Custer's Family and Early Years
George Armstrong Custer was born on December 5, 1839 in his family's home in New Rumley, Harrison County, Ohio. He was the first child of Emanuel Henry Custer and Maria Ward Kirkpatrick Custer. In the following years, several more children were born to Emanuel and Maria:
Nevin Johnson Custer - born July 29, 1842
Thomas Ward Custer - born March 15, 1845
Boston Custer - born October 31, 1848
Margaret Emma Custer - born January 5, 1852
Custer's family had a very strong influence on how he would develop physically and emotionally. His father was very strong physically and was very intelligent, but possessed little formal education. He farmed but was more known for his blacksmith skills. He had strong political leanings as a Jacksonian-style Democrat, but never participated in any political doings. He was a talker, but didn't do much. Presbyterian, he took the family to attend church in Scio, where family histories record his voice could be heard above all others when the hymns were sung.
Practical jokes were a big part of family life as well as playful but earnest roughhousing. It has been suggested that Emanuel acted more as an older brother than a father. He never joined the Army but was a very active member of the Ohio Militia. He often took Autie with him to drills during the 1840's, and Custer, with his little wooden rifle, quickly learned the manual of arms and was much admired by the militia men of Harrison County.
Very little is known of Custer's mother but it's believed that she was the enforcer of rules in the house. Her few photographs suggest a stern expression despite her genteel-styled glasses and outward, almost hidden smile. In later years when Custer would depart on his visits, their partings became scenes of gut-wrenching sobs. They would have to almost be physically pulled apart, and at the first stop, Armstrong would send back gifts or fire off a quick letter to her before he did anything else.
Despite living until the advanced age of seventy-five, Maria was reputed to be ill and sickly for many years of her life. Documents describe her as being a partial invalid for at least the last ten years of her life, yet the nature of these ailments remain obscure. In any case, the emotional hold she had over Autie was powerful.
Custer got his nickname "Autie" from his early attempts to pronounce his middle name. There appears to be leanings of a martial nature in him from an early age. Early recorded incidents as a young child showed forcefulness and bravery, there is nothing that suggests his aggression ever was viewed as excessive. Later incidents indicated otherwise. Custer liked being the center of attention. he was a very physically active boy and whatever fun was happening, you could be sure he was there if not directly in the middle of it. He was kind, never bullied other kids and was clearly intelligent. A pattern emerged here and continued in later life. In spite of his intellectual abilities, Custer only applied himself to his studies when he wanted to or when it was absolutely necessary.
Being raised on a farm and spending time at his father's blacksmith shop, Custer learned to ride well long before his military career. When Custer was only 3 years old, the family moved to a rented farm just outside Monroe, Michigan. This move would serve to link the Custers with Monroe for all time. The farm didn't work out and the family returned to New Rumley after six months. During that time, Lydia Ann Custer, Autie's older sister from Emanuel's previous marriage, met David Reed. Soon, David came to New Rumley to win Lydia's heart and succeeded. They married and David took Lydia back to Monroe.
When Autie was nine years old, he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker near Cadiz, Ohio. There has never been a satisfactory explanation for this, but it only lasted a year. It may have been linked to low marks in school. At the age of ten, Autie was sent to live with his sister Lydia in Monroe. Family lore tells a story that at some time shortly after Autie's arrival at Lydia's, he met Elizabeth Bacon (Libbie). Supposedly she was so shy she ran into her house after calling to him by name as he walked by. Custer was enrolled at the Alfred Stebbins Young Men's Academy and it's believed this more prestigious school combined with Lydia's influence contributed to a marked improvement in Autie's education.
Sometime later, Autie returned to Ohio but continued to visit Monroe where it was reputed he had attracted the attention of the ladies in both areas. He finished high school in Harrison County, then went on to further studies at McNeely Normal School in Hopedale, Ohio. It was during this time that he apparently decided on a military career. He wrote a letter to the congressman from their district, John Bingham, describing his attributes and qualifications. Rep. Bingham was a Whig and the Custers were Democrats, but Bingham was so impressed by the open and frank tone of Autie's letter, that he wrote Custer a letter of appointment and recommendation for Custer to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He was to report in June, 1857. Custer spent the remaining time working as the principal of a school close to Athens, Ohio before he set off on his path to glory.