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General Custer

180 years ago, on December 5th, 1839, George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio. His father was a farmer and a blacksmith who impressed upon the oldest of his three sons with his second wife the importance of being tough—of being "a good soldier." But before he became one of the most famous soldiers in the country, Custer attended a Normal School and studied to become a teacher. Before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, Custer taught school in Cadiz, Ohio.

George Armstrong Custer

Throughout his life and his career as a military officer, Custer pushed boundaries and broke rules. By the end of his time at West Point, Custer had amassed 726 demerits, one of the highest totals in the school's long history. Out of the 79 students who enrolled alongside George Custer, 23 dropped out for academic reasons. 22 departed the school to join the burgeoning Confederacy. Of the remaining 34 graduates, Custer ranked 34th. His position as last in his class would have, at any other time, meant an obscure posting and a rapid end to a military career, but the outbreak of the Civil War meant that the United States Army needed every junior officer it could get.

Custer during his enrollment at West Point

George Custer would impact Texas Jack's life notably on three occasions. The first was as a cavalry commander for the Union Army during the Civil War. Commissioned as a second lieutenant and as aide-de-camp to Major General George B. McClellan, Custer began to earn a reputation as a brave and dashing solider. In pursuit of Confederate forces with General John Gross Barnard, Custer came upon the General and his staff reconnoitering a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River. When Barnard told his aide, "I wish I knew how deep it is," Custer dashed forward on his horse out to the middle of the river, turned to the astonished officers, and shouted triumphantly, "That's how deep it is, Mr. General!" Actions like these, combined with a number of successful attacks, lead to a series of promotions in rank. At Gettysburg, Custer provided the last line of defense keeping Confederate cavalry commander General J.E.B. Stuart's troops from joining Pickett's charge. Custer was promoted to Major, though his brigade lost 257 men, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade at Gettysburg.


Custer and Stuart would meet on opposite sides of the battlefield again, this time in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Both Generals participated in the Battle of Yellow Tavern, where a young Jack Omohundro would deliver the final battle dispatch to General Stuart before he was shot down by retreating Union soldiers. At Trevilian Station, the bloodiest and largest all-cavalry battle of the Civil War, Custer lost fully half of his troops in a combat with Confederate General Wade Hampton's forces, while Texas Jack was shot in the leg with a musket ball while mounting a counterattack against the Union's right flank.

Charge of the Confederate cavalry at Trevilian Station, Virginia, by James E. Taylor, 1891.

At the end of the war, Custer again demonstrated his willingness to bend or break the rules, the law, and his commanding officers when he tasked his men with searching for, then illegally seizing a large, prize racehorse called "Don Juan" near Clarksville, Virginia, worth then an estimated $10,000. That is over $150,000 in 2019. Custer then rode the horse in the grand review victory parade in Washington, D.C, creating a sensation when the scared thoroughbred bolted. Don Juan's owner wrote to General Grant personally, and Grant ordered Custer to return the horse. Instead, Custer hid the horse and won a race with it the next year, before the horse died suddenly.


After the Civil War, Custer cultivated friend in high places, none higher than President Johnson, who invited Custer and his wife Elizabeth to accompany him on a trip through Reconstruction era South. Custer was appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly created 7th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Riley, Kansas, but was later arrested and suspended for being AWOL (absent without leave) for abandoning his post to spend time with his wife. General Phil Sheridan, who had commanded the Union forces at Trevilian Station, ensured that Custer was allowed to return before his year's suspension was finished.


George and Libby Custer, 1864.

Custer was intimately involved with Russian Grand Duke Alexis' 1872 buffalo hunt, which Texas Jack and his friend Buffalo Bill oversaw. It was this hunt that brought the men into national prominence, leading to their encounter with dime novelist Ned Buntline and their subsequent fame as stage stars. Each man was ambitious, and each knew that association with the other carried a benefit. Buffalo Bill would speak warmly of his "friend" General Custer throughout his life.


Custer and the Grand Duke Alexis.

When Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill became stars, they were much in demand as Indian fighters. The backdrop was the Modoc War of California and the death of General Canby and Custer's clashes with the Lakota in the Dakota territory. After his 1874 expedition into the Black Hills, Custer publicly announced that there was abundant gold in the area, triggering a rush of white prospectors into Sioux lands, the setting up of notoriously lawless towns like Deadwood, and setting into motion a perhaps inevitable conflict.


George Armstrong Custer was not supposed to lead the 1876 campaign against the Sioux in the Dakotas. Custer had testified before the Senate against President Grant's Secretary of War William Belknap. Custer's testimony exposed frontier trader post kickback rings and implied that Belknap was behind these rings and personally profited from them. Worse, Custer testified on hearsay evidence that President Grant's brother Orvil was involved. As Custer had also once arrested Grant's son Fred for drunkenness, an infuriated President Grant retaliated by stripping Custer of his command in the upcoming campaign. General's Terry and Sherman both appealed to Custer to meet with Grant personally, but Grant denied three requests for a meeting. Demonstrating again his penchant for disobeying superiors, Custer boarded a train for Chicago, determined to command his troops even if the Commander in Chief forbid it. Grant sent orders ahead of Custer to Chicago, and Phil Sheridan's staff arrested Custer for leaving Washington without permission. Grant eventually relented slightly, determining that Custer could fight with, but not lead, troops on the campaign. Even this was not good enough for Custer, who now appealed to General Alfred Terry to speak to Grant about allowing him to command the expedition. Worried now that if the "Sioux campaign" failed without Custer in command, he would be blamed for ignoring the recommendations of senior Army officers, Grant sent word that Custer could lead the expedition, but only under Terry's direct supervision.

CdV signed by Custer

Custer's failures during the expedition, as well as prior to and during the fatal Battle of the Little Bighorn, are well documented. News of the defeat reached American cities just as they began to celebrate the nation's centennial, and soon Texas Jack was recalled to serve as a scout for General Terry, pursuing warriors allied with Oglala Lakota war leader Crazy Horse and Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull. If the first four years of his life as an actor had been against the backdrop of the Modoc War and early skirmishes with the Sioux, the next four years would be defined by the defeat of Custer in Montana. What had looked like bravery and dash in victory appeared foolhardiness and arrogance in defeat. George Armstrong Custer was defeated by Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho at what they would later call the Battle of the Greasy Grass, but perhaps more than any other military officer in American history, Custer was a victim of his own success and his hubris.

The Custer Fight by Charles Marion Russell

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© 2019 by Dime Library.

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