the Last Great Battle of the American West (2009)
Few would have predicted that level of success for Custer at West Point, where he had the highest number of demerits in his class. He was very popular, despite graduating at the bottom of his class in June, 1861 (Ironically, his worst grades were in cavalry tactics). His class's graduation was accelerated by over a year (the last year was condensed to one month) due to the onset of the Civil War.
Irvin McDowell's division. Custer was at the 1st Battle of Bull Run, but was only an observer from a distance, not a participant. He was cited for bravery, however, for directing aspects of the Union rearguard action on the retreat. For over a year, Custer served as 2nd Lt. as an aid to various officers in the Union Army.
Custer often volunteered for combat assignments, and as a result, impressed the General of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan . . . McClellan promoted Custer to Brevet Captain (during the Civil War, there weren't many medals issued, but promotions that were in effect during the war, "brevets", were very common . . . with no increase in pay, of course).
Above: the earliest photograph taken of 2nd Lt. Custer during the Civil War in 1862)
When Lincoln removed McClellan in the Fall of 1862, the 22 year-old Custer was without a position of significance. Custer's rank reverted to 2nd Lt. when he was reassigned to the Army of the Potomac in the Spring of 1863.
General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker acted on good advice, and finally created a unified cavalry corps in the Army of the Potomac. Once again, Custer made himself indispensable, this time to the cavalry commander, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton . . . Custer was fearless, had an inclination and desire for battle, and proved to be a natural leader in combat
(Pictured below: Custer and General Alfred Pleasonton after the Battle of Gettysburg)
Few Brigadier generals led their men into battle; most preferred to stay back. But Custer led his men, believing that if he shared the danger, his men would fight harder. At this point, Custer had started to craft his own uniform, featuring multiple colors (e.g. a red scarf). Custer claimed that he wanted his men to know where he was at all times in battle
(Pictured: Brevet Brigadier General Custer)
On the climactic day of Gettysburg ("Day 3"), Custer charged into Jeb Stuart's much larger and more vaunted cavalry TWICE. Custer was outnumbered at least 8 to 1, but ordered and led the second charge anyway, halting Stuart's flanking efforts. It was the first time in the Civil War that a Union cavalry won AND held the field against a Southern force. After Gettysburg, it was mostly triumph-after-triumph for Custer and his Michigan brigade - they proved to be the best of the Union cavalry corps. Custer's reputation and fame grew, and his likeness became common in newspapers and magazines.
In September, 1864, Custer was given command of the 3rd Cavalry, and the soldiers of the 3rd were thrilled. General Jubal Early's surprise attack led to great disarray and a Union retreat for all the cavalry corps except Custer's 3rd, which had an orderly and effective rearguard action. When Sheridan arrived after his famous 11 mile ride to the front, the situation had markedly improved due to Custer taking active command. After Early was crushed, Custer was promoted to Brevet Major General in the Union cavalry.
General Charles Lee during the Revolution). In what was a common practice with high-ranking officers during the Civil War, Custer twisted and altered facts in his reports to avoid taking responsibility (which he would continue to do after the war); even General Phil Sheridan was on Custer's case after the near-debacle.
At Appomattox, Custer talked to Confederate officers, some of whom he knew from West Point. General Sheridan purchased Wilmer McLean's table on which Lee surrendered to Grant for $20 ($300 today), and gave it to Libbie with a very complimentary note about her husband.
Sheridan supported Custer wholeheartedly, but his new reputation as a tyrant would shadow him to his death at Little Bighorn on 25 June, 1876. Custer's commission in the Union Army expired in January, 1866, and he was mustered out of the Army at age 26. Custer was now only a cavalry captain in the regular (peacetime) army . . . what would he do with the rest of his life . . .
(Pictured above: General Custer during the Civil War with one of his dogs; he absolutely loved dogs. After the Civil War, it was common for him to claim to have between 20 and 40 dogs in his "entourage")