Myth #4. In the movie, They Died With Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn in 1942, Hollywood produced a wildly inventive account of Custer’s life and military commissions. No sign of truth anywhere in the film. The following list is Custer’s U.S. Army Commissions that are in the possession of the Custer Battlefield National Monument:
June 24, 1861 - Second Lieutenant in the Second Regiment of Cavalry. Signed by Abraham Lincoln, Sept. 9, 1861. Custer was a recent West Point Academy graduate.
June 5, 1862 – Additional Aide-de-Camp with the rank of Captain. Signed by Abraham Lincoln, July 30, 1862
July 17, 1862 – First Lieutenant in Fifth Regiment of Cavalry. Signed by Abraham Lincoln, June 6, 1863.
June 29, 1863 – Brigadier General of Volunteers. Signed by Abraham Lincoln, March 11, 1864.
July 3, 1863 – Brevet Major for gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Gettysburg, PA. Signed by Andrew Johnson, August 3, 1866.
May 8, 1864 – Captain in Fifth Regiment of Cavalry. Signed by Andrew Johnson, June 1, 1865.
May 11, 1864 – Brevet Lieutenant Colonel for gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, VA. Signed by Andrew Johnson, August 2, 1866.
September 19, 1864 – Brevet Colonel for gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Winchester, VA. Signed by Andrew Johnson, August 1, 1866.
October 19, 1864 – Brevet Major General of Volunteers for gallant and meritorious service at the Battles of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill, VA.
March 13, 1865 – Brevet Major General for gallant and meritorious services during the campaign ending with the surrender of the insurgent army of Northern Virginia. Signed by Andrew Johnson, July 28, 1866.
April 15, 1865 – Major General of Volunteers. Signed by Andrew Johnson, March 10, 1866.
July 28, 1866 – Lieutenant Colonel of the Seventh Regiment of Cavalry. Signed by Andrew Johnson, March 5, 1867.
From the information listed above, you can see Custer was made a General or Brevet Major or Brevet Colonel several times and always for gallant and meritorious services. A brevet was a commission giving an officer higher nominal rank than that for which he received pay. It was an honor conferred by the Senate for meritorious service or heroism. Many were conferred upon staff officers who saw no active combat, creating much resentment among those officers who were serving on the line of action.
For a time, an officer with a brevet frequently was assigned a command commensurate with his brevet rank and was paid accordingly. For that reason, the honor was not an empty one. In addition, the recipient bore the title of his highest rank for his entire career. General Custer is a case in point. Socially and oftentimes officially, Custer was addressed as General though his rank in the Seventh Cavalry was that of Lieutenant Colonel. In this last instance, he received the pay and the compensation of a lieutenant colonel.
After the war, there was a scramble for the available openings in a much smaller post war army. Regular army officers, who held high rank in the Volunteer Army, had been dropped in grade to their regular army grades in keeping with the need for fewer officers. Appointments were often made based on the influence of friends in high places as well as the professional background and abilities of the applicants.
Custer’s Civil War record worked for him and in the end worked against him. Unknown to George, he made enemies within the officer ranks, men he had not even met during the war. Career army officers accumulated a level of envy and jealousy over Custer’s youthful promotions that allowed them to engage in gossip, slander, and bearing false witness against Custer in military courts, personal letters and even books they wrote on the famous boy-general.
Frost, Lawrence A., CUSTER LEGENDS, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981
Utley, Robert M., FRONTIER REGULARS, New York, 1973
Note: All of Custer’s commissions listed are in the files of the Custer Battlefield National Monument. Also in the files, is a letter from Major General Phil Sheridan to Secretary of War Station, dated April 6, 1866, requesting that Gen. Custer be appointed “Colonel of Cavalry upon the reorganization of the Army.” He added to the request that “The record of this officer is so conspicuous as to render its recital by me unnecessary. I ask this appointment as a reward to one of the most gallant and efficient officers that ever served under me.”