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Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer

Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer

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by Thom Hatch

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Glorious War, the thrilling and definitive biography of George Armstrong Custer's Civil War years, is nothing short of a heart-pounding cavalry charge through the battlefield heroics that thrust the gallant young officer into the national spotlight in the midst of the country's darkest hours. From West Point to the daring military actions that propelled him


Glorious War, the thrilling and definitive biography of George Armstrong Custer's Civil War years, is nothing short of a heart-pounding cavalry charge through the battlefield heroics that thrust the gallant young officer into the national spotlight in the midst of the country's darkest hours. From West Point to the daring military actions that propelled him to the rank of general at age twenty-three to his unlikely romance with Libbie Bacon, Custer's exploits are the stuff of legend.

Always leading his men from the front with a personal courage seldom seen before or since, he was a key part of nearly every major engagement in the east. Not only did Custer capture the first battle flag taken by the Union Army and receive the white flag of surrender at Appomattox, but his field generalship at Gettysburg against Confederate cavalry General Jeb Stuart had historic implications in changing the course of that pivotal battle.

For decades, historians have looked at Custer strictly through the lens of his death on the frontier, his last stand, casting him as a failure. While some may say that the events that took place at the Little Big Horn are illustrative of America's bloody westward expansion, they have in the process unjustly eclipsed Custer's otherwise extraordinarily life and outstanding career and fall far short of encompassing his incredible service to his country. This biography of thundering cannons, pounding hooves, and stunning successes tells the true story of the origins of one of history's most dynamic and misunderstood figures. Award-winning historian Thom Hatch reexamines Custer's early career to rebalance the scales and show why Custer's epic fall could never have happened without the spectacular rise that made him an American legend.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
George Armstrong Custer's achievements in the Civil War, for which he won national fame and was promoted to brigadier general in the U.S. Cavalry at age 23, are reviewed here by popular historian Hatch (The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Rightfully giving Custer his due for his brilliant early career as a Union cavalry officer, Hatch particularly celebrates his role in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, wherein he out-generaled the Confederate cavalry legend Jeb Stuart to protect the Union rear position during Pickett's ill-fated charge, a success that not only bolstered his reputation but was essential to the survival and eventual victory of the entire Union Army. Custer is best known today for his later role in the Plains Indian wars and his death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but Hatch sympathetically emphasizes what Custer formerly achieved to make him a national figure in the first place. He describes battle scenes vividly; Custer's legendary pluck, luck, and sheer audacity shine throughout the narrative. VERDICT Recommended as a lively read for Civil War history buffs during the 150th anniversaries and beyond. [See Prepub Alert, 6/10/13.]—Nathan Bender, Albany Cty. P.L., Laramie, WY
Publishers Weekly
What most people know about Custer’s life centers on one day: his fatal last stand at Little Bighorn in 1876. Not fair, claims Spur Award winner Hatch (for 2005’s Black Kettle), who briskly and convincingly sets out to rescue the Union Army’s youngest general from this ignominy. Hatch leads a romp through the Civil War, describing Custer’s involvement in many key confrontations, including both Bull Runs, Brandy Station, Gettysburg, and Appomattox. An undistinguished graduate of West Point in 1861, Custer made a name for himself early in the war with daring cavalry charges and smart military strategies. His rapid advance through aide-de-camp positions for three generals, coupled with his willingness to get out on the battlefield with his men and his flair for self-promotion, made Custer one of the most colorful characters of the war. The deftly detailed narrative undergirds Hatch’s emphasis on the importance of Custer’s early military career while delivering the drama of the larger swirl of the Civil War. However, Hatch reveals little about Custer’s private life or his inner self, elements of character that might have helped flesh out how and why this popular, accomplished general died so young. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
"A lively and very readable account of the early career of George Armstrong Custer." —Larry McMurtry, author of Custer
Pulitzer Prize Winner and Author of Custer and Lon Larry McMurtry

A lively and very readable account of the early career of George Armstrong Custer.
Kirkus Reviews
Before he became the most famous man in America, George Armstrong Custer was…only moderately famous. By the end of the Civil War, very few cavalry commanders' reputations stood higher than Custer's. From First Bull Run, where he was cited for bravery, to Appomattox, where he observed Robert E. Lee's surrender, Custer enjoyed a glittering war, distinguishing himself in battle and earning the love of his troops and the adulation of the public. Hatch (The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2013, etc.) offers a bit about Custer's boyhood and more about his West Point years, where the prank-loving youth famously piled up demerits and endeared himself to fellow cadets, but the author mostly focuses on the battlefield exploits and Custer's wartime, tortuous courtship of Libbie Bacon. He won the woman (she remained devoted to polishing his reputation until her death in 1933) and did as much as any Union officer to win the war. In his gold-looped, velveteen jacket and red tie, with his long hair flowing from under his soft hat, Custer's flamboyance was exceeded only by his bravery, demonstrated at places like Williamsburg, Gettysburg and Culpeper. He had mounts shot out from under him, received wounds and appeared on the cover of Harper's Weekly. His horsemanship, stamina, intuitive grasp of cavalry tactics, talent for sensing the enemy's weakness and propensity to lead from the front impressed his superiors and accounted for his astonishing rise through the ranks. By 23, he was the youngest general in the Union army; by war's end, a genuine national hero. Still ahead lay Little Bighorn and his curious transmutation in history from hero to martyr to object lesson to object of ridicule. An admiring, fast-paced, thoroughly readable account of Custer at war.

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Glorious War

The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer

By Thom Hatch

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Thom Hatch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02851-8


West Point Cadet

In January 1857, a letter addressed to George A. Custer, Esq. arrived in the mail at the Emanuel Custer residence in New Rumley, Ohio. This official-looking correspondence, which had been postmarked from the nation's capital, was known to contain potentially life-changing news that the entire family had been anticipating with some anxiety.

Seventeen-year-old George — known to his family as "Armstrong" or "Autie" — tore open the envelope to remove a form letter written on crisp, white stationery and signed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. The boy quickly scanned the words, his fair-skinned face flushing and his mischievous blue eyes lighting on fire.

Armstrong handed the letter to his father, who, after absorbing each word, in turn gave it to his wife, Maria, who read the message with a sense of sadness. This was the news that Maria had been dreading — not so Armstrong.

The letter informed him that he had been awarded an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. There was a good chance that by this time the boy could no longer contain himself and let out a series of joyous whoops. He was a spirited boy who was prone to such displays of enthusiasm.

This coveted appointment, which would take effect in June, had not come without a great measure of surprisingly good fortune — against seemingly insurmountable odds — that has baffled historians to this day.

Young Armstrong had arrived at the conclusion that he would require some sort of assistance in order to further his education at an institution of higher learning. Otherwise, due to the family's meager finances, he might be relegated to make his way in the world on merely a high school education and whatever skills he could muster on his own. There was a good chance that out of necessity he would be compelled to learn a trade, which was not to the liking of a young man with great dreams and high ambitions.

Armstrong had always been an avid reader of adventure novels and envisioned the glory that might be attained by a military career. On a more practical note, he believed that being a graduate of a prestigious school like West Point would open endless doors of opportunity. So he had made up his mind to shoot for the top. To that end, he wrote to his district's Republican representative, John A. Bingham, and requested an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

This audacious act by the son of an outspoken, lifelong Democrat demonstrates the undaunting determination that would be Custer's lifelong hallmark. The odds that a son of Emanuel Custer, whose politics were the polar opposite to those of Bingham, could gain political patronage from a Republican were astronomical. And Armstrong himself did not help his cause in the least when he participated in a rally for Democratic presidential hopeful James Buchanan and later protested an appearance by Republican John C. Fremont.

Differing stories have been written about why Armstrong Custer was even considered for this prestigious appointment from a man whose politics were contrary to those of the staunchly Democratic Custer family. Bingham later related — after Custer had become famous — that the "originality and honesty" of the young man's letter "captivated" him. Others have speculated that the father of a girl — Mary Jane "Mollie" Holland, with whom Custer was romantically involved — pulled strings with the congressman in order to remove Custer from his daughter's life.

Regardless, this letter signed by Secretary of War Davis meant that Armstrong could now further his education at an institution where his tuition would be paid. But, alas, his acceptance to the military academy at this point was contingent upon the approval of his close-knit family.

The decision for Armstrong to enter the Academy became a matter of family discussion. Mother Maria, who had hoped that her son might become a minister — an idea likely long forgotten — was strongly opposed to her boy becoming a soldier, especially with rumors that war could be on the horizon. Maria was outvoted by the other family members, and finally acquiesced. Emanuel went to the bank and borrowed against his farm, receiving two hundred dollars to pay for his son's expenses and admission fee.

There was one more obstacle between Custer and West Point, however — entrance examinations. And those exams, to which each aspiring cadet was subjected before acceptance, were not merely a formality but a rigorous experience with no mercy shown for those who were not up to standards. The candidates would be tested individually, and it was known that nearly half of them would be rejected for one reason or another.

The entrance examinations for admittance to this class at the Academy were scheduled for June 20, 1857. George Armstrong Custer boarded a train in Scio, Ohio, and arrived at Albany, New York, where he boarded a boat for a trip down the Hudson River to West Point.

The journey downriver by Armstrong was perhaps best described by his future bride, Libbie, when she wrote:

I cannot imagine anything more delightful to a susceptible imaginative temperament than to sail on the Hudson, a beautiful river, and to follow the outlines of the mountains on either side whose reflection was mirrored in the river, thus giving double delight. Such an approach to a spot where four years of one's life were to be spent filled out a picture to a boy full of romance that lasted until life ended.

The Academy site was so well chosen; all the buildings, the parade and drill ground, the cemetery, the fortifications lie on a level plateau, but at the background rise the soft, lovely hills covered with trees and verdure, forest trees that have been cared for since West Point started with its corps of professors and one pupil. To look daily upon such mountains, to see, from barrack windows, camp, parade, drill ground, the broad blue river in all its moods, the majestic mountains rising before them, was inspiration to those country lads who came from some obscure inland town.

The history of West Point dates back to the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington regarded the plateau on the west bank of the Hudson River to be the most important strategic location in the country. Washington established his headquarters at West Point in 1779, and directed his Continental soldiers in the building of the fortification and the placement of a 150-ton iron chain that spanned the Hudson above the narrow S curve to control river traffic and prevent British ships from sailing upriver and dividing the colonies. Although West Point commander Benedict Arnold committed his act of treason by trying to sell the post to the British, the fortress was never captured and has been the oldest continuously occupied military station in American history.

In 1802, at the urging of Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation that established and funded an institution devoted to the art of warfare and military leadership. It was called the United States Military Academy and would be located at West Point. The level of academics provided to the cadets was equal or superior to the country's leading colleges and universities — and by teaching subjects about warfare and establishing military discipline and traditions, exceptional officers were trained for the United States Army.

In the early decades of the young country, it was West Point graduates who designed the majority of America's bridges, roads, railway lines, canals, river levees, and harbors. In addition to engineering feats, graduates of the Academy participated in the War of 1812 — the first conflict that tested the training at West Point — and distinguished themselves in such battles as Crysler's Farm, Fort Erie, Craney Island, and the defense of Norfolk.

During June 1857, 108 candidates, including George Armstrong Custer, would be examined for entrance into the United States Military Academy. These young men would be interviewed at Academic Hall by an examining board comprised of about two dozen professors and other interested parties, who stood out in their classy dress-blue army officer uniforms with fringed golden epaulets.

The examination may have seemed more like an inquisition to those whose fate depended on a good showing. One right after another, the young men entered the examining room and later exited wondering if they had passed muster.

Eventually, it was Custer's turn to step inside the inner sanctum, which he found to be a semicircle of desks with imposing figures seated and standing behind them. Among those present were Superintendent Richard Delafield; Albert Church, the head of mathematics, who was said to have roomed at The Point with Jefferson Davis; and Chaplain John French, professor of geography, history, and ethics.

There can be no question that Custer was to an extent intimidated and had some measure of self-doubt when all eyes focused on him seeking any reason to find fault and dash his dream. But he had not made it through the difficult application process just to be turned away before he had a chance to prove that he could indeed become an army officer. In the end, after the professors had put their heads together and discussed the applicants, George Armstrong Custer was judged to be worthy of his appointment — although he ranked in the bottom ten of those selected.

On July 1, 1857, Custer and sixty-seven other plebes — also known as "animals," the lowest form of humanity — out of the original 108 who had been examined, reported for duty as the class of 1862. The blue-eyed boy stood almost six feet tall, weighed about 170 pounds, and was soon good-naturedly nicknamed "Fanny" by his classmates due to his wavy, yellow hair and fair complexion.

The inherent urge of Custer to be the fun-loving prankster was immediately at odds with the strict Academy code of conduct, which was calculated by a system of demerits. Demerits or black marks — called "skins" by the cadets — were awarded for various offenses, such as being late for parade, not keeping eyes to the front, throwing stones on post, not properly carrying a musket during drill, talking after taps, an unshaven face or untrimmed hair, inattention, unkempt quarters, untidy uniform, dirty equipment, failure to salute an officer, altercations or fights with fellow cadets, and many other instances of unacceptable military behavior. One hundred skins in a six-month period would be grounds for dismissal from the Academy.

Custer's offenses ranged from "boyish conduct" to an unbuttoned coat to improper handing of his musket to inappropriate attire. He accumulated seventeen demerits by the time his class broke summer camp at Camp Gaines and moved into the permanent barracks, and he would test the limits of this code before his tour at West Point had been completed.

Students were organized into sections according to their academic abilities, and Armstrong found himself for the most part among Southerners and Westerners, whose knowledge was regarded as being generally inferior to the New Englanders. He was assigned a tower room in the Eighth Division at Cadet Barracks, a four-story stone building with gothic turrets that overlooked a forty-acre plot of grass located at the center of the Academy grounds that was known as the "Plain." Each room had a window facing the Plain; was furnished with a fireplace, two beds with thin mattresses, a table with two chairs, clothes press, gun rack, washstand and slop bucket; and was illuminated by an oil lamp.

Custer's first roommate was James "Jim" Parker, a rather homely, roughhewn, plodding sort from Missouri. Other close friends who resided in neighboring rooms were Kentuckians William Dunlop and George Watts, Pierce M. B. Young of Georgia, John "Gimlet" Lea of Mississippi, and Southern sympathizer Lafayette "Lafe" Lane, whose father was an Oregon territorial delegate to Congress.

Custer also befriended a number of upperclassmen, such as Alabaman John Pelham and Texan Thomas Lafayette Rosser from the Class of 1861, and North Carolinian Stephen D. Ramseur, who was a third classman. Other upper classmen with whom Custer's future would be linked were Judson Kilpatrick, Wesley Merritt, and Alexander Pennington. The tall, bull-strong, swarthy-complexioned Tom Rosser, who roomed next door, could be considered Armstrong Custer's best friend.

At the present, these cadets were comrades in arms, sharing the unique adventure that was West Point. In the future, however, each of them would be taking sides with the advent of war, and friendships would be strained if not dissolved. Their geographic differences may not have seemed important now, but those differences in culture and beliefs would eventually come to the forefront as the politics of the outside world escalated beyond reason and called these young men to choose sides.

The rigorous curriculum, which had been expanded to five years, emphasized military courses, such as infantry, artillery, cavalry tactics, military science, gunnery, ordnance, administration, veterinary science, horsemanship, and use of the saber, but did not lack for challenging traditional college-level subjects. Among the courses Custer would be required to master were algebra, geometry, trigonometry, spherical astronomy, English, French, Spanish, chemistry, drawing, electrics, civil engineering, philosophy, geology, mineralogy, history, and ethics. The cadets would also serve as valets for the upperclassmen and were afforded the dubious privilege of blacking boots, hauling water, maintaining uniforms, and other physical tasks — all the while never speaking unless spoken to.

At the end of his first year, Custer ranked fifty-second in mathematics and fifty-seventh in English in a class of sixty-two — six members had departed either by choice or dismissal. His placement was partially due to the fact that he had accumulated 151 demerits, the highest number in his class. His offenses now included tardiness, inattention, throwing snowballs, visiting after hours, unauthorized card playing, and failure to keep the section at attention during a formation.

Despite this dismal showing, Custer was not discouraged and wrote to his sister Lydia Ann Reed of Monroe, Michigan, on June 30 saying, "I would not leave this place for any amount of money because I would rather have a good education and no money, than to have a fortune and be ignorant." With that said, he did have some misgivings about being away from home — his parents' welfare, "If there is one reason why I wish I were through here it is that I might be of some aid to them." He did have a personal grievance, however, "I am surprised at Pop not signing my permit to use tobacco. I said distinctly I did not want tobacco for myself, but for my room-mate who smokes, and would give me things I want. Nothing could induce me to use tobacco, either in smoking or chewing. I consider it a filthy, if not an unhealthy practice."

Armstrong Custer's less than glowing academic record was not the result of a lack of intelligence on his part — he likely could have been an honor student. In fact, he regularly checked out literary books from the library that he read for pleasure. He made his way through James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, and, perhaps in an effort to understand his closest friends, he borrowed Swallow Barn. This novel by John Pendleton Kennedy described Virginia plantation life from the standpoint of a dashing hero named Ned Hazard, who was always followed by a pack of hounds. Incidentally, the slavery described by Kennedy depicted a kindly institution, with blacks as almost comical figures. In addition to being a devoted reader, Custer became a skillful writer, as evidenced especially by his later works.

His downfall in formal education can be attributed to his propensity for pranks and an immaturity and rebelliousness that gave him a devil-may-care attitude. He studied not to excel but only enough to keep from flunking out of school. In addition to receiving a load of demerits, Custer spent time in the guardhouse. Found in his portfolio of sketches saved from West Point was a drawing of the guardhouse with bars at the window and a cadet standing behind them that was labeled G. A. Custer's Summer Home on the Hudson.

"It was all right with him," a classmate recalled, "whether he knew his lesson or not: he did not allow it to trouble him." Fellow cadet Peter Michie wrote, "Custer was always in trouble with the authorities. He had more fun, gave his friends more anxiety, walked more tours of extra guard, and came nearer to being dismissed more often than any other cadet I have ever known." Tully McCrea reflected that "the great difficulty is that he is too clever for his own good. He is always connected with all the mischief that is going on and never studies any more than he can possibly help." Cadet Morris Schaff, who was a year behind Custer, remembered, "West Point had had many a character to deal with; but it may be a question whether it ever had a cadet so exuberant, one who cared so little for its serious attempts to elevate and burnish. And yet how we all loved him." Another cadet wrote, "He was beyond a doubt the most popular man in his class."


Excerpted from Glorious War by Thom Hatch. Copyright © 2013 Thom Hatch. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

THOM HATCH is the author of eight books, including The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Custer Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Life of George Armstrong Custer and the Plains Indians Wars. A Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and a historian who specializes in the American West, the Civil War, and Native American conflicts, Hatch has received the prestigious Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for his previous work. He lives in Colorado with his wife and daughter.

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Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
jfk1942 More than 1 year ago
Glorious War was one of the most entertaing and informative books I have read, I never realized how important role Custer played in winning the war. Hatch's writing pulls you right in and you can not put down the book. Glorious War & his book Last Days about The Little Big Horn are 2 of the best books I have read. Hatch makes his books come alive & history fun.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really a good job describing Custer's contribution to the Union during the Civil War. This is a good book to read to counter the negativity surrounding Custer based on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This is a good read!
efm More than 1 year ago
Good read, lots of exciting moments, learned facts about him, well written flows easily