General George Custer: Facts & Biography

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
George Custer was a Union general and cavalry officer in the American Civil War and in the Indian Wars of the 1870s. He was killed along with his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.


George Armstrong Custer is one of the most famous generals in American History. He is known for his flamboyance, his bravery, and his fearlessness in battle. In 1876, these characteristics contributed to his death and the death of his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory. Let's learn more about this fascinating general.

Early Years

An Ohio native, Custer spent much of his early life in Monroe, Michigan, just south of Detroit. He is well known for a rather dubious distinction in his early life. When he graduated from West Point in 1861, he was ranked last in his class. With the start of the Civil War that year, however, U.S. forces desperately needed new officers and men to build armies to put down the rebellion, and to replace all those officers who had resigned to join the Confederacy. In fact, the Class of 1861 was originally meant to graduate in 1862; because of the war, the cadets were rushed through to join the service.

George Custer at West Point

Civil War Service

Custer's first assignment out of West Point was the rank of a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. At First Bull Run in July 1861, Custer was used as a courier, taking messages to Brigadier General Irving McDowell, the officer commanding Union troops at the battle.

In 1862, Custer continued working with high ranking generals when he joined the staff of Major General George Brinton McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. While serving under McClellan, Custer participated in the Peninsula Campaign, where Union forces tried to advance up the Virginia Peninsula, along the York River, toward Richmond from the east. Custer served on McClellan's staff throughout the campaign, and he continued his service during the Maryland Campaign in 1862.

By 1863, Custer was working for Major General Alfred Pleasonton. Pleasonton developed a very close relationship with Custer, so much so that, in late June 1863, when Pleasonton was commanding the cavalry corps for the Army of the Potomac, he gave Custer an incredible promotion. The 23-year-old captain with no command experience was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He led a brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg where, on July 3, 1863, he fought against Confederate Major General Jeb Stuart. Stuart was ordered to attack the rear of the Union army while the infamous assault known as 'Pickett's Charge' hit the army's front lines. Stuart was foiled in his plans by Union cavalry. During this cavalry fight, Custer led a bold charge directly into Stuart's horsemen. The attack was costly, but it worked.

In 1864, Custer continued his brave exploits. On top of marrying Elizabeth Clift Bacon that February (he met her in his hometown of Monroe, Michigan), Custer took part in many fierce fights during the Overland Campaign that spring and summer. He took part in several major cavalry engagements, and later in the year he commanded men during the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864. In April 1865, Custer was present when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Course House, Virginia. By the end of the war, he had gone from a second lieutenant carrying messages at First Bull Run to a major general, witnessing the famed surrender of Robert E. Lee - all a meteoric rise in rank.

Union General George A. Custer

Post War Career

After the war, Custer first served in Texas, commanding forces occupying parts of the former Confederate state. By 1866, he was out of Texas and back in Michigan with his wife. This would not be for long, though. He was soon appointed a lieutenant colonel in the regular army (the standing U.S. army that exists today, not the volunteer forces used to supplement that army during the Civil War). Custer was given command of the brand new 7th U.S. cavalry regiment.

As the leader of the 7th Cavalry regiment, Custer saw considerable action during the Indian wars of the 1860s and 1870s. He took part in expeditions and campaigns against the Cheyenne in 1867. During the next several years, Custer performed various duties and led expeditions in the Dakota and Montana Territories. He is best known, however, for leading U.S. troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Little Bighorn and Custer's Last Stand

As tensions rose between the U.S. government and Native American tribes during the 1870s, Custer and his men were just one tool used to enforce U.S. policies. In 1876, then President Ulysses S. Grant wanted the Lakota and Arapaho tribes to move to assigned reservations. To make sure this happened, Custer and the 7th Cavalry were sent out to move the Native Americans if necessary.

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