General George Armstrong Custer
Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.

George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876)
Music playing is "Gary Owens" the marching song of Custer's Seventh Cavalry

GENERAL GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER

George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio. His father was a blacksmith and his great-grandfather was a Revolutionary War veteran. George was nicknamed "Autie" by his family. He had a brother named Captain Tom Custer. Tom was five years younger and held two Congressional Medals of Honor. His older half-sister, Lydia Ann Kirkpatrick Reed, lived in Monroe, Michigan. Other members of his family were Margaret Custer who married James Calhoun. There was also a Boston Custer and a nephew name Autie Reed. George was appointed to West Point in 1857 and graduated last in his class in 1861. Custer accumulated 726 demerits while there. Custer was a rural school teacher at age 16, which he gave up for the military.

Custer was an aide to General George B. McCellan during the Peninsular Campaign and in June 1863, at age twenty-three (23) he was made brigadier general. From 1864 to the end of the Civil War, Custer served under General Philip H. Sheridan. Sheridan had the highest praise for Custer as a soldier.

President Abraham Lincoln called Custer: the man who "goes into a charge with a whoop and a shout." Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

On February 9, 1864, George A. Custer (age 24) was married in the First Presbyterian Church, in Monroe, Michigan. His bride was Elizabeth Clift Bacon (age 21), daughter of Judge Daniel Stanton Bacon. Libby's father had served in the Territorial Legislation, as a director of a bank and the railroad, a lawyer, and a school teacher. George met Libby in school. She was also born in Monroe, Michigan, on April 8, 1842. Libby first refused to marry George until he swore that he would never drink, never curse, or gamble. These pledges he largely ignored, except when in his wife's presence.

Custer became a major general in 1864 and performed with distinction during the final battle of the Civil War, which was fought near Richmond, in April 1865. He and his men provided a constant threat to General Robert E. Lee's troops and was thought this to be part of Lee's decision to surrender his troops.

Even though Custer was a hero of national stature, the disbanding of the volunteer service and the reduction of the standing army forced him to take a lower rank. He was then only a captain (1866). Custer had designed a uniform of blue velvet with gold braid on the sleeves, silver stars on the collar and a scarlet kercheif. Custer's thin blond hair grew to shoulder length and many nicknamed him "Old Curley." In 1866, his salary went from $8,000 down to $2,000 per year. In July 1866, the 7th Cavalry was established and he joined his newly formed regiment at Fort Riley, Kansas, in October. Custer was assigned as their leader with the ranking of lieutenant colonel. This remained his unit until his death.

In 1867, Custer was court-martialed after leaving the regiment in the field to race 150 miles in fifty-five (55) hours to see his wife. Fifty-two percent (52%) of Custer's 7th cavalry deserted in 1867.

The 7th Cavalry massacred the Cheyenne in Washita in western Oklahoma in 1868. This event would be remembered as word spread throughout the tribal units. General William Tecumseh Sherman led the attack with George A. Custer at his side. They went to a Cheyenne winter camp, located on the Washita River, in the territory that is now called Oklahoma. They killed one-hundred and three (103) Indians, slaughtered 800 of their horses, and burned down their village. Most of the dead were women and children. This battle was considered a great victory for the Army. Sherman was known as a dyed-in-the-cloth Indian hater, and this act would come back to haunt them at Little Big Horn.

There was a story about Custer fathering a child by a young Cheyenne woman named Monaseeetah. She was one of several taken captive at Washita. Many think of this as a true story. Of course the only way to know for sure would be from the DNA testing of the descendants.

On January 13, 1872, George accompanied General Sheridan and William Frederick Cody on a buffalo hunt with the Grand Duke Alexis, the third son of Czar Alexander II of Russia. At this time, Spotted Tail, chief of the Brule Sioux had his 100 warriors put on a war dance for the visting Grand Duke.

The 7th regiment was disbanded in 1870 and reactivated in 1873. In 1874, Custer (known as Pehin Hanska or "long hair" to the Sioux) published his memoirs in My Life on the Plains. He led what was to be an exploratory expedition of 1200 troops and scientists into the Indian reservation lands located in the Black Hills, South Dakota. This was clearly an affront to the Laramie Treaty of 1868, which forbid whites to enter the Black Hills of South Dakota. The discovery of Black Hill's gold brought many prospectors and settlers to this area, even though it was supposed to be Indian land. This began the great clash of cultures that pitted the settlers against the Native American Indians. The tribes most involved were the Cheyenne and the Sioux. The Black Hills had always been a sacred spot to the Native Americans. It was thought to be a place of peace and strong medicine.

In 1876, General Alfred H. Terry was the commander and he and Custer were to survey the area near the Little Bighorn (called greasy grass by the natives) River and then regroup and share information. The Little Bighorn is in what is now the state of Montana. Custer went near the native encampment on June 24, 1876. However, his vanity was to be his own undoing. Instead of waiting for the rendezvous as directed by his superior, he thought to jump ahead and make an attack alone.

Custer had two Native American scouts; one was named Curley, he was a Crow scout, and the other was named Dead Buffalo. Custer had underestimated the numbers of the Native American Indian bands in this area. There were several thousand warriors in the area. Their chiefs were Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, and other lesser known chiefs. Most of the natives were well acquainted with the ways of the white man, especially "Yellow Hair" as they called Custer. They and were ready to defend their sacred land. Sitting Bull in particular was blamed for the Custer disaster since he was the most warlike of the group. Sitting Bull was said to have had a vision about dying soldiers during his Sun Dance Ceremony. His vision showed soldiers "falling right into our camp." The natives were expecting the soldiers, since Sitting Bull was a holy man of the Hunkpapa Sioux.

Custer (age 36) made what he thought was a surprise attack on the morning of June 25, 1876. The battle lasted only a few hours. ALL of his 266 men and officers were killed on the hill. The only survivor was his scout Curley. Two units under Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W, Benteen were able to retreat and were saved by the arrival of General Terry's men. "Custer's Last Stand" was the army's worst defeat in the Western campaigns and it is the most controversial of the Indian Wars. Joseph White Bull, a nephew of Sitting Bull, was the warrior who is thought to have inflicted the fatal shot that caused Custer's death. "Cister Avengers" came to Sioux country to bolster Generals Crook and Terry and to punish the Inidans for humiliating the Army.

Witnesses to the Battle of Little Big Horn said that the soldiers went crazy and shot themselves. Amos Bad Heart Bull, an Ogala Sioux who fought there said that one mounted Cavalry sergeant riding from the braves, suddenly placed his revolver to his head and killed himself. This was more or less confirmed by Private Peter Thompson of the 7th Cavalry, one of Reno's men who survived the subsequent seige. He stated: "I made up my mind that all but one would go into my heart for I was determined never to be taken alive." Since the Native American Indians often tortured their captives most men were encouraged to kill themselves rather than be taken alive.

After the Little Big Horn, the 7th Cavalry was renowned as the regiment that hated Indians. They carried out this hatred at Wounded Knee in 1890. Units that fought the Nez Perce and Utes, however, held their fighting in high regard and treated their captives more kindly.

Most literature portrayed Indians as a blood-thirsty lot, but one must remember that they were fighting for their entire race, which was almost made extinct by the white man. Genocidal acts such as giving Indians blankets that were used by another that died of smallpox, killing all their horses, and almost making the buffalo extinct were all done to wipe out their entire race.

"The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is a saying attributed to General Phil Sheridan. Sheridan was in camp at Fort Cobb, in January 1869. Fort Cobb was located in "Indian Territory" (now Oklahoma). This was after George Custer's fight with Black-Kettle's Cheyennes. This quote was born after Turtle Dove, chief of Comanches, tried to impress the General, and some pf his men by counting coup on Sheridan's chest. Turtle Dove boosted that he was a "good Indian" for managing this feat without getting killed. Sherman's reputation had proceeded him. The General was said to have smiled and joked: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

Phillip Sheridan later denied ever making such a statement. However, eye witnesses heard this now infamous quote. Since Sheridan was a well-known "Indian hater," few doubted that he would have made such a statement. The quote evolved over the years into a more powerful: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Teddy Roosevelt, approximately 15 years before he became the President of the United States of America, made a speech in January of 1886 in New York. His words were:

"I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the Western view of the Indian. I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."

The killing of Native American Indians was genocidal. "As long as the grass grows and the rivers flow" --- should have meant "forever." These words were part of many treaties made in the nineteenth century. The government often went back on their promises. The Native American Indians lost over 90 percent of their population and have the lowest life expectancy of any group in the United States. The Native America Indian have been displaced, disposessed, and misunderstood. Yet, today they are one of the fastest improving cultures in educational pursuits and in funding their tribal structure. General George Armstrong Custer was one of the many who tried to kill their people

Custer's wife Libby was only thirty-four years old at the time of her husband's death, but she remained a widow for the rest of her life. She devoted most of that time in trying to booster the reputation of her deceased husband. She wrote three books:

  1. Boots and Saddles in 1885.
  2. Tenting on the Plains in 1887
  3. Following the Guidon in 1890.

Libby died, in New York City, on April 4, 1933. She was born February 9, 1864.

*****

If I were an Indian, I often think that
I would greatly prefer to cast my lot among
those ... who adhered to the free open plains,
rather than submit to the confined limits of
a reservation, there to be a recipient of the
blessed benefits of civilization, with its vices
thrown in without stint or measure.

These are the words of Gen. George Armstrong Custer

*****

SOURCES:

Cruthfield, James A., Bill O'Neil, and David L. Walker. Legends of the Wild West. Lincolnwood, IL.: Publications International, Ltd., 1995.

Hook, James and Martin Pegler. To Live and Die in the West: The American Indian Wars Oxford: Osprey Press, 1999.

Mails, Thomas E. Mystic Warriors of the Plains. New York: Mallard Press, 1991.

Reedstrom, E. Lisle. Authentic Costumes & Characters of the Wild West. New York: Sterling Publishing, Co., Inc., 1992.

Russell, Don. Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960.

Utley, Robert M. The Lance and the Shields: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Wilson, R.L. and Greg Martin. Buffalo Bill's Wild West: An American Legend. New York: Random House, 1998.

LINKS:

Resources to Educate - The Native American Indian Culture and its History ... The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian an article about this saying.... 500 Years of Hate Crimes Against the American Indian
History Magazine article on George Armstrong Custer
Officers at the Battle of Little Big Horn
Little Big Horn Associates
BBC on Custer
Custer's Last Stand

Steve Alexander, Portrayer of George Armstrong Custer


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