The Battle of the Little Bighorn, otherwise known as Custer’s Last Stand, was the 19th-century equivalent of September 11, 2001. While news traveled at a far slower pace in 1876, details of the defeat of General George Armstrong Custer and the death of more than 200 troopers of his 7th Calvary after the June 25th battle shocked the nation. America celebrated its centennial on July 4, 1876, and the news of Custer’s death brought cries for retribution against the Indian nations responsible for the defeat. Custer became a hero, mourned by a country unaccustomed to such a staggering debacle.
Fueled by the efforts of his widow, Custer became a revered and beloved figure in American history. Errol Flynn portrayed him as a dashing and honorable soldier in They Died With Their Boots On, a movie notable for its historical inaccuracies. More recently, Custer has been portrayed in movies and books as a reckless, glory-seeking, stubborn man who disobeyed numerous orders and fell victim to his own ego.
"Thom Hatch fairly recounts the military success of the young Custer who turned the tide at the Battle of Gettysburg and greatly influenced the outcome of the Civil War, and offers new and important insights into Custer’s military accomplishments."
The real Custer probably falls somewhere between fool and brilliant tactician. His military career, while ending in ignominious defeat, began in the Civil War where the youngest general in the Union Army established himself as an extremely capable tactician and leader of men. GLORIOUS WAR by Thom Hatch is a detailed and readable history of young Custer, a newly minted graduate of West Point, who was forced into a combat role before he was ready. Custer’s exemplary Civil War record is often forgotten, so Hatch reminds readers that his early career showed him to be an extraordinary field general.
GLORIOUS WAR begins with Custer’s tenure at West Point. Custer was near the bottom of his class throughout his cadet life. He flirted with dismissal from the school by approaching the number of demerits that would have mandated such action. But he made up for his academic shortcomings with his ability as a horseman. The Calvary would be his calling. Custer numbered among his classmates future officers who would fight for both the Union and the Confederacy. Eventually he would face troops commanded by several of his classmates. Those loyal to the South simply left West Point after the opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. The remainder of Custer’s West Point class was allowed to graduate early in order for the officers to fill the ranks of the Union Army.
Custer’s first assignment was with a Calvary unit under the leadership of Brigadier General Philip Kearny. A strict disciplinarian, Kearney taught the young Second Lieutenant valuable lessons, and in a short period of time, Custer became assistant adjutant general. Throughout the war, he had the good fortune to find himself assigned to the staffs of accomplished Union generals. While serving under General Alfred Pleasonton, Custer distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandy Station. When Pleasonton was promoted to Commander of the Calvary, he recommended the 23-year-old Custer for promotion to the rank of Brigadier General. The “boy general” led his Wolverine Division in critical battles at Gettysburg. He was present at the Confederate surrender and was given the table on which the surrender was signed.
Custer’s reputation as a battlefield commander is established by his defeat at Little Bighorn, the disaster of which can never be forgotten. Yet Thom Hatch fairly recounts the military success of the young Custer who turned the tide at the Battle of Gettysburg and greatly influenced the outcome of the Civil War, and offers new and important insights into Custer’s military accomplishments. GLORIOUS WAR is an important and worthy addition to any Custer library.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 13, 2013