It is strange how often the passage of time tends to seemingly obscure our view of certain events. Such as that took place in southeastern Montana in the early summer of 1876. June 25 of our Centennial Year was a Sunday. On that Sabbath afternoon, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry into the Valley of the Little Big Horn in pursuit of a village of Northern Plains Indians. For Custer and five of his companies, they were riding into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. That day, obscurity descended as the dust settled on top of that knoll where Custer and forty-two members of this battalion were found. One hundred and thirty-five years later, we still wish we could peer through the looking-glass and see what happened to Custer in the final two and half to three hours of his life. Although there are many theories, interpretations and ideas, we will never know. This is the one truth that continues to haunt us to this day and it is inescapable.
Stranger still is our view today of Custer so many years after his final battle. That fateful day, Custer divided his regiment three times in the face of a superior enemy; violating the concept of military science he had learned at West Point and had continued to study his entire adult life. Interestingly though, Robert E. Lee employed the same tactic thirteen years earlier at Chancellorsville and met tremendous success, his greatest victory. One might wonder what our perception today would be of Lee had “Fighting Joe” Hooker gotten the best of the Marble Man. It is even more difficult to comprehend how Custer could walk this Earth for 36 years but only be remembered for his actions in his closing days. What we also lose sight of on the Little Big Horn is the fact that Custer rose to fame-and the ranks of the U.S. Army-during arguably the most tragic chapter in our history.
Due to his tragic death, Custer was never able to complete his Civil War memoirs. He got as far as the Peninsula Campaign-Yorktown and Williamsburg to be precise-when he was serving as Staff Officer attached to the headquarters of various Union General Officers. Some may argue that Custer’s meteoric rise to Brigadier General was through the patronage of the two prominent Generals he served during the initial stages of the war, George McClellan and Alfred Pleasonton. However, this is not true. Custer literally had to pull himself up by the bootstraps to obtain the rank and leave an indelible impression on his superiors. During the Peninsula Campaign at the Siege of Yorktown, Custer ascended in an observation balloon to observe Confederate troop dispositions and movements. At Williamsburg, he accompanied Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade and fought with the Fifth Wisconsin Infantry. Later on at New Bridge, Custer and a fellow staff officer fought a stiff engagement with the Confederates, effectively locating a fording point on the Chickahominy River. Altogether these actions earned the eye of George McClellan, who appointed Custer to his staff. Custer would remain with “Little Mac” until he was removed from command in November, 1862. Following a leave of absence, Custer returned to the Army of the Potomac after the disaster at Chancellorsville and found himself attached to the staff of Alfred Pleasonton. Like McClellan before him, the young officer idolized his chief. It was not long before Custer would be known as “Pleasonton’s Pet”, although it would not be long before Custer would prove his new-found devotion. In the middle of May, 1863 Custer accompanied a cavalry raiding column to the Northern Neck of Virginia. At Brandy Station, he accompanied Benjamin Davis’ brigade across Beverly Ford. Again in the Loudoun Valley at Aldie, he rode with the 1st Maine Cavalry in a charge that eventually turned the tide of the fighting.
It was well deserved then when the Brevet Captain was promoted to Brigadier General to date from June 29, 1863. Custer’s first act as a General Officer to adopt his trademark, a distinctive uniform, something he would keep for the remainder of his life. His trousers had two thin single gold stripes on the seams. Custer’s coat was of black velvet, with two rows of gold buttons and five rows of looped gilt braid on the sleeves, with the lapels, collar and bottom trimmed in gold. Underneath his coat, he wore a sky blue sailor’s shirt that he had acquired during the Peninsula Campaign. A star was sewn on each collar, which was trimmed in white. Around his neck was a scarlet red cravat. He topped it off with a black hat that had a single gold star and gilt cord. Asked later why he had adopted such an unconventional appearance, Custer merely stated that he always wanted his men to know where he was in battle.
Custer was given command of four regiments of Michigan cavalry-the Michigan Brigade-and Battery M, 2d U.S. Artillery. He gained valuable experience leading his Wolverines through the remainder of 1863, and it was not long before he earned the respect of the men under his command. He later wrote to a friend regarding his new rank and responsibilities: “Often I think of the vast responsibility resting on me, in the many lives entrusted to my keeping, of the happiness of the so many households depending on my discretion and judgment and to think that I am just leaving my boyhood makes the responsibility appear greater. First be sure you’re right, then go ahead! I ask myself is it right? Satisfied that it is so, I let nothing swerve me from my purpose”.
That fall, he would adopt one of four personal guidons, a red over blue flag with white crossed sabers in the middle. Custer would also consolidate the musicians into one Brigade Band. The instrumentalists were never far from him on a battlefield. During the retreat down the Shenandoah Valley the following year when Custer’s troopers were fighting a rear guard action, James Taylor of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper remembered that Custer had his band out on the skirmish line playing “Yankee Doodle” and Custer’s personal favorite “Garryowen”.
The advent of 1864 once again brought change to the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac. During the earlier stages of the conflict, the Potomac Army’s horsemen had been viewed with derision not only by their Southern counterparts but by their Union comrades. It was not until the Cavalry units were consolidated in the winter of 1862-63 that the administrative and logistical changes began to take shape that these Horsemen began to perform to their full potential as a combat unit. Custer rose to command during this transformation and his actions helped to contribute to it. So much so that by the end of the year, the Union Cavalry in the East was a formidable force to reckon with. However, these strides would be offset with the appointment of Philip Sheridan as Corps Commander and Alfred Torbert and James Wilson as Division Commanders. Now, save for Division Commander David Gregg, three of the four high level commanders were inexperienced in commanding large bodies of mounted troops. This made the veteran brigade commanders, such as Custer, the backbone of the corps going into the spring campaign. Further, the fact that the Michigan Brigade was armed with Spencer 7 shot repeaters and was complimented with a battery of artillery, nearly guaranteed that Custer would be at the forefront of every action.
Custer’s experience in 1863 would pay off in 1864 and it was in this year that he would rise to National fame. Although he would play a small role in the opening battle of the campaign of the Wilderness, Custer and his Wolverines would distinguish themselves through the month of May. At Yellow Tavern on May 11, Custer would lead the assault that broke the Confederate lines. One of his privates is credited with mortally wounding the Confederate cavalry chief, J.E.B. Stuart. The next day, with the Cavalry Corps entangled and nearly trapped in Richmond’s Outer Defenses, Custer would open a way to safety during the fighting at Meadow Bridge. A couple of weeks later, the Wolverines would launch the decisive attack at Haw’s Shop and later be involved in the fighting around the crossroads of Cold Harbor. The only blemish on Custer’s record would be at Trevilian Station, where injudiciousness would get the Wolverines surrounded but fortunately they would be saved by Wesley Merritt and the U.S. Regulars.
With the main front in Virginia shifting to the Shenandoah Valley during the summer of 1864, Custer and his Wolverines would accompany Philip Sheridan and become part of the Army of the Shenandoah. On September 19, 1864 Custer would lead his Wolverines for the last time as their brigade commander at the Third Battle of Winchester. Along with the rest of the Division, Custer led his men into the Confederate rear and helped contribute to the Union victory. Later that month, James Wilson would be transferred to the William Tecumseh Sherman’s western Army, vacating the command post of the Third Cavalry Division. Sheridan promptly appointed Custer to Wilson’s vacated post. On the morning of October 9, Custer would lead his Division for the first time in battle. Never before had Custer commanded so many men on a battlefield. There was plenty of room to be apprehensive about how Custer would handle his men. At the Battle of Tom’s Brook, Custer turned in a brilliant performance, one worthy to be compared to John Buford’s handling of his Division on the first day at Gettysburg. On his front, Custer soundly defeated the Confederate cavalry. Ten days later, he distinguished himself in the closing battle of the campaign at Cedar Creek. For his actions, he was chosen to escort the captured Confederate battle flags to Washington to present to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. During the presentation in Stanton’s office, the Secretary announced that Custer had been promoted to the rank of Brevet Major General.
The spring of 1865 would be decisive in Virginia. After wintering at Winchester, Custer opened the year by nearly annihilating the remnant of the Confederate Army that had opposed him the previous fall at Waynesboro, Virginia. He would lead his division in some of the closing battles of the war at Five Forks and Sayler’s Creek. It was Custer’s First Division who would cut off the Army of Northern Virginia’s escape route to the west at Appomattox. Not surprising then that Phil Sheridan commandeered the table on which Robert E. Lee signed the articles of surrender and sent it to Custer’s wife, Libbie.
George Custer emerged from the American Civil War as one of the most famous Cavalryman in North America. Obviously, Custer was a brave and courageous commander, but that is not what set him apart from his contemporaries. What made Custer a great commander was an appreciation for the psyche of the common citizen turned soldier. Part of this understanding was forged during Custer’s experience as a staff officer, where he was exposed to and fought with a variety of different regiments. When Custer took command of the Michigan Brigade, three of the four regiments had very little combat experience. The overall lack of experience, which Custer initially saw in his Wolverines as well as with the regiments he fought with early in 1862, motivates man’s natural fear of death during battle. But if soldiers see their commander, riding out in front of the line to lead them, exhibiting no fear, the realization comes that if the he is not afraid and willing to lead us then the fear turns to inspiration. This inspiration and the general idea was the driving factor to Custer’s success. Simply, it explains why Custer adopted such an odd uniform, a personal guidon and utilized a band, not only as a Brigade but as a Division commander. In turn, his men had a great confidence in him and it was reciprocated. Custer, without a doubt, believed, whether he was leading the Michigan Brigade or the Third Division, that his men could, no matter what the situation, achieve victory. Custer exuded self-confidence, which to those on the outside looking in can be mistaken as arrogance. Self confidence is a prerequisite for being a leader. Custer believed in himself and his abilities because to do otherwise would translate to the ranks he led and would ultimately lead to failure. James Kidd, an officer in the Sixth Michigan Cavalry, wrote to his father prior to the opening of the 1864 campaign: “Rumor says that General Custer may leave us. Bad luck to those who are instrumental in removing him. We swear by him. His name is our Battle Cry!”
Authored by Daniel T. Davis. © 2011 Emerging Civil War