Custer was the son of a farmer and blacksmith. His brothers, Thomas Ward, Boston, Nevin and Margaret. He spent much of his boyhood living with his half-sister and his brother-in-law in Monroe, Michigan, where he attended school. Before entering West Point, he taught school in Ohio. A local legend suggests that he obtained his appointment to West Point the due to the
influence of a prominent resident who wished to keep Custer away from his daughter.
Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, ranked 34 out of 34 in his class. He came close to expulsion each of his 4 years due to excessive demerits. He began a path to a distinguished war record, one that has been overshadowed in history by his role and fate in the Indian Wars.
Custer was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and immediately joined his regiment at the 1st Bull Run, where Army commander Major Gen. Winfield Scott detailed him to carry messages to Major Gen. Irvin McDowell. After the battle, he was reassigned to the 5th U.S. Cavalry, with which he served through the early days of the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. During the pursuit of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston on May 24, he persuaded a Colonel into allowing him to lead an attack with 4 companies of Michigan infantry across the Chickahominy River. The attack was successful, capturing 50 Confederates. Major Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, brought him onto his staff as an aide-de-camp in the temporary rank of captain. In this role, he continued his lifelong pursuit of publicity.
When McClellan was relieved of command, Custer reverted to the rank of 1st lieutenant and returned to the 5th Cavalry for Antietam and Chancellorsville. He fell into the orbit of Major Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commanding a cavalry division. The general was his introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering and the young lieutenant became his protégé, serving on Pleasonton's staff while continuing his assignment with his regiment.
After Chancellorsville, Pleasonton became the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac and his first assignment was to locate the army of Gen. Robert E. Lee, moving north through the Shenandoah Valley in the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign. Custer distinguished himself by fearless, aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements that started off the campaign, including Brandy Station and Aldie.
Three days prior to the battle of Gettysburg, Pleasonton promoted Custer from first lieutenant to Brigadier General of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became the youngest general in the Union Army at age 23. He lost no time in implanting his aggressive character on his brigade, part of the division of Brigadier Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. He fought against the Confederate cavalry of Major Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at Hanover and Hunterstown, on the way to the main event at Gettysburg.
Custer's style of battle sometimes bordered on the reckless or foolhardy. He often impulsively gathered up whatever cavalrymen he could find in his vicinity and led them personally in bold assaults directly into Confederate positions. At Hunterstown, in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick against the brigade of Brigadier Gen. Wade Hampton, Custer fell from his wounded horse directly before the Confederates and became the target of numerous enemy rifles. He was rescued by the bugler of the 1st Michigan Cavalry.
Possibly Custer's finest hour in the Civil War was just east of Gettysburg on July 3. In conjunction with Pickett's Charge to the west, Lee dispatched Stuart's cavalry on a mission into the rear of the Union Army. Custer encountered the Union cavalry division of Col. David M. Gregg, directly in the path of Stuart's cavalrymen. He convinced Gregg to allow him to stay and fight, while his own division was stationed to the south out of the action. At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a bold mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault, and foiling Lee's plan.
When the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac was reorganized under Major Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1864, Custer retained his command, and took part in the various actions of the cavalry in the Overland Campaign, including the battles of the Wilderness (after which he ascended to division command), Yellow Tavern, and Trevilian Station. When Confederate Major Gen. Jubal A. Early moved down the Shenandoah Valley and threatened Washington, D.C., his division was dispatched along with Sheridan to the Valley Campaign. They pursued the Confederates at Winchester and effectively destroyed Early's army during Sheridan's counterattack at Cedar Creek.
Custer and Sheridan, having defeated Early, returned to the main Union lines at Petersburg, where they spent the winter.
In April 1865, the Confederate lines were finally broken and Lee began his retreat to Appomattox Court House, pursued unmercifully by the Union cavalry. Custer distinguished himself by his actions at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. His division blocked Lee's retreat on its final day, received the first flag of truce from the Confederate force, and was present at the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Before the close of the war, he received brevet promotions to brigadier and major general in the Regular Army and major general in the volunteers. But as with most wartime promotions, these senior ranks were only temporary.
In 1866, Custer was mustered out of the volunteer service, regressed to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and was assigned to the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. In 1867, he was court-martialed for being AWOL and was suspended for one year, returning to the army in 1868. He took part in Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's expedition against the Cheyenne Indians, upon whom he inflicted a crushing defeat at Washita River on November 27, 1868. This was regarded as the first substantial U.S. victory in the Indian Wars and the entire Cheyenne tribe was forced to return to its reservation. In 1873, he was sent to the Dakota Territory to protect a railroad survey party against the Sioux. Then on August 4, 1873, Custer and the 7th Cavalry clashed for the first time with the Sioux. In 1874, he led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek, South Dakota.
In 1876, Hiester Clymer, Chairman of the House Committee on Military Expenditures, commenced an investigation of various acts of Secretary of War William W. Belknap. Custer was called to testify in the proceedings, despite his statement that what he knew was only by hearsay. But his testimony seemed to confirm the accusations not only against Belknap, but even against President Ulysses S. Grant's brother, Orville Grant. The president was infuriated at Custer and took his revenge by placing him under arrest. This delayed a scheduled expedition against the hostile Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes, of which Custer was to be involved. Grant relieved Custer of command and ordered the expedition to proceed without him.
Grant relented and gave his permission for Custer to go. The 7th Cavalry departed from Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876. Crow Indian scouts identified to him what they claimed was a large encampment of Indians. He decided to attack immediately, despite the fact that the primary task of the mission was to return the Indians to their reservations. It was at Little Big Horn that he was killed. There, the survivors of the command exchanged in long-range fire with the Indians until they ran out of ammunition. Many of the corpses or wounded were mutilated, stripped, and skulls crashed. Custer was not so molested. He had two bullet holes, one in the left temple and one in the breast.
Following the recovery of Custer's body, he was given a funeral with full military honors. He was buried on the battlefield, which was designated a National Cemetery in 1879, but was reinterred to the West Point National Cemetery on October 10, 1877.
After his death, Custer achieved the lasting fame that eluded him in life. The public saw him as a tragic military hero and gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. It is believed that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer.