Childhood & Early Life
George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio, into a middle-class family. His father, Emanuel Henry Custer, was a farmer and a blacksmith. His mother, Marie Ward Kirkpatrick, was a homemaker. George was the eldest child in the family and had four younger siblings. He also had three half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage.
George was raised as a strong democrat. All the other children in the family, too, were raised to be tough humans. Much of George’s remarkable courage was due to his father, who had been strict with him ever since he was a little kid.
One of George’s half-sisters was married to a wealthy man in Michigan. George spent most of his school years at his sister’s house in Michigan. He attended ‘McNeely Normal School.’ George did a number of odd jobs, such as carrying coal, to earn enough money to pay for his education.
As soon as he finished high school, George became a teacher. Following this, he thought of entering the ‘United States Military Academy.’ Being a teacher who taught at a grammar school, he lacked the qualification that was necessary to enter the military academy.
He met a congressman who made sure he got enrolled into the academy. George entered the military academy in 1857, but the duration of the course was shortened to four years once the ‘Civil War’ broke out in 1861. He was the last on the graduates’ list.
Many of his fellow students later claimed that George was the last person they thought could graduate from the academy. He was lazy, disinterested, and undisciplined. He also came close to getting expelled a number of times. However, as many of the students from the academy had already dropped out, the government needed trained men on the battlefields. Hence, George was allowed to graduate.
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In July 1861, George witnessed war for the first time during the famous Battle of Bull Run, where he was stationed as a second lieutenant. His job was to carry messages from one senior officer to another. He displayed immense courage and presence of mind, which was appreciated by Major General George B McClellan, a commander of the ‘Union Army.’
George was appointed to work closely with a number of senior officers and developed contacts with many commanders. This led to his promotion. He became a brigadier general of US volunteers at the tender age of 23. He was to lead the ‘Michigan Cavalry Brigade,’ which included four regiments from his home state of Michigan.
Over the next few years, he proved his worth as a highly efficient military commander and earned for himself the nickname “Boy General,” owing to his young age. He became known for leading his cavalries in the iconic battles of Gettysburg and Yellow Tavern. Media houses such as the ‘New York Tribune’ published stories praising his antics on the battleground and claimed that he would later be known as a “first class hero.”
By the time the ‘Civil War’ ended, he was given the highly prestigious rank of major general. His cavalries played a decisive role in the capture of ‘Confederate Army’ general Robert E Lee in 1865, which was one of the major events that marked the end of the Civil War.
Several honors were bestowed upon him. He was gifted the table on which the peace agreement was signed. A letter praising George was sent to his wife, by General Philip Sheridan. According to General Sheridan, George had played a decisive role in bringing the war to an end.
Soon after the war was over, George thought of leaving the army and decided to set up his own business. He also thought of venturing into politics. During this time, the western front was facing trouble due to Indians who were executing attacks on the American army.
The ‘7th Cavalry Regiment’ was raised to tackle the Native American forces in the west. George was made the lieutenant colonel and was to lead the troops in the war. He arrived in Kansas in late 1866. By the spring of 1867, he had already started executing attacks on the Indians. The Sioux and the Cheyenne clans were the biggest rivals of the American forces, and he led several attacks on these two tribes.
His cavalries faced a brutal massacre in the hands of his enemies. This had bad consequences, as several soldiers claimed that George had deserted his army in the face of defeat. He was also brought under the scanner for visiting his wife in the middle of the war. He also faced a court martial. However, he was back by the end of 1868, when Phil Sheridan himself advocated for him and claimed that the army needed him.
Over the next few years, George led many attacks on the Indians and fought gallantly. Several media publications published his stories of war. He was known to have narrowly dodged several lethal attacks in the battles. Thus, the term “Custer’s Luck” was coined.
However, his luck ran out in 1876, during the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn. The US government had ordered an attack on the Cheyenne and the Lakota tribes in June. The plan was that three American cavalries would attack and crush the tribes at the same time, from three sides. However, George misread the message and attacked the tribes faster. In the absence proper backup, his cavalry faced a heavy loss.
On June 25, George ordered a vicious attack on a big Indian village with only 210 men, which was more or less a suicide mission. The leader of the Indian tribe was known as “Sitting Bull” and was a feared warrior. The American government had already wronged him by not accepting his peace treaty at Bighorn. George’s men were attacked, surrounded, and killed. George and two of his brothers were killed in the attack.
George was married to Elizabeth Bacon and stayed committed to her throughout his life. They were deeply committed to each other and wrote long passionate letters to each other whenever George was away fighting battles.
He was known to have a flair for dramatics. He was known to be very careful about his appearance and used perfume oil to maintain his blonde hair and his glorious moustache.
He was 36 years old at the time of his death. Following his death, his wife, Elizabeth, spent her life writing about his heroics and about their time together.