George Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio and graduated last in his class from West Point in 1861. He immediately joined his regiment at the First Battle of Bull Run. As a staff officer, his daring and energy, and in particular a spirited reconnaissance on the Chickahominy river, brought him to the notice of General George McClellan, who made him an aide-de-camp with the rank of captain.
A few hours afterwards Custer attacked a Confederate picket post and drove back the enemy. He continued to serve with McClellan until the general was relieved of his command, when Custer returned to duty with his regiment as a lieutenant. In 1863 Custer was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general of volunteers. He distinguished himself at the head of the Michigan cavalry brigade in the Battle of Gettysburg, and frequently did good service in the remaining operations of the campaign of 1863.
When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Sheridan in 1864, Custer retained his command, and took part in the various actions of the cavalry in the Wilderness and Shenandoah campaigns. In February 1864, Custer raided a Confederate camp in a battle known as the Battle of Rio Hill. At the end of September 1864, he was appointed to command a division, and on October 9 fought in the brilliant cavalry action called the Battle of Woodstock.
While retaining his regular-army rank of captain, he was rapidly given brevet commissions in the Volunteers as major, lieutenant-colonel and colonel, and finally brevet-major-general for his services at Gettysburg, Yellow Tavern and Winchester. His part in the decisive Battle of Cedar Creek was most conspicuous.
He served with General Philip Sheridan in the last great cavalry raid, won the action of Waynesboro, and in the final campaign added to his laurels by his conduct at Dinwiddie and Five Forks. At the close of the war he received the brevets of brigadier and major-general in the regular army, and was promoted major-general of volunteers. In 1866 Custer was made lieutenant-colonel with the 7th U.S. Cavalry, and took part under General Winfield Scott Hancock in the expedition against the Cheyenne Indians, upon whom he inflicted a crushing defeat at Washita River on November 27, 1868. Even though the Cheyenne he massacred were not part of a hostile tribe (and were in fact on reservation land), this was still regarded as the first substantial US victory in the Indian Wars. In 1873 he was sent to the Dakota Territory to protec a railroad survey party against the Sioux. Then on August 4 of that year near the Tongue River, Custer and the 7th Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Sioux. Only one man on each side was killed.
In 1876 an expedition, of which Custer and his regiment formed part, was made against the Sioux and their allies. As the advanced guard of the troops under Gen. Alfred Terry, Custer's force arrived at the junction of the Big Horn and Little Big Horn rivers, in what is now the state of Montana, on the night of June 24. The main body was due to join him on the 26th.
The presence of what was judged to be a very large encampment of Indians was reported to the general by his Crow Indian scouts. Despite this warning, on June 25, Custer divided his regiment into three commands and moved forward to surround and attack the encamped Indians. The 7th Calvary met stiff resistance and were counter attacked by the full forces of the enemy. The flanking columns maintained themselves with difficulty until general Terry arrived. Custer and 264 men of the main column were slaughtered to a man.
Following the recovery of Custer's body from where he fell during the Battle of Little Big Horn the previous year, Custer was given a funeral with full military honors and was laid to rest at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York on October 10, 1877.
Custer's wife, Elizabeth, who accompanied him in many of his frontier expeditions, wrote several books about him Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887) and Following the Guidon (1891). General Custer himself wrote about the Indian wars in My Life on the Plains (1874).
Custer was a dashing personality with a good understanding of modern publicity, carrying reporters on his campaigns, and he retained a high reputation well into the 20th century when reconsiderations of the campaign against the Indians led to criticism of both the morality and the military execution of his efforts. This has progressed to the point where he is often depicted in film as a bloodthirsty villain. He has been the subject of many films, novels, including Little Big Man and Son of the Morning Star, as well as many volumes of history and alternate history.
His brother, Tom Custer (1845 - 1876), in spite of his youth, fought in the early campaigns of the Civil War. Becoming aide-de-camp to General Custer, he accompanied him throughout the latter part of the war, distinguishing himself by his daring on all occasions, and winning successively the brevets of captain, major and lieutenant-colonel, though he was barely twenty years of age when the war ended. He was first lieutenant in the 7th cavalry when he fell with his brother at the Little Big Horn.
George Custer has been played in the movies by Francis Ford (1912 twice), Ned Finley (1916), Dustin Farnum (1926), John Beck (1926), Clay Clement (1933). John Miljan (1936), Frank McGlynn (1936), Paul Kelly (1940), Addison Richards (1940), Ronald Reagan (1940), Errol Flynn (1941), James Millican (1942), Sheb Wooley (1952), Douglas Kennedy (1954), Britt Lomond (1958), Philip Carey (1965), Leslie Nielsen (1966), Robert Shaw (1967), Wayne Maunder (1967 & 1990), Richard Mulligan (1970), Marcello Mastroianni (1974), Ken Howard (1977), James Olsen (1977), Gary Cole (1991), Josh Lucas (1993), Peter Horton (1996) and William Shockley (1997).
Tom Custer has been represented by John Napier (1965), Ed Lauter (1977) and Tim Ransom (1991)