Who Was General Custer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

General Custer and his army were killed by the Lakotas at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
General Custer and his army were killed by the Lakotas at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

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.

Known for an aggressive style of command, Custer ignored his own scouts during the events leading to the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Known for an aggressive style of command, Custer ignored his own scouts during the events leading to the Battle of Little Bighorn.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I think that Custer is a perfect example of how history changes over time. In the few decades after Custer's last stand the way history was written, at least in the United States, reflected the western-like, conquering, attitude associated with western expansion. Because of this history was written in a much more romanticized way and historians chose not to criticize, but rather glorify Custer and his charge.

As the times have changed and historical study has become more cynical people have started to view Custer for who he really was. He was a soldier, who barely passed his classes at West Point and know only one way to fight, which was to always be on the offensive. He was also a racist and this could have played a role in his demise.

Figures like Custer allow for historians to study how changes in historical perception occur over the decades and how history can change over time. Who knows, maybe in a few decades history will change yet again and Custer will be painted in an entirely different light.


What's really interesting to me is how big a role his wife played in his memorialization. If you think about it, that's a really enterprising woman to make such a business out of his memory. Cold? Perhaps. But maybe she really did just want her husband to be remembered in a heroic light.


@stl156 - I believe you are right in your assessment of Custer and it only shows how much history has changed in the last several decades. Although Custer is seen as this romantic hero, in reality he was a very rough individual and barely got through West Point. I have heard stories about how he was in the same graduating class at West Point as General Robert E. Lee and Lee was first in the class, Custer finished last in his class and had numerous demerits to his name while going there.

Although he is seen as making a heroic stand against the Indians, in reality it was a very dumb attack on his part as the Indians out-numbered his troops nearly twenty to one. He probably felt that he could still defeat the Indians in his own aggressive way, and with his racist thinking overshadowing the fact that the Indians had so many more in numbers than he did.


General Custer was a very interesting man to study for a class I had once. The article talks about how he was embarrassed quite often among his peers, but was sometimes seen as someone who thought outside of the box.

Although this may be the case what I have gathered from studying him is that he was a man that refused to retreat and never knew how to go on the defensive.

Although he has been romanticized by his last stand at Little Big Horn, I have always believed that he more or less did this because he did not know how to fight any other way and was willing to sacrifice as many men as possible in order to accomplish his goal of victory.

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