A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 13

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



George Armstrong Custer, son of Emmanuel H. Custer, a hard-working, enterprising farmer, was born at New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio, December 5th, 1839. He grew up into an active, athletic, and amiable youth, acquired a fair English education, and at the age of sixteen years engaged in teaching school near his native town.

Having determined to go to West Point if possible, young Custer addressed a letter on the subject to Hon. John A. Bingham, Member of Congress from his district, to whom he was personally unknown, and subsequently called on him. The result was that he entered West Point Academy as a cadet in 1857. The official notification of his appointment was signed by Jefferson Davis, President Buchanan's secretary of war.

As a cadet, Custer did not achieve a brilliant record either for scholarship or good behavior. This was not owing to any want of intelligence or quickness of comprehension, but rather to a love of mischief and hatred of restraint. During the four years of his academic term he spent 66 Saturdays in doing extra guard duty as penance for various offences; and he graduated in 1861, at the foot of a class of 34.

His stay terminated with a characteristic incident. He chanced one day when officer of the guard to come upon two angry cadets, who from words had come to blows, and were just ready to settle their difficulty with their fists. Custer pushed through the crowd of spectators who surrounded the combatants, but instead of arresting them, as was his duty, he restrained those who were endeavoring to restrain them, and called out:—

"Stand back, boys; let's have a fair fight."

His appeal was heard by Lieuts. Hazen and Merritt, and he was placed under arrest and kept back to be court-martialed, while the rest of his class, (excepting such as had already resigned to join the Southern army) departed for active service. The court-martial was however cut short, through the exertions of his fellow cadets at Washington, by a telegraphic order summoning him there.

Custer reported to the Adjutant-General of the Army at Washington, July 20th, and was by him introduced to Gen. Scott. The company (G, 2nd Cavalry) to which he had been assigned, with the rank of 2nd lieutenant, was at this time near Centerville, and as he was to join it, Gen. Scott entrusted to him some dispatches for Gen. McDowell who commanded the troops in the field. A night's ride on horseback took him to the army, the dispatches were delivered, and then he joined his company before daybreak just as they were preparing to participate in the battle of Bull Run. In this battle, however, the cavalry took but little part; in the frantic retreat that followed, Custer's company was among the last to retire, and did so in good order, taking with them Gen. Heintzelman who was wounded.

After Gen. McClellan took command of the army, Custer's company was attached to Gen. Phil Kearny's brigade, and that general detailed Custer as his aid-de-camp, and afterwards as assistant adjutant-general, which position he held till deprived of it by a general order prohibiting officers of the regular army from serving on the staffs of volunteer officers.

About this time he obtained leave of absence on account of ill health, and visited his sister, Mrs. Reed, at her home in Monroe, Michigan; and it is said that through her entreaties and influence he then gave up the habit of using strong drinks, which, in common with many of his fellow officers, he had acquired during his brief army life near Washington. Thenceforth, through the remainder of his life, he drank no intoxicating liquor.

Returning to the army in Feb. 1862, he was assigned to the 5th Cavalry, and when the enemy evacuated Manassas he participated in the advance on that place, and led the company which drove the hostile pickets across Cedar Run.

When the Army of the Potomac was transferred to the Peninsula, Custer's company was among the first to reach Fortress Monroe, and it then marched to Warwick. Here he was detailed as assistant to the chief engineer, on Gen. W.F. Smith's staff; he served in that capacity during the siege of Yorktown, and planned the earthwork nearest the enemy's lines. At the battle of Williamsburg, where he acted as aid-de-camp to Gen. Hancock, he effected the capture of a battle-flag—the first taken by the Army of the Potomac.

When the army was encamped near the Chickahominy River, late in May, Custer accompanied Gen. Barnard, the chief engineer of the army, on a
reconnoisance outside the picket line to the bank of the river; and at the request of his superior, he dismounted, jumped into the river, and waded across the stream—the object being to ascertain the depth of the water, which in some places came nearly up to his shoulders. On reaching the opposite bank he examined the ground for some distance, and discovered, unseen by them, the position of the enemy's pickets. Barnard reported to McClellan that the river was fordable, and how he had ascertained that it was so. McClellan sent for Custer, and was so pleased with his appearance and courageous act that he transferred him to his own staff; and in June, Custer received from the Secretary of War his appointment as additional aid-de-camp, with the rank of captain during the pleasure of the President. Previously to this he had crossed the Chickahominy at daybreak with a company of infantry, attacked the enemy's picket post, and captured prisoners and arms. Custer served on McClellan's staff through all of the Peninsular campaign; and after the battles of Gaines' Mills, Fair Oaks, Malvern Hill, etc., retreated with him to the protection of the gunboats at Harrison's Landing on the James River. Subsequently, after the withdrawal of the army from the Peninsula and the defeat of Banks and Pope in Virginia, he was McClellan's aid-de-camp in the Maryland campaign which closed with the battle of Antietam. When McClellan was superseded by Burnside, Nov. 10th, 1862, Custer accompanied his chief to Washington, and subsequently visited his friends in Ohio and Michigan. His staff position as captain ceased with the retirement of McClellan, and he was now a first lieutenant, commissioned July 17th, 1862.

In April, 1863, Custer rejoined his company which was with Gen. Hooker's army near Fredericksburg, and took part in the battle of Chancellorsville. In June he was on the staff of Gen. Pleasonton, then chief of the cavalry corps, and was conspicuous at Beverly Ford and other places across the Rappahannock where Stuart's cavalry were met and roughly handled.

At the battle of Aldie, Virginia, Custer distinguished himself in the charge made by Kilpatrick's cavalry. The onset was irresistible; the Confederate forces were driven back in confusion, and Custer's impetuosity carried him far within their lines, from which he was allowed to escape in consequence, he believed, of the similarity of his hat to those worn by the Confederates. For his gallantry in this action, Custer was promoted at one bound from a first lieutenant to a brigadier-general.

Gen. Custer was now assigned to the command of a Michigan brigade in Kilpatrick's division, the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Cavalry, and joined his command at Hanover, Md., June 29th. The next day he was engaged in a skirmish with Stuart's cavalry, and attracted the attention of all by the peculiarity of his dress. He wore a broad-brimmed, low-crowned felt hat; loose jacket and trowsers of velveteen, the former profusely trimmed with gold-braid and the latter tucked into high boots; a blue shirt, with turnover collar on either corner of which was an embroidered star; and a flaming neck-tie.

The battle of Gettysburg was now in progress, and on the 2nd of July Custer distinguished himself, and won the respect of his officers, by charging the enemy at the head of a company of his troops, having his horse shot under him. The next day his brigade was actively engaged, and the charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, supported by a battery, is designated by Custer as one of the most brilliant and successful recorded in the annals of warfare.

After the battle Gen. Lee retreated rapidly toward the Potomac, and the cavalry moving by different routes harassed him continually, capturing trains and prisoners. The following paragraph is copied from Headley's "History of the Civil War."

"Kilpatrick clung to the rebel army with a tenacity that did not allow it a moment's rest. At midnight, in a furious thunder storm, he charged down the mountain through the darkness with unparalleled boldness, and captured the entire train of Elwell's division, eight miles long. At Emmettsburg, Haggerstown, and other places, he smote the enemy, with blow after blow. Buford, Gregg, Custer, and others, performed deeds which, but for the greater movements that occupied public attention, would have filled the land with shouts of admiration. In fact, the incessant protracted labors of the cavalry during this campaign, rendered it useless for some time."

Custer's brigade came upon the enemy's rear guard at Falling Waters, and the 6th Michigan made a gallant charge which was repulsed with considerable loss; but after a two hours' fight the enemy was driven to the river; Gen. Pettegrew and 125 of his men were killed, and 1500 were taken prisoners; cannon and battle-flags were also captured.

When the cavalry crossed the Rappahannock in September, pushing back Stuart's cavalry to Brandy Station, Culpepper C.H., and across the Rapidan, Custer, as usual, was with the advance, and in one engagement was slightly wounded by a piece of a shell—the first and only time he was wounded during the war. After a short vacation in consequence of his wound, he rejoined his command in season to accompany the advance of cavalry to and across the Rapidan in October; and when Mead's army was forced back across the Rappahannock, he assisted in covering the retreat. The following description of the engagement at Brandy Station is also copied from Headley:—

"Pleasonton, with the cavalry, remained behind to watch the enemy, and then slowly retired toward the retreating army. Buford had been forced back more rapidly than Kilpatrick, whose command—with Davis over the right brigade, and Custer over the left—fell back more slowly. When the latter reached Brandy Station, he found the former, ignorant of his movements, was far in advance, leaving his right entirely exposed. To make matters worse Stuart had passed around his left, so that Kilpatrick, with whom was Pleasonton himself, was suddenly cut off. The gallant leader saw at a glance the peril of his position, and, riding to a slight eminence took a hasty survey of the ground before him. He then gave his orders, and three thousand swords leaped from their scabbards, and a long, loud shout rolled over the field.

"With a heavy line of skirmishers thrown out, to protect his flanks and rear, he moved in three columns straight on the rebel host that watched his coming. At first, the well-closed columns advanced on a walk, while the batteries of Pennington and Elder played with fearful precision upon the hostile ranks. He thus kept on, till within a few hundred yards of the rebel lines, when the band struck up "Yankee Doodle." The next instant, a hundred bugles pealed the charge, and away, with gleaming sabres and a wild hurrah, went the clattering squadrons. As they came thundering on, the hostile lines parted, and let them pass proudly through. Buford was soon overtaken, and a line of battle formed; for the rebels, outraged to think they had let Kilpatrick off so easy, reorganized, and now advanced to the attack.

"A fierce cavalry battle followed, lasting till after dark. Pleasonton, Buford, Kilpatrick, Custer and Davis again and again led charges in person. It seemed as if the leaders on both sides were determined to test, on the plains of Brandy Station, the question of superiority between the cavalry; for the charges on both sides were of the most gallant and desperate character. The dark masses would drive on each other, through the deepening gloom, with defiant yells, while the flashing sabres struck fire as they clashed and rung in the fierce conflict. At length the rebels gave it up, and our cavalry, gathering up its dead and wounded, crossed the Rappahannock."

In the spirited encounter near Buckland's Mills, Oct. 19th, in which Stuart, aided by a flank attack from Fitz Hugh Lee, worsted Kilpatrick by force of numbers, Custer's brigade bore the brunt of the attack, and did most of the fighting on our side. This fight terminated the active campaign of 1863 for Custer's brigade, which subsequently guarded the upper fords of the Rapidan.

On the 9th of February, 1864, Gen. Custer was married at Monroe, Michigan, to Miss Elizabeth Bacon, only daughter of Judge Daniel S. Bacon of Monroe. When he rejoined his command at Stevensburg a few days later, his wife accompanied him, and she remained in camp till the opening of the spring campaign of 1864. The marriage was, as far as Custer was concerned, the consequence of love at first sight, and ever proved to be for both parties a happy one.

Late in February, 1864, Gen. Custer crossed the Rapidan with 1500 cavalry in light marching order, flanking Lee's army on the west, and pushed rapidly ahead to within four miles of Charlottesville, where he found his progress arrested by a far superior force. He then turned northward toward Stannardsville where he again encountered the enemy, and after skirmishing, returned to his camp followed by some hundreds of refugees from slavery. This raid was designed to draw attention from a more formidable one led by Kilpatrick at the same time.