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George Armstrong Custer
Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Union Military
George Armstrong Custer
Nicknames: Autie (family),
His first orders came personally from Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the Army. Custer was to find a horse, return for dispatches to Irvin McDowell and advance to McDowell's position in Centerville. After joining the 2nd Cavalry he served as an artillery guard during the Battle of Bull Run. During the winter of 1861 Custer was seriously incapacitated by illness, returning to duty in February, 1862. In early March, he was ordered to harass Joe Johnston during the Confederare withdrawal to the Rappahanock River, but with 50 men against an army of 32,000 there was little Custer could do.
On May 5 James Longstreet turned a rear-guard action into a full-blown attack at Williamsburg. Baldy Smith requested permission to send troops forward and when Edwin Vose Sumner replied he ordered only one brigade forward. Smith, unhappy with the order, reinforced Hancock's brigade with cavalry, including Custer's. It was Custer who led 3,400 along a back route to within a mile of Fort Magruder. It was Hancock's position here that forced Longstreet to withdraw.
On May 24, 1862 Custer forded the Chickahominy River leading a company of the 4th Michigan. With a second company on the other side, Union forces prevented the destruction of Newbridge, an important crossing. When George McClellan personally congratulated Custer for his gallant efforts, the general commanding offered Custer a spot on his staff. Custer immediately agreed and left McClellan's headquarters that day with the orders.
Before Seven Pines Custer began occasionally working closely with chief engineer John Barnard. During the Seven Days Battle when Robert E. Lee struck the Union line at Beaver Dam Creek Custer worked with Barnard to prepare evacuation routes for the Union Army. Custer showed Barnard where McClellan wanted him to prepare a line of battle the following day at Gaines Mill. Following his performance during the Union withdrawal Custer was promoted to 1st Lieutenant (July 17).
As McClellan withdrew from the peninsula, Custer was called to perform a unique service to a friend. Within the ranks of the Confederate prisoners taken at Williamsburg had been "Gimlet" Lea, whom Custer knew from West Point. Following the battle Custer tended Lea for two days as his unit advanced up the peninsula. Lea, who was in a prisoner exchanged, asked if he could marry the daughter of the man in whose house he had recovered. Custer attended in his blue uniform as a groomsman and Lea wore his gray one as groom.
McClellan returned to command that September, but Custer had little to do other than normal staff work. Abraham Lincoln's visit in October gave the lieutenant some additional duties, but when the President relieved McClellan and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside Custer travelled to Ohio, awaiting orders. Before he returned to active duty McClellan requested his help in preparing required reports for 1862.
By the time Custer rejoined the Army of the Potomac Burnsides was gone and "Fighting Joe" Hooker had lost the Battle of Chancellorsville and the entire command structure of the army had changed. The turmoil continued until President Lincoln made George Meade commander of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863. The broad powers given him by Lincoln allowed him to replace his cavalry commander with Alfred Pleasonton and appoint three new commanders, two captains (Elon Farnsworth and Wesley Merritt) and First Lieutenant (brevet Captain) George Armstrong Custer. The appointments were approved the following day. Pleasonton gave Custer his choice of commands and Custer chose the Michigan Brigade.
If it was fight Pleasonton wanted, it was fight that he got. In the first engagement of the reformed unit near Hanover, Pennsylvania, Rebel cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart ran into a rear guard unit of Elon Farnsworth's brigade. Soon Farnsworth, Judson Kilpatrick, and George Custer were riding towards the sound of battle. Although the see-saw battle that followed ended in a draw, it cost Stuart precious time in arriving at Gettysburg.
Kilpatrick, Custer's direct commander, detached the general and ordered him to protect the Hanover Road at the start of the battle of Gettysburg. About noon on July 2nd, Custer was relieved by Colonel John McIntosh and ordered to report to Kilpatrick. In a roadside situation meeting Custer revealed that the Confederates were in the woods on the opposite side of an open field. While Custer withdrew McIntosh engaged the Rebels and Custer returned, anxious to join the battle. Custer was once again up against Stuart and once again the battle see-sawed. Then, with the Rebels less than a 100 yards from the Union line, Custer led a charge that turned the tide of this small engagement in the Union's favor.
George Meade began a general advance in the middle of September, 1863. On September 13 General Custer led the move on Culpepper Court House. Once again up against Jeb Stuart, Custer was hit by shrapnel from a Rebel shell. When he returned to action in October, he was involved with Meade's retreat back to the Rappahannock River after Lincoln withdrew two corps to send west. On February 9, 1864, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer married Elizabeth "Libbie" Clift Bacon, also of Monroe, Ohio.
When Ulysses S. Grant arrived to accept the role of General-in-Chief, U. S. Army he replaced Alfred Pleasonton with Phil Sheridan, an infantry commander with some cavalry experience that he met for the first time at Chattanooga. Grant liked Sheridan because of his fiery and aggressive nature, two adjectives that could also be applied to Custer, but Grant and Custer seemed to rub each other the wrong way. A Sheridan prepared for spring operation in 1864, the cavalry command structure was vastly different than it had been in October, 1863, but Custer was still in command of the Michigan Brigade.
After a shouting match with George Meade over the effective use of cavalry, Sheridan was detached and sent to chase down Jeb Stuart. The meeting happened at Yellow Tavern, Virginia on May 11, 1864. Although outnumbered 2-to-1, Stuart's men had been giving Sheridan a hard battle most of the day. Custer led the First Michigan in a charge that sealed Stuart's fate. They managed to turn Stuart's flank and it was one of these men who fired the shot that mortally wounded the Confederate general.
While the Army of the Potomac battled Lee's entrenched Army of Northern Virgina at Cold Harbor, Sheridan and Custer headed west to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad. At the Battle of Trevilian Station Custer was deeply embarrassed, not only on the field with the Union loss but off the field because during the Confederate victory Rebels seized his personal belongings. With the loss Sheridan returned to Grant's army, but headed west when Jubal Early began threatening Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington D. C. from his base in the Shenandoah Valley.
Unlike Nathaniel Banks two years earlier Sheridan was blessed with overwhelming superiority in numbers. His 40,000 men simply had to stay together to defeat Early's 17,000. Still, Sheridan decided to play it cautiously and skirmished and repositioned himself from Winchester to Harper's Ferry over the next month and a half. Then Lee recalled R. H. Anderson to help him cover the siege lines at Petersburg and Early's force shrank to 12,000. Finally, at Opequon Creek during the Third Battle of Winchester, Custer, and most of Sheridan's cavalry routed Early's army.
Moving south from Winchester, Custer entered Front Royal and the biggest controversy of his Civil War service. Six men were murdered, ostensibly for their failure to reveal information about Confederate raider John Mosby. When word reached Mosby he assumed it was Custer and the story has forever been associated to Custer's name and whether he issued the orders or not, he was there when the executions were carried out.
When Rebels ambushed a staff lieutenant outside Dayton, Sheridan ordered Custer to destroy all dwellings within 5 miles of the town. As Custer rode into Dayton he began burning farmhouses, mostly belonging to Mennonites who opposed the war. Sheridan cancelled the order before Custer could burn the town center. On October 5, 1864 Sheridan ordered his infantry to march north and told Custer, now a division commander, to burn the houses, barns and field and slaughter the animals. Perhaps remembering the outcry over the Front Royal affair, Sheridan did not include people in his orders. Grant ended "The Burning" but not before 400 square miles were set on fire.
On October 19, 1864, Jubal Early circled behind the Union line and caught Phil Sheridan by surprise. Custer was only slightly involved with this battle, participating in the charge at about 4:00 that routed the Rebels. That winter Early and Custer waited for the end. At the battle of Waynesboro Custer struck a fatal blow against Early's army, bringing to an end to the fighting in the Shenandoah Valley.
Now it was time to put an end to the Army of Northern Virginia. On March 31, 1865, Custer, Sheridan and Wesley Merritt engaged George Pickett [CS] at Dinwiddie Court House. The following day, as Pickett sat down to a lunch of Shad, Sheridan's cavalry backed by the 5th Corp under G. K. Warren slammed into the Rebel line and picked up 8,000 prisoners. Ulysses S. Grant ordered a general advance against what he felt was a badly overextened Confederate line and on April 2 the Yankees broke at Virginia's Pamplin Park. Lee withdrew that night and for Custer, the chase was on.
Lee headed west as quickly as possible, trying to keep the Appomattox River between him and the Union Cavalry. When Lee finally crossed the Appomattox, Custer was right there trying to slow his progress so that the Union infantry could keep up. Lee's men were desparately hungry and short of food so the Confederate General wired Lynchburg with instructions to move four trains of supplies to Appomattox. Unknown to Lee, Sheridan intercepted the message and then forwarded it to the operator in Lynchburg. Within minutes Custer was on his way to intecept the supplies before they reached Appomattox Station.
When Lee arrived at Appomattox Court House he sent men to the station to secure the rations. They found Custer's men waiting and engaged them, but the Rebels called off their attack. That night Lee held his final council of war. Early the next morning Custer participated in a well-orchestrated plan to fool John B. Gordon into thinking the Union line was in trouble. Instead, Gordon came upon Edward O. C. Ord and his corps, just arriving after a forced march from Farmville. Ord easily drove Gordon back. With George Meade and A. A. Humphies pressing Lee from the north, it was time to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.
Custer saw the white flags go up and rode forward to James Longstreet's position. General Custer demanded an unconditional surrender from the Georgian ("instant surrender" according to Freeman in Lee's Lieutenants) "...we are in a position to crush you." Longstreet responded by standing up and answering "I suppose...(you) have violated the decencies of military procedure because you know no better. Now go...and I will teach you a lesson you won't forget." Based on Confederate descriptions of the incident Custer left with his "...tail between his legs."
As the Civil War came to an end George Armstrong Custer travelled extensively for the War Department - Louisiana, Texas, and New York. After a brief brush with politics, then headed west to fight Indians. Cavalry was the most common offensive/defensive weapon in the west, mostly because of the vast area. Winfield Scott Hancock, his commander allowed Custer a good deal of autonomy on the plains...he didn't really have a choice. In 1867 he was arrested for being absent without leave and a general court-martial was ordered.
"The Court sentenced Brevet Major General G.A. Custer, Lieutenant Colonel, 7th U.S. Cavalry, to be suspended from rank and command for one year, and forfeit his pay for the same time."
When Custer returned to duty he served in Kansas, but moved north in 1873. In 1876, preparing to attack an Indian village, Custer was far ahead of the other units and completely unaware that federal forces had engaged some Indians. He split his force into three squads, hoping to catch most of the Indians asleep in the village. Instead, 3,000 Lakota Sioux easily destroyed his 210 men.
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George Armstrong Custer was last changed on - May 19, 2007
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