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Often regarded as a ruthless military leader, George Armstrong Custer led an interesting life full of luck and second chances. In this paper, Custer will be analyzed in a biographic fashion. This paper will highlight his birth and family background, childhood, schooling and entrance into the military, involvement in the Civil War, marriage, involvement in the Indian Wars, his untimely death, and an insight into his questionable legacy.
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Born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio, Custer was the son of German and English immigrants Emanuel Henry and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick. Emanuel, a blacksmith by trade, named his son after Minister George Armstrong, as he hoped Custer might become a member of the clergy when he grew up. Custer had four siblings, two of which would later accompany him during his battles in the Indian Wars.
Although born in Ohio, Custer spent the majority of his childhood in Monroe, Michigan, where he lived with his half-sister and brother-in-law. He attended primary school in Michigan, but he then attended the McNeely Normal School (later renamed the Hopedale Normal School) in Hopedale, Ohio. While at the McNeely Normal School, he and his classmate William Enos Emery would often carry coal in an attempt to pay for their room and board. Upon graduating, Custer accepted a teaching position with a school in Cadiz, Ohio.
After teaching for a short time in Cadiz, Custer was surprisingly accepted into the United State Military Academy at West Point in 1857. Although considered a bright student, Custer did not excel in school because he lacked initiative and hated to study. He was considered a prankster while in school, and he was nearly expelled several times for his antics. His lazy nature led him to graduate at the bottom of his class of cadets in 1861. He graduated just at the beginning of the Civil War, and this was pivotal to his career since someone with his academic ranking would have typically held a boring position freshly out of school.
Custer was appointed to a second lieutenant in the 2nd United States Calvary, and his first taste of battle was found with his participation in the First Battle of Bull Run. During that time, he was involved in several cavalry raids against Confederate strong holds in the Virginia area. He then joined soldiers in the James River Peninsula with the Army of the Potomac. In the fall, following the battle, he went back to Michigan to visit his sister. At that time, he promised her to lead a life of sobriety from alcohol, and he kept his promise to her for the rest of his life.
Shortly after that visit with his sister, he was reassigned to the 5th United States Calvary in 1862 where he joined the Peninsula Campaign under Major General George B. McClellan. McClellan admired Custer’s energy and bravery that he saw him display during the First Battle of Bull Run. A famous example of his bravery is summarized in this recollection:
“During the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, on May 24, 1862 when Gen. Barnard and his staff were reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River, they stopped and Custer overheard his commander mutter to himself, ‘I wish I knew how deep it is.’ Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river and turned to the astonished officers of the staff and shouted triumphantly, ‘That’s how deep it is, Mr. General!’ (“George Armstrong Custer”, 2010).”
After this gallant move, Custer led an attack across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge with four companies all from the 4th Michigan Infantry. He was successful in the attack, and he and the company were able to capture 50 Confederate soldiers. Custer is noted as taking the first battle flag of the Civil War. Initially, Custer, under McClellan, was in charge of supervising the hot-air balloon spy tactics against Confederate forces, but not soon after, McClellan made him an aide-de-camp with a promotion to the rank of captain. This promotion and subsequent attention made Custer hunger for media interest.
When McClellan was removed from commanding the Army of the Potomac, Custer lost his extravagant title and was listed back as a first lieutenant in November of 1862. Although Custer initially lost rank, he gained a mentor that would mold the rest of his life. His cavalry leader, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, taught Custer the way of dressing for attention (which Custer would later be noted for in the Indian Wars) and how to play the political game. In addition to serving Pleasonton as his General, Custer also served on his staff.
In early 1863, Pleasonton allowed Custer to participate in the Battles of Brandy Station and Aldie. He was honored as a brave leader in that he always forged the front lines with his men, while others in command would often lag behind so as to not be injured or killed. In regards to his strong relationship with Pleasonton by that time, Custer was quoted as saying, “no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me” (“George Armstrong Custer”, 2010).
By June of 1863, Custer had been promoted to Brigadier-General of volunteers. At the young and inexperienced age of 23, he was in control of the Second Brigade, 3rd Division, of the Union Cavalry Corps. On the way to the famous Battle of Gettysburg, Custer successfully beat Confederate General, J.E.B. Stewart, at Hanover and Hunterstown. In Hunterstown, Custer was wounded in the leg after he fell from his horse in a poorly thought-out move, which made his vulnerable to Confederate advances. He was then forced to take a leave of absence to recover. Custer openly referred to being lucky and how luck is what saved him at Gettysburg.
During his break from battle, Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon on February 9, 1864. They had met when Custer was just 10 years old, and he had seen her socially on his visit to Michigan to see his sister in 1862. At first, Bacon’s father did not allow them to date because he saw Custer as the son of a Blacksmith and assumed he would amount to nothing. After proving his bravery in battle and appointment to Brigadier-General, Bacon’s father allowed her and Custer to marry. Elizabeth would later spend her life perpetuating her husband’s memory by writing several books.
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After the wedding, Custer returned to his cavalry position in the Army of the Potomac. Custer came under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan where he led several cavalry raids against the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as raids in Richmond, Virginia, which was then commonly known as the Confederate capital. He gained command of the 3rd Division, and during the early fall of 1864, he was transferred with Sheridan to the Army of the Shenandoah. He led his cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign where he received praise from Sheridan and a subsequent promotion to Major General of Volunteers by that winter.
Through the beginning of 1865, Custer continued to serve under Major General Philip Sheridan. Custer participated in several keys battles of the time, including Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. In April of that year, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered after the Union’s Armies of the Shenandoah and Potomac united against them. Custer was invited to witness the signing of the surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse; in fact, he was gifted the actual table upon which the surrender was signed. The note that was attached from Sheridan was addressed to his wife and is now an artifact in the Smithsonian. By the end of the war, Custer had been promoted again to Brigadier-General and Major General in the regular army and Major General of Volunteers.
The time following Custer’s involvement in the Civil War is probably the most controversial and most noted of his legacy. He was put in command of the 7th United State Cavalry Regiment with the title of Lieutenant Colonel. At that time, he decided to return home to see his wife and see what else was out there for him. Not soon after returning home, Custer found himself in disagreement with commanding officers over issues such as being absent without proper leave papers. Custer lost the legal fight and was found guilty, losing rank and pay in the process. He was court-martialed to be suspended for a year.
Before his punishment was through, Custer returned to active duty at the request of Sheridan who was starting his plans to attack the Native Americans-notably the Cheyenne. During the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, Custer was involved in a few battles against the Cheyenne. Most famous was the Battle of Washita River on November 27, 1868, where he killed the Cheyenne Chief, Black Kettle. The battle was fierce, and Custer made no distinction between the people, killing women and children in the process. This marked the beginning of the Cheyenne movement to the federal reservations.
In 1873, Custer was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect the building of the railroad and to check out the activities of the Sioux. During that visit, he discovered gold and silver while traveling through the Black Hills on the French Creek. The Black Hills gold and silver rush was then perpetuated by Custer, and there is a town near the creek in present day South Dakota named Custer.
The tension between the Sioux and the white settlers in the Dakota Territory had grown to a fierce state. Both sides were ready for a fight, and Custer found himself right in the middle of the conflict. In 1876, he was commanded to wrangle the Sioux and the Cheyenne in the area to federally run reservations. He was given two other units with which to work, commanded by General George Crook and Colonel John Gibbon. The next and final battle would make Custer a household name.
On June 25, 1876, Custer and his two adjoining units came to pass the Little Big Horn River. Unexpectedly, they came across a Sioux village with visiting tribes including the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians. Against his direct orders, Custer took control of the two other detachments and devised an attack plan on the Native Americans. He divided the units into three, and have them come in from three separate points onto the camp. Custer planned to have them circle the camp and enter with him from the North.
The sheer number of Indian warriors that met him on his advance surprised Custer. The numbers vary by story, but it is estimated that the average was 3,500. This was no match to the 208 United States soldiers under Custer’s command. Never one to turn away from a battle or a tight spot, “Custer’s Last Stand” took place on that June day (“George Armstrong Custer”, 2010). Every soldier under Custer’s command was killed, and two bullets slew Custer himself. He and his comrades were buried there on the battle sight, and over a year later, his body was exhumed and buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point on October 10, 1877.
After Custer’s death and the battle of Little Big Horn, his legacy was marked with bravery on the battlefield and giving his life for his country, yet it was slightly tainted with embarrassment due to the number of United States casualties he caused at the famous battle. In regards to the battle, President Grant was quoted as saying, “I regard Custer’s Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary”(“George Armstrong Custer”, 2010). He is remembered today as a ruthless leader with little regard for the Native American people. This is a common story of a nobody that became a somebody at any cost.
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