George Armstrong Custer is probably best remembered for the defeat of members of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. He was thirty-six years old at the time of his death. Prior to that event, he had enjoyed a mostly successful military career. About ten years after his death, his widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, published a book called “Tenting on the Plains” in which she described their military life including the period in which Custer served in Kansas and Texas.
George Armstrong Custer was the oldest of five children in the blended Custer family, both his parents having been widowed at one point before they married. His father Emanuel had first married Matilda Viers. They had two children who died in infancy and a son, Brice William Custer who survived. Matilda died in 1835 after which Emanuel married Mariah Ward Kirkpatrick, a widow who had two children, David Kirkpatrick and Lydia Kirkpatrick.
Emanuel and Mariah Custer had five more children after having two who died in infancy. The children who survived were George Armstrong (1839), Neville (1842), Thomas Ward (1845), Boston (1848) and Margaret Emma “Maggie” (1852).
Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, wrote in her memoirs that the Custer/Kirkpatrick family was a happy one. Emanuel, a farmer, was a member of the local militia in Ohio and took George Amstrong to their events when he was a boy. George Armstrong was a good and avid reader and pursued his education, including seeking his own application and appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
It is no secret that he graduated West Point at the bottom of his class, which was to be the class of 1862. Because of outbreak of the Civil War, his class graduated early, in 1861. Elizabeth remarked that a number of his classmates were from the south and immediately left to join the Confederate Army. Some of them were reunited with him after the surrender at Appomattox four years later. Custer joined the Union Army in July, 1861 as a second lieutenant and was assigned to the Fifth Cavalry, Army of the Potomac just in time to participate in the unsuccessful Battle of Bull Run. Custer went on to serve in the defense of Washington, DC. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1862 after serving well in the cavalry under General MClellan with whom he remained friends long after McClellan was removed from leadership.
Custer was promoted to Captain and during the winter of 1862 he went to visit his half sister in Michigan where he met Elizabeth Bacon, who was later to become his wife. Military operations typically slowed during the winter and resumed in the spring. He returned to service following a brief time away.
After his successful performance in the 1863 Rappahannock and other campaigns, Custer later received a series of brevet promotions. He remained in leadership throughout the war, having led his troops to notable successes including halting the flanking attempt of Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg later that year.
Custer continued his relationship with Elizabeth Bacon, asking her family for permission to marry. The couple was wed in February, 1864. The war wound on and Custer returned to service. Due to attrition caused by deaths and transfers, he was assigned to the First Cavalry Division, and later the Third Cavalry Division, serving with distinction in many battles. He was present at the Appomattox surrender in April, 1865.
Custer was then assigned to Texas after the war ended and he led his troops from Alexandria, Louisiana to Hempstead, Texas as part of the Union Army’s occupation of the area. The Union Army soldiers he commanded were volunteers from the states. After the war, this army was to be dissolved. After his service in Texas, Custer was eventually mustered out of the Union Army and after reviewing his options he reinlisted in the regular United States Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Custer was first placed in command of troops that were charged with maintaining order in the state of Texas. They arrived in Louisiana in 1866 and marched to a location in Hempstead, Texas, northwest of Houston. Elizabeth described the march in detail as they rode on horseback and in wagons to their new location. There were no established roads most of the way, and the Texas weather and bothersome snakes, ticks, chiggers and the like were a considerable problem. She described interacting with the local residents as they passed by.
Once they arrived at Hempstead, they set up a more permanent tent camp by a stream. There was no physical fort. General Phillip Sheridan and some of their family members including Emanuel Custer came to visit. An unnamed Texan on whose property they were camped had invited Custer and Elizabeth to stay at their home, but they declined. Elizabeth remarked at the changes that the longtime residents had gone through, being under the governmental control of Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States, the Confederacy and the United States again. From time to time, she mentioned George Armstrong’s brother Tom (Thomas Ward) Custer, and brother in law James H. Calhoun, who were serving with the regiment.
After several months, orders came to relocate to Austin. Accordingly, they broke camp and marched to the state capital making thirty to thirty-five miles per day, where they were to winter. Once there, they established Custer’s headquarters in the old Blind Asylum Building, which was unoccupied at that moment. The building was then located near the edge of town, but since has been enveloped into the campus of University of Texas at Austin and the building still stands.
Elizabeth described their accommodations at the Blind Asylum as being spacious and comfortable. They and the staff used the building as their living quarters and headquarters. After living in tents for several months, they appreciated having some furniture and other comforts. She sounded somewhat surprised that the residents welcomed them and tells of enjoying Christmas there. Elizabeth also described their day to day activities which included horseback riding.
She described Texas at that time as being “in a state of ferment” as there was no network of railroads. The state was also subject to lawlessness, from bandits and presumably the native tribes. Finally law and order generally returned and the government felt the need for military presence had ended. They were ordered to Kansas where they remained for a number of years.
Custer went on to serve in the post-war Army until his death on June 25, 1876 during the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. Five of the twelve companies of the 7th Cavalry amounting to about 700 men were completely annihilated as they faced warriors of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. It was a considerable loss to the Custer family since the dead included George Armstrong Custer, two of his brothers, Captain Tom Custer and civilian Boston Custer (working with the supply group). Also killed were Lieutenant James Calhoun (husband of their sister Maggie) and nephew Henry Armstrong Reed (also a civilian and the son of half sister Lydia Kirkpatrick Reed).
George Armstrong Custer and the rest of the Army casualties were first buried on the battlefield at Little Bighorn and about a year later, Custer’s remains were removed to the cemetery at West Point in New York. Elizabeth survived him until 1933. She is also buried at West Point. Brother Thomas Custer was finally interred at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Brother Boston Custer was finally interred at Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan. Brother in law James Calhoun was also finally interred at Fort Leavenworth. Nephew Harry Armstrong Reed was also finally interred at Woodland Cemetery in Michigan.
“Tenting on the Plains” was published in New York by Charles L. Webster and Company in 1887. It is very readable and still may be found, purchased and/or also downloaded.
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