Custer was born in Ohio in 1839. He spent part of his youth there and part in his sister’s home in Michigan. He taught school for a short while in Ohio before he attended the U.S. Military Academy, now known as West Point. He graduated from West Point in 1861 ranked dead last in his class. Maybe that should have been a warning sign.
Nonetheless, he entered the army as a second lieutenant just in time to fight in the Civil War. Partly because of his performance at the Battle of Bull Run, he was noticed by Major General George B, McClellan who was the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. He made Custer part of his staff, which Custer used to his advantage by befriending several senior commanders. At the young age of 23 he became a brigadier general commanding the Michigan Calvary brigade. He was nicknamed the “Boy General” and continued to earn honors and respect for his battle successes, particularly at the Battle of Gettysburg. He quickly rose to division command and was appointed major general before his 25th birthday. His determined pursuit of the North Virginia Army is said to have been the turning point in Lee’s decision to surrender at Appomattox.
With the close of the Civil War it would seem that Custer’s military career would come to a halt, but instead the opposite happened. Custer became the commander of the newly formed 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Custer reported to western Kansas under Major General Winfield Hancock to fight the Plains Indians. Unfortunately, Custer did not adapt well to Indian warfare and began to act somewhat erratically. It is said that he gave an order to have all deserters shot without trial, then when he was sent to Fort Wallace for supplies, he abandoned his own regiment and went to Fort Riley to see his wife. Custer was court-martialed at Fort Leavenworth and found guilty of misconduct and suspended from his rank.
At this low point in his career, Custer and his wife Elizabeth (known as Libbie) worked together to reestablish his image. They took on roles of the cavalier and his lady, taking advantage of Custer’s theatrical talents. They took great pains with his appearance, perfuming his long blond hair and adorning his uniforms with eye-catching accessories such as a brocade velveteen jacket or a bright red tie. He became known for his large broad-brimmed hat which originally began as protection of his fair skin from sunburn, but became his trademark.
Their efforts must have paid off for Custer’s superiors decided to give him a second chance. He was returned to duty before his court-martial ended and rejoined the 7th Calvary. His command was able to destroy Chief Black Kettle’s Village where Custer’s reputation as a top Indian fighter was established.
Then, in 1874 he led an expedition to investigate possible gold deposits in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory which was also the sacred hunting ground of the Sioux. Custer erroneously reported finding gold and many fortune hunters invaded the territory. This caused the U.S. government to direct the Sioux and their Northern Cheyenne allies to move onto reservations by January 31, 1876, or be deemed “hostile.”
As the story goes, many of the Indian bands, in their remote and scattered winter camps, likely did not receive these orders and could not have reached the government agencies if they had. Because of the threats then directed at them, these non-reservation bands came together under the leadership Sioux leader Sitting Bull to wage war. They eventually made camp on the Little Bighorn River
On June 22, 1876, Custer and the 7th Cavalry prepared for battle against Sitting Bull in the Little Bighorn Valley. By the morning of June 25, Custer’s scouts located Sitting Bull’s village, and Custer’s plan was to position his 7th Cavalry close enough to attack at dawn the following day. But he was spotted by the Indians prior to the attack so Custer decided not to delay and attack immediately.
At noon on June 25, Custer divided his regiment into three battalions. The first was sent to charge the village head on, the second to the south to intercept any Indians fleeing in that direction, and the third under his personal command to strike the village from the north. This turned out to be disastrous since the fragmented regiment was now too far apart to support each other. In the battle, which came to be known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Sioux and Cheyenne did not try to flee as Custer expected, but stood their ground, determined to either live or die in freedom. Earlier army intelligence caused Custer to believe Sitting Bull commanded about 800 warriors, but he actually faced some 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne, many with repeating rifles superior to Custer’s weapons. In a battle that may have lasted nearly two hours, the Indians cut off the 210 soldiers who had followed Custer toward the north and killed them all. Not one cavalry soldier survived. Two days later a scouting party discovered Custer’s un-scalped body lying in the middle a ring of dead cavalry horses. Custer bore two bullet wounds, either of which could have killed him. The victorious Sioux and Cheyenne captured 80 to 90 live horses from Custer’s battalion, leaving one badly wounded horse named Comanche, who managed to survive. For many years afterward, Comanche appeared in 7th Cavalry parades, saddled but riderless.
Despite the infamy of the battle, Custer was given a hero’s burial at West Point. Owing to his status as a Civil War hero, his death shocked the American people. Books and articles presented him as a role model to the country’s youth and statues were erected in his honor.
Mrs. Custer never remarried, but dedicated her life to preserving the fame and glory of her husband.
However, Custer’s return to glory was short-lived in the eyes of many Americans as the government’s harsh treatment of Native Americans came to light and “hero” turned into “ruthless Indian killer”. Today, Custer and his final battle remain in controversy.
What do you think? Was Custer a hero or a villain? Maybe a little of both? I’d love to see your comments.