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Custer

December 5, 1839 George Custer born

Union General George Armstrong Custer is born in Harrison County, Ohio. Although he is best known for his demise at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, Custer built a reputation as a dashing and effective cavalry leader during the Civil War.

Custer entered West Point in 1857, where he earned low grades and numerous demerits for his mischievous behavior. He graduated last in the class of 1861. Despite his poor academic showing, Custer did not have to wait long to see military action. Less than two months after leaving West Point, Custer fought in the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

Custer served the entire war in the Army of the Potomac. He was present for nearly all of the army's major battles, and Custer became, at age 23, the youngest general in the Union army in June 1863. He led the Michigan cavalry brigade in General Judson Kilpatrick's 3rd Cavalry Division. Less than a week after his promotion, Custer and his "Wolverines" played a key role in stopping Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry attack, which helped preserve the Union victory at Gettysburg. As a leader, Custer earned the respect of his men because he personally led every charge in battle. Wrote one man of Custer's command, "So brave a man I never saw and as competent as brave. Under him a man is ashamed to be cowardly. Under him our men can achieve wonders."

He achieved his greatest battlefield success in the campaigns of 1864. At Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864, Custer led the charge that resulted in the death of Stuart. One month later at Trevalian Station, Custer's command attacked a supply train before being surrounded by Confederate cavalry. His men formed a triangle and bravely held off the Rebels until help arrived. In October, Custer's men scored a decisive victory over the Confederate cavalry at Tom's Brook in the Shenandoah Valley, the most one-sided Yankee cavalry victory of the war in the East.

Custer was demoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the downsizing that took place after the war ended. He was much less effective in his postwar assignments fighting Indians, and his reckless assault on the camp at Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, earned him an unsavory reputation that overshadowed his earlier success in the Civil War.


April 8, 1842: Elizabeth Bacon Custer is born in Michigan

Elizabeth Bacon Custer, a significant chronicler of the West and the wife of George Custer, is born in Monroe, Michigan.

Elizabeth Custer is best known today for her decades-long effort to celebrate her husband's life and exonerate him for the massacre of the Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn in 1876. She was more than her husband's apologist, however, and today her writings provide a rare female perspective on military life in the West of the mid-19th century.

Talented, intelligent, and beautiful, Elizabeth Custer graduated as valedictorian from the Young Ladies' Seminary and Collegiate Institute in Monroe, Michigan. Not long after, she met Captain George Custer. After Custer's bravery in several Civil War battles made him a national hero, Elizabeth's father accepted Custer as a fit suitor for his daughter's hand, and the couple married in 1864.

After the war, George Custer remained in the military, taking his young wife along on his many assignments around the nation. Long interested in writing, Elizabeth found that her life as an army wife provided her with excellent material. In the summer of 1865, she accompanied Custer and his troops to Hempstead, Texas. Her diaries, recording the often harsh living conditions, later became the basis for her 1887 book, Tenting on the Plains. The book provides a sharp portrait of life on the Texas frontier, and Elizabeth writes with dismay of the violent and often trigger-happy Texans she and her husband encountered. Welcomed into the growing elite planter society of the state, Elizabeth was appalled to discover that some Texans were still trading slaves late in 1865-well after the end of the Civil War.

Following her husband's death at Little Bighorn in 1876, Elizabeth learned that President Ulysses Grant and several other senior officers blamed Custer for the Indian massacre of his battalion of 220 men. Determined to defend Custer from what she believed were malicious attacks, Elizabeth wrote several books recounting the couple's life on the Plains. In Boots and Saddles (1885) and Following the Guidon (1890), Elizabeth provided a biased portrait of her husband as an exemplary son, a loving husband and father, and a conscientious commanding officer. The books also offered a rare view of the Plains Indian wars from the perspective of a Victorian Era woman. Applying her own cultural standards to Native Americans, Elizabeth believed that Indian braves were exploitative of their wives and deserved to be conquered and removed to reservations.

Sadly, Elizabeth's opinions of Native Americans reflected and encouraged those of most Americans. Many people who had known her husband, however, did not share her admiring view of him. Reluctant to challenge a devoted widow, many critics remained silent during her lifetime. A year after she died in 1933 at the age of 90, however, the first critical reappraisal of Custer's career appeared with Frederic Van de Water's book The Glory Hunter.

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February 9, 1864; Elizabeth Bacon marries George Custer

Destined to be her husband's most dedicated champion, Elizabeth Bacon marries George Armstrong Custer in Monroe, Michigan.

Shortly after graduating from a Presbyterian college in Monroe, Elizabeth Bacon met the dashing young Captain Custer, who immediately began a vigorous campaign for her hand. Initially, Elizabeth's father disapproved of Custer's courtship, but he changed his mind when Custer won a battlefield appointment to brigadier general and national fame for his fearless tactics fighting for the Union in the Civil War. The couple married on February 9, 1864.

Elizabeth Custer immediately became a strong advocate for her husband. Though she was inexperienced in political and military affairs, she was able to charm important men in Washington, D.C., who used their influence to advance Custer's career. After the Civil War ended, Custer reverted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Elizabeth supported her husband's desire to continue his ascent of the military ladder, and she agreed with his decision to accept duty in the only active remaining conflict: the Plains Indian Wars in the West.

Whatever romantic images Elizabeth might have had of life in the West quickly faded as she faced the grim reality of making a home in a series of isolated western forts. She was alone for weeks or months at a time, contemplating the very real dangers her husband was facing out on the Plains. Nonetheless, Elizabeth continued to support her husband's Western career right up until the dark day when she heard that her worst fears had been realized: Custer had been killed in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876.

When she learned that President Ulysses Grant and others blamed Custer for the massacre at Little Bighorn, Elizabeth was outraged. Determined to redeem his good name, she gave the writer Frederick Whittaker access to her husband's papers. Six months after the disaster at Little Bighorn, Whittaker published a hagiographic biography that absolved Custer of blame and laid the foundation for his future legend.

Elizabeth herself then turned to writing, eventually publishing three books that portrayed Custer not only as an honest and dedicated Cavalry officer, but as a loving husband and devoted family man. Her books also defended the justice of the Indian wars in general. In Elizabeth's version of history, the American soldiers suffered frontier privations in order to protect innocent Anglo settlers, and Native American braves were vicious killers who exploited their wives. Custer, her books claimed, had been a selfless martyr to the cause of American westward expansion.

Reluctant to criticize Custer while his celebrated widow lived, dissenters from Elizabeth's biased view of her husband had to hold their tongues for a very long time. By the time she died in 1933, nearly 60 years after Little Bighorn, most of Custer's contemporary critics were gone. Others soon appeared, though, and a year after her death, Frederic Van de Water published Glory Hunter, a revisionist portrait that painted Custer as a vain and foolish egoist. Since then, Custer's critics have dominated, but Elizabeth's dedication to her husband's memory continues to win him supporters to this day. 

  Return to February 9


June 25, 1876: Indians defeat Custer at Little Big Horn

Determined to resist the efforts of the U.S. Army to force them onto reservations, Indians under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse wipe out Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and much of his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Sioux Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had been successfully resisting American efforts to confine their people to reservations for more than a decade. Although both chiefs wanted nothing more than to be left alone to pursue their traditional ways, the growing tide of white settlers invading their lands inevitably led to violent confrontations. Increasingly, the Sioux and Cheyenne who did try to cooperate with the U.S. government discovered they were rewarded only with broken promises and marginal reservation lands. In 1875, after the U.S. Army blatantly ignored treaty provisions and invaded the sacred Black Hills, many formerly cooperative Sioux and Cheyenne abandoned their reservations to join Sitting Bull  and Crazy Horse in Montana. They would not return without a fight.

Late in 1875, the U.S. Army ordered all the "hostile" Indians in Montana to return to their reservations or risk being attacked. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse ignored the order and sent messengers out to urge other Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Indians to unite with them to meet the white threat. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Indians had gathered in a massive camp along a river in southern Montana called the Little Big Horn. "We must stand together or they will kill us separately," Sitting Bull  told them. "These soldiers have come shooting; they want war. All right, we'll give it to them."

Meanwhile, three columns of U.S. soldiers were converging on the Little Big Horn. On June 17, the first column under the command of General George Crook was badly bloodied by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse. Stunned by the size and ferocity of the Indian attack, Crook was forced to withdraw. Knowing nothing of Crook's defeat, the two remaining columns commanded by General Alfred Terry and General John Gibbon continued toward the Little Big Horn. On June 22, Terry ordered the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer to scout ahead for Indians.

On the morning of this day in 1876, Custer's scouts told him that a gigantic Indian village lay nearby in the valley of the Little Big Horn River. Custer dismissed the scouts' claim that the village was extraordinarily large-certainly many thousands of Indians-as exaggerated. Indeed, his main fear was that the Indians would scatter before he could attack. Rather than wait for reinforcements, Custer decided to move forward immediately and stage an unusual mid-day attack. As the 7th Cavalry entered the valley, Custer divided the regiment of about 600 men into four battalions, keeping a force of 215 under his own command.

In the vast Indian encampment (historians estimate there were as many as 11,000 Indians), word quickly spread of the approaching soldiers. Too old actually to engage in battle, Sitting Bull  rallied his warriors while seeing to the protection of the women and children. The younger Crazy Horse prepared for battle and sped off with a large force of warriors to meet the invaders.

As Custer's divided regiment advanced, the soldiers suddenly found they were under attack by a rapidly growing number of Indians. Gradually, it dawned on Custer that his scouts had not exaggerated the size of the Indian force after all. He immediately dispatched urgent orders in an attempt to regroup his regiment. The other battalions, however, were facing equally massive attacks and were unable to come to his aid. Soon, Custer and his 215 men found themselves cut off and under attack by as many as 3,000 armed braves. Within an hour, they were wiped out to the last man. The remaining battalions of the 7th Cavalry were also badly beaten, but they managed to fight a holding action until the Indians withdrew the following day.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn was the Indians' greatest victory and the army's worst defeat in the long and bloody Plains Indian War. The Indians were not allowed to revel in the victory for long, however. The massacre of Custer and his 7th Cavalry outraged many Americans and only confirmed the image of the bloodthirsty Indians in their minds, and the government became more determined to destroy or tame the hostile Indians. The army redoubled its efforts and drove home the war with a vengeful fury. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne would be confined to reservations and both Sitting Bull  and Crazy Horse had been murdered.

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