George Armstrong Custer is one of the most controversial figures in American history.
Don’t believe me?
Pick up any book about him or the American West or the American Civil War and see what the authors have to say about him. Some will praise him as a brave but misunderstood genius, some will denigrate him as an egotistical moron, and some will eulogize him as a tragic figure.
I’ve personally always found Custer a fascinating but relatively unsympathetic historical figure, but reading T.J. Stiles’s excellent, Pulitzer-Prize winning Custer’s Trials forced me to re-evaluate some of my assumptions about him.
I’ve read a fair amount about Custer, mainly in relationship to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. (Spoiler alert: Things don’t end well for Custer there.) I was always interested in the American West, so I encountered him quite a bit in my reading, but I had never actually read a biography of him until I picked this one to function as my Pulitzer Prize winning book for the 2016 Library Challenge.
This book actually avoids talking about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, excepting a 20-page epilogue that recaps it. As Stiles explains in the beginning of book, everyone knows about the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Custer’s actions or lack thereof have been debated ad nauseam by historians and history buffs for decades. Stiles wasn’t interested in talking about the Little Bighorn as much as he was at looking at the rest of Custer’s career.
With that focus in mind, he starts at Custer’s time at West Point — which was marked by a lot of disciplinary problems and mediocre grades. (The list of Custer’s various misdeeds was hilarious to me, though I’ve always found Civil War generals’ West Point behavioral records amusing. Probably because it’s hard to look at all of those stern portraits of them and think of them being late to class. Custer was pretty imaginative and varied with his exploits, though, ranging from “trifling in class” to crowing at roosters.)
From there, Stiles covers Custer’s Civil War career, when he first gained fame as the youngest Union general, and his time in the West. I don’t like biographies that try to deify their subjects or disparage them unfairly, so I appreciated how even-handed Stiles was throughout the book. He doesn’t shy away from covering Custer’s flaws and mistakes, but he also doesn’t shy away from noting his good points, as well. I also liked that he quotes extensively from Custer’s own writing, primarily his letters. It gives a much better sense of the man himself than just summaries or surmises about his thoughts and behavior.
The book is also well-researched (the end notes section is nearly 100 pages long alone), and I suspect even someone who has read numerous Custer biographies will find something new here. Personally, I wasn’t very familiar with his Civil War career, so I probably enjoyed that section the most. I particularly enjoyed reading about the political nature of the army at that time and the resulting deals, betrayals, and chaos that ensued. Custer seemed to have good instincts for who to seek out to curry favor with, but his wife — the well-educated daughter of a judge — seemed to have better instincts about situations to avoid. Unfortunately for him, Custer didn’t always take her advice.
Incidentally, Stiles also spends a fair amount of time on Custer’s wife, Libbie, and she was a lot more interesting than I had ever realized. I knew that she had authored books about him and their life together and that she had fiercely defended his reputation during her own lifetime, but she (and their relationship itself) was also a lot more complicated than that summary of her would indicate.
The book’s title comes from two of the major points in Custer’s career — his two court martial trials. One occurred shortly after his graduation from West Point and the other early in his career on the Plains. I learned, though, that there were a couple of other incidents, mostly after the Civil War, where Custer could have faced court martial trials or, at the very least, some form of military discipline and didn’t. Stiles has a couple of different explanations for Custer’s seeming bent toward trouble, and I think his arguments make sense, namely that Custer had an innate self-destructive streak and was his own worst enemy and that the lessons he drew from his first experiences in combat in the Civil War ill-prepared him for the jobs he had to undertake in the West.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone interested in American history. Custer is a fascinatingly complex character, and Stiles does a wonderful job of delving into not only his life but also the times he lived in.
Recommended for those who enjoy reading about the American West and/or American Civil War.
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Have you read this book? What biographies have you read this year? What’s your opinion of Custer? Tell us in the comments!
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