George Armstrong Custer
Born: December 5, 1839, New Rumley, Ohio
Died: June 25, 1876, Little Bighorn, Montana
George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio December 5, 1839. He was appointed to West Point in 1857 and graduated last in his class in 1861. During the Civil War his bravery and flamboyant style attracted the attention of his superiors and earned him rapid promotions. By war’s end he was a brevet major general. “Brevet” was a temporary, wartime promotion. Once the war ended, all those who earned a brevet rank reverted to their actual rank. In Custer’s case, he reverted to captain.
When the Seventh Cavalry was formed at Fort Riley in 1866, Custer was appointed the lieutenant colonel of the regiment. He did not have to wait long to get experience with the Plains Indians. His regiment accompanied General Winfield Scott Hancock’s “peace commission” to southern Kansas in the spring of 1867. Rather than creating peace with the Indians, however, Hancock’s mishandling of the talks resulted in “Hancock’s War.” The Seventh Cavalry spent the next three years at Forts Hays, Dodge, Larned, and others in pursuit of Indians throughout Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Custer was court-martialed in the summer of 1867 for force-marching his troops from Fort Wallace to Hays without orders. This and other charges led to his being relieved from duty for one year. But before his year was up, he was called back by General Philip Sheridan to lead his regiment in a winter campaign against the Cheyennes. This would become his first major engagement against the Indians when he attacked Black Kettle’s village along the Washita River in what is now Oklahoma. While it was a victory for Custer and his Seventh Cavalry, some considered it a massacre and many of his officers grew to distrust his judgment.
Custer was a brilliant strategist and had experience leading large groups of men into battle but did not know how to deal with the individual soldier and see to his daily needs. As a result, his treatment of the enlisted men under his command was often unnecessarily harsh. This resulted in many of his men deserting.
In 1870 the Seventh Cavalry was transferred to Kentucky where they performed reconstruction duty, primarily suppressing Ku Klux Klan activities. In 1873 they were again transferred, this time to Dakota Territory. Here he led an expedition to the Black Hills where gold was discovered. This unleashed a barrage of miners swarming over country that had been set aside for the exclusive use of the Sioux Nation. This led to all-out war between the Indians and whites. In 1876, the Seventh Cavalry was part of a campaign sent to “round up” the Indians and confine them to reservations. The Seventh Cavalry met a vastly superior force of Indians along the Little Bighorn River in Montana on June 25, 1876. Of the nearly 600 Seventh Cavalry soldiers involved in the battle, 268, including Custer, were killed.
George Custer has had more written about him than any other soldier of the Indian Wars and he is often epitomized as all that was wrong with the clash of cultures that was the Indian Wars. It may be more accurate to say that Custer and most other officers of the period sympathized with the Indians' plight and felt Indian agents, who were a generally corrupt lot who robbed and cheated the Indians, were to blame for many of the problems. He said, “If I were an Indian I often think that I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among those of my people who adhered to the free open plains, rather than submit to the confined limits of a reservation.” But he also saw them as “savage in every sense of the word.” He did not advocate extermination, as some have said, but felt Indians would eventually have to give way to the advancing white civilization. Overall, George Custer was a complex man who was given a difficult job to do in an equally complex and difficult period of American history.
Entry: Custer, George Armstrong
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 2011
Date Modified: March 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.