George Armstrong Custer: Between Myth and Reality
By Historian Jeffry D. Wert, author of "Custer, the controversial life of George A. Custer" (1996)
March/April 2006 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. History Net
George Armstrong Custer stalks America's past with a disturbing presence. (...) Historians, novelists and screenwriters have engraved an indelible portrait of Custer upon the nation's conscience.
However, the popular Custer overshadows, if not belies, the historic Custer. During the Civil War, his exploits and youth earned him the nickname "Boy General." He earned a major generalcy when he was 25 years old, the youngest man to hold that rank in the annals of the American military. By the conflict's end, Custer had become a household name and a Northern hero. Controversy never left him, for he was a flawed and complex man encased in a compelling personality. But the measurement of the man extends beyond Front Royal, Washita and Little Bighorn to Hunterstown, Gettysburg, Yellow Tavern, Haw's Shop, Tom's Brook and Appomattox Station.
Born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio, Custer was the oldest surviving child of Emanuel and Maria Kirkpatrick Custer. His parents had been widowed before marrying each other and had lost two infant sons before the birth of their third boy, whom they called Armstrong. As he learned to talk, he garbled his name as "Autie," and to his family he would be Autie for the rest of his life. Eventually, three more sons and a daughter were born to the Custers, all of whom survived into adulthood.
From the outset, Autie was special in the family, spoiled by his parents and later worshipped by his siblings. He reveled in mischief. "George was a wide awake boy," recalled a schoolmate, "full of all kinds of pranks and willing to take all kinds of chances." A teacher described him as "irrepressible," while another childhood friend asserted, "He was rather a bad boy in school." Autie was bright, but he hated homework, preferring to read novels, biographies and military history. His efforts in school centered upon creating mayhem.
At the age of 10, Autie joined Lydia Ann Reed, his mother's daughter from her first marriage, in Monroe, Mich. His parents sent him there for schooling, and Monroe became his adopted hometown. He lived with his sister and brother-in-law for six years before accepting a teaching position in Ohio. He failed miserably, however, in various assignments. An acquaintance at the time remembered: "Custer was what he appeared. There was nothing hidden in his nature. He was kind and generous to his friends; bitter and implacable towards his enemies."
It seemed, however, that fate or circumstances conspired at timely moments to favor Custer. He had aspired to an appointment to West Point, but his father was a staunch Democrat in the congressional district of Republican John A. Bingham. Custer, meanwhile, had begun a fervid courtship of Mary Jane, or Mollie, Holland. Her father discovered a note to her from Custer that mentioned a rendezvous on a trundle bed. Determined to rid the family of Mollie's suitor, it would appear that Holland requested of Bingham -- an old friend -- that Custer be given the West Point appointment. Others may also have interceded with the congressman, who ended up nominating the 17-year-old Custer.
|After George Custer's death in 1876, his wife Libbie would dedicate her life to preserving, if not embellishing, the memory of his military exploits. (U.S. Army)|
Like their fellow Americans, the cadets divided by region over the events of the 1850s. With the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 and the secession of states, Southern cadets began leaving the academy in the winter and spring of 1861. The firing on Fort Sumter increased the number of resignations. Ironically for Custer, all his roommates except one had been Southerners.
The advent of war forced academy officials to graduate the class of 1861 in May. But with the demand for trained officers, the War Department compressed the class of 1862's final year into six weeks. The second class of 1861 was graduated on June 24, with Custer ranking last among the 34 members. He would be the final member to be assigned to a command, his departure delayed by his court-martial for another infraction. Weeks prior to his graduation, he had written to his sister, "If it is my lot to fall in the defence of my country's rights, I will lay down my life as freely as if I had a thousand lives at my disposal." On July 18, Custer left West Point.
Second Lieutenant Custer arrived in Washington, D.C., two days later. By happenstance or good fortune, he secured one of the last, if not the last, available government horses in the capital and carried War Department dispatches to Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell at Centreville, Va. Assigned to Company G, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, Custer reached his regiment in time to participate in the First Battle of Bull Run. His regiment covered the retreat of the routed Federals. One trooper later wrote, "Though famished, exhausted, spent, Custer never let up, never slackened control."
For nearly the next two years, Custer served in various staff assignments, rising to the rank of brevet captain. He gained a reputation for fearlessness, if not recklessness. He ascended in a balloon to survey Confederate works, led reconnaissance parties and was cited for "gallant and spirited conduct." By the end of May 1862, Custer had joined the staff of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, serving under the Army of the Potomac commander during the Seven Days and Antietam campaigns. When McClellan was relieved of command in November, Custer accompanied the general and later assisted in the preparation of McClellan's reports.
Custer had written a revealing letter to a cousin on October 3, 1862, after he witnessed the terrible carnage of Antietam. "You ask me if I will not be glad when the last battle is fought," he stated, "so far as the country is concerned I, of course, must wish for peace, and will be glad when the war is ended, but if I answer for myself alone, I must say that I shall regret to see the war end. I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life. Now do not misunderstand me. I speak only of my own interests and desires...but as I said before, when I think of the pain & misery produced to individuals as well as the miserable sorrow caused throughout the land I cannot but earnestly hope for peace, and at an early date."
Since youth, Custer had read stories of past warriors and had dreamed of martial glory. While he understood war's fearful costs, he saw in it an opportunity for personal fame and advancement. His ambition was inordinate, and perhaps it impelled his fearlessness. Although he assured his family that he would not risk his life, Custer led men from the front, whether in command of a company or later of a division. Combat inflamed his soul and held incalculable opportunity for glory. Devoted to the Union cause, Custer saw the conflict as a trumpet calling.
His coveted opportunity came in June 1863, when Lincoln replaced Joseph Hooker as army commander with George G. Meade. The president granted Meade authority to replace any officers he chose. Cavalry Corps commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton recommended to Meade the promotion of three of his staff officers -- Custer, Wesley Merritt and Elon Farnsworth -- to brigadiers. On June 29 Custer received a general's star and command of the Michigan Brigade of cavalry, comprising the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th regiments. At 23, he was the youngest general in the Union Army.
|Starting with the Overland campaign in the spring of 1864, Custer (seated, far right) served under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan (far left), along with (from left) Colonel George Forsyth, Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt and Brig. Gen. Thomas Devin. (Library of Congress)|
Whatever doubts the Michiganders had about their new brigadier, Custer removed them within days. At Hanover, Pa., on June 30, he directed them in dismounted fighting. Two days later, at Hunterstown, he personally led a company in an attack down a narrow road, and his horse was killed under him. Custer had been deploying skirmishers to test the Confederate position and numbers when his superior, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, ordered the mounted charge. When Custer rode to the front of the company, he evidently wanted to demonstrate his personal bravery to the men.
The renown that he had sought for so long came a day later, on the John Rummel farm east of Gettysburg. In an engagement with Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate horsemen, Custer led the 7th Michigan and then the 1st Michigan in mounted counterattacks. Riding in the van of each regiment, Custer shouted to the men, "Come on, you Wolverines!" The charges blunted Stuart's thrusts, and the Yankees held the field.
During the Southern retreat from Gettysburg, clashes occurred almost daily between the mounted opponents. Custer's Wolverines were often in the forefront of the action. On July 14, at Falling Waters, Md., Custer encountered the final contingent of the Confederate army as it prepared to cross the Potomac River. As he had done at Hunterstown, Custer deployed dismounted skirmishers. But Kilpatrick joined him and without knowledge of the enemy's strength or disposition ordered a mounted assault. Two companies of the 6th Michigan ascended a ridge and plunged into the Rebel works, held by infantrymen. In the ensuing melee, the Federals lost more than half their numbers and were routed. It had not been Custer who had acted rashly, but Kilpatrick.
After Gettysburg, a lieutenant in the 6th Michigan claimed: "The command perfectly idolized Custer. The old Michigan Brigade adored its Brigadier, and all felt as if he weighed about a ton." A private declared that Custer had put "the very devil" into the regiments. They had called him at first "the boy General of the Golden Lock." But he had shown them, in the estimation of one Wolverine, that he "was not afraid to fight like a private soldier...and that he was ever in front and would never ask them to go where he would not lead." An officer told his mother in a letter, "It is an honor to belong to Mich Cavalry."
|Never camera-shy, Captain Custer posed for photographer James F. Gibson in 1862 with Confederate prisoner Lieutenant James B. Washington and his slave at Fair Oaks, Va. (Library of Congress).|
Custer's emergence as an outstanding brigade commander coincided with the increasing prowess of the Federal mounted arm. He, Merritt and others brought aggressiveness to Federal cavalry tactics. Jeb Stuart's vaunted Confederate horsemen, plagued by shortages of men and mounts, no longer dominated the battlefields. Union troopers had achieved parity, which eventually became superiority. The troopers' confidence in Custer reflected a confidence in themselves.
In February 1864, Custer secured a leave, returning to Monroe for his wedding. For much of the previous year, he and Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon had conducted a clandestine courtship through letters. Her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, had vehemently objected to Custer's attentions toward Libbie. By the fall of 1863, however, Judge Bacon had relented to her wishes, and on February 9, 1864, the couple was married. Autie and Libbie's marriage was one of love and passion. After Custer's death, Libbie devoted her remaining 57 years to molding and guarding his image as an American hero.
Custer and Libbie enjoyed a honeymoon and another extended leave together before he rejoined the army for its spring operations. By then, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant had appointed Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan as commander of the army's Cavalry Corps. Thirty-three years old, Sheridan was a barrel-chested man with unusually short legs. Lincoln wryly described him as "a brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping." His men called him "Little Phil."
Sheridan possessed, however, a combativeness that Grant wanted instilled into the mounted arm. With Sheridan's appointment, additional leadership changes occurred, and Custer believed that he himself deserved promotion to division command. Although disappointed, Custer told his sister, "Gen Sheridan from what I learn and see is an able and good commander and I like him very much." In time, Custer became more closely identified with Sheridan than any other officer in the Cavalry Corps. Their personal and professional relationship was destined to endure until Little Bighorn.
As the Michiganders prepared for the forthcoming campaign, their writings revealed their abiding respect for and devotion to Custer. They now called him "Old Curley" for his long, flowing blond hair. "We swear by him," asserted Major James H. Kidd of Custer in a letter to his father. "His move is our battle cry. He can get twice the fight out of this brigade than any other man can possibly do." A member of the 5th Michigan Cavalry believed "that he is the best cavalry officer left in the Army of the Potomac." Another officer in the brigade explained: "His men were always at the front, and were always on the best of terms with him. A private could talk to him as freely as an officer. If he had any complaint to make, Custer was always ready to listen."
During the Overland campaign in May-June 1864, under the leadership of Custer and his regimental commanders, the Michiganders -- fighting mounted and dismounted -- showed time and again that they were arguably the finest cavalry brigade in the Union Army. On May 11 at Yellow Tavern, a Wolverine mortally wounded Jeb Stuart. Seventeen days later at Haw's Shop, the brigade routed a Confederate force. Writing after the engagement, Major Kidd declared: "For all this Brigade has accomplished all praise is due to Gen Custer. So brave a man I never saw and as competent as brave. Under him a man is ashamed to be cowardly. Under him our men can achieve wonders."
A fierce test came for the Michiganders on June 11 at Trevilian Station. When the 5th Michigan surged ahead into a Rebel wagon train, Southern horsemen counterattacked. Custer hurried forward the rest of the brigade as additional Confederate regiments charged. The Federals were trapped "on the inside of a living triangle," according to a scout from Merritt's division who witnessed the fight from a distance. For three hours the Wolverines repulsed enemy attacks from three directions. "Custer was everywhere present," recalled Kidd, "giving directions to his subordinate commanders." Finally, their comrades in the other brigades punched through the Rebel lines and relieved the Michiganders.
The Confederates had captured 309 members of the Michigan Brigade and Custer's headquarters wagon, which contained his personal belongings and letters from Libbie. A Richmond newspaper received the letters and published them, embarrassing the Custers. At the campaign's end, the War Department promoted Custer to a brevet lieutenant colonel in the Regular Army. "Custer," one of Sheridan's aides contended, "was a man of boundless confidence in himself and great faith in his lucky star."
In August Grant assigned Sheridan to command of the Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley. By midmonth, two cavalry divisions from the Army of the Potomac, including the Michigan Brigade, joined the command in the region. Sheridan's Federals opposed Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's Confederate Army of the Valley in a campaign that resulted in four Union battlefield victories and the destruction of hundreds of barns, mills and stockpiles of supplies and foodstuffs.
Custer distinguished himself throughout the operations. On September 26, with the transfer of Brig. Gen. James Harrison Wilson to the West, Custer assumed command of the 3rd Cavalry Division. His successor in command of the Michigan Brigade stated in his report that with Custer's promotion the four regiments "suffered the most severe loss of the campaign." A Vermonter in the division claimed that its members "welcomed the change, though they knew it meant mounted charges, instead of dismounted skirmishes, and a foremost place in every fight."
Custer led the division in the cavalry engagement at Tom's Brook and in the Battle of Cedar Creek. At 25 he was promoted to brevet major general, to date from Cedar Creek, October 19. In a ceremony at the War Department, Custer and a detail of troopers presented captured battle flags to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. One of the cavalrymen told Stanton, "the 3rd Division wouldn't be worth a cent if it wasn't for [Custer]."
Sheridan and the two cavalry divisions spent the winter of 1865 in the Shenandoah Valley before marching south in late February. On March 2 at Waynesborough, the 3rd Cavalry Division routed the remnants of Early's Army of the Valley. By the end of the month, Sheridan's command had rejoined the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. When the Federals broke through General Robert E. Lee's defensive works on April 2, the Union cavalry led the pursuit of Lee's retreating army. It was Custer's men on the evening of April 8 who interdicted the Confederate flight at Appomattox Station and cut off the Rebel army's retreat route. During that final week, Custer's men captured more than 30 enemy flags. His brother, Tom, seized a pair and received two Medals of Honor.
The end came at Appomattox on April 9. During a truce between the armies, before Grant and Lee met, Custer rode into the Confederate lines and demanded the surrender of the army from Lee's senior officer, James Longstreet. It was a brazen act, and Longstreet evidently berated the young Union general. After the surrender ceremony, however, Sheridan confiscated the table Grant had used and had it delivered to Libbie Custer. In an accompanying note, Sheridan wrote in part, "permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband."
On May 23, the Army of the Potomac marched through the streets of Washington in the Grand Review. Earlier in the morning as Custer joined his command, every member of the 3rd Cavalry Division was wearing a red necktie in his honor. The Michigan Brigade had adopted it as its badge, and now so had the 3rd Division. During the review, a woman stepped from the crowd and tossed a wreath of flowers and evergreens at Custer. His horse bolted toward the reviewing stand, and he lost his sword and hat. Whether deliberately or not, Custer had dramatically seized the moment.
Sheridan later wrote of Custer, "If there ever was poetry or romance in war, he could develop it." He was perhaps the Civil War's last knight. He had dreamed of glory and had found it in the terrible confines of combat. The words of the men he led testified to his abilities, bravery and leadership. He had been a superb cavalry commander. But ahead of him lay a rendezvous on a Montana ridge that has darkened his achievements as the Union's Boy General. He craved greatness for himself, and this ambition earned him immortality.