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Posted on Jul 30, 2004 in War College

Custer’s Greatest Victory

By Bill Betson

No American military figure is more controversial than George Armstrong Custer. A general and national hero in his twenties, his fabled death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn only increased his legendary status. But history can be fickle, and history lately has not treated the "boy general" well.  His reputation has changed from grand, courageous hero to despised war criminal.  Indeed, for many his persona now embodies the sins of United States policy toward Native Americans.  Hollywood’s portrayal of Custer is quite revealing.  In the 1930’s he was the gallant hero portrayed by Errol Flynn in "They Died with Their Boots On."  But by the 1960’s he was the despicable, racist, idiot of "Little Big Man."

But what kind of soldier was this American icon?  To many he was a reckless fool who was only lucky that he did not meet his end during the Civil War.  To others he was a brilliant cavalry leader who was central to Union victory at Appomattox.  Interestingly, his reputation among his peers was also divided.  George Crook thought him a humbug; while Philip Sheridan loved him. 


Any considered judgment of Custer’s military abilities, however, should include an analysis of his performance in a relatively small action on March 2, 1865 at Waynesboro, Virginia.  In this battle the 25 year old Brevet Major General Custer demonstrated the bravery and initiative which had made him famous.  In a brilliant action he exceeded the letter (but not the intent) of his orders, and attacked and completely destroyed the last remaining organized Confederate force in the Shenandoah Valley.

Custer’s rise in the Union Army during the Civil War can only be described as meteoric.  After graduating last in the West Point Class of 1861 he quickly gained the attention of senior Union officers for his bravery and energy in combat.  McClellan plucked him from the 5th U.S. Cavalry Regiment (originally the 2d) to serve on his staff.  With this high-level visibility  Custer soon became a favorite of Alfred Pleasonton, the Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.  In July of 1863, trying to inject more energy into the cavalry, Pleasonton promoted three of the brightest staff officers, Captains Wesley Merritt (age 29), Elon Farnsworth (age 27), and George Custer (age 24), to Brevet Brigadier General.  Along with this promotion came command of cavalry brigades.  Thus, at an age when today’s Army officers are being promoted to 1st Lieutenant, George Armstrong Custer became a general.

He immediately made his mark.  On the day that he joined his new brigade he fought a successful action at Hanover, PA, repulsing a Confederate advance.   A few days later he and his "Wolverines" (the brigade’s regiments were all from Michigan) fought a well known action against Jeb Stewart near Gettysburg, protecting the Union flank.   In these initial actions, however, Custer had demonstrated guts and determination, but not tactical brilliance.

He had, however, exhibited a flair for the dramatic and real leadership ability.  He wore an outlandish uniform and long blonde hair down to his shoulders – an affectation that endeared him to his men, but caused some grumbling among his peers and superiors.  But he was more than mere show.  He was almost recklessly brave and always led from the front.  This earned him everyone’s respect.  One would think that his subordinate officers would resent the fact that a boy was promoted over their heads, but they quickly became loyal as well.  Soon the Michigan Brigade became the most celebrated of the Union Cavalry formations. 

And they earned their celebrity.  In 1864 at Newby’s Station, Todd’s Tavern, and during Sheridan’s Richmond Raid, the Michigan Brigade and Custer distinguished themselves.  At the Battle of Trevilian Station Custer conducted a bold charge that initially routed the Confederates. (But perhaps demonstrating tactical imprudence that later cost him his life, this attack resulted in his being surrounded and having to fight for his life before being rescued by other Union Cavalry.)  It was another bold, mounted charge at the important Battle of Yellow Tavern that was crucial to the major victory won that day by the Union Cavalry over the Confederate Cavalry.   In fact, it was just after this charge that one of Custer’s men shot and mortally wounded the fabled Confederate Cavalry leader Jeb Stuart.  And after most of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry was transferred with their new commander, General Philip Sheridan, to the Shenandoah Valley, Custer played a pivotal role in the Federal victory at the Battle of The Opequon (3d Winchester), as his brigade was one that helped envelop the Confederate left.

Thus, there was little surprise when in late September, 1864, Custer was promoted to command the 3d Cavalry Division of Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah.  His first test as a division commander came quickly.  In a brilliantly conducted maneuver on 19 October 1864  the Confederate Jubal Early attacked and surprised the Union Army of the Shenandoah near Cedar Creek, Virginia.  The Rebels quickly routed two of the three Union infantry corps, but the third Union corps (the VI) and the Cavalry Corps refused to be stampeded, and eventually succeeded in bringing the Confederate advance to a halt. Custer’s Division was prominent in stabilizing the Union defense.  It checked a Confederate cavalry thrust to the Union rear and fought defensively first on one flank and then the other.  Philip Sheridan, who had been away from the Army at the time of the attack famously galloped his charger back to the battlefield, rallied his troops, and organized a counterattack.  Custer’s Division formed the right flank of the Union formation and broke the line of the elite Rebel division of John B. Gordon.  Custer’s troopers then spearheaded an exploitation that completely routed Early’s force.

The Battle at Cedar Creek was decisive, for it not only ended any Confederate hopes of launching any future offensives out of the Shenandoah Valley, it eliminated any Rebel hopes that they could even seriously defend it.  Recognizing this fact, Robert E. Lee recalled four of Early’s five infantry divisions and all but a small remnant of his cavalry back to the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg.  This left Early with only the infantry division of Gabriel C. Wharton, with which he could do little more than observe the valley from one of its southern exits.  Following Cedar Creek, after exacting some economic revenge on the "breadbasket of the Confederacy," Sheridan took his army into winter quarters, and spent most of the winter refitting his force for a spring campaign that many hoped would end the war.

The division left with Early was a veteran one.  Not a traditional part of the Army of Northern Virginia, it had spent most of the war campaigning in West Virginia.  Early in the war some of its veterans had even fought at and escaped the Confederate debacle at Fort Donelson.  It had on occasion come east to fight in the Valley, and once even in the Richmond vicinity at the time of Cold Harbor.   Perhaps its proudest moment was at the Battle of New Market, when, having taken under its command the Virginia Military Institute Cadet Battalion, it launched the attack that won the battle.  Interestingly, one of it’s brigade commanders  – until mortally wounded at Winchester – was Colonel George S. Patton, grandfather of the World War II general.  By February of 1865, however, this division was a shadow of its former self.  One of its brigades had been detached back to West Virginia, and the division’s two remaining brigades could field less than 1500 infantrymen.  Nevertheless, small veteran Confederate divisions such as this one had shown to be tough in many battles during the last year of the war.  This was not a force to be taken too lightly.

As for Sheridan’s Army, their strategic objective in the Shenandoah having been achieved after Cedar Creek, the issue was now what its role was to be as the spring campaigning season began.  But Ulysses Grant and Sheridan did not agree as to what that role should be.  Grant, ever the operational/strategic thinker, wanted Sheridan to drive south and cut the Confederate rail line at Danville, VA, near the North Carolina border, and join Sherman’s forces moving north.  The Danville Railroad (made famous by the song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") was literally the lifeline of the Rebel army defending Richmond and Petersburg, and cutting it might force Lee to give up his positions near Richmond and end the deadlocked trench warfare around that city.   Sheridan, however, wanted no part of a move to Danville, and had been dragging his feet and resisting such orders all winter.  Perhaps he believed that his force would be too isolated from the rest of the Union forces and vulnerable to a sudden move south by Lee.  Or perhaps he did not want to miss being in for the kill when Lee and the his Army were finally overrun in Virginia.  At any rate, when on 27 February 1865 Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah left its winter encampment and marched south, its orders were to proceed to Lynchburg, destroy the railroads and canals in the vicinity, and be in position to continue the move further south.  He would not carry out those orders.

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