General George Custer. Image Source: Library of Congress.
General George Custer (1839–1876) rose to the rank of Major General in the United States Army during the Civil War (1861—1865). Custer graduated from West Point two months after the war started and quickly rose in the ranks. For his efforts at the Battle of Aldie (June 17, 1863), he was promoted from First Lieutenant to Brigadier General of Volunteers, making him the youngest officer to attain that rank and one of the youngest Generals in the Union Army.
When Custer graduated from West Point, he received a commission in the U.S. Army in time to take part in the First Battle of Bull Run. After a short illness, he returned to active duty and served in Major General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. 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, McClellan appointed him as his aide-de-camp and promoted him to the rank of Captain.
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 youngest Generals in the Union Army.
In July 1863, Custer had two horses shot from under him while leading charges at the Battle of Gettysburg. During the Civil War, Custer had a total of eleven horses shot from under him. However, he was only wounded one time.
In 1864, Custer served as a cavalry commander with the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign, seeing action at the Battles of the Wilderness, Yellow Tavern, and Trevilian Station. During the fall of 1864, Custer accompanied Major General Philip Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley and played key roles in the battles of Opequon, Tom’s Brook, and Cedar Creek.
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. Mosby’s men and Shenandoah Valley residents despised Custer so much that Sheridan warned him “If the Rebs should ever lay you by the heels, they’ll string you up directly.”
George Custer Joins the Union Army
- George Custer received an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1857 and entered the Academy in 1858.
- Custer graduated last in his class of 34 cadets from the United States Military Academy on June 24, 1861.
- His class graduated a year early because the Union needed officers for the Civil War.
- George Custer was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on June 24, 1861.
George Custer in the Civil War —1862
- Major General George B. McClellan assigned Custer as his aide-de-camp, promoting him to the rank of Captain on June 5, 1862.
- Custer was returned to cavalry duty as a First Lieutenant when General McClellan was relieved of his command of the Army of the Potomac after the Peninsula Campaign.
George Custer in the Civil War —1863
- Major General Alfred Pleasonton promoted Custer from Captain to Brigadier General of Volunteers on June 29, 1863, three days before the Battle of Gettysburg.
- At age 23 years old, George Custer was one of the younger Generals in the Union army.
- George Custer was brevetted as a major in the regular army for his service at Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863.
General George Custer in the Civil War —1864
- General George Custer married Elizabeth Clift Benton on February 9, 1864.
- Custer led his cavalry unit in a charge that killed Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864.
- He suffered his most embarrassing defeat of the war when Confederate raiders captured his personal baggage at the Battle of Trevilian Station on June 11–12, 1864.
- General Custer played a major role in the Union victory at the Battle of Opequon (September 19, 1864) during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
- Some evidence suggests that General Custer was present when his soldiers executed six Confederate prisoners who refused to reveal information about the location of Confederate raider John Mosby’s headquarters on September 23, 1864.
- General Custer played a major role in the Union victory at the Battle of Tom’s Brook (October 9, 1864) and the Battle of Cedar Creek (October 19, 1864) during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
- Custer received a brevet promotion to Major General in the Regular Army on March 13, 1865.
- General Custer was present at Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
- Custer received a promotion to Major General of Volunteers on April 15, 1865 — the same day Abraham Lincoln died from the gunshot wound inflicted by John Wilkes Booth.