It says much about George Custer that he had more pictures taken of himself during the Civil War than did any other officer in the Union army, Grant included. A broad-shouldered six-footer with a slim waist and muscular legs, he was a man who dressed for glory--"one of the funniest-looking beings you ever saw . . . like a circus rider gone mad" was how one witness described his appearance. As he rode to meet his new cavalry brigade on the eve of Gettysburg, Custer had improvised a uniform which included shiny jackboots, tight olive corduroy trousers, a wide-brimmed decorated hat, tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver piping on the sleeves, a sailor's shirt with silver stars at its collar points, and a red cravat. He wore his hair in long, glistening ringlets (which he curled around candles while he slept) liberally sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil.

Custer was the son of a farmer and blacksmith from Ohio. His ambition was always to be a soldier. Appointed to West Point, he was a mischievous, prankish student--close to expulsion each of his four years for excessive demerits--and graduated dead last in the class of 1861, just as the Civil War was starting. Assigned to the 2nd Cavalry, he reached the army on the eve of the Battle of Bull Run, detailed to carry dispatches for commanding Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell. The next year, named to Maj. Gen. McClellan's staff at the rank of captain in time for the Peninsula Campaign, he soon got the attention of the commanding general. When McClellan, surrounded by his spit-and-polish staff, rode up to the bank of the Chickahominy River for the first time, he remarked, "I wish I knew how deep it is." The staff exchanged glances, stroked their chins, looked thoughtfully at the dark water and muttered estimates among themselves. Meanwhile, Custer spurred his horse to the riverbank, saying "I'll damn soon show him," and rode his horse, splashing and stumbling, out to the middle of the river, where he turned in his saddle and called out "That's how deep it is, General!"

He continued to serve on the staffs of General McClellan and Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton through the Antietam and Chancellorsville Campaigns. He became Pleasonton's protégé, and boasted that no "father could love his son more than Genl. Pleasonton loves me." He imitated Pleasonton's affectations, strutting about in his fantastic get-up. He also acquired his mentor's political knack for placing himself where it would do him the most good. Pleasonton ascended to the command of the Cavalry Corps after the battle of Chancellorsville, and when he received a new division of troopers from the defenses of Washington just three days before the battle of Gettysburg, he placed Custer--a staffer who had never commanded anything--at the head of one of its brigades. Pleasonton at the same time promoted the young Custer (along with Elon Farnsworth and Wesley Merritt) from captain to brigadier general, an unheard-of jump in rank, making him the youngest general in the Union.

Known as "Armstrong," "Autie" (his own childhood pronunciation of the former), "Fanny" (a nickname from his freshman year at West Point), or "Curly," with a reputation as one of the finest horsemen in the army, Custer had undeniable military talent. He was bold, alert, brave . . . and lucky. His tactical repertoire consisted solely of riding hell-for-leather in front of whatever friendly troopers were at hand directly into the teeth of the nearest enemy force. He would have eleven horses shot from under him before the war was over. A West Point comrade, observing him about the time of Gettysburg, described Custer as "careless, reckless," but also as "a gallant soldier, a whole-souled generous friend, and a mighty good fellow." His bravery had a dark side--he was viciously contemptuous of those who were less strong-willed than he, testing the members of his staff by leading them where the bullets flew thick and fast, and then watching for any betrayal of weakness.

At Hanover on June 30, fighting against Stuart's troopers, Custer's Michiganders saw him for the first time. There, the massed fire of Custer's men collapsed Stuart's left flank. Stuart pulled out that night.

At Gettysburg
Custer moved as part of Kilpatrick's column on a fruitless search for Stuart's men between Hanover and East Berlin on June 1.

On June 2, after Kilpatrick moved the division to Hunterstown five miles northeast of Gettysburg, Custer took part in an ill-considered charge ordered by Kilpatrick and had his horse shot out from under him. He was saved by one of his troopers who galloped up, shot the Rebel nearest him, pulled Custer onto his horse and dashed to safety. That night, Kilpatrick's division moved south to Two Taverns, five miles southeast of Gettysburg.

As Kilpatrick's column pulled out the next morning bound for the Union left flank, Second Division commander Brig. Gen. David Gregg pulled Custer's brigade out of the rear of the column and posted it near his two brigades, at the intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch Roads three miles east of Gettysburg. Pleasonton subsequently ordered Custer to resume his place with Kilpatrick's division, but in mid-afternoon, at the moment he prepared to pull out, Stuart's cavalry hove into view in the fields to the north and Custer volunteered to stay and fight with Gregg. Toward the end of the ensuing cavalry battle, Custer led a mounted charge by one of his regiments against two enemy brigades, crying "Come on, you Wolverines!" The enemy forces met head-on with a crash--horses turned end over end, riders were crushed, sabers flashed.

Both sides eventually retired, content to let the contest end in a draw. Custer's brigade had lost 257 men at Gettysburg, more by far than any other cavalry brigade. Custer survived, and made head-on cavalry charges a staple of his command style. His Michigan brigade became one of the most celebrated of the war. Custer eventually commanded a division and was promoted to major general.

For further reading:
Monaghan, Jay. Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer. Lincoln, 1971
Riggs, David F. East of Gettysburg: Custer vs. Stuart. Bellevue, 1970
Whittaker, Frederick. A Complete Life of General George A. Custer. Sheldon, 1876

Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg