George Armstrong Custer : biography
George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839 – June 25, 1876) was a United States Army officer and cavalry commander in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars. Raised in Michigan and Ohio, Custer was admitted to West Point in 1858, where he graduated last in his class. However, with the outbreak of the Civil War, all potential officers were needed, and Custer was called to serve with the Union Army.
Custer developed a strong reputation during the Civil War. He fought in the first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Run. His association with several important officers helped his career, as did his success as a highly effective cavalry commander. Custer was eventually promoted to the temporary rank (brevet) of major general and promoted major general of Volunteers. (At war's end, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain.) At the conclusion of the Appomattox Campaign, in which he and his troops played a decisive role, Custer was on hand at General Robert E. Lee's surrender.
After the Civil War, Custer was dispatched to the west to fight in the Indian Wars. His disastrous final battle overshadowed his prior achievements. Custer and all the men with him were killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, fighting against a coalition of Native American tribes in a battle that has come to be popularly known in American history as "Custer's Last Stand."
McClellan and Pleasonton
When McClellan was relieved of command in November 1862, Custer reverted to the rank of first lieutenant. Custer fell into the orbit of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who was commanding a cavalry division. The general was Custer's introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant became his protégé, serving on Pleasonton's staff while continuing his assignment with his regiment. Custer was quoted as saying that "no father could love his son more than General Pleasonton loves me." After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Pleasonton became the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and his first assignment was to locate the army of Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. In his first command, Custer affected a showy, personalized uniform style that alienated his men, but he won them over with his readiness to lead attacks (a contrast to the many officers who would hang back, hoping to avoid being hit); his men began to adopt elements of his uniform, especially the red neckerchief. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Station and Aldie.
Brigade command and Gettysburg
On June 28, 1863, three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, General Pleasonton promoted Custer from captain to brigadier general of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23. Two other captains—Wesley Merritt and Elon J. Farnsworth—were promoted along with Custer, although they did have command experience. Custer lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.
Custer's style of battle was often claimed to be reckless or foolhardy, but military planning was always the basis of every Custer "dash". As Marguerite Merrington explains in The Custer Story in Letters, "George Custer meticulously scouted every battlefield, gauged the enemies weak points and strengths, ascertained the best line of attack and only after he was satisfied was the 'Custer Dash' with a Michigan yell focused with complete surprise on the enemy in routing them every time."Marguerite Merrington, The Custer Story In Letters|University of Nebraska Press, 1987. One of his greatest attributes during the Civil War was what Custer wrote of as "luck" and he needed it to survive some of these charges.
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