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George Armstrong Custer is one of the most controversial figures in American history. In his associates he inspired either love or hate, but never indifference. History has reflected this disagreement. Some historians have characterized him as reckless, brutal, egotistical, selfish, unprincipled, and immature. Others have viewed him as portrayed by his first biographer: "a model of "truth and sincerity, honor and bravery, tenderness, sympathy, unassuming piety and temperance." And still others have seen in him, both as a soldier and as a person, a paradoxical combination of virtue and vice.

Graduating from West Point in 1861 at the foot of his class, the young lieutenant plunged into the Civil War with an aggressive fighting spirit that within 2 years brought him to the attention of his superiors. In 1863 Gen. Alfred Pleasanton selected him and two other youthful officers for promotion to high rank. At the age of 23 Custer became a brigadier general, the youngest in the U.S. Army since Lafayette; 2 years later he won his second star. From Gettysburg to Appomattox, the dashing, gold-bedecked horseman led first the Michigan Cavalry Brigade and then the Third Cavalry Division from one triumph to another. By the close of the war he was a trusted lieutenant of General Sheridan and a widely admired national hero.

Although a major general of volunteers and a major general by brevet in the Regular Army, Custer's rank in the Army line had by 1865 advanced only to captain. With the reorganization of the Regular Army in 1866, however, he received the rank of lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 7th Cavalry Regiment. For the next 10 years, while the colonel of the regiment was kept on detached service, Custer led the 7th in campaigns against the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa Indians of the Great Plains. His most celebrated victory was the Battle of the Washita in November 1868, when he surprised and destroyed Black Kettle's Cheyenne village. When death ended his career in 1876, the yellow-haired cavalryman was only 36 years old.

In 1864 Custer married Elizabeth Bacon of Monroe, Mich. The devotion of the couple became legendary, and "Libbie" followed her husband from one remote frontier station to an other during his Plains service. In 1867 Custer's zeal to see his wife prompted him to leave his command in the field and travel nearly 300 miles to the fort where she awaited him. For this and other alleged offenses, he was tried by court-martial and suspended from rank and command for a year. After the Little Bighorn disaster, Mrs. Custer wrote several interesting books about frontier Army life and survived her husband by 57 years. She died in 1933 at the age of 91.


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