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Who Was General Custer?

General Custer as depicted in Robert Redford's American West
General Custer as depicted in Robert Redford's American West

Fighter, deserter, prankster and garish dresser – General Custer is one of American history’s more memorable figures and a pillar of Wild West mythology. Though his Civil War glory may, at times, have been more due to recklessness than tactical genius, Custer’s bravery was never called into question. His death at the hands of Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors, “Custer’s final stand”, has been eulogised again and again in song, painting and literature.

Born in New Rumley, Ohio on December 5, 1839, George Armstrong Custer (or “Autie”, as family members and later his wife, affectionately called him) belonged to a large, close-knit family. His younger brothers Thomas and Boston Custer would later die with him on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. He had a third younger brother, Nevin, and a sister, Margaret, the youngest. He also had three older half-siblings from his father’s first marriage. Custer’s upbringing was said to have shaped his famously anarchic humour.

After finishing high school, Custer enrolled in West Point in 1857, graduating 34th in a class of 34 graduates in 1861 (the five-year course was shortened due to the Civil War.) Custer had one of the worst conduct records in the academy’s history, due largely to his signature practical jokes. He was almost expelled more than once and, in normal circumstances, his low final ranking would have earned him an obscure posting. The outbreak of the Civil War, however, meant all officers were needed on the ground.

Custer made his name during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. In one famous anecdote, at a crossing of the Chickahominy River, General John Barnard was heard to mutter “I wish I knew how deep it is”. In response, Custer rode his horse into the middle of the river and shouted, “That’s how deep it is, Mr. General!” He led the successful attack that ensued, capturing 50 soldiers and winning the war’s first Confederate battle flag. The campaign’s commanding general personally congratulated Custer, calling it a "very gallant affair".

In 1863, Custer, aged 23, became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army and went on to lead several successful and high-profile initiatives. Though his battle style amassed exceptionally high casualties, Custer’s fearlessness continued to impress his superiors and won him increasing publicity in the outside world. With his promotion giving him greater latitude in his uniform, Custer adopted a “gaudy” and “showy” style of dress. Deplored by some, it was, in part at least, a deliberate tactic to make himself more visible to his men on the battlefield.

Custer married Elizabeth Clift Bacon in 1864. Her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, initially disapproved of Custer, as he was a blacksmith’s son. It was only after he reached brevet brigadier general rank that Judge Bacon finally allowed the match. As his wife, Elizabeth accompanied Custer on many campaigns.

In July 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, Custer was appointed lieutenant-colonel in the 7th Cavalry. In 1867, he was sent West to fight in the American Indian Wars, but later that year, he was court-martialled and suspended from duty for going AWOL to visit Elizabeth. Custer won back favour on his return, with his 1868 attack on Black Kettle's band in the Battle of Washita River.

Following the battle, some US military and Cheyenne sources allege Custer then unofficially married Mo-nah-se-tah, whose father, chief Little Rock, had been killed. Cheyenne oral history says she and Custer had a son called Yellow Swallow in late 1869. Some historians, however, believe Custer was infertile after contracting gonorrhoea at West Point, and his brother Thomas was the child’s father.

In 1876, Custer was scheduled to co-lead the anti-Lakota expedition which would be his last. Ironically, he almost didn't make it. His testimony, that year, about Indian Service corruption, so enraged President Ulysses Grant, he replaced Custer with another general, but was later persuaded to change his mind.

The plan was for a three-pronged attack by Generals Custer, Crook and Gibbon, to quash the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes. Custer, however, advanced much faster than he was ordered to, putting him ahead of Gibbon’s brigade. He was also unaware that General Crook's forces had been turned back by Crazy Horse’s band at Rosebud Creek.

Approaching the settlement, Custer ordered an immediate attack. Disastrously underestimating the tribes’ capabilities, he split his own regiment three ways with the intention of stopping fewer tribespeople escaping. In fact, thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors rushed to meet them, forcing Custer's unit back onto a ridge parallel to the Little Bighorn river and killing all 210 soldiers. It was one of the biggest failures of American military history.

Custer’s death assured his place in history. Elizabeth Custer wrote many glory-filled accounts of his life and military career. Portrayals of “Custer’s Final Stand” often cast him as the noble victim of bloodthirsty tribes.

Most Native American warriors involved in the Battle – their greatest victory of the American Indian wars – were forced to surrender within the following year.