George A. Custer 1839–1876

Unidentified photographer
Ambrotype, c. 1860

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

This photograph shows George A. Custer in his West Point cadet uniform. He graduated in 1861 at the bottom of his class yet rose through the military with extraordinary speed, achieving the rank of major general by the Civil War’s conclusion.

After the war, the “Boy General” emerged as one of the most visible and controversial military leaders in the West. His victories in battles with the Cheyenne and the Lakota enhanced his reputation as a daring Indian fighter, even though accounts about the killing of Native women and children also led to accusations of misconduct. Similarly, his 1874 expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota Territory resulted in the discovery of gold but escalated tensions with local tribes.

At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876, Custer met an early death when he and five companies under his command were soundly defeated by a force of two thousand Native warriors.