Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America
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Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History
From the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, a brilliant biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer that radically changes our view of the man and his turbulent times.
In this magisterial biography, T. J. Stiles paints a portrait of Custer both deeply personal and sweeping in scope, proving how much of Custer’s legacy has been ignored. He demolishes Custer’s historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person—capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years).
The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many areas overlooked in previous biographies, Custer helped to create modern America, but he could never adapt to it. He freed countless slaves yet rejected new civil rights laws. He proved his heroism but missed the dark reality of war for so many others. A talented combat leader, he struggled as a manager in the West.
He tried to make a fortune on Wall Street yet never connected with the new corporate economy. Native Americans fascinated him, but he could not see them as fully human. A popular writer, he remained apart from Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and other rising intellectuals. During Custer’s lifetime, Americans saw their world remade. His admirers saw him as the embodiment of the nation’s gallant youth, of all that they were losing; his detractors despised him for resisting a more complex and promising future. Intimate, dramatic, and provocative, this biography captures the larger story of the changing nation in Custer’s tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libbie; their complicated relationship with Eliza Brown, the forceful black woman who ran their household; as well as his battles and expeditions. It casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
From the Hardcover edition.
turned muzzles toward the enemy, broke ammunition out of caissons. Bugles blew, drums pattered, regimental flags moved left and right as units took their places. Hancock sent a staff officer to Smith’s headquarters to describe his exposed but advantageous position and request additional troops. The man returned with orders to fall back. But Hancock noticed something through the heavy mist that followed the rain—enemy troops moving in his direction. He told his men to stand their ground and
Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, July 19, 1867, in Simon 17: 241. On the two factions on the commission agreeing on the goal, see Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin, 58. 35. Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 310; Greene, 35–38. 36. Utley, ed., Life, 115; West, 310. For an example of the view that the Cheyennes and others simply had no idea what they were agreeing to, see Utley, Frontier Regulars, 143. 37. West,
and good food. “After I get to Monroe I do not intend to eat ‘hard bread’ nor ‘salt pork’ nor to drink my ‘coffee without milk’ although these are the fashionable dishes in the army.”83 McClellan finally moved south, completing the crossing of the Potomac on November 2. Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck—as well as newspaper editors and Republicans in Congress—had long since reached the point of exasperation with his political skullduggery and refusal to fight. On November 7, as heavy snow blew
man from Monroe named Henry Clay Christiancy and said he was going home that day. It was not the triumphant return he had imagined. With his patron banished, he faced a future more uncertain than at any time since the war began.84 Four THE PRODIGY IF CUSTER LEARNED ANYTHING at McClellan’s side, it was that the Civil War was political. Military strategy shaped national policy, but so did ideology, constituencies, lobbying, and compromise. Partisanship influenced the appointment of Volunteer
their masters than any other general in this Army.…And rather than that we should accept peace, except on our own terms, I would, and do, favor a war of extermination. I would hang every human being who possesses a drop of rebel blood in their veins whether they be men women or children. Then, after having freed the country from the presence of every rebel, I would settle the whole southern country with a population loyal and patriotic who would not soon forget their obligations to the country.…I