George Armstrong Custer met his unfortunate demise at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. Custer’s Last Stand was an event that shocked the country, created a legend, and resulted in an extraordinary amount of historical writing. Larry McMurtry reports that his bookstore had a collection of Custerology numbering more than 1,000 items. Most readers recognize McMurtry not as a rare book dealer but as an author whose more than 30 books include THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and the Pulitzer Prize-winning LONESOME DOVE. He admits to a long fascination with Custer, a controversial figure whose place in American history seems destined to be examined and defined by historians on a regular basis.
"The story of Custer has all the necessary ingredients to continue to engage any historian. CUSTER is a wonderful work that helps readers better understand a monumental event in our nation’s history."
CUSTER is McMurtry’s contribution to that historical examination. It is an atypical biography, and McMurtry takes pains to tell readers that there are several more scholarly and extensive studies of the General’s life. I share his fascination with the life of Custer, and one of the books included in his bibliography, THE LAST STAND by Nathaniel Philbrick, was reviewed on Bookreporter.com in 2010. CUSTER is a different style of biography. It is almost a PowerPoint presentation in print, a brief account of Custer’s life accompanied by an extraordinary album of photos, paintings and memorabilia.
The arc of history often may be more the result of timing than any individual act. McMurtry notes that while attending West Point, Custer did little to establish himself as either a scholar or a soldier. In his class of 34 cadets, he ranked last, and his greatest accomplishment was his inordinate number of demerits. But he graduated in the class of 1861, just as the Civil War was beginning. He fought in the war’s first battle and also in the last. Generals in the Union Army were astonished that the young officer had such a flare for battle.
The conclusion of the Civil War left only one option for fighting soldiers: the plains Indian. The Custer myth was the result of two battles fought on the plains --- the Washita and the Little Bighorn. The first, a successful raid on an Indian village, led to a Custer court martial, while the second led to his death. McMurtry makes clear that Custer’s major shortcoming as a tactician clearly was present in both battles, as the confident yet rash soldier divided his troops and ignored fellow officers. At the Little Bighorn, it cost him his life.
CUSTER may be brief and lack lengthy detail of battles and of Custer the man, but those who have read McMurtry’s novels will recognize his familiar style --- brief chapters clearly and simply written. It is not the prose that makes this an enjoyable book, but rather the accompanying 19th-century photographs of Custer, his wife Libbie, fellow soldiers and plains Indian. Completing the story are contemporary photos of the Little Bighorn battlefield and Custer re-enactors, along with paintings and exhibits, including Custer’s last message to Benteen.
How did the Custer legend grow? McMurtry notes that the telegraph made the news of Custer’s defeat instant news, which fired the flames of patriotism, and the press had a field day. The Indians who had won a great victory recognized that in doing so, they had lost; the plains Cavalry would have their revenge.
The story of Custer has all the necessary ingredients to continue to engage any historian. CUSTER is a wonderful work that helps readers better understand a monumental event in our nation’s history.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on November 9, 2012