West Point cadet classmates called George Armstrong Custer “Cinnamon” because he’d primp his hair with cinnamon oil. Later, as an officer, he designed his uniform made of black velvet with coils of gold lace, wore a red scarf and large broad-brimmed sombrero, and spurs on his boots.
Historian Tom Carhart in “Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg and Why It Failed” said, “A showy uniform for Custer was one of command presence on the battlefield: he wanted to be readily distinguishable at first glance from all other soldiers.
“He intended to lead from the front, and to him it was a crucial issue of unit morale that his men be able to look up in the middle of a charge, or at any other time on the battlefield, and instantly see him leading the way into danger.”
And see him, they did. While most commanders barked orders from the rear of the men charging into battle, Custer relished being in front of them — once so far ahead that he was alone surrounded by the enemy.
After graduating from West Point in 1861 — last in his class — he was thrown immediately into the Civil War, serving as an aide to Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, who soon would be relieved of command by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for indecisiveness.
No glory on his first assignment, however, at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 — running messages between generals. The battle was a Confederate victory, with Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops routing the Union Army that panicked and fled.
As McClelland dithered, Custer did not — galloping into battle fearlessly. Some called it recklessly. During his army career 11 horses were shot out from under him, while he was wounded only once.
Custer first caught the attention of the brass in eastern Virginia, when his commander was wondering how deep the Chickahominy River was. Overhearing the comment, Custer on his horse instantly splashed into the water and at midstream turned and shouted, “That’s how deep it is, Mr. General!”
Impressed with his audacity, Custer was rewarded with orders to lead an attack across the river with four companies of the 4th Michigan Infantry. He was about to show the nation what a bold and inspiring warrior and leader he was.
His Michigan Infantry caught the Confederates completely by surprise, taking 50 of them prisoner. McClellan promoted him to captain.
By the summer of 1863, Custer was serving under newly promoted Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who immediately replaced politically appointed generals with “commanders who were prepared to fight; to personally lead mounted attacks.”
He picked three, and one of them was Custer. At age 23, he was made a brevet brigadier general — youngest in U.S. Army history — and commander of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade (“Wolverines”). They called him “The Boy General.”
His star shined at the Battle of Gettysburg when he stopped Confederate Gen. “Jeb” Stuart from advancing on Union forces. With uncommon bravery, Custer led the cavalry charge, shouting “Come on you Wolverines!” Two horses were shot out from under him, but undaunted, he fought on. His unit lost 219 men — a high price — but it changed the course of the battle and the war.
One report said, “He exploded across the American scene like a skyrocket. From the beginning, he exhibited his desire for action while showing no fear against the enemy. If a task needed to be accomplished, Custer was the man.”
Another said, “His fearless aggression in battle earned him the respect of his commanding generals and increasingly put him in the public eye.”
In 1864, Custer married Elizabeth “Libby” Clift Bacon, daughter of Judge Daniel and Eleanor Sophia Bacon of Monroe, Mich. It was a difficult courtship because her father — a Democrat — disapproved of her Republican suitor from a lower social class, and thought that his daughter deserved more in life than being an army wife. The Judge relented, however, after Custer was promoted to general.
Custer was not yet 25 when he was promoted to major general before the war ended.
Glory at Appomattox in Virginia propelled Custer into the history books when he captured and burned Gen. Robert E. Lee’s supply trains, helping to end the Civil War.
He was present at Virginia grocer Wilmer McLean’s home on April 9, 1865, when Grant and Lee wrote and signed the terms of surrender. Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan bought the table used by Grant to write the draft and gave it to Custer’s wife, Libby, in honor of her husband. It’s now at the Smithsonian.
Lee gave Custer the white truce flag used to signal his wish to meet with Grant.
After the war, Custer reverted to his permanent rank of captain. Bouncing around in rank like that was common practice in those days, and not considered a reflection on the officer’s performance — Custer changed rank 11 times after West Point.
He wasn’t captain for long. After several months in Texas, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned to the Seventh Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Riley, Kan., under General Winfield Scott Hancock — a unit Custer would make famous in American history years later on a treeless hilltop in southeastern Montana.
As peace was replacing the turmoil where the Civil War raged, violence was unfolding in the American West, and Custer was part of it.
On Nov. 27, 1868, his 7th Cavalry attacked a Cheyenne camp on the Washita River in Oklahoma. Indian women and children were killed, and some used by the soldiers as human shields. Custer described them as simply casualties of war, but others including the Indian Affairs Bureau and New York Tribune called it a massacre — clouding Custer’s reputation to this day.
The defining historical event of George Armstrong Custer’s life was his death on June 25, 1876, at Little Big Horn, east of today’s Billings, Mont.
The 7th Cavalry was assigned to force the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho onto reservations. Led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others, the tribes were fighting to stem the invasion of white settlers.
Initial scouting reports said an Indian village targeted by Custer had about 800 and Custer felt he could handle them without waiting for reinforcements, but there were some 3,500 — maybe more.
Another mistake was not bringing Gatling guns because he felt they would slow down the advance.
The battle began after mid-day on June 25, and within an hour, all 262 of Lt. Col. Custer’s unit were dead — including him. Only the horse Comanche was still alive though wounded when the other Army units arrived the next day.
Bodies were horribly mutilated — but not Custer’s — and were buried on the spot. Custer’s remains were later dug up and reinterred at West Point.
Little Big Horn was the most decisive Native American victory and the worst U.S. Army defeat in the long Plains Indian War.
The Indians won the battle but in the long run lost the war.
America was outraged and the image of the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty was confirmed in the minds of many. The government redoubled its efforts, and within five years, almost all the Sioux and Cheyenne were confined to reservations.
Custer was a heroic soldier of 19th century America, but scholars and history buffs still debate whether he was a good man or bad. Atrocities by the Army were not uncommon in those times.
It was Gen. Sheridan who said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”
American National Biography says, “Had Custer been killed at Appomattox, he would be remembered as a great cavalry general, second only to Sheridan among Union horsemen. His tactical moves were nearly always correct and instantly executed. None excelled him in personal courage or individual battlefield combat.
“His casualty rates, however, gave him a reputation for recklessness, while his youth, his promotion from captain to general, his ostentation, and his heroic public image aroused jealousy and ridicule.”
Because some of his legacies are so contrary to today’s accepted cultural norms, how long will it be before the nabobs of political correctness change the name of Custer in communities across America, and tear down the statues honoring one of our nation’s most historic personalities?
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Why last in his class?
In a West Point class of 34 cadets in 1861, George Armstrong Custer finished last because he was a prankster and neglected his studies, accumulating so many demerits (a record-total of 726) that they almost threw him out. The small class was because 23 classmates had dropped out for academic reasons, and with the Civil War looming 22 classmates had resigned to join the Confederacy.
What Custer looked like…
Custer was 5-foot-11, weighing from 143 to a muscular 170 pounds. He wore a size 38 jacket and size 9C boots; could recharge his energy quickly with short cat-naps, and spring to a standing position in an instant from lying flat on his back.
“He was described at this time as tall, slender, energetic, and dashing, with blue eyes and long golden hair and mustache. At the post he wore velveteen uniforms decorated with gold braid, but in the field he affected buckskins. He rarely drank or used tobacco and spent his spare hours reading military history and studying tactics.”
While a cadet at West Point, Custer was court-martialed for neglect of duty in failing to stop a fight between two cadets when he was officer of the guard and received a light punishment. In 1867 — after the Civil War — he was court-martialed for un-military conduct and leaving his unit without permission to see his wife Libby. He was suspended from rank and command without pay for a year, but General Philip Sheridan needing him bailed him out ten months later and assigned him to lead a campaign against the Cheyenne.
Custer at home…
There was a human side to George Armstrong Custer the warrior: Though they had no children, the Custer home was not empty. He was a dog lover, owning beagles, wolfhounds, a white bulldog named Turk, and Byron, a greyhound. They all had indoors and bed privileges — much to the annoyance of his wife Libby.
His family called him “Autie” because as a small child that was how he pronounced his middle name — Armstrong.
A devoted wife…
Custer’s wife Libby died in New York City in 1933 at almost 90. After his death, she devoted the last 57 years of her life writing books about him — adding to the many books and articles that he wrote.
Little Big Horn was also the last stand for two of Custer’s brothers — Tom and Boston — brother-in-law James Calhoun, nephew Henry Reed, and invited Associated Press reporter Mark H. Kellogg. Tom twice had won the Medal of Honor.