The Army of the Potomac was divided by a broad swath of water. A small advance force had been cut off. On the riverbank, Major General George B. McClellan and his staff made a huddle of blue as they considered the best place for their forces to make the crossing. "I wish I knew how deep it was..." the general was heard to mutter.
To McClellan's impetuous young aide, it was a signal. He spurred his horse and charged into the river. Stopping midstream in the flowing water, he turned to the shore. He stood grandly in the stirrups. "That's how deep it is, General!" he bellowed. The aide was young Captain George A. Custer.
This flair for grabbing the limelight blazed the path for most of Custer's adult life. He was born to a farm family in Ohio, December 5, 1839. He grew up with several brothers and sisters, attending school in Michigan. He spent some time as a school teacher before entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His appointment to the elite school came from an influential Ohio man. Rumor had it that the man was more intent on protecting his daughter than he was in furthering young Custer's career.
Custer stood out at West Point, but for all the wrong reasons. He narrowly avoided expulsion more than once. He graduated by the skin of his teeth, dead last in his class. Custer emerged from school as the first volleys were heard in the War Between the States. The young officer's first assignment was carrying messages for Union officers at the Battle of Bull Run. About a year later he joined McClellan's staff. From there, Custer went on to various levels of command in the Union Army.