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‘Custer’s Trials’ review: T.J. Stiles on an American icon

The flamboyant George Armstrong Custer was photographed many

The flamboyant George Armstrong Custer was photographed many times; he's seen here in a photo published Jan. 4, 1865. Credit: Library of Congress

CUSTER’S TRIALS: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Alfred A. Knopf, 582 pp., $30.

 

 

Biographer T.J. Stiles likes the romance of complex, dangerous alpha males. Fifteen years ago, he wrote a graceful, well-researched book about Jesse James; in 2010 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his colossal life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, “The First Tycoon.” Now, Stiles puts a third stirring figure under his lucid gaze: George Armstrong Custer.

This is a daunting project. “Trying to say something truly original about Custer is rather like trying to cross the main floor of Grand Central Terminal by walking only where no one has stepped before,” Stiles writes in his acknowledgments.

Still, he found formidable guides. The writer singles out for praise Shirley Leckie, a biographer who shrewdly chronicled Custer’s wife and her control of her husband’s posthumous reputation, as well as Western historians Robert Utley and Heather Cox Richardson. All three reviewed the manuscript that became “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.”

The title is clever. The book is rousing. It ends with an 1879 military inquiry into the calamitous defeat at Little Bighorn. And it begins 18 years earlier with Custer court-martialed at West Point, where his “trifling” and “boyish” conduct amassed a record number of demerits: “He laughed in class, talked in ranks, played cards, threw snowballs, lobbed bread across the mess hall.” Young George used exuberance to win points with his fellow cadets, even as he failed exams. (Later, Custer enthusiasts cast this as his Prince Hal period.)

In the end, the judge let off the 21-year-old Custer, “bottom of his class, bottom of the promotion list, a highway of misconduct behind him. Only luck had saved him — the very good luck that the nation was descending into the most brutal war in its history.”

That last bit is a good sample of Stiles’ cheek and verve. He has no trouble cataloging Custer’s vanity and recklessness, his ruinous gambling, his post-Civil War cruelty in Kentucky and Texas, where he executed a deserter and staged a mock execution of another man. But even as Stiles shows Custer brazenly committing horse theft — stealing a famous thoroughbred 10 days after Lincoln’s assassination — the reader senses the biographer’s zest and affection for his subject.

Leading the 7th Michigan Calvary at Gettysburg, Custer would turn to his men and shout, “Come on, you Wolverines!” He fought from the front, exhibiting magnetic skill and courage — his horse shot out from under him three times in one battle. In such accounts, a reader feels the pull of seduction on successive generations of storytellers.

Unlike Vanderbilt, who kept no diary and preserved no letters, Custer was a fount of paper. He — and those fascinated by him — generated records so voluminous they have their own term: “Custerology.” With great acumen, Stiles pulls from the voices that surrounded Custer: a passenger on a train; a wary Gen. Ulysses Grant; an unsung, dying soldier; Custer’s formidable, educated wife, Libbie Bacon; and John Jacob Astor Jr. “Custer’s Trials” is flecked with spot-on observations from historians Eric Foner, Richard Slotkin and James McPherson.

This is an immersive, emphatic, bloody and very assured book. It bulges with scenes of battle. Stiles slips early and easily into psychosocial speculation; he insists that Custer is “an icon because he embodied the times in a heightened, dramatic way. He was the exaggerated American.”

Missing are the voices of Native Americans. This is a surprise, given Stiles’ careful bead on Southern sensibilities in the Civil War chapters. Stiles describes Bloody Knife, Custer’s valued tracker in the Dakotas, but the man is no author of his own thoughts here. This book suffers by comparison with S.C. Gwynne’s splendid 2010 “Empire of the Summer Moon,” a breathtaking investigation of Comanche lives on the High Plains.

Stiles does track and contextualize Armstrong and Libbie Custer’s abiding racism. It persists within their long dependence on Eliza Brown, who escaped slavery as a teenager to become the couple’s Civil War cook and Libbie’s adviser. Brown married a prosperous Ohio attorney, and Stiles gives her a gratifying reappearance in his epilogue.

“As the cultural consensus has shifted, the image of Custer in national memory has changed from champion of civilization, who died to tame the savage wilderness, to arrogant murderer and land thief,” Stiles notes on his opening page. He ends his book suggesting that the man is “misremembered as needed by each new generation.”

Rather like American history itself.

 

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