George Custer, the son of a blacksmith, was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on 5th December, 1839. The family was poor and when he was ten Custer was forced to live with his aunt in Monroe. While at school he met his future wife, Elizabeth Bacon, the daughter of a judge. Custer did odd jobs for her family, but was never allowed into the house.
Custer wanted to become a lawyer but his family could not afford the training so he decided to become a soldier instead. He attended the Military Academy at West Point but he was a poor student and when he finally graduated in 1861 he was placed 34th out of a class of 34.
After leaving West Point he joined the staff of General George B. McClellan and during the American Civil War he saw action at Bull Run (August, 1862), Antietam (September, 1862) and Gettysburg (June, 1863). Custer emerged as an outstanding cavalry leader and at the age of 23, was given the rank of brigadier general and took command of the Michigan Brigade.
Custer developed a reputation for flamboyant behaviour. He led his troops into battle wearing a black velvet trimmed with gold lace, a crimson necktie and a white hat. He claimed that he adopted this outfit so that his men "would recognize him on any part of the field".
In August , 1864, Custer joined Major General Philip Sheridan in the final Shenandoah Valley campaign. Sheridan and 40,000 soldiers entered the valley and soon encountered troops led by Jubal Early who had just returned from Washington. After a series of minor defeats the Union Army eventually gained the upper hand. His men now burnt and destroyed anything of value in the area and after defeating Early in another large-scale battle on 19th October, the Union Army took control of the Shenandoah Valley.
Custer was a strong supporter of his own abilities. He said of his performance at Gettysburg: "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry." He also managed to persuade journalists to share this view. After Custer took part in the Shenandoah Valley campaign E. A. Paul of the New York Times reported that "Custer, young as he is, displayed judgment worthy of a Napoleon."
On 1st April, Philip Sheridan, William Sherman and Custer attacked at Five Forks. The Confederates, led by Major General George Pickett, were overwhelmed and lost 5,200 men. On hearing the news, Robert E. Lee decided to abandon Richmond and President Jefferson Davis, his family and government officials, was forced to flee from the city.
By the end of the war Custer had been breveted for gallant and meritorious services on five occasions. Although only wounded once he had 11 horses killed under him.
In January 1866, his commission as major-general expired and he reverted to his 1862 rank of captain in the Regular Army. However, in July, 1866, he was commissioned lieutenant colonel (he was also given the honorary rank of major general) and made second in command of the newly created Seventh Cavalry. He was posted to Fort Riley in Kansas and spent the winter of 1866-67 preparing his troops to take part in the Indian Wars.
Custer's behaviour continued to be erratic. In July 1867 fifteen of his men deserted during a forced march along the Republican River. Custer ordered a search party "to shoot the supposed deserters down dead, and to bring none in alive." Soon afterwards he deserted his command in order to spend a day with his wife. As a result of this actions he was arrested and charged with disobeying orders, deserting his command, failing to pursue Indians who had attacked his escort and ordering his officers to shoot down deserters. Found guilty he was suspended for a year without pay.
General Philip H. Sheridan recalled Custer to duty and on 27th November, 1868, Custer destroyed the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle on the banks of the Washita River. Custer later claimed that his men killed 103 warriors. However, the majority of the victims were women and children. This action was highly controversial as the Cheyenne were not at war against the Americans at this time. General Harney pointed out: "I have worn the uniform of my country 55 years, and I know that Black Kettle was as good a friend of the United States as I am."
One of his own men, Captain Frederick Benteen, also criticized Custer's behaviour during this operation. He was mainly concerned with what happened to Major Joel Elliott and 18 of his men who had been sent off to pursue fleeing members of the Cheyenne tribe. They had been cut off and massacred by warriors from neighbouring villages. Benteen accused Custer of abandoning these men and had been responsible for their deaths. General Philip H. Sheridan rejected these claims and complimented Custer on his "efficient and gallant services" during the attack.
In August 1873, Custer was involved in protecting a group of railroad surveyors. The group were attacked by a Sioux war party near the mouth of Tongue River. During the raid two of the surveyors were killed. Later, Charley Reynolds, an Indian scout, told Custer that Rain in the Face had led the attack at Tongue River. Rain in the Face was living on the Standing Rock Reservation at the time and so Custer had him arrested. Custer forced Rain in the Face to confess but before he could appear in court he managed to escape.
In 1873 Custer was a member of General David Stanley's Yellowstone expedition. Later that year he took command of Fort Abraham Lincoln on the River Missouri. In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota. Later he published an autobiography, My Life on the Plains (1874).
Custer was called to Washington in March, 1876, to testify before a Congressional committee probing frauds in the Indian Service. President Ulysses Grant was furious when Custer's evidence damaged the reputation of his former War Secretary, William Belknap. Grant was so angry he deprived Custer of his command. However, after protests from senior officers in the army, Grant backed down and Custer was able to return as commander of the 7th Cavalry.
At this time the Sioux and Cheyenne were attempting to resist the advance of white migration. On 17th June 1876 General George Crook and about 1,000 troops, supported by 300 Crow and Shoshone, fought against 1,500 members of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. The battle at Rosebud Creek lasted for over six hours. This was the first time that Native Americans had united together to fight in such large numbers.
On 22nd June, Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate the villages of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. A very large encampment was discovered three days later. It was over 15 miles away and even with field glasses Custer was unable to discover the number of warriors the camp contained.
Instead of waiting for the arrival of the rest of the army led by General Alfred Terry, Custer decided to act straight way. He divided his force into three battalions in order to attack the camp from three different directions. One group led by Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to march to the left. A second group led by Major Marcus Reno was sent to attack the encampment via the Little Big Horn River.
Major Reno was the first to charge the village. When he discovered that the camp was far larger than was expected he retreated to the other side of the Little Big Horn River. He was later joined by Captain Benteen and although they suffered heavy casualties they were able to fight off the attack.
Custer and his men rode north on the east side of the Little Big Horn River. The Sioux and Cheyenne saw Custer's men and swarmed out of the village. Custer was forced to retreat into the bluffs to the east where he was attacked by about 4,000 warriors. At the battle of the Little Bighorn Custer and all his 231 men were killed. This included his two brothers, Tom and Boston, his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and his nephew, Autie Reed.
The soldiers under Reno and Benteen continued to be attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and his army. It was claimed afterwards that Custer had been killed by his old enemy, Rain in the Face. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that this is true.
General Philip H. Sheridan concluded that George A. Custer had made several important mistakes at the Little Big Horn. He argued that after their seventy mile journey, Custer's men were too tired to fight effectively. Custer had also made a mistake in developing a plan of attack on the false assumption that the Sioux and Cheyenne would attempt to escape rather than fight the soldiers.
Sheridan also criticized Custer's decision to divide his men into three groups: "Had the Seventh Cavalry been held together, it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn." His final mistake was to attack what was probably the largest group of Native Americans ever assembled on the North American continent. President Ulysses Grant agreed with this assessment and when interviewed by the New York Herald he said: "I regard Custer's Massacre was a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary".
Despite this criticism George Custer was given a hero's burial at West Point.