Custer’s West Point Academy Years
When Custer arrived at the West Point wharf in the summer of 1857, to begin the five years of training then required to graduate from the United States Military Academy, he became one of the 300 boys granted this privilege. He was an 18-year-old boy whose face showed the softness of youth with no hard angles. At nearly 6 feet tall with a slim build, he had blond wavy hair with a fair complexion that sunburned easily and sun sensitive eyes.
Young Custer had achieved his first of many dreams, acceptance into our country’s finest military academy. His military career would bring him universal fame, prestige, and accolades in both civilian and military spheres. The time period being age 18 in 1857, until June 25, 1876, when he died at 36 years of age. In 18 years, a young man from farming communities in Ohio and Michigan, would become the most well known U.S. Cavalryman and earn a position in the history books.
Myth #2. George Armstrong Custer graduated last in his West Point Class
Answer: In one of the last articles Custer had written for publication, he observed that: “My career as a cadet had but little to commend it to the study of those who came after me, unless as an example to be carefully avoided. My offenses against law and order were not great in enormity, but what they lacked in magnitude they made up in number. The resignation and departure of the Southern cadets took away from the Academy a few individuals who, had they remained, would probably have contested with me the debatable honor of bringing up the rear of the class.”
Except for a few young men, there seemed to be no hard feelings when Southern boys began leaving the Academy at the early state of the Rebellion and returned home to join the armed forces of their home states. Cadets were broad-minded, professionals-to-be who respected their fellow cadets loyalties even when they did not agree.
Here’s a quote from Custer on the subject: “Any Southern cadet who wants to leave the Academy and go home and fight for his home State has a clear right to. I’m going to stick to the Union, but I refuse to hold the slightest bitterness against any Southern cadet or Southern army officer who resigns and follows the fortunes of his own State.”
West Pointers consider the last man graduating at the Academy to be the “goat.” Custer graduated 34 out of 34 students. Custer’s class had started in 1857 with 79 names on the roster. The drop-outs started immediately. Twenty-two cadets didn’t show up for admission. One died on sick leave. Twenty-two resigned because of the Civil War. Many of the latter, and some had less than a semester to graduate, joined and fought on the side of the Confederacy.
John Carroll, one of the country’s leading Custer authorities, is of the belief that 23 members of the class that started with Custer in 1857, conceivably could have finished behind Custer. As he said in a comprehensive study of the subject: “It is not only completely wrong, but faulty to claim Custer as the “Goat.” True, he finished last, but this was because of a decimated class and not necessarily because of an earned academic standing.”
The term “goat” as applied to Custer is a traditional one that was applied to the graduate who was at the very bottom of his class. Actually, it didn’t apply to Custer for the term was not yet in use. Classes at West Point Academy up to 1861 were scheduled for five years.
In May 1861, the five year class graduated from West Point Academy. In June 1861, the four year students were allowed to graduate West Point due to the Federal government’s desperate need for Army officers. George A. Custer was in the June 1861 graduating class.
In the final analysis Custer has been victimized and made to appear, through inaccurate research, as the “goat” of his class. John Carroll, Custer historian, has laid that myth to rest.
While growing up, Custer and his family enjoyed practical jokes. This habit never left George and throughout his brief life, especially during his West Point years, he had a reputation as a prankster, dare-devil, and carefree fellow.
Custer’s Academy records indicate he had done well in scholastic performance. However, he also earned more demerits for nonsense than most. He had to cut and run at sight of an adjutant in full uniform for fear he would be placed in arrest and confined to quarters. To classmates, Custer had more fun, gave his friends more anxiety, walked more tours of extra guard, and came nearer being dismissed more often than any other cadet.
While at the Academy, Custer began to let his hair grow long a la Cody. After being reported several times, he shaved his head and wore a wig. He was reported numerous times for “Hair out of uniform,” to the amusement of classmates.
In a letter to a friend, Custer describes how some cadets left the Academy grounds late at night to go into a nearby town for the purpose of enjoying things that were not allowed, such as ice cream, candies, fruit, wine and liquors. They had to change clothes and sneak out. This was very risky and the penalty severe, if caught. He didn’t actually admit to his friend that he participated, but I’m thinking – yes, he did and loved the thrill of adventure.
Brig. Gen. Evans Andruss wrote to Libbie Custer: “His boyish, but harmless frolics kept him in constant hot water. He was beyond doubt the most popular man in his class and even the plebes (Andruss was one while Custer was a cadet) deemed it an honor and a pleasure to be ‘deviled’ by him.” Custer was an “immortal” to those who came after him. Cadet Custer exhibited the high jinks of a rambunctious youth right off a farm and living hundreds of miles from home.
Custer excelled at horsemanship and made the highest jump on record with the exception of a higher jump made by Cadet Ulysses S. Grant who graduated the Academy in 1843. Custer was the strongest man in his class. He demonstrated his physical strength when, while lying down he would spring up to a standing position in one fluid motion.
Custer graduated the United States Military Academy just in time to be present at the first battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. He, no doubt, called it “Custer luck.” He had been assigned as a second lieutenant to the Second U.S. Cavalry when he saw the first smoke of battle on that occasion, although he took no active role.
Carroll, John, WAS CUSTER REALLY THE GOAT OF HIS CLASS, an address given before The Little Big Horn Associates at Louisville, Kentucky, October 1974
Frost, Lawrence A., CUSTER LEGENDS, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981