General George Armstrong Custer was a cavalry leader who is perhaps best known for leading his men into death at the Battle of Little Bighorn, a seminal event in the Indian Wars which tore apart the American frontier in the late 1800s. At the time, his contemporaries viewed General Custer as a tragic hero, and his wife and others worked to cultivate this image. More modern interpretations of General Custer are a bit less favorable, reflecting a shift in ideas about Native American policy and diplomacy in the early United States.
Custer was born in 1839 in Ohio. After completing his basic education, he attended West Point, where he managed to come out at the bottom of his class. Typically, a student with a graduating rank that low would be sent to a fairly obscure posting, but Custer happened to graduate when the military desperately needed officers for the Civil War, so he found himself in command in the South. He distinguished himself during the Civil War, setting the stage for his role in the Indian Wars.
General Custer was known for being extremely flamboyant, bold, and aggressive. He fearlessly lead his men into dangerous situations, and wasn't afraid to use unconventional means to accomplish his goals. Several times, he was humiliated and criticized by his superiors, but as a general rule, General Custer came to be viewed as an innovative, bold, and useful member of the military.
In 1876, Custer was involved in the Black Sioux War, the result of encroachment on Native American territory in the West. Despite the fact that his scouts warned him about a large body of Indians lying in wait, General Custer decided to charge forward into the Battle of Little Bighorn, meeting a ferocious group of Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne Indians, who proceeded to slaughter Custer and his cavalry. This event came to be known as “Custer's Last Stand,” and it was immortalized in numerous imaginative paintings, poems, sculptures, and books.
Elizabeth Clift Bacon, Custer's wife, popularized the idea of Custer as a hero after his death at the Battle of Little Bighorn. She wrote several books about General Custer, and supported the construction of memorials and statues all over the West; some of these memorials can still be seen today. Some historians suggest that Custer's legacy also lives on in the flesh, as evidence seems to indicate that he had several affairs with Native American women which may have resulted in children.