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General George Armstrong Custer

General George A. CusterIn American military history, no other individual has known the controversial aura surrounding Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer.

Since his death June 25, 1876 on a bloodstained Montana hillside, the mystique of this legendary figure has lived on in countless retelling of his life, final battle, and a swirl of accusations that followed his untimely passing. The Custer name has endured one hundred twenty-five years and sparked debate among supporters and detractors for generations, leaving an indelible mark on the pages of recorded history.

Early boyhood fascination with the military ordained this Ohio farmer's son would choose the life of a career soldier. To achieve as he did in service of his country might not have been expected. Upon acceptance to the military academy at West Point in 1857, his checkered cadet years were marked by academic mediocrity and behavior difficulties. He graduated 34th in a class of 34 in June 1861.

Commissioned second lieutenant of cavalry, he served the Union cause from Bull Run to Appomattox in a spectacular fashion. Surviving countless charges in numerous major engagements of the Civil War, he was promoted and breveted many times for gallantry in action. He became a brigadier general of volunteers at age 23 commanding a brigade at Gettysburg in 1863. In the last days of the war he won the brevet of Major General U.S. Army for service before surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Custer's style as a combat officer was often reckless and impulsive. Long flaxen curls flying, privately tailored, flamboyant uniforms brashly standing out on the battlefield, he earned both fame and criticism for aggressive leadership.

Assigned to the western plains at the height of the Indian Wars, Custer was awarded command of the newly formed 7th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Riley, Kansas in July 1866. His methods and personal imprint would not be abandoned as he began post-war service at the permanent rank of lieutenant colonel in the regular army.

In 1868 Custer led the attack on the Cheyenne Indian village of Chief Black Kettle in what would be a tactical victory against a lightly defended encampment of mostly non-combatants and few warriors. Until the ill-fated campaign of 1876, the Battle of the Washita was the high-water mark
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of Custer's Indian fighting. Skirmishes with hostile Sioux and Cheyenne war parties followed; however, the Indians largely settled on reservations after the Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the 7th was deployed mainly as a peace-keeping force.

In June 1874 Custer assumed command of Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory. He led an expedition into the Black Hills that summer across the Sioux reservation. In the guise of exploring the region to locate sites for possible military posts, the expedition instead found gold. An eventual flood of miners and fortune hunters to the area brought the threat of a new Indian uprising.

Custer's command of the 7th Cavalry was momentarily ended after he testified before a congressional committee investigating alleged corruption in the Indian Bureau controlling the reservations. Custer indirectly implicated President U.S. Grant's brother as one of the illegal profiteers. The chief executive was provoked to the extent that Custer forfeited leadership of the regiment.

With the Black Hills situation threatening the shaky peace on the plains, the army was summoned by political pressure to defuse the matter. An ultimatum was issued to off-reservation Indians to return or be driven in by military force. This could be seen as a peace-saving move or the precursor of a military solution to the "Indian Problem".

Within weeks of the ultimatum's failure the 7th Cavalry was preparing for the field as part of a major spring campaign to drive the newly-declared "hostiles" from the region of the Big Horn Valley in Montana. Custer sped to St. Paul, Minnesota to plead his case for reinstatement to General Alfred Terry, who would head one of the army columns. Army brass in Washington knew Custer was the best choice to lead his former regiment. With Terry's endorsement, Custer's restoration to command was gained by Grant's reluctant consent. When the 7th departed Fort Lincoln it would be Custer at the head of the column. It was George Armstrong Custer's last march.

History records "Custer's Last Stand" as the worst defeat of U. S. Army troops by Indians. The Battle of the Little Big Horn is known to virtually all American citizens and those of other nations. Custer became immortalized in death. Volumes were written about him and historians debate the battle into the 21st century. No supporter of Custer was more avid than his devoted wife Elizabeth Bacon Custer. Libbie perpetuated his memory for several decades both in voice and print. She was widely respected as an author of books on Custeriana that are part of libraries throughout the world.

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