Michael A. Elliott is the author of “Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer.”
It is hard to think of another figure from American history who has been deflated more spectacularly than George Armstrong Custer. Native Americans regularly invoke his name as the distillation of colonial racism. Cartoonists draw him — arrows protruding from his torso — to signify overconfidence, incompetence and plain bad judgment. In the defeat of the 7th Cavalry by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Custer led a desperate, ultimately futile last stand that once served as a touchstone of heroic sacrifice, celebrated in paintings, poems and live performances. By now he has been reduced to the cultural equivalent of a sight gag, his standing on par with a banana peel.
In his excellent new biography, T.J. Stiles observes the irony: Whether idol or punch line, Custer is commonly recalled for failure on the field of battle, the one arena where, in fact, he succeeded throughout his lifetime. In this deft portrait, Stiles restores Custer as a three-dimensional figure, a complicated man whose formidable talents were nearly overwhelmed by his difficulties in managing affairs away from the clamorous riot of battle.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant at the beginning of the Civil War, Custer was promoted at age 23 to the rank of brigadier general, a move that placed the young officer in command of thousands of men, four regiments of volunteer cavalry from his adopted home state, Michigan. Ever ambitious, he seized the opportunity. He created his own uniform of black velveteen and gold trim — complete with a red necktie — so that his men could easily observe their general leading the charge. He matched this sartorial flamboyance with dazzling tactics, and his men were soon wearing red neckties of their own. A favorite of the Northern press, Custer was, as one newspaper observed, “as gallant a cavalier as one would wish to see.”
Until the day of his death, it was a style of leadership that served Custer well on the battlefield, and Stiles provides a stirring account of Custer’s remarkable deeds over the course of the Civil War. However, Custer’s formula was also a vestige of a waning era. He embodied a mode of romantic individualism that was already falling out favor. This insight is central to Stiles’s argument. He persuasively contends that Custer was an effective, at times brilliant battlefield commander — but a terrible manager, uninterested in and poorly suited to the daily tasks of running a large organization. For Stiles, the antithesis of Custer was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who directed his forces from the rear and never engaged in Custer’s theatrics. If Custer’s model for military success was the medieval chevalier, then Grant’s was the industrial factory: a massive, impersonal and ruthless machine.
Stiles has previously written biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt, and his prodigious knowledge of 19th-century institutions is on display throughout “Custer’s Trials.” He is able to situate Custer in the shifting culture of the Civil War and its aftermath in a way no other biography has achieved. Custer’s iconic status has led other writers to treat him too much like the leading figure in a melodrama, whether hero or villain. Stiles’s Custer, by contrast, is life-size. Even after his battlefield victories, his promotions and his acclaim in the Northern press, he was plagued by insecurity, especially after the conclusion of the Civil War left him uncertain about his future. He gambled foolishly on the stock market, endured strains on his marriage and was frustrated by meager opportunities for promotion. Like so much about the Civil War, the rank of brigadier general had been temporary.
After the surrender of the Confederacy, the West offered Custer a chance to reinvent himself, and he threw himself into the project. As in the Civil War, he needed the right costume for this new theater. He adopted a wardrobe of buckskins and beards, led hunting parties for buffalo and penned articles describing his frontier adventures. He fancied himself an expert in the tactics of warfare against the Indians of the North American plains, and his 1868 attack on a Southern Cheyenne village on the Washita River established him as one of the best-known Indian fighters in the Army. Like many other white Americans before him, he professed admiration for American Indians but thought their demise inevitable.
Stiles carefully describes the policies and ideologies that motivated Custer’s Indian fighting, yet the greater contribution of this biography is in the way that Stiles so carefully embeds Custer in the racial politics of Reconstruction. Like many other white Northerners, Custer had little interest in the project of African American equality. Making a disastrous foray into partisan politics, he enthusiastically supported President Andrew Johnson and the National Union ticket, which opposed the Reconstruction policies of the radical Republicans. Throughout his life, Custer consistently cultivated relationships with white Southerners — even those he had opposed on the battlefield — and he turned down an opportunity to command a regiment of black soldiers. When his 7th Cavalry was posted to Kentucky for Reconstruction duty in 1871, he was more interested in the horses than in curtailing white-on-black violence.
Custer’s racial attitudes were at home in a nation that later abandoned Reconstruction in favor of reuniting Americans of the North and South, but he showed a poor judgment for navigating the swirling crosscurrents of Reconstruction politics. Custer’s vociferous support of Johnson made him as many enemies as friends, and he later crossed the final line by working with Democratic newspapers and politicians to embarrass the Republican administration of President Grant. In fact, Grant became so outraged that he nearly kept Custer from participating in the 1876 campaign that became Custer’s rendezvous with history.
Stiles’s succinct account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn appears in the epilogue of “Custer’s Trials.” Rightly, he knows that a biography of Custer cannot compete with the groaning shelf of books devoted to retelling the story of his last day. Stiles’s book, though, goes further than any other biographical account in shifting the balance of attention away from his subject’s mythic demise. For Stiles, Custer’s toughest foes were in the backrooms of Washington, the stock exchanges of New York and the columns of the national press.
If Stiles is correct, the Indians at the Little Bighorn may have done Custer a perverse favor with their victory over him and his men. His famous last stand removed him from the sordid, industrial age he was unable to master; his spectacular death preserved him for the ages as a symbol whose meaning and significance could be endlessly disputed. Custer’s trials would continue long after his death, in the halls of history, where Custer always belonged.
By T.J. Stiles
Knopf. 582 pp. $30