George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio. He was the son of Emanuel and Maria Custer. Custer’s father was a blacksmith and farmer. As a youngster, Custer’s parents sent him to live with his half-sister’s family in Monroe, Michigan. Later, he attended McNeely Normal School in Hopedale, Ohio. After graduating, Custer briefly taught school in Cadiz, Ohio before receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1857. Custer enrolled at West point the following year and struggled academically, graduating last in his class of thirty-four cadets on June 24, 1861.
First Battle of Bull Run
Following his graduation from West Point, Custer received a commission as a second lieutenant attached to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. He took part in the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) with his unit, which the army had re-designated as the 5th U.S. Cavalry. Following Bull Run, Custer briefly served on the staff of General Philip Kearny. In October 1861, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan, where he remained until February 1862 while recuperating from an illness.
Custer returned to active duty in time to take part in Major General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in Virginia (March 17–August 14, 1862). During that campaign, he became the first Union officer to oversee the use of hot-air balloons to spy on Confederate forces. Impressed with Custer’s performance during the campaign, McClellan appointed Custer as his aide-de-camp and promoted him to the rank of captain.
From Captain to Lieutenant
When McClellan lost his command following the disastrous Peninsula Campaign, the War Department reassigned Custer to the staff of Major General Alfred Pleasonton and returned him to the rank of first lieutenant.
Youngest Brigadier General
Custer commanded a cavalry division in 1862 and early 1863, taking part in the Battles of Brandy Station and Aldie. On June 29, 1863, the War Department promoted Custer to the rank of brigadier-general of volunteers, making him the youngest officer to attain that rank and one of the younger generals in the Union Army.
Battle of Gettysburg
As commander of the Second Brigade, Third Division, of the Union Cavalry Corps, Custer took part in the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). During that engagement, Custer bravely led charges against J. E. B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry and had two horses shot from under him. During the Civil War, Custer had eleven horses shot from under him, incurring only one wound from a Confederate artillery shell during the Battle of Culpepper Courthouse (September 13, 1863).
In the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant named Major General Philip Sheridan as commander of the freshly reorganized Union cavalry in the Eastern Theater. Custer kept his command and served under Sheridan with the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign (May 5-June 24, 1864). During that campaign, Custer saw action at the Battles of the Wilderness (May 5 -7, 1864), Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864), and Trevillian Station (June 11–12, 1864).
Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
In July 1864, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched an offensive in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that eventually threatened Washington, DC. Lieutenant General Grant sent enough reinforcements to Washington to halt Early’s advance on the capital and drive his army back into the Shenandoah Valley, where they remained a threat during the summer. On August 1, Grant sent Major General Philip Sheridan’s newly formed Army of the Shenandoah to the valley to deal with Early. Custer accompanied Sheridan and played key roles in several cavalry engagements during September and October, including the battles of Opequon (September 19, 1864), Tom’s Brook (October 9, 1864), and Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864).
Custer and his cavalry troopers also took part in Sheridan’s scorched earth campaign against Shenandoah Valley residents, locally known as “The Burning.” The widespread destruction of civilian property during the autumn of 1864, incited acts of atrocity between Custer’s soldiers and Confederate General John Mosby’s Rangers. On September 23, 1864, Custer’s men captured six of Mosby’s Rangers who they believed had taken part in the wanton killing of a captured Union officer. The Federals summarily executed the six Confederates, four by shooting and two by hanging, after the Rebels refused to divulge information about Mosby’s headquarters. It is unclear if Custer was present when the Yankees condemned the Confederates, but some evidence suggests that Custer witnessed two of the hangings. Mosby’s men and Shenandoah Valley residents loathed Custer so much that Sheridan warned him “If the Rebs should ever lay you by the heels, they’ll string you up directly.”
End of the War
On October 19, 1864, Sheridan’s forces defeated Jubal Early’s army at the Battle of Cedar Creek, forcing Early to evacuate the Shenandoah Valley. For his part in the successful campaign, Custer received a brevet promotion to major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865.
That same month, Sheridan left the valley and joined the pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s army in the Richmond area. On April 1, 1865, Custer took part in the Battle of Five Forks. Historians sometimes call that engagement the “Waterloo of the Confederacy,” because it triggered Robert E. Lee’s decision to abandon Petersburg and begin the retreat that led to his surrender. When Lee finally capitulated, Custer received the first flag of truce from the Confederate army. Custer was also present when Lee signed the articles of surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Six days later, the War Department promoted Custer to major general of volunteers.
Post-war Regular Army Officer
When the Civil War ended and the volunteer army disbanded, Custer remained in the regular army, reverting to his rank of captain. He was first assigned to Texas where he earned the gratitude of local residents for strictly disciplining his soldiers and taking a hard stance against lawlessness and wanton destruction of civilian property.
7th U.S. Cavalry Commander
On July 28, 1866, army officials promoted Custer to lieutenant colonel and gave him command of the newly created 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. From 1867 to 1871, the 7th Cavalry took part in several battles with Native Americans, principally against the Cheyenne Indians. Custer performed well in these conflicts.
Suspension and Recall
In 1867, Custer faced a court-martial for failing to follow orders and for being absent without leave when paying an unauthorized visit to his wife. The court found Custer guilty and suspended him from duty for one year without pay. In 1868, Custer returned to service, and the army restored his command. On November 27 of that year, Custer led his cavalry to victory at the Battle of Washita River against Black Kettle and the Cheyenne Indians.
Disaster at the Battle of Little Big Horn
In 1874, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory led to illegal trespassing on sacred Native American ground, sparking hostilities between whites and the Cheyenne and Sioux Indians. The United States Army interceded to protect white intruders. In 1876, Brigadier General Alfred Terry ordered Custer to join forces with units commanded by Brigadier General George Crook and Colonel John Gibbon and drive the Sioux and Cheyenne onto reservations.
On June 25, 1876, Custer discovered a Sioux village on the Little Big Horn River and recklessly mounted an independent attack, rather than waiting to act with Crook and Gibbon. He divided his small force of about 650 men into three units and attacked.
Instead of a docile Indian village, Custer soon found that he had charged into a major encampment defended by up to 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Led by several notable chiefs including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Natives quickly annihilated the 210 troopers Custer led into battle. Along with Custer, his brothers Boston and Thomas, his brother-in-law James Calhoun, and his nephew Henry Reed died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on June 25. The Natives also killed another fifty-eight U.S. soldiers from Custer’s other two deployments. Fewer than 100 American Indians perished during the engagement.
Union soldiers identified and recovered Custer’s mutilated remains two days after the Battle of the Little Big Horn and interred it on the site of the battle. One year later, the army moved Custer’s body to the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he received a formal military burial.