In his time George Armstrong Custer was a national hero and one of the most popular figures in the country due to his Civil War exploits.
Today, George Armstrong Custer is remembered for one day in his life—the day he died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which has invariably tarnished his entire career. In his time, however, he was a national hero and one of the most popular figures in the country due to his Civil War exploits.
In fact, his incredible accomplishments almost defy belief and are the stuff of which legends are made. He captured the first battle flag taken by the Union army and received the white flag of surrender from the Confederates at Appomattox. In between those notable events he performed a series of intrepid, truly incredible actions. He personally led electrifying cavalry charges that inspired his men and earned their adulation, and captured the fancy of newspaper and magazine writers and their readers.
It all began on the hills overlooking the Hudson River in 1857 when a slight, fair-skinned eighteen year old boy reported to a place called West Point. Four years later, he departed a man—an army officer trained in the ways of war.
The loudest and most enthusiastic “Hurrah!” for any cadet of the U. S. Military Academy graduation of 1861 came when the name “George Armstrong Custer” was announced. Many of his fellow students and instructors doubted that he would receive a diploma. After all, he had been the class clown, a prankster who had finished last in his class due to his fun-loving personality. But Custer, who was also the most popular man in his class, would mystify observers time and again during his career and prove his detractors wrong.
George Armstrong Custer came of age at the right time for a West Point graduate—the Civil War had just begun and he was perfectly suited to become a hero of that conflict.
Custer departed West Point a second lieutenant and reported to Washington for assignment. He was dispatched to the 2nd Cavalry in the field, and may have unwittingly carried in his tunic the orders from General Winfield Scott to General Irvin McDowell that commenced the July, 1861 Battle of Bull Run. In his only action of the day—three days removed from West Point—Custer was cited for bravery under fire when he rode forward to turn an every-man-for-himself retreat at a blocked bridge into an orderly formation.
This gallant action led to service as an aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Phillip Kearny. Custer greatly admired Kearny, and later claimed to have learned valuable lessons in leadership as well as preparation and training procedures for his troops from this general.
In the spring of 1862, during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, Custer was assigned duty under Brigadier General William Farrar “Baldy” Smith as a military observer from a hot-air balloon. Custer usually ascended at night to a height of 1,000 feet for his reconnaissance. With field glasses, map, and compass, he would note gun emplacements, count enemy campfires, plot the number of white tents, and sketch their locations in his notebook. On the night of May 4 he noticed that the Confederates had possibly departed their position. He and another officer reconnoitered the area and confirmed the pullout. On balloon duty, Custer had been afforded the opportunity to view the American landscape in a manner few of his generation had ever experienced.
Soon after, Custer was serving on the staff of Brigadier General Winfield Scott Hancock when the Union troops were ordered to charge into a line of Confederate soldiers at Williamsburg. The anxious Union troops hesitated. Custer impatiently spurred his horse and burst from their midst to lead the charge. The Union soldiers obediently followed this gallant one-man charge, which resulted in routing the Confederates into retreat. Custer later returned to friendly lines with a captured officer and five enlisted men, and—the real trophy—a Confederate battle flag, the first one taken in the war by the Army of the Potomac.
Late in May 1862, Custer guided a raiding party along the Chickahominy River behind enemy lines. According to the official report “he was the first to cross the stream, the first to open fire, and one of the last to leave the field.”
His courageous actions came to the attention of Major General George Brinton McClellan, commander of the army. An impressed McClellan invited Custer to join his staff with the brevet rank of captain. Custer remained with this man whom he greatly admired through battles at Fair Oaks and Gaines Mill, where he proved himself invaluable to McClelland as a second set of eyes and ears.
McClellan said of his aide: “In those days Custer was simply a reckless, gallant boy, undeterred by fatigue, unconscious of fear; but his head was always clear in danger and he always brought me clear and intelligible reports of what he saw under the heaviest fire.”
Although Custer was assigned as a staff officer, he became known for leading charges and rallying troops, as well as retrieving valuable intelligence, in the Peninsula, Antietam, and Chancellorsville campaigns.
George McClellan, however, became a victim of Washington politics and was removed from command. While awaiting orders, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he had been living with his sister and her husband prior to departing for West Point. It was in that city by the lake during a Thanksgiving party that George Armstrong Custer was introduced to Elizabeth Clift “Libbie” Bacon.
Although they only spoke briefly, Custer dreamed of her that night and vowed to make her his wife. There was one problem: Libbie’s father, Judge Daniel Bacon, refused to allow her to see this young officer or correspond with him when he returned to duty. Custer was from the wrong side of the tracks and the Bacon family was Monroe royalty.
A despondent Custer returned to desk duty in Washington. The young lieutenant, however, desired field action to prove that he was worthy of this girl of his dreams.
On May 6, 1863 Custer was assigned as aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, the commander of a cavalry division. The Custer-Pleasonton relationship developed into a mutual admiration society in which Custer claimed, “I do not believe a father could love his son more than Genl. Pleasanton loves me.”
At the June 9 Battle of Brandy Station—the first and largest true cavalry engagement of the war—Custer, as a personal representative of Pleasonton, rode in the spearhead of the surprise attack. Legend has it that he distinguished himself that day by assuming de facto command of three brigades after the death of Colonel Benjamin Davis. Union horsemen proved that day that they could compete with the legendary Confederate cavalry, and Custer was personally cited for bravery after having two horses shot out from under him and receiving a bullet in his boot while capturing a battery of artillery pieces.
Eight days later at Aldie, Custer was credited with a daring charge when his horse bolted and carried him through and around enemy lines, which required him to slay two Rebel cavalrymen in order to extricate himself. The press dismissed Custer’s protestations that he was simply a rider on a runaway horse and embellished the tale to the delight of the public.
On June 29, 1863, to the surprise of everyone including himself, twenty-three-year-old George Armstrong Custer—upon recommendation from Pleasonton—was unexpectedly promoted to brigadier general. Pleasonton wanted men “with the proper dash to command cavalry,” and Custer fit that description perfectly. He had leapfrogged captain, major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel to gain this prestigious rank and become the youngest general in the Union ranks.
Custer made a memorable debut as commander of the Michigan Brigade less than a week later at the Battle of Gettysburg. On the afternoon of July 3, Confederate forces under General George Pickett were massing for an attack on the center of the Union lines. Three miles east of town down the Hanover Road, Rebel cavalry legend James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart prepared his 6,000-man force to simultaneously strike the Union rear in support of Pickett.
General Custer had been assigned the unenviable task of defending the Union rear against this threat. Stuart’s formidable force of “Invincibles,” as the Confederate cavalry was known, emerged from the tree line on the ridge in prelude to their dash toward Gettysburg. Custer assembled his 2,500 troops for what one officer termed a suicide mission—the Union cavalry would ride out and meet the enemy head on.
George Armstrong Custer, with saber drawn, rode to the forefront of his horsemen, shouted “C’mon, you Wolverines!” to his Michigan Brigade, and twice led his inspired troops directly into Stuart’s cavalry. The outnumbered Yankees, taking direction on the field from Custer, managed to push Stuart’s superior force back to their original position on the ridge. This action effectively denied Stuart access to the Union rear, which might have turned the tide in that bloody battle. Pickett’s advance was halted and his troops decimated when the Union line held.
Newspaper and magazine reporters saw a rising star and the Custer legend was born. He made excellent copy—a young, dashing hero with golden curls, who wore a decorative uniform highlighted by a bright red necktie so his troops could recognize him in battle. In addition, Custer was no ambulance general—he was always several horse-lengths ahead of his troops on any charge.
Custer continued to reap glory with his brilliant field generalship. Eleven days later at Falling Waters his brigade nipped at Lee’s retreating heels and captured 1,500 prisoners and three battle flags. His brigade distinguished itself at Culpeper Courthouse by liberating 250 New York infantrymen—with Custer having two horses shot out from beneath him. This brave action led to a drawing of a classic Custer charge being featured in the October 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.
He had continued his courtship of Libbie Bacon through an intermediary to whom he would write letters that would be passed on—and eventually Libbie was head over heels in love with him. As Custer was gaining national fame as a general and commander of the Michigan Brigade, the romance escalated to the point that Custer wrote to Judge Bacon in late 1863 asking for Libbie’s hand in marriage. Custer persisted with a frontal assault worthy of any cavalry charge and finally received the judge’s blessing. He then persuaded Libbie to marry him at the soonest possible moment.
At 8 p. m. on February 9, 1864, George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Clift Bacon were united in marriage at the First Presbyterian Church, which still stands, in a story-book wedding with a standing-room only congregation of witnesses. Their courtship and marriage would go down in history as one of the great love stories of all time.
Custer then returned to duty to command a dangerous diversionary mission into enemy territory during the ill-fated Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid on Richmond. The plan called for a force commanded by Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to free prisoners held in Richmond as well as cause general mayhem. Meanwhile, Custer would draw Jeb Stuart’s forces away from the Confederate capital, a mission he capably executed. The raid was a miserable failure, however, costing the Union 340 men killed, wounded or captured. Papers found on Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren, who was killed, instructed the raiders to burn the city and kill President Jefferson Davis. The Southerners were incensed by this plan, which inspired within them a renewed fighting spirit. Custer, however, was commended for his successful actions, which was little consolation.
Major General Philip Henry Sheridan assumed command of the cavalry and convinced Army Commander U. S. Grant to change the mission of his force from support to active operations. Grant obliged, and Sheridan planned as his first mission the elimination of the legendary Jeb Stuart, whose cavalry had been such a thorn in the side of the Union. Sheridan would become Custer’s friend and mentor for the remainder of Custer’s life, calling his subordinate the ablest man in the cavalry. With his song for the charge, “Yankee Doodle,” playing over the din, Custer executed successful charges in the Wilderness and at the Battle of Beaverdam Station. At Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864, a Custer led charge resulted in the death of General Jeb Stuart. The Confederate cavalry would never again dominate their opponents, having lost their heart and soul in Stuart.
Custer a suffered a setback at Trevilian Station, where he was trapped inside a living triangle of Confederate cavalry and was obliged to fight his way out. This defeat cost him his headquarters wagon with all of his personal possessions—including letters from Libbie which were later published in a Richmond newspaper.
It was at the Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864 that George Armstrong Custer really came into his own. Custer received orders from Sheridan to charge but believed that a frontal assault at that time and place would be suicidal. He requested that his orders be amended to allow him to choose the timing of his charge. Had most commanders made that request it would have been considered insubordination. Sheridan, however, trusted Custer’s field generalship and agreed to the Boy General’s assessment. Custer went on to rout the Confederates, taking 700 prisoners and 7 battle flags in the process.
On September 30, 1864, Custer was awarded his second star and command of the 3rd Cavalry Division.
A week later, Custer faced his former West Point best friend, Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Lafayette Rosser, at Tom’s Brook, Virginia. Custer’s Union cavalry readied themselves for a charge across the field as this superior force of entrenched Rebels waited. When all was ready for battle, Custer—in an act of bravado—rode out in front of his command where he could be seen by both sides. He then removed his broad-brimmed hat and swept it across the front of himself and down in a salute to his friend. Custer then commenced to hand the Confederates what Rosser later admitted was his worst defeat of the war. To add insult to injury, Custer captured Rosser’s headquarters wagon, and got back an ambrotype of Libbie that had been captured at Trevilian Station.
Custer’s division distinguished itself during the Appomattox Campaign in the waning days of the war, playing a major role in the April 6, 1865 Battle of Sayler’s Creek, known in the South as “Black Thursday.” This was the final battle of the Civil War, where the Confederates lost one-third of their army killed, wounded, or captured. Custer, in a demonstration of respect, ordered his band to serenade the Confederate prisoners with “Dixie.”
Two days later, Custer captured four Rebel railroad trains carrying vital supplies. Later that day, a Confederate messenger under a flag of truce approached Custer. He requested that General U. S. Grant be informed that General Robert E. Lee desired a meeting to surrender his army. The Civil War had ended on Custer’s doorstep.
Throughout the war, George Armstrong Custer had always been faithful to his West Point classmates who fought for the Confederacy. He had assisted them with kindness whenever possible, whether they had been wounded or taken prisoner, and once even served as best man at a wedding of a friend, with one of them wearing a gray uniform and the other dressed in blue.
Lee surrendered to Grant in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at 3 p.m. April 9, 1865 effectively ending the war. The writing table on which the official papers were signed was purchased for $20 by General Phil Sheridan. The next day Sheridan wrote the following note to Custer’s wife, Libbie: “I respectfully present to you the small writing table on which the conditions for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia were written by Lt. General Grant—and permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your husband.”
Custer’s Civil War legacy was perhaps summed up best by Horace Greeley when this famed New York Tribune correspondent wrote: “Future writers of fiction will find in Brig. Gen. Custer most of the qualities which go to make up a first-class hero, and stories of his daring will be told around many a hearth stone long after the old flag again kisses the breeze from Maine to the Gulf. Gen. Custer is as gallant a cavalier as one would wish to see. Always circumspect, never rash, and viewing the circumstances under which he is placed as coolly as a chess player observes his game, Gen. Custer always sees ‘the vantage of the ground’ at a glance, and, like the eagle watching his prey from some mountain crag, sweeps down upon his adversary, and seldom fails in achieving a signal success. Frank and independent in his demeanor, Gen. C unites the qualities of the true gentleman with that of the accomplished and fearless soldier.”
George Armstrong Custer
Hatch, Thom. Glorious War: the Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer. New York: St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan, 2013.
Carroll, John M., ed. Custer in the Civil War: His Unfinished Memoirs. San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1977.
Kidd, James H. Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman with Custer’s Michigan Brigade in the Civil War BY J. H. Kidd Formerly Colonel Sixth Michigan Cavalry and Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers. Iona, MI: Sentinel Printing Company, 1908.
Longacre, Edward G. Custer and His Wolverines: The Michigan Cavalry Brigade, 1861-1865. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1997.
Reynolds, Arlene. The Civil War Memories of Elizabeth Bacon Custer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Urwin, Gregory J. Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer. East Brunswick, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983.
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