Custer Was Colorful and Eccentric but Very Much a Man of His Time

In a new biography, historian T.J. Stiles portrays Custer in the context of his time, and the man who emerges is much more than merely a martyr or a fool.

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My favorite ice cream parlor growing up on the South Jersey shore was called “Custard’s Last Stand,” whose logo featured a cartoonish George Armstrong Custer brandishing two pistols in the heat of battle and wearing a cowboy hat with two arrows shot through the crown. Ice cream was likely the last thing on Custer’s mind at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 26, 1876, but for anyone enjoying a cone on a hot summer evening with even a cursory understanding of American history the reference was unmistakable even if the details were cloudy. “Custer’s Last Stand” is now more a part of popular culture than history, which is little more than shorthand for military recklessness, genocide against Native Americans, and the closing of the frontier. While Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment will be forever remembered as woefully surrounded by Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians, no one is quite sure how he ended up there.

In his new biography, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author T.J. Stiles set out to explore Custer’s life not as a string of events that led inevitably to the Little Bighorn River, but within the context of mid-19th century America—a historical landscape defined by civil war, westward expansion, the emancipation of four million people, expansive federal government, and the explosion of an industrial market economy. This is not the first biography of Custer, but it likely goes furthest in exploring his contribution to Union victory during the Civil War and the difficulties he faced adjusting to the world that he helped to create.

Readers are introduced to Custer fully formed as a raucous and rebellious young West Point cadet in the middle of the first of two court-martials for misconduct before joining his classmates and the rest of the nation at war in 1861. Stiles fills in details about Custer’s personal past and Democratic politics, which pushes the story forward with an air of urgency. Custer wasted little time in finding a place on General George McClellan’s staff and proving his battlefield prowess and worthiness of command. At the young age of 23 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and given command of four regiments of volunteer cavalry from his adopted home state, Michigan. He distinguished himself in many of the major campaigns of the Eastern Theater, including Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign, and at Appomattox Court House, where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was finally brought to bay. Along the way he cultivated the necessary political support in Washington among Republican patrons, who remained suspicious of Custer’s close personal ties with McClellan and his well-known Democratic leanings.

Custer’s theatrics on the battlefield may have earned him respect within the army and a reputation second to none in the Northern press, but according to Stiles his romantic view of warfare and search for glory was quickly being overshadowed by “industrialized slaughter.” Custer, according to Stiles was “a living contradiction at the dawn of modern warfare.” This is an overstatement. Certainly the role of cavalry was in transition at this time and technological changes affected the scale of death on the battlefield, but Custer was no more out of place in the Civil War than a young Teddy Roosevelt was during the Spanish-American War a few decades later charging up San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders.

One of the strengths of this book is Stiles’s ability to connect Custer to broader questions faced by the nation at the close of the war. All too often the fight over the western territories that preceded the Civil War is disconnected from the political battles of Reconstruction and the Indian Wars, which followed. Custer celebrated the preservation of the Union and even the abolition of slavery, but like most Americans he failed to move beyond deeply entrenched racial prejudices even in light of his close interaction with Eliza Brown, a former slave, who cooked for Custer in camp for a number of years. Custer’s contribution to Union victory proved decisive for continued western expansion and a fulfillment of the nation’s “Manifest Destiny” by white men and free labor.

Custer may have emerged from the Civil War physically unharmed and as a national hero, but according to Stiles the “Boy General”—now a lieutenant colonel in the Regular army—harbored insecurities owing to limited opportunities for advancement in the military. His foray into national politics during Reconstruction, investment in a failed silver mine, and gambling on the stock market led nowhere and increasingly strained his marriage to Libby Bacon. Stiles explains these setbacks as evidence of the “contradiction” or tension between Custer the Romantic cavalier and an increasingly industrial and urbanized society and impersonal political bureaucracy. To whatever extent such a framework explains Custer’s difficulties, it is clear that the timing of his graduation from West Point at the beginning of the war and his temperament prepared him for little else.

Custer embraced his command assignment with the 7th Cavalry on the Western Plains as an opportunity to re-build his national reputation on the only stage on which he knew how to perform. He fashioned himself as an expert on Indian military tactics, which was reinforced on more than one battlefield. According to Stiles, the attention to a wardrobe of buckskins and stories of buffalo hunts and other frontier adventures published in leading newspapers returned Custer to iconic status within the military.

The challenge for any historian of the Indian Wars is to place the actions of the United State military and Custer in particular in proper context. It is here that Stiles’s earlier efforts to bridge the Civil War, Reconstruction, and western expansion pays off. Reports of atrocities—including surprise attacks on villages—clouded his reputation, but Stiles shows that Custer’s racial outlook was perfectly consistent with the overarching racial views of white Northerners and Southerners and those he expressed publicly during Reconstruction. The United States was a white man’s nation. Ultimately, as Stiles writes, “The very existence of the United States was predicated on the dispossession of the indigenous. If Custer was wrong, ultimately it was because the nation was wrong.”

Some readers will be disappointed that Stiles relegates Custer’s famous last stand at the Little Bighorn to fifteen pages in an epilogue. There are certainly plenty of detailed military studies that explore the famous battle, but given Stiles’s overall goal with this biography the decision makes perfect sense. It steers the reader clear of engaging in tired debates about whether Custer got what he deserved. More importantly, by detaching the battle from the main narrative Stiles punctuates a point made early in the book: Custer’s life ought not to be overshadowed by an event that long ago left the domain of history for legend.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012) and is currently at work on Searching For Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.