October 11, 2017Anyone who has ever picked up a history book or been to the movies over the last several decades knows the name of George Armstrong Custer—"Autie"—to his friends and family.
Unfortunately, Custer is remembered most for his "last stand" at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana on June 25, 1876. He was 36 years old. He had 267 men. The Native Americans had more than 2,000. Not good odds.
Before that, however, Custer was a pretty good soldier. One can question his judgment sometimes, but never his courage. He was never afraid to lead men into battle. He never sent men into battle, he led them during the Civil War and after.
Custer was a flamboyant leader, wearing a red scarf in battle so his men could see him. He had his uniform custom made from black velvet. He was 5'11" tall, wore a size 38 jacket and size 9B boots
But what do we know about Custer before the battles, especially when Monroe, Michigan was his home?
He was born on December 5, 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio to a blacksmith and his wife. They moved to Monroe, Michigan 2 ½ years later but had to move back to Ohio. So Autie's much older half-sister convinced his folks that he'd have a better educational opportunity if he moved to Monroe and lived with her and her husband. So off to Monroe he went.
Ten year old George attended New Dublin Normal School and later graduated from Stebbin's Academy, both in Monroe.
Custer was, by all accounts, a pretty good student and very popular with his peers. He was physically tough and had a great sense of humor. History was one of his favorite studies, especially the River Raisin Massacre fought near Monroe during the War of 1812 with the British. It resulted in higher casualties than any other battle of the war.
After graduation Custer moved back to Ohio to teach school before entering West Point. His tenure at West Point was hardly stellar but the Civil War had just begun when he graduated last in his class, and the Union Army needed officers. So he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
Custer was able to distinguish himself as a risk-taker early in the war. When General John G. Barnard stopped at the Chickahominy River, wondering how deep it was, Custer spurred his horse, rode into the river and yelled, "It's this deep, General!" The act gained him notoriety among important high-ranking officers.
During the Battle of Bull Run, Custer served as a courier between Winfield Scott and Irvin McDowell, subsequently serving as a staff officer for Generals George B. McClellan and Alfred Pleasanton with the temporary rank of captain.
On June 29, 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer was promoted to the temporary rank of Brigadier General at age 23, the youngest in the Army, and was given command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. A few days later in his first charge at the Battle of Hunterstown, his horse was shot out from under him. Private Norvell Churchill of Almont, Michigan rode in, scooped Custer up on Churchill's horse and raced them to safety. Custer's
"first stand" might have been his "last stand" without Churchill.
On day three of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart led his cavalry troops to the Union's rear in conjunction with Pickett's famous charge from the front to prevent their escape. In a bold move, still talked about today, while yelling "C'mon you Wolverines," Custer led the Michigan Brigade at full gallop into Stuart's men and sent them scurrying. Some credit Custer with saving the victory for the North at Gettysburg.
Custer was at the right place when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, accepting the Confederate's flag of truce. Libbie was given the table on which the surrender documents were signed.
When on leave from the Army, Custer returned to Monroe where he met Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon in 1862. They were married on February 9, 1864 in the First Presbyterian Church, which still stands.
Libbie seldom left his side for the rest of his life, following him to various command posts. And for the rest of her 54 years after his death she worked tirelessly to keep Custer's image intact and enhanced. Theirs was a real love story.
Custer bought a home for his parents in Monroe so that his younger sister could attend the same school Libbie did. For a short time they lived in Libbie's girlhood home which still stands, and is now owned by Steve Alexander, one of America's most knowledgeable Custer experts and impersonators.
After the war, George was posted in a number of locations out west in Texas, Kansas and the Dakota Territories where Libbie accompanied him. Even President Andrew Johnson invited him and Libbie on a nationwide tour. Custer was already a famous man. Whenever he and Libbie traveled east during this time they returned to Monroe and Detroit where they had many friends.
On one occasion he went to Norvell Churchill's farm in Berlin Township, east of Almont, to ask Churchill, his favorite aide, to rejoin the Army and go out west with him. Churchill wisely
The story of Gen. Custer, now a brevet Major General, and the Indian Wars is complex and complicated. Hundreds of books and articles have been written about it up to this very day. The Battle of the Little Bighorn and Custer's part in it may be debated for the rest of time. All of the men with him were killed, including his two brothers and his nephew.
I think it important, however, to view Custer's life as a whole, not just his "last stand." He was smart, brave, loyal, flamboyant, a good husband and leader and was well liked by nearly everyone.
In 1910, President William Howard Taft visited Monroe and, along with Libbie, dedicated a large statue of Custer from his Civil War days. The statue is still there watching over the citizens of his adopted hometown. On the site of General and Mrs. Custer's original home, the Monroe County Historical Museum stands. It houses one of the largest collections on the life and family of Gen. George Armstrong & Libbie Custer. The museum and other Custer sites in Monroe are well worth a visit.
Michigan can lay claim to this historical figure as a favorite son and be proud of his service.
Special thanks to Steve Alexander of Monroe for his help in researching this column.
Email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.