George Armstrong Custer was born December 5, 1839, in New Rumley, Ohio. Although born in Ohio, Custer spent part of his youth in the home of his half sister and brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan. After graduating from McNeely Normal School (later Hopedale Normal College) in Ohio in 1856, he taught school before enrolling in the U.S. Military Academy, from which he graduated last in his class in June 1861. Having entered the army as a second lieutenant at the start of the Civil War, Custer saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). Later, catching the eye of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, Custer joined that important officer’s staff and developed contacts with many senior commanders. In 1863, at age 23, he became a brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers, leading the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, which consisted of four regiments from his adopted home state. Dubbed the “Boy General,” Custer distinguished himself in numerous encounters, including the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), the Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864), and the Third Battle of Winchester (September 19, 1864), which led to his rise to division command and promotion to major general before he turned age 25. During the closing days of the war, his relentless pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia and Gen. Robert E. Lee helped to hasten their surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.
With the end of the Civil War, the citizen soldiers of the U.S. Volunteers disbanded. Custer reverted to the rank of captain in the regular army, though he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became acting commander of the newly formed 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. In 1866 Custer and his 7th Cavalry reported to western Kansas to take part in Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s expedition to subdue hostile Plains Indians with the military strength of the U.S. Army.
In November 1868, his command surprised and destroyed the Southern Cheyenne chief Black Kettle’s village on the Washita River. (Black Kettle and his people had already been the target of a controversial surprise attack by the army in 1864 known as the Sand Creek Massacre.) This somewhat dubious success—the majority of the Indians are thought to have been women, children, and older people rather than warriors—was the army’s first major victory over the Southern Plains tribes following the Civil War, and it established Custer’s reputation as America’s top Indian fighter, which he retained well after other army officers’ exploits had surpassed his.
Many of the Plains Indians came under the leadership of the charismatic Sioux leader Sitting Bull, who advocated resistance to U.S. expansion and inspired his people with impressive religious visions. When the hunting season arrived in the spring of 1876, many more Native Americans left their reservations and headed out to join Sitting Bull, whose growing number of followers eventually made camp on the Little Bighorn River (a branch of the Bighorn River) in southern Montana.
Custer opted for an immediate attack by the 7th Cavalry into the Little Bighorn Valley. At noon on June 25, to keep the Sioux and Cheyenne from escaping, Custer divided his regiment into three battalions, sending one to charge the village head on, a second to swing south to intercept any Indians fleeing in that direction, and a third under his personal command to strike the village from the north. This turned out to be a disastrous decision that fragmented Custer’s regiment and placed its three main components too far apart to support each other.
On June 25, 1876, the unfolding battle, which came to be known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, confronted Custer and the 7th Cavalry with a series of unpleasant surprises. Rather than seek safety in flight, the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians stood their ground, determined to either live or die in freedom. Earlier army intelligence estimates credited the bands loyal to Sitting Bull with a force of 800 fighting men, but Custer actually found himself facing some 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, many of them armed with superior repeating rifles and all of them resolved to defend their women, children, and older relatives.
In a desperate battle that may have lasted nearly two hours, the Indians cut off the 210 soldiers who had followed Custer toward the northern reaches of their village and killed them all. Not one cavalry trooper lived to tell the story of “Custer’s Last Stand.” Two days later a scouting party from General Terry’s column discovered Custer’s nude, unscalped body lying amid a ring of dead cavalry horses where he and 40 other men had rallied for a final stand. General George Custer was 37 years old.