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General Custer: Causes of Little Bighorn Defeat

General Custer Monument

George Armstrong Custer was a prominent figure in this US military during the Civil War, up until his downfall at Little Bighorn. From his time as a child in Michigan, to graduating West Point, and all his battles through the Civil War culminated into rising as one of the most respected Generals of his time. However, with all of these success come underlying failures that surely lead to his downfall at Little Bighorn.

West Point

George Custer’s family was one that was lower-middle class with many children. Custer was also described as a belligerent kid during his youth. [4] He was one that excelled in horsemanship and athletics during his young. [6] One could assume that with his childhood being relatively normal for a lower class kid, that the military was something that could be seen in his future. Custer had an appointment with West Point at the age of 17. [4] Once admitted into the school after discussion with his family, Custer was on his way to becoming the famed General that the US has seen up until this point. However, with his time in West Point Custer showed that he was a very bad student academically. In his beginning years of class sizes 68 and 60, Custer was never in the upper half and the highest standing was at 52. [4] Once graduating in 1861 he finished dead last at 35 out of 35. [4] With the Civil War fast approaching, the need for officers was rising which fast tracked Custer’s class of officers for graduation. Looking at the fact that Custer would have entered the military to lead soldiers at a very young age of 22 and very poor academics, would lead one to believe that Custer was someone that was still juvenile heading into one of the bloodiest wars that happened in US history.
Civil War

General Custer During Civil War

Understanding the context of Custer’s position entering the war is important to show the respect that he gained throughout the war. With less than 2 years of field experience, as well as his poor West Point grades, it came as surprise to many that he became a staff of corp commander under Major General Pleasonton. [5] These units were cavalry and at the time of the war was considered a laughing stock among soldiers. [5] Cavalry units at the time had shown no success in attacking or defending during the time of battle. Custer was one of the commanders that loved battle and will show great success at effectively using cavalry units to turn the tides of battle. [5] He was able to lead multiple units from Michigan Cavalry, often nicknamed the “Wolverines.” Gettysburg is one of these battles that is stated to be one of the best cavalry fights in history. Custer often led his Wolverines at the front of battle and often seemed as if his men were ones that followed Custer no matter where he went. [6] With him and his men providing successful counterattacks in Gettysburg, they won the battle for the Union. [6] With his many successes that came from the Civil War, Custer and his men seemed to not be afraid of battle. These cavalry units seemed to want to be on the forefront of the battles and action. This seems to be the later downfall of him and his men at Little Bighorn.

Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Cavalry Field
Gettysburg is a battle that is considered to a major turning point during the Civil War. The battle consists of many parts but focusing mainly on Custer and the Wolverines, the battle was a blood bath. Joining the fight on July 2, Custer’s unit had the most casualties in the Union cavalry department. [7] During the battle, most of Custer’s fight was with Pickett’s famous charge and was battling with J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry unit. [7] Custer’s action for some of the battle was in hand-to-hand combat almost Napoleonic style. [7] This lead to a lot of causalities during the battle during the short period that Custer’s men were a part of the action. From the Chicago Tribune days after Gettysburg from a rebel sympathizer, tries to account all the causalities that Michigan Brigades suffered during the battle. Some men that died in the battle included Major Ferry, John Milbourn, F. A. Barber, and H. Jenke. [1] The Wolverines during this battle followed Custer and were able to coin the shouting of “Come on, you Wolverines!”. [1] These Michigan cavalry units that followed Custer into this aspect of battle, while provided much needed to support for the overall outcome of the war seemed to just follow Custer into their deaths with almost hand to hand combat at what seemed to be an artillery battle of sorts in Gettysburg. While as many as 400 volunteers of the Seventh Michigan Cavalry charged into Gettysburg on July 2, some records show that 257 had died in battle alongside of Custer. [5]

Trevilian Station

In 1864, Custer and his Wolverines encountered Confederate cavalry units while on the way to destroy rail lines in order to take attention away from General Grant. This battle in the Civil War is considered to be the largest all-cavalry battle in the entire Civil War. [2] This battle ends up with Union victory and many miles of rail lines to be destroyed which overall is a success for the Union. However in the accounts of the battle maps, Custer and his Michigan brigade come under heavy fire and appear to only escape due to the victories on other aspects of the battle and the large help that is received from Sheridan and his men. Custer appears to be attack on multiple sides during the battle. [2] While this attempt to attack the enemy ultimately had no large impact on the overall battle itself, Custer’s men seemed to lead charging toward a company of Confederate soldiers that he outnumbered in hindsight, but ultimately was collapsed upon by the other surrounding companies of Confederate soldiers. The overwhelming presence of the other Union soldiers on the battlefield gave Custer “space” do what he does best. This aspect during Custer’s command on the Michigan brigade seems like a common occurrence of attacking the enemy without much foresight and endangering many of his men in the process of doing so. [2]

Little Bighorn

Custer attacks Little Bighorn in order to kill women and children due to the assumption that the men had left the village. [3] In hindsight of the battle, there seems to be little reason as to why Custer and his men were to attack this village. So when Custer attacks and is faced with many Sioux in the face of battle, it almost seems as if Custer’s juvenile approach to most the battles he fights in comes back to haunt him. This is outlined with him refusing gatling guns and support of the battalion that was close by. [3] Rather he took a stand on what is now known as “Custer’s Ridge” along with is men. [3] Ultimately the US troops get slaughtered and Custer falls in face of one of the easiest victories that Native American tribes see in battle during this time period.  Custer’s downfall ultimately while see as a rags to riches uprising during the Civil War, is what causes his defeat in this battle. General Custer is an officer that charged straight into battle with little defeat, then when the time was wrong ultimately lead to his downfall and death.

Battle of Little Bighorn

Consequences of Actions

General Custer and his time with the Michigan brigade during the Civil War seemed like a glorious time for the cavalry units during a time period with cavalry start off as not respected. Custer was able to lead his men into the face of war and appear to be a major turning factor in many fights and became a hero for the American public. However when looking at recounted stories of the battles, it appears as though Custer seemed to not have the brightest idea as to what his actions do, but wanted to just fight in battle. The Michigan cavalry units that were fighting under Custer, often suffered higher causalities than the other cavalry units in the face of battle. There were several battles were he resorted back into fairly old fighting tactics from Napoleonic times. Other battles Custer’s and his men needed to be saved when facing the same consequences that he faced at Little Bighorn; out numbered and out smarted. While Custer appears as war time hero during this time period on greater inspection of his actions, he is one that leads his men into to battle with no thought on possible consequences of his actions, but seems to thirst on the blood during battle in order to continue on.

Primary Sources


2. (2017). Gettysburg | Civil War Trust. [online] 

Secondary Sources:

3. Rosenburg, Bruce A. (1972). “Custer: The Legend of the Martyred Hero in America”Journal of the Folklore Institute Vol 9: pp. 110-132.  [From]

4. Stewart, Edgar I. (1971). “A Psychoanalytic Approach to Custer: Some Reflections”. Montana: The Magazine of Western History Vol 21: pp. 74-77.  [From]

5. Urwin, George J. W. (1983). Custer Victorious: The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong CusterNebraska. [From Google Scholar]

6. Wert, Jeffry D. (2006). “Custer: Boy Wonder Under Arms”. Civil War Times; Harrisburg Vol 45: pp. 22-28. [From Google Scholar]

7. Wertz, Jay. (2017). “CAVALRY AT THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG.Harrisburg, 45(5), pp.14-18.  [From]