More is known about Custer’s Indian War campaigns, under the direction and authority of the United States Department of War, than his Civil War record. Custer participated in over one hundred engagements and earned him the title Boy-General. The title was appropriate for a young man just twenty-three and the youngest general in the Federal service.
When Custer’s service began, a cavalryman was used for escort duty, scouting or message carrying. Infantrymen at the time had a statement that spoke to their feelings: “You’ll never see a dead cavalryman.” Custer changed all that as a new commander of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade who shouted: “Come on you Wolverines,” as he led them in a charge against the seemingly invincible JEB Stuart at Gettysburg.
The Confederate Stuart was leading his superior force of veteran Confederate cavalry around the Union right on July 3, at the moment the Federal cannons were pounding Pickett’s men as they crossed the wheat fields between Seminary and Cemetery ridges. In a series of charges and counter charges, Custer drove the Confederate forces from the field saving the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.
Custer in his red necktie, and braid-covered, velveteen uniform was in the front of the charge where his men could see him. Custer believed his job was to instill courage in his men and to lead by example.
Custer knew and loved horses and he rode a fast-gaited mount that he could move back and forth rapidly in front of his command, presenting a more difficult target while he was at it. The records indicate Custer had a dozen horses shot under him in the course of the war, but was wounded just once himself.
General Hugh S. Johnson believed that Custer’s spectacular charge so shattered Stuart’s cavalry it saved the battle for General Meade. Following that final day of July 3, it was Custer who ripped the rear of General Lee’s bedraggled forces as they made their weary way back to Virginia where they recouped and regrouped to fight another day.
Custer was best known as a tactician, although some considered him a genius on the field, he displayed ability as a strategist. Custer and General Alfred Torbert planned a cavalry attack on Cold Harbor that was approved by Sheridan and supported by Meade and Grant. It was successful beyond all expectations, partially because Custer replaced his armchair with a saddle and led his men in the engagement
Through Custer’s Civil War years, he was appointed to the staffs of Generals Baldy Smith, Kearny, Hancock, McClellan, Hooker and Pleasonton as requested. These were not by chance or a matter of political influence appointments. Custer was commended for his ability and zeal.
Custer displayed his qualities of generalship in the battles of Cedar Creek, Five Forks, Cold Harbor, and Yellow Tavern where one of his men killed JEB Stuart.
In the final phase of the campaign in 1865, Custer drove his men hard. It was the cavalry’s job to lead the relentless drive that would force General Lee to surrender. Sheridan made every effort to head off Lee near Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Near there on April 8, he reported: “Custer, who had the advance, made a dash at the station, capturing four trains of supplies with locomotives. Custer pushed on toward Appomattox Court House, driving the enemy, charging them repeatedly.”
Once the terms of surrender were decided upon by Grant and Lee, Sheridan purchased a small pine table from the owner of the house, Wilmer McLean, that cost him $20 in gold, for the official and historical event. Afterward, Sheridan addressed a short letter to Mrs. Custer and then presented the table and letter to Custer:
Appomattox Court House
April 10, 1865
My dear Madam:
I respectfully present to you the small writing table on which the conditions for the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were written by Lt. Gen. Grant – and permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband.
Frost, Lawrence A. THE CUSTER ALBUM, Washington, Superior Publishing Company
Whittaker, Frederick, A COMPLETE LIFE OF GEN. GEORGE A. CUSTER, New York, 1876