The Civil War Years
Upon reaching his regiment, Custer reported to Major Innes Palmer and was assigned to G Company of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Custer's unit was on the field at the battle of First Bull Run but took no part in offensive operations. When Union forces began running to the rear, records indicate that Custer's unit helped slow the retreat down in their sector. Custer himself was noted for bravery in the division's report.
Custer was temporarily assigned as an aide to General Phil Kearney who commanded a brigade of New Jersey volunteers. Custer saw no cavalry service but it is theorized that this assignment, and others to competent and well-disciplined officers, shaped the heretofore undisciplined Lt Custer. Granted leave in the fall of 1861, Custer returned to Monroe, Michigan. While on leave, Custer got drunk with old friends and was observed staggering home by Elizabeth Bacon. On arrival at Lydia's, Autie received a scathing lecture from his sister. Either because of this or the cooling effect it had on Libbie's attentions, in the final act, Custer was never again known to consume alcohol.
Custer returned to duty and was reassigned to the Fifth Cavalry. Perhaps because of his battlefield analytical skills, Custer was detached for a period to serve as an observer in the balloon operated by renowned aerialist Thaddeus Lowe. His experience was interesting to say the least. On May 5, Custer had the first of many moments of fortune, described as his luck at being in the right place and time. Without obtaining permission from his unit, Custer accompanied Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock to the forward battle line during one of the Peninsular Campaign battles. Hancock's brigade was attempting to hold their line against a Confederate advance. At a crucial moment, Hancock tried to break the Rebel advance by ordering one of his regiments to charge. The unit froze as they believed it was suicide. Custer, his blonde hair hanging loose, wearing a dirty private's coat and large white hat, rode to the front of the line and began urging the men forward. The strange sight he presented, combined with the fact he was up there on a horse but wasn't being hit by enemy fire, did the trick. The regiment rushed forward with bayonets charged. The Confederates bolted to the rear in panic. In their haste, they left behind a battle flag which became the very first captured by the Army of the Potomac.
A couple of weeks later, Custer again was the man on the spot. Looking for a place to ford infantry over the Chickahominy River, Custer was ordered to look for a favorable place by General Barnard. Custer found a place and reported it with several key notations. He was promptly offered a brevet commission as Captain and an assignment to the staff of General George McClellan. Custer remained on staff with McClellan even after Little Mac was relieved of his command on November 5, 1862 by President Lincoln. McClellan took leave to New Jersey and granted Custer a furlough as well.
Custer immediately returned to Monroe and this time he was formally introduced to Elizabeth Bacon. They encountered each other several times and were strongly attracted to each other. Libbie's father, Judge Daniel Bacon, informed Libbie that she was no longer permitted to see Captain Custer. He believed that the social status differences between the Custers and the Bacons made any relationship with Autie out of the question. Libbie defied her father and kept meeting Armstrong at parties. They agreed to keep in touch through one of Libbie's friends when Custer's leave ended.
Custer returned at assist McClellan in completing the final report of the Peninsula Campaign. When the report was done, Custer's brevet commission as Captain was pulled and he was ordered to report back to the Fifth Cavalry as Lieutenant. Perhaps as a result of his services to Kearney and McClellan, Custer found himself a spot as aide to General Alfred Pleasonton, performing scouting duties of the movements of the Confederate Army.
On June 16, 1863, Custer performed a deed that rocketed his name and career upward to fame. Union cavalry were being cut up in an engagement at Aldie Station, Virginia. J.E.B. Stuart's rebel horsemen were pressing hard at the faltering brigades of Colonels Kilpatrick and Douty. The two men were vainly trying to organize a rally when Custer rode forward. This time wearing a broad-brimmed white plantation-style hat, Custer rode past the two frustrated colonels, turned towards the troopers and drew his saber. Waving it high in the air, he turned, pointed the blade towards the oncoming rebel cavalry and went to the gallop. He turned back once and waved his blade in a motion that said "Come on!". In a moment, Kilpatrick and Douty rushed forward followed by the rest of the Union cavalrymen. After a severe fight, Stuart and his men were beaten back.
As a result, Pleasonton recommended Custer for appointment to brigade command. The recommendation went through and on June 29, 1863, Custer received brevet promotion and became the U.S. Army's youngest Brigadier General at twenty-three years of age. In just under two years, Custer had gone from Second Lieutenant to General. He was promptly given command of the 1st, 5th, 6th and 7th Michigan Cavalry regiments with orders to form the advance guard of the Army of the Potomac as it moved out to pursue Robert E. Lee into Pennsylvania.
Custer's brigade performed flank duty on July first and second, but crucial action was at hand on the afternoon of July third. Paired with General Gregg's cavalry three miles in the rear of the main Union line south of Gettysburg, Custer received orders to move his brigade to the far left of the line south of Big Round Top. As he began the movement, Stuart's cavalry, led by Fitz Lee and Wade Hampton's brigades, suddenly appeared to the north, moving to hit the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge from the rear at the same time Pickett's division was hitting the center from the other side. Custer requested permission of General Gregg to remain, technically violating his orders. Gregg knew he needed the help and so posted Custer's brigade to the right of their line. At a crucial moment in the fight, Gregg ordered Custer to send a regiment in at the charge.
Custer drew up the 1st Michigan in close columns of squadrons and ordered them to draw sabers. Placing himself at the head of the column, he ordered the charge. Custer and the 1st Michigan went to the full gallop, as did the approaching rebel cavalry. The two opposing lines smashed headlong into each other with a sound described as a thousand trees falling. Horses turned end over end amid the crashing noise of sabers, men yelling and panicked horses. The action turned the tide and sent Stuart reeling back to his lines.
Custer remained in the field conducting operations until going on leave in October. Returning at once to Monroe, he arranged to see Libbie. Having secretly remained in contact with each other, Custer asked Libbie to marry him. Elizabeth happily agreed at once but there remained the task of obtaining the blessing of Judge Bacon. The Judge absented himself from Monroe during this time and only made an appearance at the train station with Libbie to bid farewell to Custer. Several days after returning to his brigade, Custer wrote Judge Bacon asking for Libbie's hand. At the end of November after several letters had gone back and forth between Custer and Judge Bacon, Libbie's father consented to the marriage. Custer returned to Monroe in February of 1864, and he and Elizabeth were married on February 9.
That spring, the cavalry corps was reorganized and General Phillip Sheridan was named it's overall commander. Custer, owing to his tenacity, was a favorite of his and so frequently placed Custer's brigade up front. Custer participated in Sheridan's abortive raid on Richmond but garnered another milestone. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry had blocked the road 6 miles north of Richmond at Yellow Tavern. On May 11, Custer led a charge into the flank of a rebel artillery battery, capturing several pieces. The highlight of this fight was the mortal wounding of Stuart by one of Custer's men.
The fighting wore on and that September, Custer's brigade was instrumental in bringing Jubal Early to bay in the Shenandoah Valley. On September 30, 1864, Custer was given command of the Third Cavalry Division. Another star on his shoulder to Major General was given him at Sheridan's request for Custer's part in the Battle of Cedar Creek in October of 1864. In the spring of 1865, Lee pulled out of Petersburg and the chase was on. On April 7, Custer obtained intelligence of Lee's movements. Defying the orders of his superior, Wesley Merritt, Custer took his division on a flanking ride where he dismounted the Third Division to the west of Appomattox Court House, blocking Lee's only remaining avenue of escape.
Lee met Grant at Appomattox and surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9. Sheridan presented Custer the table upon which Grant had written the terms of surrender. With the table, Sheridan included a note to Libbie;
"I respectfully present to you the small writing table on which the conditions for surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was written by Lt. General Grant — and permit me to say Madam, that there was scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your very gallant husband."