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Custer: The Union's Prince Rupert

Speaker: Kevin Galvin

 

The April meeting saw an overview of the Civil War career of George Armstrong Custer by Kevin Galvin. Kevin explained that the phrase "Cavalier" emerged from the South after the war ended perhaps as a "foil" to that of Stuart. The image that he thinks emerges about Custer is that he was a man of his time. Custer the man was forged in battle and war. Peacetime sat uncomfortably with Custer. In our retrospective views you either love him or hate him - there are very few people who sit on the fence when asked to give an opinion about him.

 

 


Custer left West Point at the wars start and turned up in Washington looking for an assignment. At the War Department he was ordered to report to the 2nd Cavalry and by luck he met General Scott who gave him some dispatches for General McDowell. He was present at Bull Run but failed to engage the enemy. After Bull Run he was assigned to Kearney's Brigade. From October 1861 to Feb 1862 he,was very ill and thought to be close to death. He recovered and saw action in May 1862 in the Peninsula. In June he was promoted to Captain.

 

At Antietam he was a staff officer with McClellan and saw no action. He applied to be Colonel of the 70 Michigan but was turned down. When McClellan was sacked Custer lost his rank and was reassigned to the 111 Division under Pleasanton. This rankled Custer when he found that he was behind the rest of his West Point classmates but he was soon promoted to Captain.

 

At Brandy Station he led a sabre charge. Pleasanton reorganised his command and Custer, Merritt and Farnsworth were given commands. Custer had finally realised his dream when he took command of the 2nd Michigan.

 

At Hanover on 29th and 30th June Custer carried out a dismounted action in and around the town and successfully held off the rebels. At Huntertown on the 2nd July he was nearly killed leading Company A in a charge. At the East Cavalry Field action, Custer was in the right place at the right time. He was prominent throughout at lead charge and countercharge. Having little time to rest he was then instructed to pursue Lee to the Potomac. Under very difficult condition he snapped at Lee's heels and took a large number of prisoners.

 

At Culpepper Courthouse on 13th September Custer received his only wound of the war. He was quickly back on duty in time for Brandy Station where he narrowly escaped capture. He went on leave and married Libby in February 1864.

 

When Grant took command there was a reorganisation of the Cavalry. There were some officer rank problems and Custer found himself with the 1 st Brigade under Torbet. In May Custer saw action at Yellow Station where 10,000 US cavalry defeated 5,000 Confederate. Six miles from Richmond, Private Huff from Co. E 5th Michigan kills General Stuart.

 

At Trevelyan Station, Custer was again lucky to escape uninjured when the rebels attacked his supply wagons. Tflere were serious casualties amongst his brigade.

 

The emphasis of the cavalry changes when Sheridan takes a firm control in the Shenandoah campaign. Custer joins on the 9m August and on the 16th he clashes with Mosby at Crooked Run. At the battle of Winchester, he is part of Merrit's Division and has some success. Moreover he gets promoted after Torbet is deemed a failure by Sheridan. Did Custer's aggression catch Sheridan's eye? Undoubtedly.

 

Custer took part in the battle of Cedar Creek and was present at the death of Stephen Ramseur. His last battle in the Valley was at Waynesboro and was total success.

 

He was transferred back to Meade for the final battles of the war. At Five Forks he was in the thick of the action and when the Confederates retreated, his cavalry pursued them relentlessly. At Appomattox he captures the supply train - Lee's last hope - and whilst preparing -to fight the next day, he received the first truce offer. Custer tries to take a major part of the credit for Lee's surrender, but history has rewritten that page

 

Members left knowing that some of the myths had been blown away replaced solidly with facts. Custer was a very lucky man to survive the war. His luck held out that time but in 1876 it ran out.