Entering the US Military Academy at West Point on 1 July 1857, George Armstrong Custer graduated in 1861. At the academy he was given two nicknames - Cinnamon and Curly, although the family nickname was Autie. The normal 5-year course of study was cut to 4 years because of the outbreak of the US Civil War. Custer graduated last in his class and had 726 demerits, one of the worst records in the history of the Academy and this in despite of the truncated course of study. Other classmen included Felix Huston Robertson, Guy Vernor Henry, and Thomas L. "Tex" Rosser.
Commissioned as a 2d Lieutenant upon graduation, Custer first saw action at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Through the course of the war, he rose in rank to brevet (temporary) major general. Due to his quick rise in rank, he was referred to as the "boy general."
After Appomattox, the best hope for an ambitious officer was the Indian Wars in the West. And that is where Custer went, as a cavalry Lt. Colonel, after a year of serving as an officer in the post-war Reconstruction in Texas, and briefly considering options in the private sector.
In Jul 1866, he was appointed Lt. Colonel of the newly-created, Kansas-based 7th Cavalry. Never lacking for brashness, he was suspended for going AWOL to see his wife.
Later, in 1873, he provided military escort for a railroad survey in the Black Hills, through territory reserved to the Lakota in 1851 & 1868 treaties. The following year, he led an expedition, returning to the Black Hills. He announced the discovery of gold, boom towns like Deadwood sprung up, and the treaties were broken. And so the seeds of bitterness were sown among the tribes of the Northern Plains against the golden-haired General. Due to his hair color, he was referred to by the Indians as "yellow hair" which was in addition to being known as "son of the morning star." The Indian nicknames are actually nice when compared to the nicknames given him by his own troops - Iron Butt, Hard Ass, and Ringlets.
At the Little Bighorn, Custer's command was part of a larger military campaign to subdue the Indians who were massing. The Indian village was composed of seven bands of Lakotas, a few Arapaho, and a number of Cheyenne. Custer's orders were to find the Indian village and inform Generals Terry and Gibbon of the location. What has never been made clear is whether he was ordered not to attack the camp but wait for the arrival of the main force or if he could use his own judgement and order an early attack. Custer did decide to attack without the main force but then made the tactical mistake of splinting his 7th Cavalry into smaller units. As a result, two battalions of three companies each and the pack train with one company were isolated from Custer's five companies who were slain at the Last Stand. The myth that Custer's entire command was wiped out still exists today. In truth, the five companies, consisting of about 215 troops out of the combined 7th Cavalry force of about 625, at the Last Stand were slain. An Army Court of Inquiry was later convened to hear the survivors testimony of the battle. No one was ever charged for misconduct. At least 18 troopers were awarded the Medal of Honor. The Custer family lost a number of family members in the battle. In addition to Custer, those who died were Custer's brothers Tom and Boston, brother-in-law Lt. James Calhoun and Custer's nephew Harry "Autie" Reed. For action during the Civil War, Tom Custer had been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. Probably, the most defining book on the battle is The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick, published by Viking Penguin in 2010.
Six US states have named counties in Gen. Custer's memory: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota. In addition, many towns, parks and monuments are named after him as well.
What is now the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was formerly called the Custer National Battlefield, renamed in 1991, signed into law by Pres. George H.W. Bush. That military engagement was known as the Battle of Greasy Grass among the Indians.
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