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by William H. Benson

September 6, 2012

     Teachers and students are back in school, and it is time for students to think about what they will achieve between now and next May. During a person’s lifetime, school lasts only a short while, but it comes first in a person’s life, before that person enters the workforce. Because the kind of training determines the kind of work that will occupy a person’s remaining years, it is important for a student to think through what he or she wants to train for. One person who did that was George Armstrong Custer.   

     In Stephen E. Ambrose’s book Crazy Horse and Custer, Ambrose describes how the officers and instructors at the West Point Military Academy tried to discipline and train George Armstrong Custer for the four years just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. It was as intense and regimented an experience as one can imagine, and at no time was Custer convinced that he would succeed, graduate, or receive a commission in the U. S. Army.

     In 1856 sixteen-year-old Custer sought an appointment to West Point, and the next year John A. Bingham, an Ohio representative, selected him. He was seventeen and a half years old when he arrived at West Point in New York State in July of 1857. He would remain there for the next four years, until July of 1861, when he was twenty-one and a half. He would leave only once during those four years, and that was only for a few weeks when half-way through.

     Custer did not respond well to the discipline and regimentation, mainly because at seventeen he was full of fun and boundless energy. His infectious smile and curly blond hair, his slim build and gaunt face just looked like trouble. The West Point officers jumped all over him, but they would not ever break him. He loved to play pranks on his fellow cadets, and for those infractions he received an abundance of demerits.

     Yet, he knew where the line was and did not exceed it. Ambrose explained that if any cadet received more than 100 demerits in a six-month period, officers would eject him from the Academy. Custer would boast that “he had ninety-four demerits in one six-month period, ninety-eight in the next, and so on.” For his demerits, he stood guard on Saturdays, and he confessed that “he spent sixty-six Saturdays marching post to pay for his transgressions, four hours at a time, without speaking to anyone.”

     Constantly did the West Point officers write up Custer for infractions: “late for parade, talking on parade, face unshaven, hair unkempt, equipment dirty, uniform disordered, shoes unpolished, slackness in drill, failure to salute a superior, sitting down on sentry duty, room out of order, gambling in quarters, tobacco smoke in quarters, late for class, and so on.”

     Custer admitted later: “My career as a cadet had but little to recommend it to the study of those who came after me, unless as an example to be carefully avoided.” His biographers say that he was “a slovenly soldier,” “a deplorable student,” a tardy and a clumsy recruit,” and that “it is safe to say that in all the long history of the Military Academy it was never afflicted with a less promising or more cantankerous pupil.”

     Ambrose wrote that West Point’s educational curriculum “was the toughest” in the country, mainly because “it was nearly all rote learning, memorization pure and simple.” One cadet at that time said that students at other colleges “have not the faintest idea of what hard study is.” “You can not and you dare not slight anything” at West Point. The cadets were forced to study long hours memorizing information and then recite it all back to the instructor during class.

     In a letter to his sister Lydia, Custer wrote that “I and others only average about four hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I work until one at night, and get up at five.” Although his grades were normally the lowest in his classes, he was determined to survive. He wrote to his sister Ann and said that, “I would not leave this place for any amount of money, for I would rather have a good education and no money than a fortune and be ignorant.”

     In November of 1860, Custer and the cadets learned that the Republican, Abraham Lincoln, was elected the new President, and they knew that war was imminent. The cadets from the Southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama—began leaving West Point and returning to their homes, a most agonizing decision on their part. The following April the canons fired on Fort Sumter, war was declared, and the Union needed military officers, men like George Armstrong Custer.

     On June 24, 1861, he graduated 34th in a class of 34 graduates. Of the sixty-eight admitted four years before, exactly half graduated. Custer succeeded where many thought he was doomed to fail. Five days later, Custer failed to break up a fist fight between two newly-arrived cadets and was promptly arrested and pitched into the guardhouse, where he sat for the next three weeks until his trial on July 15. The judges only reprimanded him, and then dismissed him.


     He departed West Point, a graduate and an officer in the U.S. Army, bent but never broken.