George Armstrong Custer

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George A. Custer
George Armstrong Custer signature.svg

George Armstrong Custer (born December 5, 1839 in New Rumley , Ohio , † June 25, 1876 at Little Bighorn , Montana ) was a lieutenant colonel in the US Army and major general of the Union Army in the Civil War . After the Civil War, he served in the Indian Wars . Custer was best known for his defeat and death in the Battle of Little Bighorn , which are the subject of numerous books and films.

Before the civil war

George Armstrong Custer's paternal ancestors were the Hessian officer Paulus Küster and his wife Gertrude, who emigrated from the Lower Rhine to the later United States around 1693 in the wake of the first thirteen immigrant families from Krefeld and the surrounding area (1683, founding of Germantown , Pennsylvania ).

Custer was the third of seven children of the farmer and blacksmith Emanuel Henry Custer and his wife Maria, née Ward. His father was involved in the Ohio militia, which brought Custer into contact with the military as a young boy. He had a carefree childhood and was distinguished by his liveliness, but also by his laziness at school. George Armstrong spent much of his childhood with his half-sister in Monroe , Michigan , where he also went to school. Custer was appointed to the Military Academy at West Point in 1857 , where he attracted attention by numerous escapades and graduated on June 24, 1861 as the last (of 34) of his class due to lack of discipline. Custer was on the verge of expulsion from the academy several times. In each of his four years at the academy, he received around 90 reprimands (100 would have meant exclusion), mainly due to disciplinary misconduct (e.g. being unpunctual, throwing snowballs and the like). In addition, his extravagance was already beginning to show itself at the academy; he wore his hair longer than most other cadets and took great care of it.

During the civil war

Custer as a cadet at USMA, ca.1859
Custer about 1865

After graduation, Custer joined the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment as a lieutenant .

At the end of 1861 he had to leave the army due to illness, but returned in February 1862 and was ordered to the 5th US Cavalry Regiment. On June 5 that year he was promoted to Captain of the Volunteers and Adjutant on the staff of Major General McClellan , Commander in Chief of the Potomac Army . Even as a member of the staff he remained unconventional. So the story has come down to us in which Custer answered the thoughts of the staff standing on a river bank, how deep the water was and how one could get across, by galloping straight into the middle of the river and shouting from there: “So deep it is, General! ”Custer also stood out several times for his extraordinary recklessness. He once burned his hands while trying to extinguish a burning bridge.

Custer took part in almost all major battles of the war with little consideration for himself or others. Such an attitude was very rare in the Union cavalry , but was urgently needed in order to gradually reduce the dominance of the Confederate cavalry.

As a member of Major General Pleasonton's staff , Custer participated in the Civil War's Greatest Equestrian Battle at Brandy Station , Virginia . For his services in that battle, Custer was promoted to Brigadier General of the Volunteers on June 29, 1863 .

Appointed commander of a cavalry brigade from Michigan, Custer led them at the Battle of Gettysburg . Here he was instrumental in the success of keeping the southern cavalry under JEB Stuart in check.

Then he was appointed commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, on September 30, 1864 the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Division of the Potomac Army. With his brigade he took part in the battle at the Yellow Tavern and the battle at Trevilian Station , in which the Confederates captured his personal luggage. In the fall of 1864 he fought in the Shenandoah campaign against General Early , before he, certified to major general of the volunteers, returned with his division in March 1865 to Petersburg , Virginia to the main forces of the Potomac Army. Custer stood out there again during the Appomattox campaign . He was promoted retrospectively to Major General of the Volunteers on April 15, 1865, at 25 years the youngest in the history of the US Army, and later received the brevet rank of Major General of the Regulars. In the regular army, he had now reached the rank of captain in the 5th US Cavalry Regiment.

At the end of the war, Custer was only 25 years old, but known throughout the country for his numerous military achievements. The highest military award of the US armed forces, the Medal of Honor , was not awarded to Custer, while his brother Thomas Custer, who served under him, was the first American soldier to receive it twice.

Indian Wars

Trial and Battle of the Washita

On February 1, 1866, Custer withdrew from the volunteer organization and received an offer from Benito Juárez from Mexico to take over the reorganization of the cavalry regiments as commander in chief of the Mexican cavalry and to lead them in the revolution against Emperor Maximilian . The US government forbade him to accept, as Secretary of State William H. Seward did not want to risk snub to France, which was behind Emperor Maximilian. Custer remained in the US Army and was promoted to lieutenant colonel on July 28, 1866 .

The army command ordered him to Fort Riley , Kansas to support the reorganization of the 7th US Cavalry Regiment as deputy to Colonel Andrew Jackson Smith . On March 26, 1867, Custer was placed under the command of Major General Winfield Scott Hancocks for an expedition to the land of the Sioux and Cheyenne with four companies of the - by far not satisfactorily operational - 7th US Cavalry Regiment .

In the course of this operation, which was completely unsatisfactory for the army command, an incident occurred: Custer ordered the deserters to be shot and refused medical treatment to the survivors. For this he should be held responsible in Fort Leavenworth , Kansas. However, he did not go there immediately, but first visited his wife Elizabeth (Libby) in Fort Riley, since he had learned of the outbreak of cholera there. When he finally got to Fort Leavenworth, he was immediately arrested for continued indiscipline. After the conclusion of the investigation, a military trial was opened against him on September 16, 1867 . Custer was suspended for twelve months without pay .

Convinced that he was the scapegoat for a failed campaign, he was eventually brought back into service at the instigation of his old friend, Major General Sheridan .

In 1868, Custer rehabilitated himself in the public eye when he attacked and destroyed a Southern Cheyenne village under Black Kettle at dawn during the winter campaign on the banks of the Washita . This was to be Custer's only "victory" in the fight against the Indians. Opinions differ as to whether the attack was a massacre or not. The fact is that before the attack, Custer ordered that women and children be spared. On the other hand, a large number of Indian non-combatants were killed in the attack . There are depictions of the battle that seem to show that the US cavalry was greeted amicably by the Cheyenne and the US cavalry suddenly and unexpectedly opened fire. Most of the Indians managed to escape into the woods, but they had to leave everything behind, especially the horses. Custer had the horses caught and over 1,000 shot. This made it impossible for the Indians to hunt buffalo and the loss of their belongings and supplies for the winter made survival in winter much more difficult. Most of the victims were therefore only after the battle.

Custer also came under fire within the regiment. A small group of soldiers under the command of Major Joel Haworth Elliott had pursued fleeing Indians and had not returned. Although Elliott had left the military security zone acting on his own without authorization and Custer had dispatched a search party, albeit too late (which was unsuccessful), there were not a few who held him responsible for the fate of the completely destroyed Elliott force.

Fight against the Sioux

Battle of the Little Bighorn

In 1873 he was sent to the northern plains, where he led some skirmishes against Sioux in the Yellowstone area . In 1874 he led a 1,200-strong expedition to the Black Hills , the sacred mountains of the Indians. Six years earlier they had been guaranteed possession of the mountains by the United States government. One of the exploration teams discovered gold in the valley of French Creek near the present-day town of Custer , South Dakota . Corresponding success stories from Custer were immediately distributed in newspaper reports in 1874 and triggered the gold rush in the Black Hills.

The question of whether Custer had ambitions for a candidacy on the side of the Democrats in the presidential election of 1876 and whether this influenced him in his activities against the Indians is controversial . Custer is said to be interested in the presidency. Others reject such considerations as unfounded.

The troops against the Sioux and Cheyenne in 1876 included the Dakota department, which Custer was originally supposed to command, the units under Colonel John Gibbon and Brigadier General George Crook . Shortly before the start of the campaign, Custer was released from his command due to differences with President Grant and replaced by General Alfred Terry . At Terry's request, Grant reversed his decision and allowed Custer to take part in the campaign at the head of his regiment under Terry's direct command.

A military action began that would end in the defeat of US troops. Terry's plan was to destroy the Indians in a pincer motion. Custer's task was to track down the enemy with the 7th US Cavalry Regiment and attack, while Terry laid the escape route with his mixed infantry and cavalry unit. Fears that the Indians might flee overshadowed all of Custer's actions. He did not conduct extensive reconnaissance and ignored the warnings of his scouts. The claim that Custer disobeyed General Terry's orders to await reinforcements is untenable.

On June 25, 1876, at the Battle of Little Bighorn , Custer attacked the Indian camp on the banks of the Little Bighorn , led by chiefs Sitting Bull , Gall , Two Moons , Crazy Horse and Spotted Elk alias Big Foot . About 2,000 warriors had gathered there, so that the US soldiers were inferior in numbers and, for the first time in history, in terms of weapons. Custer had also divided his regiment into three parts in order to attack the camp from several sides. The superior force of the Indians drove Custer's troops back quickly and was able to place him on a hill on his retreat where Custer and his men were invariably killed. The fallen also included Custer's brothers Thomas Custer (* 1845) and Boston Custer (* 1848).

The other two parts of the regiment under Major Reno and Captain Benteen, as well as the supply troops that had joined them under Captain McDougall, were able to hold out until reinforcements arrived; This remained however only the recovery of the corpses of Custer and his troops.

Custer's body was first buried in a hurry, but later exhumed and honored on October 10, 1877, at the Military Academy in West Point.

Custer and his wife

Custer with his wife "Libbie" Custer, 1864

The relationship with his wife Elizabeth Bacon (born April 8, 1842 Monroe , Michigan † April 4, 1933 New York ), whom he married on February 9, 1864, was characterized by love and respect. Not least because of this, Custer had given himself leave in 1867, without considering the consequences, to visit his wife, who was supposedly suffering from cholera, in Fort Riley . In addition, he always maintained extensive correspondence with her when he was in the field or on a business trip. Elizabeth Custer helped him through the difficult time of his suspension and saw in her husband a radiant, flawless hero throughout his life. Even when, years after his death, she published her two well-known publications, "Boots and Saddles" from 1885 and "General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn" from 1897. In it she describes the hard life on the border of civilization and blames everyone for its dramatic downfall, except for her husband, whom she mostly reverently called the "General". She saw it as her duty to defend him posthumously against all suspicion and cutoffs and did not remarry.

Image in film and literature

His wife Elizabeth, who had often accompanied her husband's campaigns, wrote several books about her husband. Custer himself wrote an autobiography, My Life on the Plains ( My Life on the Plains ), which in 1872 appeared for the first time. In this book he describes his experiences and experiences with his regiment during various campaigns against hostile Indians in previous years. The life of the soldiers and also that of the Indians is described, for whose concerns Custer expresses understanding. The veracity of this autobiography is often very doubtful and Captain Frederick Benteen, one of the officers of Custer's 7th US Cavalry Regiment, called the work contemptuously "My Lies on the Plains". Custer was someone who knew how to attract the public. In his camp he always had reporters with him. Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote the poem "Custer" about him, a hymn of praise that praises him like an ancient heroic epic. Until the 20th century, he enjoyed a good reputation, in 1941 its climax with the American war propaganda film They Died With Their Boots On (Eng .: They Died with Their Boots On ) with the popular Australian actor Errol Flynn reached in the title role.

Since the 1960s, however, slowly began to rethink the treatment of Indians, and as a result, Custer was portrayed as a bloodthirsty warmonger in later films, for example in the film Little Big Man with Richard Mulligan as Custer. He is also seen as a cruel despot in the TV series Dr. Quinn - a passionate doctor, shown here by Jason Leland Adams . He also appears brutal and cruel in the song Custer by Johnny Cash . An exception is the film A Day to Fight by Robert Siodmak from 1967, in which Robert Shaw stages the general as a hero.

The two-part film General Custer's Final Battle ( Son of the Morning Star) from 1991 with Gary Cole in the role of General Custer is worth mentioning . In contrast to the other films, this one shows the life and work of Custer from two perspectives: On the one hand, from the perspective of the young Indian woman Kate Bighead (Kimberly Norris), who lives in Custer's Fort and admires the general to the end. On the other hand, his wife Libby ( Rosanna Arquette ) tells about life with her beloved husband and also reveals his “dark sides” (bad temper, hot-headedness).

Michael Blake, on the other hand, portrays Custer in his novel The Warrior Heaven (originally Marching to Valhalla ) as a man who became the plaything of political intrigue, who was capable of great feelings and who had great respect for the Indian culture against which he felt however went to the field.

Custers rank

Custer's rank is the subject of much debate. Sometimes he is referred to as a lieutenant colonel at the time of his death, sometimes a general. This controversy stems from the fact that there were four different types of ranks during the American Civil War: (full) rank in the regular army ( United States Army - USA), (full) rank in the volunteer army ( United States Volunteers - USV) and brevet -Ranks (titular ranks , similar to the German character ranks before 1939) in both the regular army and the volunteer army. Custer, a lieutenant at the beginning of the Civil War, was promoted to Major General of the Volunteers (Major General USV) during the war and as such also led a cavalry division. In recognition of his achievements, at the end of the war he was also awarded the rank of Major General of the US Army (Brevet Major General USA). His actual rank in the regular army at the end of the civil war was that of a captain . As a brevet major general, however, Custer still had the right to be addressed as a general , even if his powers and his pay only corresponded to those of a captain (or from 1866 a lieutenant colonel).


  • Elizabeth Bacon Custer: Boots and Saddles: Or Life in Dakota with General Custer. Digital Scanning, 2002, ISBN 1-58218-126-8 , reprint of the original by Harper & Brothers, New York 1885.
  • Dee Brown, Helmut Degner: Bury my heart at the bend of the river. ISBN 3-426-62804-X .
  • Holger Bütow: George Armstrong Custer: The death of a media star. In: Military History - Journal of Historical Education. 4/2007, pp. 18-21. here online
  • Evan S. Connell : Son of the Morning Star. Custer and the Little Bighorn. New York 1985.
  • Jerome A. Greene: Washita: The US Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869. Norman, OK 2004.
  • Dietmar Kügler: The US cavalry. Legend and reality of an elite military unit. 1st edition, Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart 1979, ISBN 3-87943-626-6 .
  • John Langellier: General Custer - History and Film. Reinhard Weber Verlag, Landshut, ISBN 978-3-9802987-6-6 .
  • Robert M. Utley: Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Norman, OK 1988.
  • Jeffry D. Wert: Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. New York 1996.
  • Jay Monaghan: Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer. 1959, ND Lincoln, NE 1971.
  • Gregory JW Urwin: Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer. Cranbury, NJ 1983.
  • Neil C. Mangum: The Little Bighorn Campaign: Civil War Veterans Die on the Plains. In: Blue & Gray Magazine. Vol. XXIII, No. 2, 2006, pp. 6-27, 42-50.
  • TJ Stiles : Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2015

Web links

Commons : George Armstrong Custer  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. In the US Army there were three ways to be promoted to a rank:
    1. Promotion to a rank in the regular army;
    2. Promotion to a rank independent of this in the voluntary army organization;
    3. Awarded a certification grade by the US Congress. There were certification ranks both in the regular army and in voluntary associations, so that an officer could hold up to four ranks at the same time.
    For details see also under "Custers Rank".
  2. see the article on Wikipedia: en: George Armstrong Custer # Family tree . They Americanized the name Küster in Custer. A detailed family tree of the Küster / Custer family can be found on ( Memento from May 7, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 15 kB).
  3. ^ Custer's Early Years ( Memento of March 6, 2007 in the Internet Archive ).
  4. Patty Frank: The Indian Battle on the Little Big Horn. 1988, ISBN 3-358-01014-7 , p. 12.
  5. Custer's Academy Years ( Memento of February 14, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) (Engl.)
  6. Ezra J. Warner: Generals in Blue . Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge 2013, ISBN 978-0-8071-5229-4 , pp. 619 .
  7. Official Records Vol XI, Part 1, p. 526. January 12, 2017, accessed April 10, 2020 .
  8. ^ Robert M. Utley: Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Revised edition, University of Oklahoma Press 2001, 39.
  9. Miroslaw Stingl, From the Red Man's Struggle for Freedom , Military Publishing House of the GDR , Berlin 1978, ISBN 3-327-00165-0 , p. 131.
  10. Stephen E. Ambrose: Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors . Premier Digital Publishing, Los Angeles 1996.
  11. Craig Repass: Custer for President? Old Army Press, 1985.
  12. ^ Neil C. Mangum: Little Bighorn Campaign. P. 19f.
  13. ^ Neil C. Mangum: Little Bighorn Campaign. P. 26.
  14. Michael Blake: The sky of warriors. Bastei-Lübbe, paperback 13870, Bergisch Gladbach 1997: blurb