George Armstrong Custer
Civil War general and an Indian fighter

1839 - 1876

George Armstrong Custer was a United States Army officer who won fame as a Civil War general and an Indian fighter in the West. Custer is best known for his role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, in the Montana Territory. In this battle, which is also known as "Custer's Last Stand," Sioux and Cheyenne Indians killed Custer and all of the men under his direct command. The Battle of the Little Bighorn became famous because of disagreement over the reasons for Custer's defeat.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio. As a boy, he wanted to be a soldier. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1861, ranking last in his class. But during the Civil War, which had just begun, Custer quickly gained attention as a fearless cavalry leader. In 1863, at the age of 23, he was made a brigadier general, and in 1865, a major general, both temporary ranks.

Many who served with the bold "boy general" admired his bravery and success. Many others felt that Custer was overly proud and too sure of his abilities. Some of his enemies were jealous of him and called Custer a "glory hunter." But he captured the public's attention and became a hero in the North.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Army dropped Custer to his regular rank of captain. He joined the Seventh Cavalry Regiment in 1866 as a lieutenant colonel. Custer won greater fame and made more enemies while fighting Indians in the southern Great Plains region and in the Dakota and Montana territories.

In early 1876, Custer's regiment joined troops organized to force the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians onto reservations. General Alfred H. Terry commanded the expedition. In June, the main part of the army force reached an area in the Montana Territory where Terry expected to find the Sioux Indians. Terry ordered Custer's regiment to get in a position south of the Indians.

On the morning of June 25, Custer's scouts found an Indian village about 15 miles away. It lay in the valley along the Little Bighorn River. Custer expected to find about 1,000 Indian warriors. He believed his 650 soldiers could easily capture the village. However, the camp really had at least 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. This group, whose leaders included Crazy Horse, Gall, and Sitting Bull, was probably the largest gathering of Indian warriors in Western history.

Custer decided to attack immediately. He split his regiment into three main groups--one under Captain Frederick W. Benteen, one under Major Marcus A. Reno, and one under himself. He sent Benteen to the south to prevent the Indians from escaping in that direction. He ordered Reno to cross the Little Bighorn and attack the village. Custer's group turned north and went downstream, probably to attack a weak point in the village.

After intense fighting in the valley, Reno's badly beaten troops retreated up the hills on the other side of the river. Benteen's group joined Reno's men there. About 4 miles away from this site, the Indians killed Custer and his entire unit of approximately 210 soldiers. The fighting may have lasted only one hour. The Indians fought Benteen and Reno's troops until June 26. Later that day, the Indians disbanded their camp and left the territory. Terry arrived with his soldiers on June 27.

Americans found it almost impossible to believe that any group of Indians could have killed such a well-known officer and all his men. Custer's enemies accused him of disobeying Terry by attacking the Indians without waiting for the main body of soldiers. Custer's supporters charged that Reno had been a coward, and could have rescued Custer if he had not retreated. Others blamed Terry and his aides for not knowing the size of the Indian force. Historians still argue about the reasons for Custer's defeat, but no one really knows.

Contributor: Brian W. Dippie, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of Victoria.

Additional resources

Level I

Bacharach, Deborah. Custer's Last Stand: Opposing Viewpoints. Greenhaven, 1990.

Halliburton, Warren J. The Tragedy of Little Bighorn. Watts, 1989.

Stein, R. Conrad. The Story of the Little Bighorn. 1983. Reprint. Childrens Pr., 1989.

Level II

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. 1984. Reprint. HarperCollins, 1991.

Gray, John S. Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed. Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1991.

Hutton, Paul A., ed. The Custer Reader. Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1992.

Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Univ. of Oklahoma Pr., 1988.


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