When we spend enough time looking into General George Armstrong Custer’s activities during his esteemed military career, it’s a wonder that he survived for as long as he did. Even though most of us look at his end with mild disdain due to his brazen tactics and perhaps impetuous decisions, he climbed as far as he did because of what he was willing to do in the heat of battle. Consequently, that is probably why he only lived to the young age of 36. Still, Custer played a major role in the eventual Confederate surrender at the Appomattox Court House.
Prior to the Confederate defeat that ended the Civil War, Custer had been in hot pursuit of Lieutenant General Early. Custer followed Early relentlessly into the Shenandoah Valley in order to prevent him from making it to Washington D.C., which would have marked a symbolically embarrassing day for the Union. Luckily, it never happened. Custer managed to smash Early’s forces at Cedar Creek during the Valley Campaigns of 1864.
This victory marked a turning point. Not only did it end in a Confederate defeat, but it allowed Custer and the forces under his command to advance to meet the whole of the Union Army at Petersburg, where they remained in siege of the city during the harsh winter months when fighting rarely took place. Back then, it was common wartime strategy to campaign only during relatively good weather.
It was in April of 1865 that Robert E. Lee began his historic retreat. His forces ended up at the Appomattox Court House. Custer fought a series of battles at Waynesboro, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks. It was these battles that allowed him to maneuver into a position to cut off Lee’s retreat for good. Custer was the first officer to receive a flag of truce from the Confederate armies during these final fateful confrontations, a fact of historical importance that is often overlooked because of his later struggles.
When the Confederate Army signed the agreement of surrender, Custer’s wife was subsequently granted the table on which the momentous event took place. Because of Custer’s actions during the Civil War, he rose through the ranks quickly, from Second Lieutenant of the 2nd Cavalry in 1861, to Captain of the 5th Cavalry in 1864, and finally to Lieutenant Colonel of the 7th Cavalry in 1866, a full decade before his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.