George Armstrong Custer has been better known for his exploits after the Civil War than those during. However, his career in the Union army was a success due in large part to his dual characteristics of bravery and audacity. Described as aggressive, gallant, reckless, and foolhardy, Custer has become one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of the Civil War.
Born in Harrison County, Ohio on December 5, 1839, son of Emanuel and Marie, Custer was nicknamed “Autie” because of his mispronunciation of his middle name as a small child. George had four younger siblings, Thomas, Margaret, Nevin, and Boston, as well as several older half-siblings from his mother’s first marriage to Israel Kirkpatrick, who died in 1835.
During much of his boyhood George lived with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended McNeely Norman School, carrying coal with a classmate in order to pay for room and board. Upon graduation, he taught school for two years before being admitted to the U.S. Military Academy, where he graduated in 1861, ranked last in his class of 34 cadets. Ever a trickster, multiple demerits for pulling practical jokes on his classmates brought him close to expulsion several times.
Graduating in 1861, his low rank was less significant than it might have been during peace time because of demand for officers and he was mustered into the Union army as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
Custer was able to distinguish himself as a risk-taker early in the war. During the Peninsula Campaign when General John G. Barnard stopped at the Chickahominy River, debating where to cross based on the depth of the water, Custer took action and promptly rode his horse out to the middle of the river so as to determine if it was passable. The act gained him notoriety among important high-ranking officers. During the Battle of Bull Run, Custer served as a courier between Winfield Scott and Irvin McDowell, subsequently serving as a staff officer for Generals George B. McClellan and Alfred Pleasanton with the temporary rank of captain.
On June 29, 1863 Custer was commissioned to brigadier general of volunteers and assigned to command a brigade in Kilpatrick’s division. While in this position he led his men in the Battle of Gettysburg where he assisted in preventing J.E.B. Stuart from attacking the Union rear.
Throughout the war Custer continued to distinguishing himself as fearless, aggressive, and ostentatious. His personalized uniform style, complete with a red neckerchief could be somewhat alienating, but he was successful in gaining the respect of his men with his willingness to lead attacks from the front rather than the back.
During the Richmond campaign in 1864, Custer participated in the battle at Yellow Tavern, where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded. Following which he and his men were transferred to the Shenandoah Valley. Here he played a major role in the defeat of Jubal Early’s army at Third Winchester and Cedar Creek. As Custer's final major act in the war he led the division responsible for cutting off Lee’s last avenue of escape at Appomattox; a week later he received the appointment, major general of volunteers.
In 1866, Custer was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry and assigned to command the cavalry in the west. While in this position he took part in Winfield Hancock’s expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne in 1867. After a court-martial and suspension from duty for an unauthorized visit to his wife, Elizabeth Clift Bacon, Custer was restored to duty by Philip Sheridan.
Custer went on to take part in the Yellowstone expedition into the Black Hills, which precipitated the Sioux uprising of 1876, culminating in the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Under the over-all command of General Alfred H. Terry, Custer was to be part of a two column attack. However, upon discovering a large native settlement, Custer proceeded to divide his own forces into three battalions. Without waiting for support, Custer led an attack which resulted in the annihilation of his immediate command and a total loss of 266 officers and men, including his brothers Tom and Boston. The soldiers' remains were given a hasty burial on the battlefield, but within the next year Custer’s body was reinterred at West Point with a full military funeral.
George Armstrong Custer was a prolific writer who recorded many of his escapades, and it was through these writings, as well as his wife’s determination to clear his name that he became one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of the Civil War.
Learn more about General George Custer's close call at the Battle of Trevilian Station. Historian Eric Wittenberg describes in detail how Custer and his Michigan Brigade just survived encirclement by Confederate horseman.
Join t Fight
Donate today to preserve Civil War battlefields and the nation’s history for generations to come.