George Custer

Custer, George Armstrong

George Armstrong Custer, 1839–76, American army officer, b. New Rumley, Ohio, grad. West Point, 1861.

Civil War Service

Custer fought in the Civil War at the first battle of Bull Run, distinguished himself as a member of General McClellan's staff in the Peninsular campaign, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers in June, 1863. The youngest general in the Union army, Custer ably led a cavalry brigade in the Gettysburg campaign. He fought in Virginia in the great cavalry battle at Yellow Tavern and in General Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign. Made a divisional commander in Oct., 1864, he defeated (Oct. 9) Gen. Thomas L. Rosser at Woodstock. After dispersing the remnants of Gen. Jubal A. Early's command at Waynesboro on Mar. 2, 1865, he was in the advance in pursuit of Lee's army beyond Richmond. Custer received the Confederate flag of truce, was present at the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, and was promoted major general of volunteers. His record (he had also been brevetted a major general in the regular army), considering his youth, was one of the most spectacular of the war.

The 7th Cavalry

In the reorganization of the U.S. army after the war Custer was assigned to the 7th Cavalry with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and he remained the acting commander of this regiment until his death. In 1867 he was court-martialed and removed from command for leaving his command at Fort Wallace, Kans., without permission, but in Sept., 1868, he was reinstated, mostly through the efforts of Sheridan, with whom he had always been a favorite. In the massacre of the Cheyenne and their allies at the battle of the Washita (Nov., 1868), he was accused of abandoning a small detachment of his men, who were annihilated. He served (1873) in Dakota Territory and in 1874 commanded the expedition into the Black Hills that led to renewed hostilities with the Sioux.

In the comprehensive campaign against the Sioux planned in 1876, Custer's regiment was detailed to the column under the commanding general, Alfred H. Terry, that marched from Bismarck to the Yellowstone River. At the mouth of the Rosebud, Terry sent Custer forward to locate the enemy while he marched on to join the column under Gen. John Gibbon. Custer came upon the warrior encampment on the Little Bighorn on June 25 and decided to attack at once. Not realizing the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Native Americans, most of whom lay concealed in ravines, he divided his regiment into three parts, sending two of them, under Major Marcus A. Reno and Capt. Frederick W. Benteen, to attack farther upstream, while he himself led the third (over 200 men) in a direct charge. Every one of them was killed in battle. Reno and Benteen were themselves kept on the defensive, and not until Terry's arrival was the extent of the tragedy known. The men (except Custer, whose remains were reinterred at West Point) were buried on the battlefield, now a national monument in Montana. Custer's spectacular death made him a popular but controversial hero, still the subject of much dispute as to his actions and character.

Bibliography

Custer wrote My Life on the Plains (1874), and his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, 1842–1933, who devoted much of her life to upholding his memory, wrote Boots and Saddles (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887), and Following the Guidon (1890). See also biographies by F. Hunt (1928), J. Monaghan (1959, repr. 1971), and L. McMurtry (2012); C. A. Windolph, I Fought with Custer (as told to F. and R. Hunt, 1947); W. A. Graham, The Story of the Little Big Horn (1959); E. I. Stewart, Custer's Luck (1955, repr. 1971); E. S. Connell, Son of the Morningstar (1984); J. D. Wert, Custer (1996); N. Philbrick, The Last Stand (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer
Jay Monaghan.
University of Nebraska Press, 1971
The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point
Ralph Kirshner.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1999
A Complete Life of General George A. Custer
Frederick Whittaker.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.2, 1993
At Custer's Side: The Civil War Writings of James Harvey Kidd
James Harvey Kidd; Eric J. Wittenberg.
Kent State University Press, 2001
Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed
John S. Gray.
University of Nebraska Press, 1991
Great Western Indian Fights
Members of the Potomac Corral of The Westerners.
University of Nebraska Press, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 20 "The Battle of the Little Big Horn"
Reno Court of Inquiry: Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry in the Case of Major Marcus A. Reno
Ronald H. Nichols.
Custer Battlefield Museum, 1996
Warpath: The True Story of the Fighting Sioux Told in a Biography of Chief White Bull
Stanley Vestal.
University of Nebraska Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 20 "Long Hair Custer is Killed"
Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer
Thomas B. Marquis; Wooden Leg.
University of Nebraska Press, 1931
Psychoanalysis, General Custer, and the Verdicts of History and Other Essays on Psychology in the Social Scene
Seymour B. Sarason.
Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994
Frontier Regulars the United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891
Robert M. Utley.
University of Nebraska Press, 1973
The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians
Francis Paul Prucha.
University of Nebraska Press, 1984
Following the Guidon
Elizabeth B. Custer.
University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives
Carol K. Bleser; Lesley J. Gordon.
Oxford University Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "The Civil War Partnership of Elizabeth and George A. Custer"
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