George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876)
Of all the larger-than-life characters who emerged from the War, only a few have eclipsed George Armstrong Custer as an enduring icon. The changing perceptions of him have in many ways reflected the shifting views of successive American generations. Famous even during the War as the “Boy General”—youngest in either army—with the gaudy uniforms and the flaxen ringlets falling about his shoulders, the Michigan native gained near-godlike status with his 1876 death on the hills above the Little Big Horn River in Montana. Yet his apogee, perhaps, came with the turn-of-the-nineteenth century release of the painting Custer’s Last Stand, a heroic rendering of the warrior that became as familiar to Americans of that and ensuing generations as portraits of Washington or Lincoln. Custer’s Last Stand also helped crystalize into the collective consciousness the concept—and duty, if necessary—of facing long, even hopeless, odds with unflinching courage.
Indeed, Custer was to the end of his life a fearsome and manly warrior. One of the worst overall cadets at West Point —he finished last in his class — he was one of its best horsemen. And less than a week after leaving “The Point,” he was proving it on the bloody field of First Manassas. On an otherwise dismal day for the Federals, Custer and his Michigan “Wolverines” cavalry showed well in his first command of troops in combat. He was endowed with formidable talents, including a battlefield persona that, if not fearless, appeared to be so. He also possessed a remarkable capacity to lead men well in the midst of chaos and danger. Custer fought in all but one significant Army of the Potomac and Army of the Shenandoah cavalry action; he finished second only to Philip Sheridan in rank within the latter, victorious , organization.
Heroic and Savage
Among his many exploits were stopping Jeb Stuart’s cavalry advance on the second day of battle at Gettysburg, then leading his brigade against Stuart at Yellow Tavern a year later, when one of Custer’s troopers killed the greycoat cavalry chieftain. After Sheridan arrived from the west, Custer’s troopers played a key role in clearing Jubal Early’s Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley. He then commanded one wing of the Federals’ destruction of that Valley. He also shined at the Federals’ Five Forks victory that helped break the Petersburg stalemate (his brother Tom, a captain, personally captured some Confederate battle flags), and he rode with Sheridan all the way to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse— where Custer stole a parlor table for a souvenir.
His status as a national hero grew as he became the point man in the United States government’s postwar campaign of extermination against the Plains Indians. Too, the Indian wars coupled him with the same military command team that had won the War— President Grant, General-in-Chief Sherman, and Lieutenant General Sheridan. They also revealed more clearly the characteristics that have not worn as well in American history annals—his ambition, glory-seeking, and brutality. Custer often dispensed savage discipline against his own troops; he was court-martialed and sent home for nearly a year after one such incident.
At the 1868 Battle of the Washita he led a dawn attack against a sleeping Cheyenne village and slaughtered over one hundred Indians, mostly women and children. A series of errors in judgment on Custer’s part led to the disastrous June 25, 1876 encounter between the 265 troopers he led and thousands of vengeful Indians led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. “I regard Custer’s massacre,” President Grant said, “as a sacrifice of troops brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary—wholly unnecessary."
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Ancient - Statehood
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