George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio, to Emanuel Henry Custer (1806-1892), a farmer and blacksmith, and Marie Ward Kirkpatrick (1807-1882). George had four full siblings: younger brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, both of whom died with him on the Battlefield of Little Bighorn; Nevin Custer, weak and unhealthy; and Margaret Custer, the youngest child. He also had several older half-siblings.
George spent much of his youth with his half-sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school. He also attended McNeely Normal School (Hopedale Normal College), in Hopedale, Ohio; while there, he carried coal to help pay his room and board. After graduating from McNeely in 1856, George taught school in Cadiz, Ohio.
Some of Custer’s ancestors, Paulus and Gertrude Kuster, emigrated from the Rhineland in Germany around 1693. They were probably among thousands of Palatine refugees who came to North America with passage arranged by the English government to gain settlers.
“According to family letters, Custer was named after George Armstrong, a minister, in his devout father’s hope that his son might join the clergy.
“Throughout his life Custer was known by a variety of nicknames. He was called `Autie’ (his early attempt to pronounce his middle name) and Armstrong. During the Civil War, Custer was frequently termed `The Boy General’ in the press, reflecting his promotion to brigadier general at the age of 23; during his years on the Plains in the Indian Wars, his troopers often referred to him with grudging admiration as `Iron Butt’ and `Hard Ass’ for his physical stamina in the saddle and his strict discipline, as well as with the more derisive `Ringlets’ for his vanity about his appearance in general and his long, curling blood hair in particular.”
George was admitted to West Point in 1858 and graduated just after the Civil War started - the last of 34 cadets in the Class of June 1861. His class at West Point (originally the Class of 1862) graduated early in order to meet the need for trained officers in the Army. Even though his low class rank would ordinarily mea an “obscure posting,” this fact did not matter as he graduated at the beginning of the Civil War. The fact that he graduated from the Academy at all was a miracle as “he came close to expulsion in each of his three years due to excessive demerits, many from pulling pranks on fellow cadets.”
Custer “developed a strong reputation during the Civil War” and “fought in the first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Run. His military career as well as his success as a cavalry commander was helped by his association with several important officers. “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.”
Following the Civil War, Custer was sent to fight in the Indian Wars out west. His prior achievements are mostly overshadowed by his final battle. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 – a battle now known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” Custer and all the men with him were killed fighting against a group of Native American tribes.
Custer first saw Elizabeth Clift Bacon (1842-1933), his future wife, when he was ten years old and was “socially introduced to her in November 1862 in Monroe when he was home on leave. She was not impressed with him, and her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, disapproved of Custer “because he was the son of a blacksmith.” After Custer became a brevet brigadier general, he gained the approval of Judge Bacon. Custer and Elizabeth Bacon were married on February 9, 1864, fourteen months after they formally met. They apparently had no children.
After “the Battle of Washita River in November 1868, Custer was alleged (by Captain Frederick Benteen, chief of scouts Ben Clark, and Cheyenne oral tradition) to have unofficially “married” Mo-nah-se-tah, daughter of the Cheyenne chief Little Rock in the winter or early spring of 1868-1869. (Little Rock was killed in the Washita battle.) Mo-nah-se-tah gave birth to a child in January 1869, two months after the Washita battle. Cheyenne oral history tells that she also bore a second child, fathered by Custer in late 1869. Some historians, however, believe that Custer had become sterile after contracting gonorrhea while at West Point and that the father was, in actuality, his brother Thomas.”
Custer was killed at age 36 in the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, and was buried side by side with his brother Tom in a shallow grave located near the battlefield. “One year later, Custer’s remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back east for re-interment in more formal burials. Custer was buried again with full military honors at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877. The battle site was designated as a National Cemetery in 1876.
George Armstrong Custer gained the lasting fame he desired after his death. Counties in six states and townships in two states carry the name of Custer as do villages, an unincorporated town, and a city. Custer National Cemetery is located in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. There are also statues and monuments honoring Custer as well as Fort Custer National Military Reservation, Fort Custer National Cemetery, Custer Hill (the main troop billeting area at Fort Riley, Kansas). “Custer’s 1866 residence on the post has been preserved and is currently maintained as the Custer House Museum and meeting space” (also known as Custer Home). There are also The Custer Division of the 85th Infantry Division and The Custer house at Fort Lincoln named after him as well as a town, county, and park in North Dakota.
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