspension had expired, at the request of General Philip Sheridan, who wanted Custer for his planned winter campaign against the Cheyenne.

Under Sheridan's orders, Custer took part in establishing Camp Supply in Indian Territory in early November 1868 as a supply base for the winter campaign. Custer then led the 7th U.S. Cavalry in an attack on the Cheyenne encampment of Black Kettle - the Battle of Wa****a River on November 27, 1868. Custer reported killing 103 warriors, though estimates by the Cheyenne themselves of the number of Indian casualties were substantially lower; some women and children were also killed, and 53 women and children were taken prisoner. Custer had his men shoot most of the 875 Indian ponies the troops had captured. This was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Indian Wars, helping to force a significant portion of the Southern Cheyennes onto a U.S. appointed reservation.

In 1873, he 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 Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custer's announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood, South Dakota.

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. Indians killed settlers and railroad workers, white Americans continually broke treaty agreements and advanced further westward. 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 Lakota and Northern Cheyenne to report to their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered a "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 chief 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 whites. It was this 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 River. 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 midway and had his men dismount and form a skirmish line. They were soon overcome by the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, and first attempted to take cover in the trees along the river, but were eventually 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.

Meanwhile, unaware of Reno's failure, Custer had led his command to the northern end the main encampment, where he apparently planned to sandwich the Indians between his attacking troopers and Reno's command. He was driven from the ford at that end of the camp and was pursued by hundreds of warriors onto a ridge north of the encampment, where he was prevented from digging in by Crazy Horse, whose warriors had outflanked Custer 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. This arrangement, however, robbed Custer of a quarter of his firepower, and as the fight intensified, many soldiers took to holding their own horses or hobbling them, further reducing their 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 and Keogh's command. 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 and just over a hundred under Benteen. The Indians fielded over 1800 warriors, although historically, the numbers do seem to have been exaggerated to explain Custer's defeat, and again, to exculpate him from his numerous errors before and during the battle. As the troopers were cut down, moreover, 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 steadily 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 all in Custer's command. As a result, the Battle of the Little Bighorn has come to be popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand".

When the cavalry's main column did arrive three days later, they 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, he was given a funeral with full military honors, and was buried on the battlefield, and later reinterred in the West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877. The site of the battle was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.

After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that eluded him in life. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Custer's wife, Elizabeth, who 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). General Custer himself wrote about the Indian wars in My Life on the Plains (1874) and was the posthumous co-author of The Custer Story (1950).

Today Custer would be called a "media personality" who understood the value of good public relations and exploited media for his own ends; he frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns, and their favorable reportage contributed to his high reputation that lasted well into the 20th century. It is believed that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer, and perhaps more than any other person in the 19th century with the exception of "Buffalo Bill" Cody. After being promoted to brigadier general, Custer sported a uniform that included shiny jackboots, tight olive 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 glistening ringlets liberally sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil. Later in his campaigns against the Indians, Custer wore a buckskin outfit along with his familiar red tie.

The assessment of Custer's actions during the Indian Wars has undergone substantial reconsideration in modern times. For many critics, Custer was the personification of the U.S. Government's ill-treatment of the Native American tribes, while others see him as a scapegoat for the Grant Indian policy, which he personally opposed. His testimony on behalf of the abuses sustained by the reservation Indians nearly cost him his command by the Grant administration. Custer once wrote that if he were an Indian, he would rather fight for his freedom alongside the hostile warriors "than be confined to the limits of a reservation".

Many criticized Custer's actions during the battle of the Little Bighorn, claiming his actions were impulsive and foolish, while others praised him as a fallen hero who was betrayed by the incompetence of his subordinate officers. The controversy over who is to blame for the disaster at Little Bighorn continues to this day.

Counties are named in Custer's honor in five states: Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Custer County, Idaho, is named for the General Custer mine, which, in turn, was named after Custer. There are several townships named for Custer in Minnesota and Michigan. There are also the towns of Custer, Michigan, Custer, South Dakota, Custar, Ohio, and the unincorporated town of Custer, Wisconsin. A portion of Monroe County, Michigan, is informally referred to as "Custerville."

Custer National Cemetery is within Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the site of Custer's death.
There is an equestrian statue of Custer in Monroe, Michigan, his boyhood home. Originally located near city hall, in the center of town, it was moved years later to Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Park, a small park near the River Raisin and away from the main thoroughfares of the city. Due to lobbying by Libbie Custer and others, it was eventually moved to its current location, on the corner of Monroe and Elm Streets, on the edge of downtown Monroe.
Fort Custer National Military Reservation, near Augusta, Michigan, was built in 1917 on 130 parcels of land, mainly small farms leased to the government by the local chamber of commerce as part of the military mobilization for World War I. During the war, some 90,000 troops passed through Camp Custer. Following the Armistice of 1918, the camp became a demobilization base for over 100,000 men. In the years following World War I, the camp was used to train the Officer Reserve Corps and the Civilian Conservation Corps. On August 17, 1940, Camp Custer was designated Fort Custer and became a permanent military training base. During World War II, more than 300,000 troops trained there, including the famed 5th Infantry Division (also known as the "Red Diamond Division") which left for combat in Normandy, France, June 1944. Fort Custer also served as a prisoner of war camp for 5,000 German soldiers until 1945. Today Fort Custer's training facilities are used by the Michigan National Guard and other branches of the armed forces, primarily from Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Many Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students from colleges in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana also train at this facility, as well as do the FBI, the Michigan State Police, and various other law enforcement agencies.
The establishment of Fort Custer National Cemetery (originally Fort Custer Post Cemetery) took place on September 18, 1943, with the first interment. As early as the 1960s, local politicians and veterans organizations advocated the establishment of a national cemetery at Fort Custer. The National Cemeteries Act of 1973 directed the Veterans' Administration to develop a plan to provide burial space to all veterans who desired interment in a national cemetery. After much study, the NCS adopted what became the regional concept. Fort Custer became the Veterans' Administration's choice for its Region V national cemetery. Toward this goal, Congress created Fort Custer National Cemetery in September 1981. The cemetery received 566 acres from the Fort Custer Military Reservation and 203 acres from the VA Medical Center. The first burial took place on June 1, 1982. At the same time, approximately 2,600 gravesites were available in the post cemetery, which made it possible for veterans to be buried there while the new facility was being developed. On Memorial Day 1982, more than 33 years after the first resolution had been introduced in Congress, impressive ceremonies marked the official opening of the cemetery.
Custer Hill is the main troop billeting area at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The US 85th Infantry Division was nicknamed The Custer Division.
The Black Hills of South Dakota is full of evidence of Custer, with a county, town, and the Custer State Park all located in the area.
Custer Observatory is the oldest observatory on Long Island. Located in Southold, New York, it was founded in 1927 by Charles Elmer (co-founder of the Perkin-Elmer Optical Company ), along with a group of fellow amateur-astronomers. This name was chosen to honor the hospitality of Mrs. Elmer, formerly May Custer, the Grand Niece of General George Armstrong Custer.



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