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Biographies - George A Custer
George Custer
Image Source: Wikipedia contributors (2005). George Armstrong Custer. Wikipedia, The Free Ency
George A Custer
Born: December 5, 1839
Died: June 25, 1876
Briefly
United States Army cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against a coalition of Native American tribes led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.


  
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George Armstrong Custer was an United States Army cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. He is best remembered for his defeat and death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn against a coalition of Native American tribes led by Sitting Bull.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806-1892), a farmer and blacksmith; and Maria Kirkpatrick Ward (1807-1882). Through his life George was known by a variety of nicknames: Armstrong, Autie (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name), Fanny, Curley, Yellow Hair and Son of the Morning Star. His brothers Thomas Ward Custer and Boston Custer would accompany him at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The other two siblings were Nevin and Margaret Custer.

George spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and his brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school and is now honored by a statue in the center of town. Before entering the United States Military Academy, he taught school in Ohio. A local legend suggests that Custer obtained his appointment to the Academy due to the influence of a prominent resident who wished to keep Custer away from his daughter.

Custer graduated from West Point last of a class of 34 cadets in 1861, just after the start of the Civil War. His tenure at the academy was a rocky one and he came close to expulsion each of his four years due to excessive demerits, many from pulling pranks on fellow cadets. But he began a path to a distinguished war record, one that has been overshadowed in history by his role and fate in the Indian Wars.

Custer was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry {in 2005 the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment} and immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run, where Army commander Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major General Irvin McDowell. After the battle he was reassigned to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, with which he served through the early days of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. During the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston up the Peninsula, on May 24, 1862, Custer persuaded a colonel into allowing him to lead an attack with four companies of Michigan infantry across the Chickahominy River above New Bridge. The attack was successful, capturing 50 Confederates. Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, termed it a "very gallant affair", congratulated Custer personally, and brought him onto his staff as an aide-de-camp in the temporary rank of captain. In this role, Custer continued his lifelong pursuit of publicity. On one occasion when McClellan 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, "Thats how deep it is, General!"

When McClellan was relieved of command, Custer reverted to the rank of first lieutenant and returned to the 5th Cavalry for the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Chancellorsville. Custer fell into the orbit of Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commanding a cavalry division. The general was Custers introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering and the young lieutenant became his prot�g�, serving on Pleasontons staff while continuing his assignment with his regiment. Custer was quoted as saying that "no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me." After Chancellorsville, Pleasonton became the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and his first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Station and Aldie.

Three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, Pleasonton promoted Custer from first lieutenant to brigadier general of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became the youngest general in the Union Army at age 23. Two captains�Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth�received the same promotion along with Custer, although they did have command experience. (Pleasanton was not only promoting young, aggressive cavalry commanders. He was attempting to gain political advantage by promoting Farnsworth, the son of a U.S. Congressman.) Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.

Custers style of battle sometimes bordered on the reckless or foolhardy. He often impulsively gathered up whatever cavalrymen he could find in his vicinity and led them personally in bold assaults directly into enemy positions. One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was luck and he needed it to survive some of these charges. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick (but one that Custer did not protest) against the brigade of Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the enemy and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by the bugler of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, Norville Churchill, who galloped up, shot Custers nearest assailant, and allowed Custer to mount behind him for a dash to safety.

Possibly Custers finest hour in the Civil War was just east of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. In conjunction with Picketts Charge to the west, Robert E. Lee dispatched Stuarts cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of David McM. Gregg, directly in the path of Stuarts horsemen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a bold mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, "sabers flashing in the sun," breaking the back of the Confederate assault, foiling Lees plan. Considering the havoc that Stuart could have caused astride the Union lines of communication if he had succeeded, Custer was one of the unsung heroes of the battle of Gettysburg. Custers brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade.

He married Elizabeth Clift Bacon (1842�1933) on February 4, 1864. She was born in Monroe, Michigan, to Daniel Stanton Bacon and Eleanor Sophia Page.

When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Philip Sheridan in 1864, Custer retained his command, and took part in the various actions of the cavalry in the Overland Campaign, including the Battle of the Wilderness (after which he ascended to division command), the Battle of Yellow Tavern, where Jeb Stuart was mortally wounded, and the Battle of Trevilian Station, where Custer was humiliated by having his division trains overrun and his personal baggage captured by the Confederates. When Confederate General Jubal A. Early moved down the Shenandoah Valley and threatened Washington, D.C., Custers division was dispatched along with Sheridan to the Valley Campaigns of 1864. They pursued the Confederates at Winchester and effectively destroyed Earlys army during Sheridans counterattack at Cedar Creek.

Custer and Sheridan, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union Army lines at the Siege of Petersburg, where they spent the winter. In April of 1865, the Confederate lines were finally broken and Robert E. Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued unmercifully by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lees retreat on its final day, received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force, and Custer was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the table upon which the surrender was signed was presented to Custer as a gift for his gallantry. Before the close of the war Custer received brevet promotions to brigadier and major general in the Regular Army and major general in the volunteers. But as with most wartime promotions, these senior ranks were only temporary.

In 1866 Custer was mustered out of the volunteer service, reduced to the rank of lieutenant colonel and assigned to the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. His career took a brief detour in 1867 when he was court-martialed for being AWOL and suspended for one year, returning to the Army in 1868. He took part in General Winfield Scott Hancocks expedition against the Cheyenne Indians, upon whom he inflicted a battle at Washita River on November 27, 1868. This was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Indian Wars and the entire Cheyenne tribe was forced to return to the U.S. appointed reservation. In 1873 he was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Sioux. On August 4, 1873, near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Sioux. Only one man on each side was killed. In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custers announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood, South Dakota. In 1875, Custer swore by White Buffalo Calf Pipe, a pipe sacred to the Lakota, that he would not fight Indians again. "He who swears by the pipe and breaks oaths, comes to destruction, and his whole family dies, or sickness comes upon them."

In 1876, Hiester Clymer, Chairman of the House Committee on Military Expenditures, commenced an investigation of various acts of Secretary of War William W. Belknap. Custer was called to testify in the proceedings, despite his statement that what he knew was only by hearsay. But his testimony seemed to confirm the accusations not only against Belknap, but even against President Ulysses S. Grants brother, Orville Grant. The president ordered Custer placed him under arrest. This delayed a scheduled expedition against the hostile Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes, in which Custer was to be involved. Grant relieved Custer of command and ordered the expedition to proceed without him. Custer wrote to the president:

As my entire Regiment forms a part of the expedition and I am the senior officer of the regiment on duty in this department, I respectfully but most earnestly request that while not allowed to go in command of the expedition I may be permitted to serve with my regiment in the field. I appeal to you as a soldier to spare me the humiliation of seeing my regiment march to meet the enemy and I not share its dangers.

Grant relented and gave his permission for Custer to go. The 7th Cavalry departed from Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876. Crow Indian scouts identified to Custer what they claimed was a large encampment of Indians. Following the common thinking of the time that Indians would flee if attacked by a strong force of cavalry, he decided to attack immediately, despite the fact that the primary task of the mission was to return the Indians to their reservations, and despite his orders, which stated that he was supposed to locate the Indians and then wait for the infantry column to meet him. Some sources say that Custer, aware of his great popularity with the American public at the time, thought that he needed only one more victory over the Indians to get him nominated for President of the United States; this, together with his somewhat vainglorious ego, led him to foolhardy decisions in his last battle.

Custer knew he was outnumbered, though he did not know by how much (probably something on the order of 3 to 1), but despite that knowledge he recklessly split his forces in three parts: one led by Major Marcus Reno, one by Captain Frederick Benteen, and one by himself. Reno was ordered to attack from south of the village, while Benteen was ordered to go west, scouting for any fleeing Indians, while Custer himself went north, in what was intended to be a classical pincer movement. But Reno failed in his action, retreating after a timid charge with the loss of a quarter of his command. Meanwhile, Custer, having located the encampment, requested Benteen to come on for the second time. He sent the message: "Benteen, come on, big village, be quick. Bring packs."

Benteen instead halted with Reno in a defensive position on the bluffs. All of the Indians that had been facing Reno were freed by his retreat, and now faced Custer. It is believed at this point that Custer attempted a diversionary attack on the flank of the village, deploying other companies on the ridges in order to give Benteen the time to join him. But Benteen never came and so the company trying to ford the river was repulsed. Other groups of Indians made encircling attacks so that the cavalry companies on the hills collapsed and fell back together on what is now called "Custer Hill". There, the survivors of the command exchanged in long-range fire with the Indians and fell to the last man when they ran out of ammunition. Custer was said by some historians to be already dead while attempting to cross the river, but the shell cases under his body suggest otherwise. Many of the corpses or wounded were mutilated, stripped, and skulls crushed. Lt. Edward Godfrey initially reported that Custer was not so molested. He had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one in the breast. According to a reputed subsequent letter, Godfrey admitted misstating the condition of Custers body to protect Custers wife, Elizabeth.However, it is unlikely that the temple wound was self-inflicted as Custer was right-handed.

Following the recovery of Custers body, he was given a funeral with full military honors. He was buried on the battlefield, which was designated a National Cemetery in 1876, but was reinterred to the West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877.



Bio Source: Wikipedia contributors (2005). George Armstrong Custer. Wikipedia, The Free Ency
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Custer
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