|A short and incomplete biography of General George Armstrong Custer.
George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5 1839 in the small town of New Rumley, Ohio to Emanuel Henry and Maria Ward Kilpatrick Custer. Both his parents had previously been widowed and each brought two children to the new marriage. He wasn’t the first child born to the couple, but he was the first to survive infancy, and when his parents saw how robust this boy was, they immediately set about bringing another three sons and a daughter into the world.
His parents usually called him Armstrong which came out as “Autie” when he tried to say it as a toddler. This rapidly became the nickname his entire family used for him. In fact his brother Thomas Ward Custer, who in later years would be a war hero in his own right called him this through their entire adult lives until the day he died.
Life in the Custer household must have been chaotic and many neighbours considered that Emanuel and Maria did little to discipline their children. Emanuel himself carried on like a big kid when he was around his children, often wrestling and scuffling with the boys and engaging in wars of practical jokes with them all, even into old age.
For all his playfulness, Emmanuel had a profound influence on the rapidly growing Autie. As a young boy, Autie would hang around his father’s forge. He would listen in on his father’s conversations with his friends and customers. It was here that he picked up the strong Democrat leanings that he would stick to his entire life. He also “test rode” newly shod horses and in the process became an excellent horseman. He also developed a taste for the military life from his father. Emmanuel was a member of the “New Rumley Invincibles” the local militia unit. Maria made Autie his own uniform so that he could attend the unit’s meetings with his father.
At school, George was far from a model student and was known as “a wide awake boy full of all kinds of pranks and willing to take all kinds of chances” and his teacher’s son said of him “Autie was a rather bad boy in school, but one thing would be said of him, he always had his lessons, yet he was not considered a particularly bright lad”.
When Autie was ten years old, his father sold his smithy and bought an eighty acre farm on the outskirts of New Rumley. Shortly after, Autie was apprenticed to a furnituremaker in Cadiz. This new job didn’t last long and he was sent to live with his half sister Lydia Anne Reed and her husband in Monroe, Michigan. Whatever the reason for his sudden departure, quite possibly because of his lack of self discipline, Autie spent two years living with Lydia Anne and the pair came to have a relationship nearly as close as mother and son. As happy as he was living with his half sister, Autie’s scholastic endeavours were still lacking. While studying at the Alfred Stebbin’s Young Man’s Academy in Monroe, he was more likely to be caught reading adventure stories than his textbooks.
At age sixteen, Autie returned to New Rumley and attended the McNeely Normal School at Hopedale. With his curly blonde hair and blue eyes, he quickly became a favourite of the young ladies. In a great demonstration of irony, Autie interrupted his education to take a teaching position at the Beech Point School in Athens Township. Like his father, Autie would play rough with his pupils during recess and one wonders at just how good a teacher he really was.
In spite of the fact that he was earning twenty eight dollars a month, Autie decided to leave teaching and further his education. He wrote to the local Republican representative John A. Bingham requesting a recommendation to attend the prestigious West Point Military academy. This was a typically audacious move from Autie, who shared his father’s staunch democrat politics.
Amazingly he was successful. There are two stories explaining how Autie managed to pull off such a coup. Bingham would later claim that the earnest and honest nature of Autie’s plea moved him to make the recommendation for West Point and thus start Autie on the path to fame and military laurels. Another version of the story has it that the father of a girl with whom Autie was becoming romantically involved urged Bingham to make the recommendation in order to get the young romeo out of the picture and as far away from his daughter as possible. The second version is much more appealing.
In January 1857 Autie received notification that he had been accepted to West Point and that his appointment would be effective in June. He then chose to tell his parents the good news. Naturally his mother was aghast, she had always wanted him to become a Methodist minister but more ominously she could see likelihood of war between pro and anti slavery states increasing daily. But the Custer household was a true democracy and everyone had a say. The rest of the family saw the appointment as an opportunity that could not be ignored and Maria was outvoted. Emanuel mortgaged the farm for two hundred dollars to meet Autie’s admission fees and expenses. On July 1 1857, Georg Armstrong Custer joined sixty seven other officer cadets at West Point Military academy as the “Class of 1862”.
Among his fellow cadets, Autie’s curly blonde locks, blue eyes and pale skin quickly earned him the nickname “Fanny”, despite the fact he stood nearly six feet tall and weighed in at about 170 pounds. He may have grown up physically, but Autie could not leave his poor academics and mischievous behaviour behind. He was a constant poor performer in class, at the end of his first year he was ranked fifty second in mathematics and fifty seventh in English of a class of sixty two students. Worse than is poor academics was his constant accumulation of demerits or “skins” as they were referred to by the cadets. These demerits might be inflicted for the most minor of infractions and one hundred demerits in any six month period would be considered grounds for expulsion from the academy.
In that first year Autie managed to accumulate a total of 151 demerits, the highest in his class. Peter Michie, a fellow cadet wrote that while “Custer was always in trouble with the authorities, he always had the most fun, gave his friends more anxiety, walked more tours of extra guard and came nearer to being dismissed than any other cadet I have ever known.” Among his many offences during his four years at West Point are such atrocities as throwing snowballs outside, throwing bread in the mess hall, making a boisterous noise in his sink and having cooking utensils in the chimney!
In his second year he accumulated 192 demerits, only eight short of dismissal, but in his third year he knuckled down and improved his behaviour, attracting only 191 demerits. For all his boisterousness Autie never received a demerit for fighting with a fellow cadet, quite an achievement as war crept closer and the divided loyalties of cadets became more pronounced.
In April 1861, the long anticipated war between the pro and anti slavery states erupted and thirty seven cadets, including Autie’s best friend Tom Rosser (later General Rosser) resigned their appointments to offer their services to the Confederacy. The “Class of 1862” now numbering only half it’s original strength had it’s curriculum abbreviated by almost an entire year, graduating in June 1861, only a month after the “Class of 1861”.
Autie graduated 34th in his class of 34 cadets, with 192 demerits to his name. Even though he was to graduate as an officer in the United States Army, Autie couldn’t help himself. While acting of “Officer of the guard” on June 29 1861 a fistfight broke out between two cadets. Rather than breaking up the scuffle as per orders, he simply ordered the spectators to “stand back boys, lets have a fair fight.” Autie was in the guardhouse awaiting court-martial when his fellow officers left for Washington to receive their orders.
Almost a week later he was on his way as well, having survived his first court-martial with just a reprimand, he wouldn’t be so lucky next time.
On July 20 Autie reported to Washington to receive his orders. After a brief encounter with General Winfield Scott, who instructed him to return to Washington at seven o’clock to collect dispatches for his new commander, he was ordered to select a horse and join his unit. He got his first taste of battle the following day when the Union army was routed at the Battle of Bull Run. In the aftermath of the defeat Autie rode twenty five miles to Washington where too tired to look for shelter or return to the headquarters building for further orders, he fell asleep under a tree in pouring rain. It was an inauspicious start, but he had gotten a taste of warfare and he was addicted.
As a result of the debacle at Bull Run, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell was replaced as the commanding General by Major General George McClellan and Autie found himself reassigned to a staff job after a general order was issued forbidding volunteer officers to be in command of regular troops.
It was about this time that he took a four month leave of absence during which he returned to Monroe and the home his half sister Lydia Anne Reed. He was doubly fortunate in this short interlude. Firstly he was absent from the war at a time when the Union cavalry was stagnating, with no commander quite able or perhaps willing to make the arm competitive with its confederate counterpart, he would have hated the sitting around twiddling his thumbs and shuffling papers. Secondly and to Autie, much more importantly it was in this period that he first noticed nineteen year old Elizabeth Bacon. He was immediately smitten and decided that she would one day be his wife. Unfortunately her father, Judge Daniel Bacon, one of Monroe’s leading citizens had noticed Autie as the young lieutenant staggered past the Bacon home one evening roaring drunk after a celebration with a fellow officer. The Judge was not impressed. That very evening he arrived home to be met by the disapproving glare of his half sister Lydia Anne. In a fit of remorse he vowed to her that he would never drink alcohol again in his life, a promise he would keep til his dying day.
Autie returned to his unit in February 1862 and after a short while was in the thick of the action when he volunteered to lead a troop of cavalrymen to attack the rear of a retiring confederate unit. In the next few months he would lead reconnaissance missions and even go aloft in a hot air balloon to discover enemy positions at the siege of Yorktown.
On May 5 1862 he received his first commendation for single handedly capturing a bridge set alight by retreating confederates at Williamsburg Virginia. The same day, Autie was assigned to the brigade commanded by Brig. General Winfield Scott Hancock and in the afternoon led a counter attack which routed a confederate charge, earning himself a second commendation for the day. A few weeks later he again impressed his superiors by wading into the flooded Chickahominy River to test its depth and suitability for crossing.
This constant action gave Autie great enjoyment. In October 1862 he confided to a cousin in a letter "I must say that I will regret to see the war end[;] I would be willing,yes glad to see a battle evrey day of my life." I also brought him to the attention of the commanding general McClellan. He sent for the young officer and offered him a position on his staff, which Autie readily accepted. The pair would work very well together, the General saying years later “His head was always clear in danger and he always brought me clear and intelligible reports of what he saw when under the heaviest fire”. For his part Autie greatly admired “Little Mac” as the general was known throughout the army. So great was his respect for his commander that he would be forever known as a “McClellan man”. In an army that was often divided by the politics of its leaders and dominated by republicans, this would often prove to be a severe disadvantage for an up and comer like Autie Custer.
General McClellan would be relieved of command by an impatient President Lincoln in November 1862 after months of inaction and was replaced by Major General Ambrose Burnside.
This was a terrible blow for Autie. The removal of McClellan left him without a job and worse yet, he lost the rank of Brevet Captain he had earned under the patronage of “Little Mac”. Nonetheless he was still a popular dinner guest and after dinner speaker when he returned to Monroe while he waited for new orders. While in Monroe, he was finally formally introduced to Elizabeth Bacon, much to the horror of her father who no doubt remembered the drunken lieutenant arguing with his fence months earlier. The memory of the young officer’s drunken display coupled with the fact the he was still only the son of a blacksmith reinforced the Judge’s prejudice against Autie’s attentions. Elizabeth or Libbie as she would forever be known was lukewarm in her affections toward Autie. Despite this, Autie was her regular escort during the duration of the winter of 1862-63.
Autie returned to the war in April 1863, having missed the costly victory at Antietam and the disaster of Fredericksburg which resulted in the appointment of a new commanding general, Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. General Hooker reorganized the Union Cavalry arm and Autie found himself under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton.
Now the Cavalry was formed into one Corps, comprising three divisions under the command of Major General George Stoneman. A regiment of cavalry was attached to each infantry brigade. Autie was well pleased this would give him plenty of opportunity for action as the cavalry was often used for scouting and raiding into enemy territory.
Early in May 1863, the Union army was embarrassed by the Army of Northern Viriginia, led by General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The only positive to come from the debacle was that the cavalry was able to cover the retreat of the union troops, thereby preventing a whole scale rout.
In late May he took part in a cavalry raid which netted prisoners, stolen mounts, money and supplies. If he wasn’t a great student, Autie was no fool, sensing an opportunity he presented Pleasonton with a particularly fine horse captured on the four day sortie. Shortly after, he asked Pleasonton to sign letters of recommendation for him to be given command of a regiment of cavalry even suggesting “I would rather be in command of the 5th Michigan cavalry or the 8th Regiment if that were possible.” His commanding officer was only too happy to oblige. On May 31 1863 Autie posted this letter as well as recommendations from four other generals to the Governor of Michigan Austin Blair.
Autie was then handed a valuable lesson in politics. His request was denied. He was an avowed Democrat in an army and nation dominated by Republicans, worse still he was a “McClellan man”. This lesson would go unheeded however and he would suffer for it in his post war army career. For a man as ambitious and proud as Autie the rejection must have been crushing, but he did not have to time to brood over it as nine days later all three Cavalry divisions were ordered to find and engage the Confederate cavalry led by Major J. E. B. Stuart as they led a strike into Pennsylvania. The ensuing battle was the largest cavalry engagement of the war and Autie as the Corps commander’s personal representative was in the thick of the fighting. When Colonel Benjamin Davis, commander of the 8th New York cavalry was killed, Autie personally took command and led the regiment and two others in a saber charge that pierced the confederate line.
At the end of the battle of Culpeper Courthouse, Stuart’s “Invincibles” held the field, but the union horsemen had given more than a good account of themselves. This engagement is seen as a turning point for the Union cavalry as an arm. The blue coated horsemen now felt they could engage the enemy cavalry on almost even terms. For Autie personally, some of his disappointment must have been assuaged by his citation for bravery by his commander. He was garnering citations and recommendations, but he wanted the recognition that comes with command.
In the next couple of weeks he was in action again, fighting small cavalry actions as the union cavalry probed the confederate forces, attempting to determine their intentions and movements. At Aldie, Autie’s horse bolted and carried him in the middle of an enemy formation. This should have been the end of him, but the luck and sheer aggression he was quickly becoming renowned for got him out of trouble. He literally hacked his way of trouble and made his way back to his own units. The newspapers, despite Autie’s no doubt feeble protestations reported this great feat of arms to a public eager for good news. His star was now truly on the rise.
By the end of June 1863, President Lincoln had run out of patience. The major defeat at Chancellorville, and the lack of progress in the two months after the battle led to the sacking of General Hooker.
Hooker wasn’t the only casualty though. Pleasonton, who was shameless self promoter and well versed in manipulating the media had lobbied Republican representatives and President Lincoln himself. After Chancellorsville, Stoneman had been replaced by Pleasonton. Autie wouldn’t have been too upset he was now on the staff of the man who was in command of the entire Union cavalry.
Hooker’s replacement was Major General George Meade, yet another highly cautious commander. Like his predecessor he wanted to further organize the cavalry. To this end, Pleasonton recommended better training and equipment. He also recommended that three of his outstanding young officers be promoted to Brigadier General and given command of Cavalry brigades. These young officers were Captains Wesley Merrit, Elon Farnsworth and one George Armstrong Custer.
Only a month after having his application to lead a cavalry regiment rejected, Autie suddenly found himself in command of a cavalry brigade made up of three regiments. At the age of twenty three, he was the youngest general in the army. The newspapers dubbed him “The Boy General” and he couldn’t be happier.
Autie was a flamboyant character and coming from such a big family, he had to be in order to get some attention. When he joined his new units, he raised more than a few eyebrows. He wore a tailor made uniform of black velvet, with gold lace knots at the cuffs. He wore knee high riding boots and wore a bright red cravat at his throat, all topped with a broad brimmed hat which could not conceal his long curly blonde hair.
“He looks like a circus rider gone mad” one officer on Meade’s staff quipped.
Autie’s first attack as a general was a disaster. He led a company of 60 troopers directly into the middle of an entire confederate brigade. He was barely able to extricate himself and about half of his troops. This was a lesson he would actually learn from. While he would still be a dashing and courageous leader, always leading from the front, he would never again be so reckless. Well, not for a few years anyway.
Meanwhile a few miles away around a small town named Gettysburg, possibly the most significant battle of the war was underway. On July 3 1863, J. E. B. Stuart was leading his “invincibles” on a flanking ride to support the Army of Northen Virginia’s last desperate attempt to overwhelm the union army firmly entrench on the higher ground behind Gettysburg. After dislodging light opposition, the Confederate Cavalry ran up against the Seventh Michigan Cavalry with Autie Custer at their lead. They charged, with Autie at their head shouting “Come on you Wolverines”.
The two forces fought wildly for two hours until they ground themselves to a standstill. Stuart threw eight more brigades into the fight, pushing the exhausted Michiganers back. Autie wasn’t finished yet. He rode to the head of the First Michigan Cavalry and ordered them to charge straight at the approaching enemy. There followed another fierce hand to hand battle, where sabers and revolvers dominated the killing. Stuart, stunned, pulled his troops back. Union Cavalry had finally broken the spell held over them by Stuart’s “Invincibles”.
A week earlier his appearance had no doubt drawn more than a few laughs, now he was suddenly held in awe by both his troops and his superiors. Before long his troops began wearing red neckties as a mark of distinction and soon the Michigan brigade would be known throughout the army as the “Red Tie Boys” The “Boy General” had finally arrived.
In the aftermath of Gettysburg, Autie led his troops in harassing the retreating confederates and near Falling Waters, Virginia he led a charge that again almost led to yet another “Custer’s Last Stand”. Charging his unit at entrenched rebels, he caught them unaware and broke through their lines. A confederate counter attack then cut the union cavalrymen off. Autie and his troops had to extricate themselves at saber point, losing almost half their numbers. Not to be deterred by a small setback like that he took the lead of his newly arrived sixth Michigan brigade and charged back in the fray. This time it went a little better and the “Red Tie Boys” routed the enemy, returning to their lines with several artillery pieces and 1,500 prisoners.
From this time on there was only sporadic skirmishing and in one such skirmish on August 13 Autie had a horse shot from under him by a cannon. The cannonball killed the horse instantly and ruined his boot, bruising his leg. He grabbed a loose horse and captured the guns, and helped to chase the enemy from the town of Culpeper. This wound earned Autie a 20 day Furlough. His mind suddenly returned to conquests of a less martial nature and he boarded a train bound for Monroe.
The entire Custer family was there to meet him as he returned to Monroe no longer a drunk second lieutenant, but one of the nation’s foremost soldiers. Libbie had certainly not forgotten Autie and although her letters to him were inconsistent at best, she had admitted to her diary that “there is no similarity of taste between us… but I love him.” After a long evening of dancing at a masquerade ball held in his honour, Libbie finally gave in and accepted his proposal of marriage on one condition, that he get her father’s consent first.
Autie returned to his units as campaigning was winding down for the season, participating in two more skirmishes before the fighting ended as winter set in.
The troops used their time to rest, reorganize and retrain but Autie put this quiet period to much better use. He wrote a pleading letter to Judge Bacon apologizing for his drunken display over a year earlier in Monroe and vowing his eternal temperance. In the letter he simply asked for the Judge’s permission to correspond with his daughter” The Judge finally forgave him, probably because he was now a swashbuckling General and national hero and gave him permission to write to Libbie.
Sensing an opening, Autie launched a one man offensive and by the end of the year he had obtained Judge Bacon’s consent to wed Libbie. He immediately wrote to Libbie “surely such unalloyed pleasure was never before enjoyed by mortal man”. She agreed to a winter date and plans were swiftly set in motion.
The couple was wed in Monroe on February 9th 1864 and they enjoyed a whirlwind honeymoon which saw them travel to Cleveland, Rochester, West Point, New York City and Washington. It was there that Autie received orders to return immediately to his unit. He begged Libbie to stay in Washington or return to Monroe, but she refused, stating that she was now the wife of a soldier and that her place was by his side. For the next twelve years she would endure many hardships so that she could stay close to her husband.
On the last day of February 1864, Autie led four regiments of cavalry and light artillery in a raid toward Charlottesville, Virginia. This raid was a feint for a larger attack aimed at Richmond commanded but Brigadier General Hugh Kilpatrick, better known to cavalrymen as “kill cavalry” for his reckless disregard for their lives. Autie and his column carried out their task admirably, escaping without casulties but the main attack was a failure and Kilpatrick was soon replaced.
The new commander was Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and he brought with him one of the officers who had brought him success in the western theatre of the war. Major General Phillip “Little Phil” Sheridan took the place of General Pleasonton as commander of the Cavalry Corps.
Though the two men were unalike in almost all areas, Sheridan was short, stocky and disheveled, Custer was tall, lean and fastidious about his appearance they shared one important characteristic. They were both fiercely aggressive.
The war began again on May 4 1864 and Autie was back in action the following day when his regiments joined the left flank of the union army at the “Battle of the Wilderness”. In a fierce fight in the closely wooded country Autie’s Michiganders fought Stuarts “Invincibles” to a standstill and using the new Spencer repeating carbines forced the confederates to retreat. Sheridan then sent the entire cavalry corps out to make as much trouble as possible and bring Stuart’s cavalry to battle again.
A week later they met at Yellow Tavern, just north of Richmond, Virginia. Autie had most of his men dismount and advance on foot, but personally led his favourite unit, the First Michigan Cavalry in a charge straight at the enemy artillery. General Stuart was shot by an unnamed Michigander in a failed counter attack and would die the following day. The tide had now turned and although the confederate cavalry would still give a good account of itself it would never again dominate the battlefield.
Upon resuming the march on Richmond, Autie was misled by a rebel spy into marching in to the city’s defences, then attacked in the rear by confederate cavalry. Disaster was narrowly avoided when the Michigan troopers captured a rail bridge under fire and laying beams and boards across it made their escape, rejoining the main army on May 24 1864.
The next major action fought by Autie’s Michiganders, or Wolverines as he liked to call them was on June 11 1864 at Trevalian Station. Here they were surprised by confederate cavalry and forced to fight a defensive battle behind hastily erected barricades. They achieved their objective of disrupting the rebel rail network but the fight cost the “Red Tie Boys” 400 dead, their worst single day of the entire war. They had now been in action for 40 days straight so Sheridan pulled them out of the line for a month to lick their wounds and rebuild their strength. Autie and Libbie took the time to return to Monroe for a fortnight.
He returned to action in August taking part in Sheridan’s campaign to deny the fertile Shenandoah Valley to the confederates when his troops repelled a major enemy flanking movement. Even Autie was astonished when he learned that they had withstood an entire cavalry division and four infantry brigades. The Shenandoah campaign amounted to very little but autie was back in action again soon, near Winchester, Virginia where as several confederate counter attacks threatened to break the union lines. Sensing an opportunity, he drew his saber and led a charge directly at an advancing enemy infantry regiment. His 500 horsemen routed the infantry and returned with 700 prisoners. “This is the bulliest day since Christ was born” he was heard to exclaim in the aftermath of the victory. A few days later Sheridan gave Autie command of his own cavalry division, it was just getting better and better for the “Boy General”.
His next job was overseeing the burning of farms and food stores in the Shenandoah Valley in order to deny supplies to the enemy. Autie understandably did not enjoy this duty as being a cowardly way to fight a war and as a duty that would not gain him much in the way of favourable publicity, something he had come to crave and expect.
His next action was more to his liking, hitting the enemy in the flank near a town called Woodstock. The “Woodstock races” as the short battle was sometimes called instilled even more self confidence in his new troops. Soon every man in the division was wearing a red tie and calling himself a “Red Tie Boy”.
On October 19 1864, confederate cavalry under Lieutenant General Jubal Early made a surprise attack on the union forces camped near Middletown. This attack caught the federal army literally with its pants down – most soldiers were in bed asleep at the time. The force of the attack shattered the startled bluecoats and it was lucky that Autie’s division and troops commanded by a fellow “Boy General” Wesley Merrit were on hand to slow the enemy advance down using their Spencer repeaters. Just before lunch “Little Phil” Sheridan arrived on the scene to personally take command of the situation. When Someone suggested that they should now be able to make an orderly retreat he shouted “Retreat? Hell we’ll be back in our camps by tonight.” He put Autie’s division on the right flank with the order to “take charge of affairs”.
The “Red Tie Boys” hit Early’s exhausted army in the flank and dealt it a knockout blow with one hit. The confederates scattered and routed, pursued for miles by the jubilant cavalrymen. They returned with 45 captured cannon, many vehicles, several regimental colours and over 100 prisoners.
When Autie got back to Sheridan’s Headquarters in an abandoned mansion, he grabbed the young general from his horse and exclaimed “You have done it for me this time Custer!” Autie was even more excited and grabbed his commander around the waist and lifted him into the air and swung him around wildly “By God Phil, we have cleaned them out of their guns and got ours back too!” Blushing, General Sheridan replied “There, there old boy don’t capture me too!”
For his part in the amazing victory at Cedar Creek, Autie was brevetted the rank of Major General. He was given the further honour of presenting a captured confederate battle flag to the Secretary of War in Washington.
As the war settled down to another winter of inaction, Autie enjoyed a life an almost normal home life. He had Libbie with him almost constantly and had finagled a commission for his younger brother Tom to serve on his staff.
The Third division left winter quarters on February 27, 1865, riding down the Shenandoah Valley largely unopposed. Autie’s men were unstoppable now. They outflanked and routed a confederate force at Waynesboro, capturing 1,500 prisoners and eleven cannon.
A month later at Five Forks, Autie led two failed attacks across open ground in an attempt to support a major infantry attack. On the third attempt, the trooper carrying the flag made especially for him by Libby was shot from his horse. Autie calmly dismounted and picked up the fallen banner before smashing the flank of the enemy position. This victory netted 4,500 prisoners.
A week later at Nazomine church Auties troops captured 350 enemy cavalrymen and Tom Custer earned his first Congressional Medal of Honour for singlehandedly engaging and scattering a dozen enemy troops. Three days later on April 6 1865 at Saylor’s Creek, the “Red Tie Boys” captured a confederate supply convoy. A confederate counter attack led to a desperate close quarters fight in which Tom Custer jumped his horse over a barricade and snatched a battle flag from the hands of an enemy colour bearer. The rebel didn’t want to give it up so easily and shot Tom in the face with a pistol. Blood streaming from the entry wound in his face and the exit wound in his neck, Tom rode back to his older brother exclaiming “Those damned rebels have shot me, but I have got my flag!”
Autie had him arrested and taken to the rear before he could get in any more trouble. Tom received a second Congressional Medal of Honour for this act. Autie praised him in one of his regular letters to Libby “I am as proud of him as I can be, as soldier and brother.” The “Battle of Saylor’s Creek” would result in the surrender of over 8,000 confederate troops and six generals and would prove to be the Confederacy’s last dying gasp. As he passed the ragged column of prisoners, Autie had his band play Dixie, raising a cheer from the defeated men. Even the enemy loved him.
It was only a few days later, on April 9 1865 that Autie’s men were preparing to attack enemy infantry at Appomatox. A confederate officer came forward waving a white towel on a stick. He carried a request from the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee for a “cessation of hostilities”. Autie sent his own chief of staff back with a demand for an unconditional surrender. Then most likely wanting to be the officer to receive the enemy surrender, he rode into the enemy ranks waving a white handkerchief over his head. He was taken to General James Longstreet, Lee’s second in command and long time right hand man. Autie demanded his unconditional surrender. Longstreet knew he was beaten but he didn’t like this young pup of a soldier demanding that he surrender. He sent Autie back to his lines saying “General Lee has gone to meet General Grant, and it is for them to determine the future of the armies.” Even though he had been rebuffed, Autie knew that this meant the war was as good as over.
At 3pm on April 9th 1865 General Lee signed the surrender that ended 4 years of bloody conflict. After the commanding generals had left the farmhouse, General Sheridan bought the small table on which the surrender had been signed from the owner of the house and presented it and a short letter to Libbie as a mark of respect for the “Boy General” “…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 gallant husband.”
On May 23, 1865 the victory parade was held in Washington and Autie rode at the head of his division, at the forefront of the procession. A little girl tossed a garland of flowers to him which spooked his horse. Holding on for dear life he sped down the street finally bringing his mount under control as it reared directly in front of the President and his guests. A spectacular accident? Many viewing the incident wondered. Autie had finished the war in style. For the “Boy General” it could not get any better. He would soon find out though, times were going to get a lot tougher.
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