Custer, George Armstrong (1839–1876)

By: Brian W. Dippie

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: December 1, 1994

George Armstrong Custer, Union Civil War general and western Indian fighter, was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839, the son of Emanuel and Maria (Ward-Kirkpatrick) Custer. He grew up in New Rumley and Monroe, Michigan, and realized his ambition in 1857 when he was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1861 at the bottom of his class but won distinction in the Civil War as a cavalry officer. At twenty-three he was made brigadier general of volunteers, and at twenty-five he earned the rank of brevet major general. With his long blond hair set off by a red tie, a sailor's blouse, and a blue jacket agleam with gold, the "boy general" cut a dashing figure. Admired by some, envied and disliked by others, he captured the public's imagination and became a popular hero in the North.

At the end of the war Custer was assigned to duty in Texas as part of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's effort to prevent Confederate retrenchment in Mexico under the emperor Maximilian. During an uneventful five-month stay in Hempstead and Austin, which ended when he was mustered out of the volunteers on February 1, 1866, Custer alienated many in his command by strict enforcement of regulations prohibiting foraging, lawlessness, and destruction of private property; by the same enforcement he won the gratitude of many Texans, who found him a generous and courtly soldier.

Effective September 1866, Custer, whose regular army rank was captain, was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly formed Seventh United States Cavalry regiment, the position he held when he died ten years later. He served on the southern plains against the Cheyennes, Comanches, Kiowas, and Arapahos. Controversy followed him-he was court-martialed in 1867-but he gained a reputation as an Indian fighter in November 1868, when the Seventh Cavalry destroyed a Cheyenne village on the Washita River in what is now Oklahoma. After Reconstruction duty in the South, Custer returned to the plains, this time to Dakota Territory, and led the Seventh Cavalry on the Yellowstone expedition in 1873, the Black Hills expedition in 1874, and the fateful Sioux expedition in 1876.

Three military columns took the field in the spring of 1876-from forts in Wyoming, Montana, and Dakota-with the intention of trapping the Sioux and forcing them onto the reservation. Custer accompanied the Dakota column in command of the Seventh Cavalry. He was given independent command on June 22 with orders to cut off the Indians' escape to the south of their expected location on the Little Bighorn River. When his scouts found the Indian village on the morning of June 25, Custer decided to attack at once. He assigned 135 men to guard his packtrain and divided the remaining 515 men into three battalions; he took command of five companies. The Seventh was expecting at least 1,000 warriors but encountered double that number. Two of the battalions were besieged on the bluffs above the Little Bighorn, where they were relieved two days later; Custer's men, meanwhile, had proceeded north about four miles to strike the village downstream and, on the afternoon of June 25, were utterly annihilated.

There is controversy about where the blame for the massacre lies-on Custer or on his battalion commanders Reno and Benteen. There was also contemporary controversy, which began as soon as the news of disaster reached the East. The Centennial year, 1876, was a year of vigorous discussion and appraisal of America. It was also a presidential election year. Custer was championed in the Democratic press as a martyr to Republican mismanagement, and Democratic Texans chose to remember him as a friend, "the Stuart of the North...once our foe, but a generous and manly one." Papers throughout the state clamored for the right to raise a volunteer force: "Texas deserves the honor of attempting to wipe out the Sioux," the Austin State Gazette insisted. Resolutions passed at a public meeting in Dallas, and a reunion of Hood's Texas Brigade in Bryan praised Custer as "a rare and magnanimous officer." The state legislature passed a resolution of condolence, subsequently published as a congressional document, noting that Custer had "endeared" himself to Texans by his frontier service.

Custer's wife, Elizabeth (Bacon), whom he married in 1864, lived to the age of ninety-one. The couple had no children. She was devoted to his memory, wrote three books about him, and when she died in 1933 was buried beside him at West Point. Her Tenting on the Plains (1887) presents a charming picture of their stay in Texas. Custer's headquarters building in Austin, the Blind Asylum, located on the "Little Campus" of the University of Texas, has been restored.

John M. Carroll, ed., Custer in Texas: An Interrupted Narrative (New York: Sol Lewis/Liveright, 1975). George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York (8 vols., New York [etc.]: D. Van Nostrand [etc.], 1868–1940). George Armstrong Custer, My Life on the Plains, or Personal Experiences with Indians (New York: Sheldon, 1874). Charles K. Hofling, Custer and the Little Big Horn (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981). Jay Monaghan, Custer (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959). William L. Richter, "`A Better Time is in Store for Us': An Analysis of the Reconstruction Attitudes of George Armstrong Custer," Military History of Texas and the Southwest 9 (1971).

Time Periods:

  • Civil War
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Brian W. Dippie, “Custer, George Armstrong,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 03, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1994

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