The Boy General

I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life.

George Armstrong Custer


My post earlier this month on the end of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley, go here to read it, featured General George Armstrong Custer, who achieved death and immortality at age 36 by his defeat at Little Big Horn on June 26, 1876.  Custer led a fiery meteor of a life and it is a shame that his defeat and death is all most Americans know about him today.

Graduating in 1861 from West Point, Custer was the class goat, dead last in his class.  He achieved the distinction of amassing 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of West Point.  Custer was a hell raiser and the orders of those above him he always treated as, at best, suggestions.  War suited him far better than West Point.  By June of 1863 he was a seasoned combat veteran serving on the staff of Major General Alfred Pleasanton, newly minted commander of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.  Pleasanton had the unenviable task of turning the Union cavalry from being a bad joke into a fighting force and he decided that one way of doing it was to put younger men, full of fight, at the head of brigades of cavalry.  In June he promoted three of his aides, including Custer, from the rank of Captain to the rank of Brigadier General of Volunteers.  Going from Captain to General was quite a leap, even during the Civil War when a lot of odd things happened, and Custer at the age of 23 found himself with stars on his shoulders.

He quickly demonstrated that Pleasanton’s unusual gamble paid off in his case.  At Gettysburg he and his men played a decisive role on July 3 in thwarting Jeb Stuart’s cavalry.   By the hard work of author Eric Wittenberg, go here to read how he did it, a fragment of Custer’s lost report of this engagement has been recovered:

At an early hour on the morning of the 3d, I received an order, through a staff-officer of the Brigadier-General commanding [Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, commander of the Third Division of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps] the division, to move at once my command, and follow the First brigade on the road leading from Two Taverns to Gettysburg. Agreeably to the above instructions, my column was formed and moved out on the road designated, when a staff officer of Brigadier General [David M.] Gregg, commanding Second division, ordered me to take my command and place it in position on the pike leading from York to Gettysburg, which position formed the extreme right of our battle on that day. Upon arriving at the point designated, I immediately placed my command in position, facing toward Gettysburg. At the same time I caused reconnaissances to be made on my front, right, and rear, but failed to discover any considerable force of the enemy. Everything remained quiet till 10 a.m., when the enemy appeared on my right flank and opened upon me with a battery of six guns. Leaving two guns and a regiment to hold my first position and cover the road leading to Gettysburg [the Hanover Road], I shifted the remaining portion of my command, forming a new line of battle at right angles to my former line. The enemy had obtained correct range of my new position, and were pouring solid shot and shell into my command with great accuracy. Placing two sections of Battery M, Second (regular) Artillery [also known as Pennington’s battery], in position, I ordered them to silence the enemy’s battery, which order, notwithstanding the superiority of the enemy’s position, was successfully accomplished in a very short space of time. My line, as it then existed, was shaped like the letter L, the shorter branch formed of the section of Battery [M], Second Artillery, supported by a portion of the Sixth Michigan cavalry on the right, while the Seventh Michigan cavalry, still further to the right and in advance, was held in readiness to repel any attack the enemy might make, coming on the Oxford road. The Fifth Michigan cavalry was dismounted, and ordered to take position in front of my centre and left. The First Michigan cavalry was held in column of squadrons to observe the movements of the enemy. I ordered fifty men to be sent one mile and a half on the Oxford road, while a detachment of equal size was sent one mile and a half on the road leading from Gettysburg to York, both detachments being under the command of the gallant Major Webber, who from time to time kept me so well informed of the movements of the enemy that I was enabled to make my dispositions with complete success. At 12 o’clock, an order was transmitted to me from the Brigadier-General commanding the division, by one of his aides, directing me, upon being relieved by a brigade of the Second Division, to move with my command and form a junction with the First brigade on the extreme left. On the arrival of the brigade of the Second Division, commanded by Colonel [John B.] McIntosh [of the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry], I prepared to execute the order. Before I had left my position, Brigadier-General Gregg, commanding the Second Division, arrived with his entire command. Learning the true condition of affairs on my front, and rightly conjecturing that the enemy was making his dispositions for attacking our position, Brigadier-General Gregg ordered me to remain in the position I then occupied.

The enemy was soon after reported to be advancing on my front. The detachment of fifty men sent on the Oxford road were driven in, and at the same time the enemy’s line of skirmishers, consisting of dismounted cavalry, appeared on the crest of the ridge of hills on my front. The line extended beyond my left. To repel their advance, I ordered the Fifth cavalry to a more advanced position, with instructions to maintain their ground at all hazards. Colonel Alger, commanding the Fifth, assisted by Majors Trowbridge and Ferry, of the same regiment, made such admirable disposition of their men behind fences and other defenses, as enabled them to successfully repel the repeated advances of a greatly superior force. I attributed their success in great measure to the fact that this regiment is armed with the Spencer repeating rifle, which, in the hands of brave, determined men, like those composing the Fifth Michigan cavalry, is in my estimation, the most effective fire-arm that our cavalry can adopt. Colonel Alger held his ground until his men had exhausted their ammunition, when he was compelled to fall back on the main body. The beginning of this movement was the signal for the enemy to charge, which they did with two regiments, mounted and dismounted. I at once ordered the Seventh Michigan cavalry, Colonel Mann, to charge the advancing column of the enemy. The ground over which we had to pass was very unfavorable for the maneuvering of cavalry, but despite all obstacles this regiment advanced boldly to the assault, which was executed in splendid style, the enemy being driven from field to field, until our advance reached a high and unbroken fence, behind which the enemy were strongly posted. Nothing daunted, Colonel Mann, followed by the main body of his regiment, bravely rode up to the fence and discharged their revolvers in the very face of the foe. No troops could have maintained this position; the Seventh was, therefore, compelled to retire, followed by twice the number of the enemy.

By this time Colonel Alger of the Fifth Michigan cavalry had succeeded in mounting a considerable portion of his regiment, and gallantly advanced to the assistance of the Seventh, whose further pursuit by the enemy he checked. At the same time an entire brigade of the enemy’s cavalry, consisting of four regiments, appeared just over the crest in our front. They were formed in columns of regiments. To meet this overwhelming force I had but one available regiment, the First Michigan cavalry, and the fire of Battery M, Second Regular Artillery. I at once ordered the First to charge, but learned at the same moment that similar orders had been given by Brigadier-General Gregg. As before stated, the First was formed in column of battalions. Upon receiving the order to charge, Colonel Town, placing himself at the head of his command, ordered the “trot” and sabres to be drawn. In this manner this gallant body of men advanced to the attack of a force outnumbering them five to one. In addition to this numerical superiority the enemy had the advantage of position, and were exultant over the repulse of the Seventh Michigan cavalry. All these facts considered would seem to render success on the part of the First impossible. No so, however. Arriving within a few yards of the enemy’s column, the charge was ordered, and with a yell that spread terror before them, the First Michigan cavalry, led by Colonel Town, rode upon the front rank of the enemy, and sabring all who came within reach. For a moment, but only a moment, that long, heavy column stood its ground; then, unable to withstand the impetuosity of our attack, it gave way in a disorderly rout, leaving cast numbers of dead and wounded in our possession, while the First, being masters of the field, had the proud satisfaction of seeing the much-vaunted chivalry, led by their favorite commander, seek safety in headlong flight. I cannot find language to express my high appreciation of the gallantry and daring displayed by the officers and men of the First Michigan cavalry. They advanced to the charge of a vastly superior force with as much order and precision as if going upon parade; and I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry than the one just recounted. Nor must I forget to acknowledge the invaluable assistance rendered by Battery M, Second Regiment of Artillery, in this charge. Our success in driving the enemy from the field, is due, in a great measure, to the highly efficient manner in which the battery was handled by Lieutenant A. C. M. Pennington, assisted by Lieutenants Clark, Woodruff, and Hamilton. The enemy made but slight demonstrations against us during the remainder of the day, except in one instance he attempted to turn my left flank, which attempt was most gallantly met and successfully frustrated by Second Lieutenant J. H. Kellogg, with Company H Sixth Michigan cavalry. We held possession of the field until dark, during which time we collected our dead and wounded. At dark I returned with my command to Two Taverns, where I encamped for the night.

In this engagement my command lost in killed, wounded and missing, a total of five hundred and forty-two. Among the killed I regret to record the name of Major N. H. Ferry of the Fifth Michigan cavalry, who fell while heroically cheering on his men. It would be impossible for me to particularize those instances deserving especial mention; all, both men and officers, did their duty. There were many cases of personal heroism, but a list of their names would make my report too extended. To Colonel Town, commanding the First Michigan cavalry, and to the officers and men of his regiment, for the gallant manner in which they drove the enemy from the field, great praise is due.

Colonel Mann of the Seventh Michigan cavalry, and Colonel Alger, of the Fifth Michigan cavalry, as well as the officers of their commands, are entitled to much credit for their united efforts in repelling the advance of the enemy. The Sixth Michigan cavalry rendered good service by guarding both my right and left flank; also by supporting Battery M, under a very hot fire from the enemy’s battery. Colonel Gray, commanding the regiment, was constantly seen wherever his presence was most needed, and is deserving of special mention. I desire to commend to your favorable notice Lieutenants Pennington, Cleark, Woodruff, and Hamilton of Battery M, Second Artillery, for the zeal and ability displayed by each on this occasion. My thanks are personally due to the following named members of my staff, who on many occasions exhibited remarkable gallantry in transmitting and executing my orders on the field: Captain A. G. Drew, Sixth Michigan cavalry, Assistant Inspector General, First Lieutenant R. Baylis, Fifth Michigan cavalry, Acting Assistant Adjutant-General, First Lieutenant William H. Wheeler, First Michigan cavalry, A.D.C. First Lieutenant William Colerick, First Michigan cavalry, A.D.C. I desire also to mention two of my buglers, Joseph Fought, company D, Fifth U.S. Cavalry, and Peter Boehn, company B, Fifth U.S. Cavalry; also Orderlies Norval Churchill, company L, First Michigan cavalry, George L. Foster, company C, First Michigan cavalry, and Benjamin H. Butler, company M, First Michigan cavalry.

Respectfully submitted,

G. A. Custer

Brigadier-General Commanding Second Brigade

Jacob L. Greene,

Assistant Adjutant-General

Custer would spend the rest of the Civil War leading cavalry in combat.  His rise from Second Lieutenant to Brevet Major General US Army was unparalleled:

Second lieutenant, 2nd Cavalry: June 24, 1861
First lieutenant, 5th Cavalry: July 17, 1862
Captain staff, additional aide-de-camp: June 5, 1862
Brigadier general, U.S. Volunteers: June 29, 1863
Brevet major, July 3, 1863 (Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)

Captain, 5th Cavalry: May 8, 1864
Brevet lieutenant colonel: May 11, 1864 (Battle of Yellow Tavern – Combat at Meadow)

Brevet colonel: September 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Volunteers: October 19, 1864 (Battle of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, Virginia)
Brevet brigadier general, U.S. Army, March 13, 1865 (Battle of Five Forks, Virginia)
Brevet major general, U.S. Army: March 13, 1865 (The campaign ending in the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia)


As a commander Custer was something of a martinet.  He could treat orders casually from his superiors but woe unto any of his men who did the same with his orders.  Despite this, he was popular with his young troops who sought to emulate the courage constantly demonstrated by Custer.  In his engagements he demonstrated combativeness, risk taking and the ability to profit from luck.  The odds were on his side by this time in the War and not much more was needed from him as a commander.

By the time he was 25 the best part of Custer’s life was behind him, and the rest of his life was an attempt to reach again the heights of fame he had achieved in his youth.  That will be the subject of a future post.

It was then a flag of truce was raised. by agreement between Generals Gordon and Sheridan. It was then a Federal Cavalry officer was observed coming down the road towards our forces, in his hands he carried a white handkerchief which he constantly waved up and down. He Inquired for General Lee and was directed to General Longstreet upon the hill. Upon approaching the General he dismounted and said, “General Longstreet, in the name of General Sheridan and myself I demand the surrender of this army, I am General Custer.” General Longstreet replied: “I am not in command of this army – General Lee is, he has gone back to meet General Grant in regard to surrender.” “Well”, said General Custer, “no matter about Lee, we demand the surrender be made to us. If you do not do so, we will renew hostilities and any blood shed you will be responsible”, “Well”, said General Longstreet, “if that is done I will do my part in meeting you.” Then turning to his staff he said – “Order General Johnson to move his division to the front, to the right of Gordon. Col Latrob, order General Pickett forward to Gordon’s left, do it at once.” Custer was surprised, not knowing so many troops were at hand with General Longstreet and his ardor cooled off and he said “General Longstreet, probably we had better hear from Lee and Grant, don’t move your troops, I will confer with General Sheridan.” He mounted his steed and withdrew and when out of hearing Longstreet said quietly that young man never played the game of bluff, for the troops ordered to take their places to the right and left of General Gordons troops, were only make believe soldiers.
Memoirs of David Washington Pipes 1845-1939


Published in: on March 19, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Boy General  
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