On May 6, 1863, Custer was assigned as aide-de-camp to General Alfred Pleasonton, the commander of a cavalry division. The Custer–Pleasonton relationship developed into a mutual admiration society in which Custer claimed, “I do not believe a father could love his son more than Genl. Pleasonton loves me.”
Of course, the one love that Custer desperately wanted, that of Libbie Bacon, waited back in Monroe. He vowed to set out to find some way to impress her father that he was worthy of her hand.
At this time Custer commenced an effort to gain a colonelcy of one of the regiments of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. His application, although endorsed by various prominent generals, was denied by the Republican governor of Michigan, who considered that Custer was a Democrat and, worse yet, a “McClellan man.” McClellan had continued to criticize the Lincoln administration and was rumored (rightfully so) to be the Democratic nominee in the 1864 presidential election.
At the June 9 Brandy Station battle—the first and largest true cavalry engagement of the war—Custer, as a personal representative of Pleasonton, rode in the spearhead of the surprise attack. Legend has it that he distinguished himself that day by assuming de facto command of three brigades after the death of Colonel Benjamin Davis. Union horsemen proved that day that they could compete with the legendary Confederate cavalry, and Custer was personally cited for bravery after having two horses shot out from under him and receiving a bullet in his boot while capturing artillery pieces.
Eight days later at Aldie, Custer was credited with a daring charge when his horse bolted and carried him through and around enemy lines, which required him to slay two Rebel cavalrymen in order to extricate himself. The press dismissed Custer’s protestations that he was simply a rider on a runaway horse and embellished the tale, to the delight of the public.
On June 29, 1863, to the surprise of everyone including himself, twenty-three-year-old George Armstrong Custer—upon recommendation from Pleasonton—was unexpectedly promoted to brigadier general. Pleasonton wanted men “with the proper dash to command cavalry,” and Custer fit that description perfectly. He had leapfrogged captain, major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel to gain this prestigious rank. In addition, he was assigned command of the Michigan Brigade, which was part of the First Division under Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a man Custer would come to detest due to his recklessness. Custer had attempted to become colonel of one of the Michigan regiments; now he commanded them all. General Pleasonton silenced critics of the promotion by saying, “Custer is the best cavalry general in the world.”
Upon seeing his new commander for the first time on June 30, 1863, Captain James M. Kidd wrote:
Looking at him closely, this is what I saw: An officer superbly mounted who sat his charger as if to manor born. Tall, lithe, active, muscular, straight as an Indian and as quick in his movements, he had the fair complexion of a school girl. He was clad in a suit of black velvet, elaborately trimmed with gold lace, which ran down the outer seams of his trousers, and almost covered the sleeves of his cavalry jacket. The wide collar of a blue navy shirt was turned down over the collar of his velvet jacket, and a necktie of brilliant crimson was tied in a graceful knot at the throat, the long ends falling carelessly in front. The double rows of buttons on his breast were arranged in groups of twos, indicating the rank of brigadier general. A soft, black hat with wide brim adorned with a gilt cord, and rosette encircling a silver star, was worn turned down on one side giving him a rakish air. His golden hair fell in graceful luxuriance nearly or quite to his shoulders, and his upper lip was garnished with a blonde mustache. A sword and belt, gilt spurs and top boots completed his unique outfit.
This would be the distinctive uniform that the dashing General Custer would be known by for the remainder of the war. His scarlet necktie became the defining element of the uniform, which made him known by sight to every news correspondent, Confederate soldier, and, more important to him, by his own men.
It should be noted that Custer has been singled out—and indeed mocked—for his ostentatious uniform. Many and most officers were known to design their own outlandish uniforms; Custer was no exception. Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart, for example, favored an ostrich plume in his hat.
Brigadier General Custer made a memorable debut as a commander several days later at the Battle of Gettysburg. In fact, the argument can be made that Custer saved the day at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, when he outgeneraled Jeb Stuart to change the course of that battle.
With the rallying cry of “C’mon, you Wolverines!” Custer twice led bold, bloody charges of his greatly outnumbered command that effectively denied Stuart access to the Union rear, which the Rebel legend had planned to attack simultaneously with General George Pickett’s charge to the front. This one-two punch of Pickett and Stuart that had been devised by General Robert E. Lee would have placed the Union in a dire situation—if not for the heroic actions that day of George Armstrong Custer. Instead, Pickett’s charge was a monumental failure and the Union held the day.
The significance of that battle east of Gettysburg has been all but ignored by modern-day historians, likely due to prejudices and controversies from the Boy General’s later career and portrayals that have led to him being perceived as a symbol of defeat. Nonetheless, the bravery and leadership skills Custer demonstrated on that day are worthy of a prominent place in the history of the Gettysburg battle—perhaps even as the turning point—as well as in the history of the Civil War. But that was only the beginning for a young man destined for greatness.
Civil War officers were expected to motivate and inspire their troops under fire by example—bravery was thought to be contagious. George Armstrong Custer, however, had elevated that responsibility to a higher level. Custer had proven during the Gettysburg Campaign that, contrary to those who had questioned Pleasonton’s judgment in promoting the twenty-three-year-old to brigadier general, he was quite capable of commanding a brigade. In addition to that, he had gained the admiration of his men with his propensity for leading charges rather than simply directing movements from a safe position in the rear. This one distinct trait had instilled within his troops a confidence that if Custer, a general, had the nerve to charge into the blazing guns of the enemy then there was no reason to believe that if they followed victory would not be within their grasp.
Edwin Havens of the Seventh Michigan described Custer in a letter dated July 9, 1863: “He is a glorious fellow, full of energy, quick to plan and bold to execute, and with us has never failed in any attempt he has yet made.” Another proud Wolverine praised: “Our boy-general never says, ‘Go in, men!’ HE says, with that whoop and yell of his, ‘Come on, boys!’ and in we go, you bet.” Captain S. H. Ballard of the Sixth Michigan said: “The command perfectly idolized Custer. When Custer made a charge, he was the first sabre that struck for he was always ahead.” Another said that Custer “was not afraid to fight like a private soldier … and that he was ever in front and would never ask them to go where he would not lead.” Lieutenant James Christiancy wrote: “Through all that sharp and heavy firing the General gave his orders as though conducting a parade or review, so cool and indifferent that he inspired us all with something of his coolness and courage.”
The Michigan Brigade was so impressed that they had whipped Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg that they began to emulate their commander by adopting Custer’s trademark scarlet neckties, which he wore to make himself conspicuous to his troops during a battle.
The young, dashing Boy General with the yellow curls and outlandish uniform certainly made for excellent copy. Newspaper and magazine correspondents saw a rising star, and the Custer legend was born.
Eleven days later, at Falling Waters, Custer’s brigade nipped at Lee’s retreating heels and captured fifteen hundred prisoners and three battle flags. An admiring private from the Fifth Michigan describing the hand-to-hand combat in that affair marveled when he saw Custer “plunge a saber into the belly of a rebel who was trying to kill him. You can guess how bravely soldiers fight for such a general.” Custer continued to distinguish himself throughout 1863, particularly at Culpeper, where he received his lone war wound—shrapnel in the foot.
Custer then returned to duty to command a dangerous diversionary mission into enemy territory during the ill-fated Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid on Richmond. The plan called for a force commanded by Hugh Judson Kilpatrick to free prisoners held in Richmond as well as cause general mayhem. Meanwhile, Custer would draw Jeb Stuart’s forces away from the Confederate capital, a mission he capably executed. The raid was a miserable failure, however, costing the Union 340 men killed, wounded, or captured. Papers found on Ulric Dahlgren, who was killed, instructed the raiders to burn the city and kill President Jefferson Davis. The Southerners were incensed by this plan, which inspired within them a renewed fighting spirit. Custer was commended for his actions, which was little consolation.
Major General Philip Sheridan assumed command of the cavalry and convinced Grant to change the mission of his force from support to active operations. Grant obliged, and Sheridan planned as his first mission the elimination of the legendary Jeb Stuart, whose cavalry had been such a thorn in the side of the Union.
May 1864 saw Custer victories in the Wilderness, at Beaver Dam Station, and on May 11 at Yellow Tavern he personally led the charge that resulted in the death of Jeb Stuart. An elated Sheridan, who would be Custer’s mentor throughout his army career, was compelled to say, “Custer is the ablest man in the Cavalry Corps.”
Custer’s momentum was somewhat slowed the following month at Trevilian Station. Custer always exhibited an aggressive spirit of competition when facing any of them across the field of battle, his best friend, Tom Rosser, in particular. But it was Rosser who bested Custer at the June 11–12 battle of Trevilian Station. Custer’s brigade became trapped between two Rebel divisions—“on the inside of a living triangle”—struck from behind by Rosser. Custer eventually fought his way out but left behind in Rosser’s possession his adjutant and his cook, as well as the trappings of his headquarters—wagons, bedding, field desk, clothing, cooking outfit, spare horse, his commission to general, his letters from Libbie, and an ambrotype of her.
Custer was not demoralized by the loss, however. After this battle, Custer wrote to Nettie Humphrey, who would surely pass the information on to Libbie Bacon: “Oh, could you but have seen some of the charges that were made! While thinking of them I cannot but exclaim ‘Glorious War!’”
In August, Sheridan was dispatched to the Shenandoah Valley to face Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early’s Confederate army. Custer continued to reap glory and respect for his brilliantly executed charges and field generalship during this campaign—time and again exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses with snap decisions—particularly at Winchester, where he brazenly led five hundred of his Michigan “Wolverines” against sixteen hundred entrenched Confederates and emerged with seven hundred prisoners.
On September 30, 1864, he was awarded his second star and command of the Third Cavalry Division.
At Tom’s Brook on October 9, Custer exacted revenge on his friend Tom Rosser. Custer with twenty-five hundred horsemen faced Rosser’s thirty-five hundred troops, who were entrenched on the high ground. When all was ready for battle, Custer—in an act of bravado of which legends are made—rode out in front of his command where he could be observed by both sides. He removed his broad-brimmed hat and swept it across himself in a salute as if to say, “May the best man win.”
Custer charged with eight regiments to the front and three in a surprise attack on Rosser’s left flank. Rosser’s men could not withstand the pressure and were forced into a disorganized retreat. Custer’s horsemen chased the fleeing Rebels for ten to twelve miles. Rosser had not simply been defeated; he had been humiliated.
To add insult to injury, Custer had captured Rosser’s headquarters wagon. Custer got back the ambrotype of Libbie that had been captured at Trevilian Station and appropriated a pet squirrel that had belonged to Rosser. That night in camp, Custer adorned himself in Rosser’s baggy, ill-fitting uniform and treated his men to a good laugh. He later added to Rosser’s humiliation by writing and asking that his old friend advise his tailor to shorten the coattails for a better fit.
Custer’s cavalrymen fought on with distinction. Ten days later at Cedar Creek they captured forty-five pieces of artillery, thirteen battle flags, and swarms of prisoners. One reporter wrote of that victory: “Custer, young as he is, displayed judgment worthy of Napoleon.” In March 1865 at Waynesboro, he crushed the remnants of Jubal Early’s forces, capturing sixteen hundred prisoners, eleven artillery pieces, over two hundred wagons laden with supplies, and seventeen battle flags.
Custer received his third star as a major general on March 29, 1864. He then led his division to decisive victories at Dinwiddie Court House, Five Forks, and Namozine Church.
The April 6, 1865, battle of Sayler’s Creek, in which Custer played a major role, had been a smashing victory for the Union. Over nine thousand Confederates had been taken prisoner—more Americans than had ever before or after been captured at one time on this continent.
Custer formed his division the following morning for the march just as a long line of Confederate prisoners straggled past on their way to the rear. In a show of respect for his vanquished enemy, Custer ordered the band to play “Dixie” for these brave men, which evoked cheers from the Southern boys.
On the morning of April 9, 1865, Custer had pushed within sight of Appomattox Court House when a Confederate major arrived at his headquarters under a flag of truce with a request from Robert E. Lee to suspend hostilities. The Civil War had ended on Custer’s doorstep.
That afternoon, General Lee presented himself to General Grant at the home of Wilmer McLean to surrender his army. Custer could be found either out in the yard or on the porch of McLean’s house renewing acquaintances with his Confederate friends while the two commanders retired inside and signed the surrender document.