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HISTORY & PREHISTORY

General George A. Custer

General Custer Property of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. Material may be protected by copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code).

Custer is remembered for his famous "Last Stand" along the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana. While many people have heard of this famous battle, not all of them know how Custer came to command the Seventh Cavalry of the U.S. Army. He was born in New Rumley, Ohio in 1839. After graduating at the bottom of his class in West Point Military Academy, he was court-marshaled for not obeying his duties as an officer of the guard. But the Civil War was raging in full force and the North needed officers, so he was not punished. Custer proved himself a worthy officer in that bloody war. He was at the Appomattox Courthouse to personally accept the flag of surrender from General Robert E. Lee and at age 23 was the youngest officer ever to make the rank of General. After the war, however, he was stripped of his commission.

Custer enlisted in the regular Army and was appointed lieutenant colonel of the Seventh Cavalry in July of 1866. He continued to have trouble with his superiors and gained a reputation for not following orders. On November 27, 1868, he led an attack on Black Kettle's band of Southern Cheyenne even though Black Kettle had always given in to the demands of the U.S. Government and was flying the white flag of truce on the morning of Custer's attack. Custer's men slaughtered the Southern Cheyenne and all of their animals. Many of Black Kettle's braves had already left to join the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne in their fight to protect the plains from white settlement. Black Kettle and his wife were both killed in the battle of Washita. The Southern Cheyenne's dream of freedom died that day with their chief.

Custer Property of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. Material may be protected by copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code).

But in the eyes of the public and his commanding officers, the slaughter was a great victory for the U.S. Custer was again a hero. In 1876 Custer was sent, along with Generals Crook and Gibbon, to lead a force which was ordered to defeat Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyanne warriors. Once again, Custer didn't quite follow orders. The Sioux and Cheyenne were camped, with Sitting Bull, along the Little Bighorn River. Crazy Horse had just returned from turning back General Crook's forces. And Custer's men advanced much faster than Gibbons. Custer decided not to wait for his compatriots. He split his men up in order to attack the Indian encampment from two sides. However, he had miscalculated both the size of the Indian encampment and the depth of the river he would have to cross in order to reach it. Witnesses say that Crazy Horse quickly recognized this mistake and led a band of warriors to ambush Custer's men.

All 210 or more of Custer's men were killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn including Custer himself. Some people choose to remember Custer as a great hero who fought with honor and bravery. Others think of him as an evil genius and crazy fool who killed senselessly. In either case, Custer was part of a larger tragedy. He lived through a time when America was at war with itself; in the South and in the West.

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