Custer had distinguished himself on the battlefields of the Civil War as a crafty strategist and bold leader. He was also seen as insufferably vain and preoccupied with perpetuating a mythical legacy.
Crazy Horse was seen as a brave leader and fierce fighter whose sole motivation was to halt the white man's encroachment on Native American lands and to preserve his tribe's way of life.
It was almost inevitable that their paths would cross as Custer was tasked with rounding up and relocating the Plains Indians that Crazy Horse had vowed to protect. That meeting came at Little Big Horn, Montana, on June 25, 1976. As a result, neither man would live to see his 38th birthday.
George Armstrong Custer's father intended for his son to become a preacher but the younger Custer had different ideas. Following high school, Custer tried teaching but longed to do something more adventurous. He eventually landed at West Point where he graduated 34th in his class of 34 cadets. The Army - desperate for officers after the Civil War erupted - graduated Custer's class a full year early, in 1861.
It was while serving as a junior staff officer in the Union cavalry under Major General George B. McClellan, that Custer first made a name for himself.
After his commander hesitated while considering a risky river crossing at a point of undetermined depth, Custer dashed to the middle of the river on his horse and turned to his astonished commander, shouting "That's how deep it is. Mr. General!" The crossing and battle were successful, launching Custer's high-profile career.
He later became the protege of Major General Alfred Pleasonton, who gave Custer his first command. Custer - an athletic-looking 6-foot-tall man who refrained from smoking and drinking alcohol - adopted a flashy, personalized uniform style that included a red cravat. His adoration for the spotlight created a love-hate relationship with the men under his command, who detested his showmanship but applauded his willingness to lead attacks.
His vanity earned him the derisive nickname of "Ringlets," a reference to his long, curling, cinnamon-scented blond hair but, because of his physical stamina and strict discipline, he was more commonly referred to as "Iron Butt" or "Hard Ass" by those under his command.
Three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, 23-year-old Custer was given a battlefield promotion from captain to brigadier general of the volunteers, making him one of the youngest Union Army generals. Custer became known for the "Custer Dash," a tactic that included Custer leading his Michigan Brigade into battle aboard his mount while delivering a full-throated "Michigan yell," often startling the rebel forces.
At Hunterstown, such a charge led to Custer falling from his wounded horse only to be rescued by one of his troops. By war's end, it was reported that 11 horses had been shot out from under Custer. Near Gettysburg, however, a Custer dash was credited with foiling a Confederate assault, although Custer's loss of 257 men was the most of any Union cavalry brigade at Gettysburg.
It was Custer's division that blocked the retreat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the final days of the war and accepted the first flag of truce from a rebel commander. Custer was present at Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House and was later presented the table on which the surrender was signed.
Custer assumed his permanent rank of captain after the war and considered leaving the Army for a career in banking, mining or politics but instead assumed the top position in the Soldiers and Sailors Union before being appointed a lieutenant colonel in the cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. There he took part in an 1867 campaign against the Cheyenne Indians.
Custer was court martialed after the campaign, accused of going AWOL to see his wife. Although he was suspended for a year, the suspension was lifted early so he could resume fighting in the Indian Wars. In 1868 he led the cavalry against the Cheyenne in the Battle of Washita River in the Dakota Terrritory.
Although Custer reported killing 103 Cheyenne warriors and 875 Indian ponies in that batttle, he neglected to report his relationship with Mo-nah-se-tah, daughter of Cheyenne chief Little Rock, who was killed in the skirmish. Two members of Custer's unit later reported that Custer married Mo-nah-se-tah after the battle and Cheyenne oral history says that union produced a child, although some historians claim that the child's father was actually Custer's brother, Thomas.
Custer remained in the Dakota Territory until 1871 when he was re-assigned to Kentucky. He returned to Dakota in 1873 and in 1874 he led an expedition into the Black Hills. It was Custer's announcement that gold had been discovered in the region that triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and heightened tensions between the U.S. and Plains Indians. President Grant ordered the Indians to report to their designated reservations by January 31, 1876, or be considered hostile.
But Sitting Bull, chief of the Sioux tribe, led a resistance against the intrusion into Native American holy lands. In the spring of 1876, he summoned area tribes to a gathering that eventually encamped on the banks of the Little Big Horn where they considered their options in their battle against U.S. forces. Crazy Horse was among the 2,000 warriors at the assemblage.
Crazy Horse was the third male in his Oglala Sioux Native American family to carry that name. His future as a tribal chief was foretold when he stole horses from the rival Crow tribe before he was 13 years old. He went on to become known as a fierce fighter in the escalating battle against encroaching white American settlers.
In 1873, he had led an attack on a survey party led by Custer. On June 17, 1876, while en route to Sitting Bull's gathering, Crazy Horse's forces of some 1,200 Cheyenne and Oglala warriors turned back soldiers led by General George Crook, who were advancing on Sitting Bull's encampment.
Meanwhile, Custer's scouts had located the Sitting Bull camp and Custer deployed his forces in three batallions in an effort to surround the Indians and cut off possible avenues of retreat.
From the first wave of attacking soldiers on June 25, the attack went poorly as the Indians repelled their advances. Cavalry skirmish lines failed to hold against the Indians, who quickly broke through. Many soldiers panicked and dropped their weapons. As the soldiers fell, the Indians retrieved their weapons and used them against the soldiers.
Surviving soldiers killed their horses to use as protection against a final attack but to no avail. All the soldiers, including Custer, were killed.
When the battlefield was discovered two days later, army soldiers reported that the bodies had been stripped, scalped and mutilated. Custer had been shot twice - above the heart and in the head. The soldiers' remains were buried in a shallow grave but some were later retrieved for re-burial. Custer was buried with full military honors at West Point on October 10, 1877.
Sitting Bull fled to Canada after the battle, but Crazy Horse remained as the U.S. Army continued its pursuit of the rebellious Indians. Several battles followed through the winter of 1876-77 before Crazy Horse decided the best option for his people was to surrender.
For four months, he and his tribe lived in a village near Fort Robinson, Nebraska. He was arrested in September 1877 when he took his wife, who was ill with tuberculosis, on an unauthorized trip to her parents' village.
After he returned to Fort Robinson, he was stabbed with a bayonet during an altercation. He died later that night. According to Native American oral history, Crazy Horse was defiant to the end, dying on the floor instead of on the white man's cot.
Custer's legacy took a bashing after the Battle at Little Big Horn where critics have alleged that his stubborn style of leadership led to several tactical errors that resulted in the death of every white person who was there. That included both of his younger brothers - Thomas and Boston Custer - and a 45-year-old Associated Press reporter, Mark Kellogg, who is generally considered the first AP correspondent to die in the line of duty.
Custer, who is still considered a controversial figure today, went to great lengths to mold his image in the most positive light possible while he was alive. For several years prior to his death, he was a regular contributor to Galaxy magazine with articles about life on the plains. Several of these articles were assembled in a book in 1874, My Life On the Plains. He often invited journalists on his campaigns and wrote articles on hunting for several magazines. Just months before his death, he met with a publisher about publishing his life story.
His wife, Elizabeth, who often accompanied Custer on his expeditions, wrote at least three books about her late husband following his death.
But perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Little Big Horn will be that of Crazy Horse. In 1948, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski - who had come to America from Poland to work on the presidential mountain-carving project at Mount Rushmore - began work on the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills. Although Ziolkowski died in 1982, the massive mountain-shaping project continues today. When completed, the head of Crazy Horse will be larger than the combined size of all four presidents' heads on Mount Rushmore.
George Armstrong Custer
Born: December 5, 1839
Died: June 25, 1876, age 36
Born: early 1840s
Died: September 5, 1877