George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 - June 25, 1876) was an American cavalry commander in the Civil War and the Indian Wars who is best remembered for his defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against a coalition of Native American tribes, led by Sitting Bull.
George Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio and graduated last in his class from West Point in 1861. He immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run. As a staff officer, his daring and energy, and in particular a spirited reconnaissance on the Chickahominy River, brought him to the notice of General George McClellan, who made him an aide-de-camp with the rank of captain.
A few hours afterwards Custer attacked a Confederate picket post and drove back the enemy. He continued to serve with McClellan until the general was relieved of his command, when Custer returned to duty with his regiment as a lieutenant. In 1863, Custer was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general of volunteers . He distinguished himself at the head of the Michigan cavalry brigade in the Battle of Gettysburg, and frequently did good service in the remaining operations of the campaign of 1863.
When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Sheridan in 1864, Custer retained his command, and took part in the various actions of the cavalry in the Wilderness and Shenandoah campaigns. In February 1864, Custer raided a Confederate camp in a battle known as the Battle of Rio Hill. At the end of September 1864, he was appointed to command a division, and on October 9 fought in the brilliant cavalry action called the Battle of Woodstock .
While retaining his regular-army rank of captain, he was rapidly given brevet commissions in the Volunteers as major, lieutenant-colonel and colonel, and finally brevet-major-general for his services at Gettysburg, Yellow Tavern and Winchester. His part in the decisive Battle of Cedar Creek was most conspicuous.
He served with General Philip Sheridan in the last great cavalry raid, won the action of Waynesboro , and in the final campaign added to his laurels by his conduct at Dinwiddie and Five Forks. At the close of the war he received the brevets of brigadier and major-general in the regular army, and was promoted major-general of volunteers.
In 1866 Custer was made lieutenant-colonel with the 7th U.S. Cavalry, and took part under General Censored page in the expedition against the Cheyenne Indians, upon whom he inflicted a crushing defeat at Washita River on November 27, 1868. Even though the Cheyenne he massacred were not part of a hostile tribe (and were in fact on reservation land), this was still regarded as the first substantial US victory in the Indian Wars. In 1873 he was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Sioux. Then on August 4 of that year near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Sioux. Only one man on each side was killed.
In 1876, an expedition that included Custer and his regiment was made against the Sioux and their allies. As the advance guard of the troops under Gen. Alfred Terry, Custer's force arrived at the junction of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers, in what is now the state of Montana, on the night of June 24. The main body was due to join him on the 26th.
The presence of what was judged a very large encampment of Indians was reported to the general by his Crow Indian scouts. Despite this warning, on June 25, Custer divided his regiment into three commands and moved forward to surround and attack the encamped Indians. The 7th Cavalry met stiff resistance and were counter attacked by the full forces of the enemy, killing Custer and 264 men. The flanking columns maintained themselves with difficulty until General Terry arrived. Custer's last words are said to be: "Hurrah, boys, we've got them! We'll finish them up and then go home to our station."
Following the recovery of Custer's body from where he fell during the Battle of Little Big Horn the previous year, Custer was given a funeral with full military honors and was laid to rest at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York on October 10, 1877.
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).
Custer would be called today a "media personality" who understood the value of good public relations—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. However, this assessment of Custer's actions during the Indian Wars has undergone substantial reconsideration in modern times. (See revisionist history.)
For many critics, Custer was the personification and culmination of the U.S. Government's ill-treatment of the Native American tribes. Others equate the actions of the 7th Cavalry under his command with Holocaust-type atrocities perpetrated during World War II, or with ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. Recent films and books including Little Big Man and Son of the Morning Star depict Custer as a cruel and murderous military commander whose actions today would warrant possible dismissal and court-martial.
Within the context of post-Civil War expansion, however, Custer's actions differed little from the standard military strategy of the time, which ultimately destroyed Native American culture in the American West.
George Custer's younger brother, Tom (1845–1876), fought in the early campaigns of the Civil War while at a very young age. He became his brother's aide-de-camp and accompanied him throughout the latter part of the war.
Tom Custer distinguished himself by winning successively the brevets of captain, major and lieutenant-colonel, although he was barely twenty years of age when the Civil War ended. He was awarded two Medals of Honor during the war, the first to ever do so, and one of four to ever receive the dual honor.
He was a captain in the 7th cavalry when he fell with his brother at the Little Big Horn.
George Custer has been played in the movies by Francis Ford (1912 twice), Ned Finley (1916), Dustin Farnum (1926), John Beck (1926), Clay Clement (1933). John Miljan (1936), Frank McGlynn (1936), Paul Kelly (1940), Addison Richards (1940), Ronald Reagan (1940), Errol Flynn (1941), James Millican (1942), Sheb Wooley (1952), Douglas Kennedy (1954), Britt Lomond (1958), Philip Carey (1965), Leslie Nielsen (1966), Robert Shaw (1967), Wayne Maunder (1967 & 1990), Richard Mulligan (1970), Marcello Mastroianni (1974), Ken Howard (1977), James Olsen (1977), Gary Cole (1991), Josh Lucas (1993), Peter Horton (1996) and William Shockley (1997).
Tom Custer has been represented by John Napier (1965), Ed Lauter (1977) and Tim Ransom (1991).
- The Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com
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