Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer
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Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer

by Jeffry D. Wert
     
 

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George Armstrong Custer has been so heavily mythologized that the human being has been all but lost. Now, in the first complete biography in decades, Jeffry Wert reexamines the life of the famous soldier to give us Custer in all his colorful complexity.

Although remembered today as the loser at Little Big Horn, Custer was the victor of many cavalry engagements

Overview

George Armstrong Custer has been so heavily mythologized that the human being has been all but lost. Now, in the first complete biography in decades, Jeffry Wert reexamines the life of the famous soldier to give us Custer in all his colorful complexity.

Although remembered today as the loser at Little Big Horn, Custer was the victor of many cavalry engagements in the Civil War. He played an important role in several battles in the Virginia theater of the war, including the Shenandoah campaign. Renowned for his fearlessness in battle, he was always in front of his troops, leading the charge. His men were fiercely loyal to him, and he was highly regarded by Sheridan and Grant as well. Some historians think he may have been the finest cavalry officer in the Union Army.

But when he was assigned to the Indian wars on the Plains, life changed drastically for Custer. No longer was he in command of soldiers bound together by a cause they believed in. Discipline problems were rampant, and Custer's response to them earned him a court-martial. There were long lulls in the fighting, during which time Custer turned his attention elsewhere, often to his wife, Libbie Bacon Custer, to whom he was devoted. Their romance and marriage is a remarkable love story, told here in part through their personal correspondence. After Custer's death, Libbie would remain faithful to his memory until her own death nearly six decades later.

Jeffry Wert carefully examines the events around the defeat at Little Big Horn, drawing on recent archeological findings and the latest scholarship. His evenhanded account of the dramatic battle puts Custer's performance, and that of his subordinates, in proper perspective.

From beginning to end, this masterful biography peels off the layers of legend to reveal for us the real George Armstrong Custer.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Like a cavalry charge led by its celebrated subject, fast on the heels of Louise Barnett's Touched by Fire (Forecasts, Apr. 15) comes a second, even finer Custer bio from Wert (General James Longstreet) based on a broad spectrum of archival research and recent scholarship. Wert's Custer is eager for glory and greatness. At one time the Union's youngest general, Custer found both during the Civil War by establishing an unsurpassed record as a cavalry officer. He also made many enemies because of his flamboyant personal style, but his exuberant self-confidence carried him so far between 1861 and 1865 that, Wert contends, he saw no reason to change in the different environment of the postwar frontier army. According to the author, Custer resisted maturity and understood neither himself nor his new enemies, the Plains Indians. Custer took personal and professional risks, Wert shows, because he was most alive living on the edge. At the Little Bighorn, he took one set of chances too many. Like Barnett, Wert offers a sensitive reading of the Custers' marriage, which Barnett sees in the context of gender relations and which Wert limns as a 19th-century love story. Wert's work outshines Barnett's in its comprehensiveness, however, particularly in its treatment of Custer's military experiences. His Custer is at once hero and victim, archetype and original, and consistently compelling. Photos not seen by PW. History Book Club main selection; BOMC alternate selection. (June)
Library Journal
Neither of these welcome additions to the vast literature on Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn says much about the battle itself. The works prefer to concentrate on a larger question: who was George Armstrong Custer and how did he come to command the Seventh Cavalry on that fateful day in Montana in 1876? Barnett (English, Rutgers Univ.), after briefly sketching Custer's life up to 1866, examines his relationship with his wife, Libbie, and shows us a man who was more interested in the natural environment of the Plains than in the men under his command. Barnett also examines Libbie's role in creating the Custer legend after the battle. Wert, a noted Civil War biographer, provides a full-scale biography from birth to death, viewing Custer as a brilliant Civil War cavalry leader who was out of his element on the Plains. Both authors make good use of recent research as well as earlier sources, and both are careful not to go beyond the available evidence. Both eschew the rampant speculation and partisanship that marks much of the writing on Custer. And both offer well-written books that will appeal to lay readers as well as specialists. Essential for subject collections on the West (Wert's book also belongs in all Civil War collections) and strongly recommended for all libraries.Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette
School Library Journal
YA Most biographies of Custer focus either on his exploits during the Civil War or his active role in the Indian Wars. Wert follows his subject from his humble beginnings to his meteoric rise as the second youngest general in the Union Army to the cataclysmic battle at Little Bighorn. The use of numerous primary sources, including the subject's letters to his wife, brings Custer to life as readers ride with him from the pivotal battles of the Civil War to the hot dusty plains of the West. The highly readable writing style makes the book as fast flowing as a cavalry charge. Although the title promises an examination of the controversies in the subject's life, most of these events are passed over with only a brief explanation or ignored. Despite this flaw, readers are left with an unforgettable portrait of the man rather than the myth.Robert Burnham, R. E. Lee High School, Springfield, VA
Kirkus Reviews
An admiring and dutiful account of the military exploits of the Civil War hero and leader of the Seventh Cavalry at the ill- fated battle of the Little Bighorn.

Civil War historian Wert (General James Longstreet, 1993) crafts a well-documented (at times excessively so) portrait of a boyish, vain, unfailingly heroic figure who might never have graduated from West Point had there not been a war. By 1863, however, Custer, then 23, had attained the rank of brigadier general in the Union army, winning national acclaim for his fearlessness in combat. A dashing cavalryman, Custer earned the love of his subordinates and the enmity of many fellow officers, a pattern that persisted throughout his soldiering life. While Wert's voluminously detailed recounting of Custer's tactical heroics may overwhelm nonCivil War buffs,, the author ably counters Custer's primary identification as the tragic victim of 1876. Custer's long- suffering mate, Libbie, is revealed here as a stout-hearted army wife, resigned to a childless marriage (Custer contracted gonorrhea immediately after entering West Point), uncomplainingly accompanying her husband to remote frontier posts. Custer's story, as well as Wert's writing, gets more exciting as the book approaches its inevitable climax. As the commander of the Seventh Cavalry, Custer once more proved his mettle by battling the Plains Indians, but his aggressive tactics, as Wert makes clear, finally spelled his doom, as well as the deaths of 262 other soldiers at the hands of some 2,000 Sioux warriors. Lamenting the way in which the battle has since obscured the life, Wert writes that Custer "has become the singular symbol of the nation's guilt over its sad history of continental conquest. The loser at Little Big Horn has overshadowed the excellent Civil War general."

This accessible biography presents a much fuller historical picture of this near-mythic American hero.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780684832753
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
06/10/1997
Pages:
464
Sales rank:
536,568
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Jeffry D. Wert is the author of eight previous books on Civil War topics, most recently Cavalryman of the Lost Cause and The Sword of Lincoln. His articles and essays on the Civil War have appeared in many publications, including Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, and Blue and Gray. A former history teacher at Penns Valley High School, he lives in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, slightly more than one hour from the battlefield at Gettysburg.

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