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Portrait of General George A. Custer, taken in the summer of 1876 at the request of his wife Elizabeth B. Custer. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.
George Armstrong Custer was an American military leader who became known as a cavalry commander for the North during the American Civil War and in the opening of the West in the years after this conflict.
Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio. He attended common schools in Ohio and briefly enrolled in a private academy. Custer was a bright student, but he disliked studying. Nevertheless, he secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1857. He graduated in July 1861, ranking last in his class. He participated in the Battle of First Bull Run with the Fifth Regiment of the United States Cavalry. Following the battle, he briefly served on the staff of General Philip Kearney. During the autumn of 1861, he returned to Monroe, Michigan, which had become his hometown. While visiting his sister, he pledged to abstain from alcohol. He honored this pledge for the remainder of his life.
Custer returned to active duty in February 1862. He led various cavalry raids against Confederate positions in northern Virginia, before he traveled to the James River Peninsula with the Army of the Potomac. During George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, he first oversaw the use of hot-air balloons to spy on Confederate forces. McClellan eventually made Custer his aide-de-camp and promoted him to the rank of captain. Upon McClellan's removal from command of the Army of the Potomac, Custer returned to the cavalry. He commanded a division of cavalry under General Alfred Pleasanton during late 1862 and early 1863, participating in the Battles of Brandy Station and Aldie. On June 29, 1863, Custer was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, and he took command of the Second Brigade, Third Division, of the Union Cavalry Corps. He participated in the Battle of Gettysburg and was successful against General J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry. In the battle of Culpeper, Virginia, Custer was wounded in the leg and was forced to take a leave of absence from active duty.
Custer returned to the cavalry in 1864. He served in the Army of the Potomac, leading cavalry raids against the Army of Northern Virginia. He also led raids against Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital and participated in the Battle of Trevillian Station. During the late summer and early autumn of 1864, Custer was transferred to the Army of the Shenandoah, where he led his cavalry brigade in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign against Confederate forces under Jubal Early. He performed well during the campaign, receiving complimentary reports from his commanding officer, General Philip Sheridan and was promoted to major general of volunteers during the winter of 1864-1865. During 1865, Custer continued to serve under Sheridan. By early spring, the Union's Army of the Shenandoah and Army of the Potomac had united against the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia. These combined armies forced the Army of Northern Virginia to surrender in early April 1865.
Custer remained in the army following the Civil War. He was first assigned to Texas and was eventually placed in command of the Seventh United States Cavalry Regiment as a lieutenant colonel. From 1867 to 1871, the Seventh Cavalry participated in several battles with Native Americans, principally against the Cheyenne Indians. Custer performed quite well in these conflicts. Nevertheless, Custer came into conflict with superior officers. In 1871, he faced a court-martial for failing to follow orders and for being absent from duty without permission. Custer was found guilty of the various charges and sentenced to a year without pay and a demotion in rank.
In 1871, the Seventh Cavalry was divided into two separate detachments. One portion was located at Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and the second part was dispatched to South Carolina. Custer spent the next two years with the detachment in Kentucky. In 1873, Custer led the Seventh Cavalry to the Dakotas to protect workers on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Custer's reports inspired many white Americans to come to the Black Hills to seek gold and silver.
The influx of whites angered the Sioux, a nearby Native American tribe. A war resulted between the Sioux and the United States. In 1876, Custer was instructed to help drive the Sioux and Cheyenne onto reservations. He was to work in conjunction with units under the command of General George Crook and Colonel John Gibbon. On June 25, 1876, as the Seventh Cavalry approached the Little Big Horn River, the soldiers encountered a Sioux village. Although Custer had been asked to work in conjunction with the other two detachments, he took the offensive. He divided his force several commands and advanced on the Sioux. The Sioux warriors greatly outnumbered Custer and his men. The Native Americans succeeded in defeating the United States soldiers, killing Custer in the process.
George Armstrong Custer is buried at the United States Military Academy at West Point.