George Armstrong Custer! How many books have been written about this most controversial historical figure? Mountains of them, most dealing with either his last battle or his entire career on the Great Plains as opposed to his whole life or sterling Civil War generalship which in the opinion of this writer ranks him among the likes of Jeb Stuart, Joe Wheeler, James H. Wilson and Custer's patron Phil Sheridan as one of the best of the very best horse soldiers of the blue and the gray.
Ever since the news broke of his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer's public image has gone from hero, to villain, to just a tarnished image lingering on the national memory revered by some, reviled by some, treated indifferently by most, for by now as Jeffry Wert points out in his biography, Custer now seems to be a symbol drained of all substance.
In the pages of this biography, you can discover Custer the human being as opposed to Custer the empty symbol. Wert deftly chronicles Custer's life from birth to death in an engaging writing style that is engrossing and engaging but at the same time not cloying or stilted, backed up by solid research complete with footnotes and a list of sources.
Wert brings to the forefront facts that are either buried in the back chapters of other Custer tomes or not mentioned at all. Such as that his first love was not Elizabeth Bacon but Mollie Holland, a girl from Monroe, Michigan whom he romanced during his West Point cadet days.
And speaking of West Point, it turns out Custer got to be the last of the class of 1861 not so much due to his carefree attitude towards academia and military discipline but due to the fact that two southern cadets below him in the class resigned to return home after their states seceded, making Custer the "class goat" by default.
Indeed, his only truly serious infraction of West Point rules was failing to break up a fight between two cadets towards the end of Custer's final year of school which led to a court-martial and delay in going to join his unit at the front. Nevertheless, Custer was released in time to take part in the battle of First Bull Run as a newly minted Second Lieutenant of the U.S. Army.
After reading of Custer's meteoric rise to a major general of volunteers by wars end, beloved by the men of his first command, the Michigan Cavalry brigade, and the second, the Third Cavalry division, one cannot help by be impressed by how good a general he was. A general who was a far cry from the "glory hunter" who simply charged the enemy each time and did not care for the losses as Custer's critics have long argued.
Wert also thoroughly covers Custer's time in Texas with his final cavalry command as a general which was marked by unrest in the volunteer cavalry units from the western armies that he lead there which were itching to return home rather than watch the Mexican border for signs of the forces of French-backed emperor Maximilian as well as Custer's command of the fabled Seventh Cavalry on the Great Plains.
On a personal level, Wert delves into Custer's passionate marriage to Elizabeth Bacon Custer, debunking along the way allegations that Custer had relations with his Negro cook during the war and even argues convincingly that it was more likely George's unmarried younger brother Tom who was the lover of the Cheyenne woman named Mo-Na-Se-Tah after the battle of the Washita in 1866.
As far as the final act of Custer's life, Wert advances the theory that Custer's main objective during his last battle was the capture of the women and children located in the far end of the camp at Little Big Horn. A capture Custer knew would force the surrender of the Indian warriors.
However, the Everywhere Spirit, whom the Cheyenne had warned Custer would kill him if he came after them again, manifested in the warriors led by Crazy Horse and Gall, awaited him at Last Stand Hill instead, Leaving behind a mystery and a legacy that continues to linger in memory even today.
Wert engages in no hagiography, but he is fair and even handed in his conclusions about G.A.C. A fact that in my opinion makes his biography required reading for all who are interested in the life and times of “the boy general.”