George Armstrong Custer: golden-haired son of the morning star. Born in Ohio on December 5, 1839, Custer graduated from West Point in 1861 at the bottom of his class. Ironically, Custer, who would become the youngest general in the Union Army narrowly avoided dismissal from the military academy for misconduct by volunteering for service when the Civil War broke out. In other words, Custer would have been dishonorably discharged from the military if war had not broken out (and a military draft come into effect).
Because of his daring and recklessness in leading troops into battle, Custer rose quickly through the ranks. Custer first came to the attention of General George B. McClellan—and McClellan had Custer appointed an aide. Custer's crowning glory during the Civil War came on May 11, 1864, when his regiment broke through Rebel lines and routed General Jeb Stuart, killing the Confederate general in the process. Later, during the final phase of the war, Custer led Union troops chasing Robert E. Lee's bruised Confederate troops.
After the Civil War, Custer went on to become the most famous Indian fighter in American history. In 1874, Custer led an expedition of one thousand soldiers, miners and journalists into the Black Hills (Dakota territory), the tribal land of the Sioux, where rumor had it there were gold deposits. The Indians protested the invasion, but white government authorities refused to yield.
The reconnaissance had tragic consequences for the Indians. When Custer's prospectors confirmed there was gold in the Black Hills streams and that timber was abundant, a spectacular land rush ensued. Resentment flared as white people came into contact with the Indians. When an attempt by Washington D.C. to purchase the land failed and Indians went on the warpath, the Seventh Cavalry was sent in to annihilate the Indians.
Custer had hired 4 Sioux, 30 Arikaras, and 6 Crows as Indian scouts. One of those Crow scouts was White Man Runs Him who informed Custer that the Sioux's village was too large for the Seventh Cavalry to attack and asked Custer to wait for reinforcements. Custer refused, however, for fear the Sioux would escape and thereby deprive him of the victory he so desperately wanted and anticipated. Custer fired all of the Indian scouts—thus, none of them died with Custer.
On June 25, 1876, Custer came upon an encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne, their tepees spread out along the valley of the Little Bighorn. Custer ordered the charge. Without waiting for the remaining elements of the proposed three-pronged attack and fearful that he might have to share some of the glory, Custer led his soldiers into a fray in which they were outnumbered eight to one. Major Reno was sent across the valley floor in a direct attack while Custer took up position along the lowlying hills. For reasons still unclear, Reno broke off his attack and retreated instead of charging.
Meanwhile, Custer moved his elite unit down from the hills, presumably to join in the attack he thought was taking place on the Indian village. He did not get very far. On a grassy knoll overlooking the meandering river, Custer ordered his soldiers to take up a defensive position. Their stand was gallant but doomed from the start as some two thousand Indian warriors on horseback swept up the gently sloping terrain, eventually overrunning Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. President Ulysses S. Grant hated Custer.
Custer may have committed suicide: At 3:30 p.m. on June 25, 1876, Custer and 267 of his soldiers were killed by Indians in the battle of Little Big Horn. When the 36-year-old Custer's naked body was found later, one of his fingers was cut off, and an arrow had been shoved into his penis. There was a wound in his temple, and it was thought that Custer had saved his last bullet for himself. “These men (i.e. Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud, Tecumseh, Metacomet-Philip) were great leaders, fighting against all odds. They defended their freedom, their people and their land against invaders from all over the world... in the end, each one was assassinated,” said Floyd Red Crow Westerman.