Logic as applied to the records

On more than a few occasions we have encountered the telling of an event in a history book that simply defies logic.  Sometimes the events do indeed defy logic.

For example, on the first day of the Battle, while forming his brigade at the Forney Farm, how did Alfred Iverson fail to see the repulse of O’Neil’s Brigade by Baxter’s men on the edge of Oak Ridge…especially given the fact that one of O’Neil’s Alabama regiments wandered too far to the right and wound up joining Iverson’s North Carolina men.  Among his sins that day, Iverson apparently also ignored the presence of Baxter and ordered his brigade to march on an angle that would put the left of his brigade marching in front of Baxter’s Brigade by less than 200 yards and the resulting losses were horrendous.  How could he ignore the presence of Baxter?   That defies logic.

So it is with the recounting of the advancing assault on Little Round Top.  Here is what Colonel Oates, writing a bare month after the Battle, says happened:

“My regiment occupied the center of the brigade when the line of battle was formed.  During the advance, the two regiments on my right were moved by the left flank across my rear, which threw me on the extreme right of the whole line.  I encountered the enemy’s sharpshooters posted behind a stone fence, and sustained some loss thereby.  It was here that Lieut.  Col. Isaac B. Feagin, a most excellent and gallant officer, received a severe wound in the right knee, which caused him to lose his leg.  Privates [A.] Kennedy, of Company B, and [William] Trimner, of Company G, were killed at this point, and Private [G. E.] Spencer, Company D, severely wounded.

“After crossing the fence, I received an order from Brigadier-General Law to left-wheel my regiment and move in the direction of the heights upon my left, which order I failed to obey, for the reason that when I received it I was rapidly advancing up the mountain, and in my front I discovered a heavy force of the enemy.  Besides this, there was great difficulty in accomplishing the maneuver at that moment, as the regiment on my left (Forty-seventh Alabama) was crowding me on the left, and running into my regiment, which had already created considerable confusion.  In the event that I had obeyed the order, I should have come in contact with the regiment on my left, and also have-exposed my right flank to an enfilading fire from the enemy.  I therefore continued to press forward, my right passing over the top of the mountain, on the right of the line.

“On reaching the foot of the mountain below, I found the enemy in heavy force, posted in rear of large rocks upon a slight elevation beyond a depression of some 300 yards in width between the base of the mountain and the open plain beyond.  I engaged them, my right meeting the left of their line exactly.  Here I lost several gallant officers and men.”

Let’s take these one at a time:

“I encountered the enemy’s sharpshooters posted behind a stone fence, and sustained some loss thereby.”

From where the 15th Alabama stepped off on Warfield Ridge, their course would have been generally northward.  Their plan was to advance up along Plum Run.  From the start, things got confused.  The two regiments on his right were moved to his left [insert logic here: if you move two regiments from the right and insert them on the left then the regiments to the right of where you insert will have to move the equivalent distance of two regiments to their right – or thereabouts given the Confederate penchent for attacking en echelon].

Since that put Oates and his 15th Alabama on the extreme right of the Confederate assault, he would have slid the right of his line into the trees and across Plum Run somewhere Just below the Slyder Farm.  But he is still maintaining his orders to advance up Plum Run.  At the time the only stone fence in that area, or for that matter anywhere on Big Round Top, was the one that borders the field above the Slyder Farm on the ‘Hump’  of Big Round Top, what we will hereafter call “Sharpshooter’s Ridge”– the field that contains the Vermont Cavalry Monument.  It has long stone walls on three sides.  [Note:  We think this field, which has largely been ignored by historians, has a significantly greater importance to the events of July 2nd than have heretofore been told.]

Taking losses on his right flank from the enemy fire that came from behind the stone fence, Oates is forced to move his regiment [and apparently the undersized 47th Alabama on his left] to the right to drive off the Sharpshooters.  A short engagement ensues.  The Sharpshooters withdraw, and Oates gives his men a rest.  Suddenly, “After crossing the fence, I received an order from Brigadier-General Law.

Law’s messenger is Lt. Col. Terrell.  He informs Oates that Hood has been seriously wounded and Law has taken command of the Division.  He also tells Oates that Law wants him to take field command of the 47th on his left in addition to the 15th, keep moving, and turn to the left.   Later accounts by Oates after more than a few reunions: Oates adds that he had a discussion with Terrell and informs him that there is an artillery park along the Taneytown Road,  and later, in the History of the 15th Alabama written near the end of his life: Terrell rode his horse to the top of Big Round Top where Oates and his troops were occupying a clearing on the summit.  Both of these recountings fail the logic test.

First, in the heat of early July, full foliage is now out.  From where Oates is located in the field, he cannot discern where the actual top of Big Round Top is located.  As far as Oates can tell the top of Round Top that he and the 15th and the 47th Alabama went over was the high ground directly north of the walled field in which he encountered the Sharpshooters.  He complains in his report that his men had difficulty navigating the enormous boulders before hitting the down-slope of Sharpshooters’ Ridge.  The boulders on the up slope from the open walled field — on the left as you take the park road toward Little Round Top — are huge, with some the size of a small house.  That is all in line with his after action report.

The other recountings, in his letter about a decade and a half after the battle, and in his end of life History of the 15th Alabama, are rife with the many reunions, and memories of other veterans from his regiment.

W.G. Davis

Posted in Battle Decisions, Battle Segments, Big Round Top, Description, Little Round Top, Tactics, Terrain | Leave a comment

Preparing for Memorial Day

Several Hundred Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, troop leaders, and members of their families descended on Gettysburg National Cemetery early this morning to place flags at every headstone and grave marker.  It was a job well done.

Here are some at work.  Click on photo to enlarge it:

Gettysburg Area Scouts place flags at the headstones and grave markers in Gettysburg National Cemetery, Saturday, May 27, 2017.

It was a heartwarming display.

Remember to lower your flag to half-staff on Monday!


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The Devil’s Den Duck!?!?!?

Everyone has seen the Elephant just below the Devil’s Den area:

But who has failed to recognize this:

The Duck of Devils Den

W. G. Davis

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Back to the 83rd PA at LRT

After Monday’s burn the vegetation is not just reduced, it is almost completely gone…at least for the next few days.

Below is a photo taken today at Little Round Top from Sykes Avenue, looking generally west, with my back to Vincent’s Knoll.   I have marked the directions where the roads are, where the 44th New York was located, and where the left and right flank markers of the 83rd Pennsylvania was fighting.

Position of the 83rd PA Infantry on July 2, 1863 at Little Round Top.

For a better look, we have zoomed in to this image to focus on the flank markers:

The flank markers show the regiment in front of, and well below the 44th NY.

First, looking at the upper image, please note the 83rd was fighting from behind a line of boulders that ran from the left flank to the right.

Second, the next time you are at Little Round top, remember these images.  Then look at the relative positions of the 44th NY and the 83rd PA as they relate to each other.  The 44th NY is in a position elevated about 20-25 feet above, and about 30 yards behind the 83rd PA.

The 44th New York is NOT in reserve.  This is a defense in depth.  While the 83rd PA was driving off the front ranks of the Alabama Regiments, the 44th NY was firing over the heads of the 83rd PA into the second rank of Alabamians.

This is part of the genius of Colonel Strong Vincent.

W. G. Davis

Posted in Battle Decisions, Battle Geometry, Battle Segments, Little Round Top, Tactics, Terrain, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Today’s Burn at LRT

Below is a photo taken after the burn event today on the west side of Little Round Top.

The burn, designed to curb vegetation on the western slope, was bounded by four GNMP Roads: Crawford on the west, Warren on the south, Sykes [with the parking area on the crest] on the east, and Wheatfield on the north side.

The burn went within a few yards [sometimes closer] of those roads.  Plum Run was spared, leaving the vegetation along the banks in place.  When this image was taken from the US Brigade area on Houck’s Ridge about 5:45 pm, there were still a few areas producing smoke.  The site will be watched by fire personnel, along with staff from the Park.

Visitors will NOT be allowed onto the crest of Little Round Top tomorrow, but all roads will be open.  Fire personnel will remain in the area until the fire is officially “out.”


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Remembrance Day Photos, Part 2

Here is the “Lee’s Headquarters” that wasn’t:


The Rose Farm in the dawn sun:


The 83rd Pennsylvania Flank Markers – top RFM, bottom LFM:


The View of Col. William Oates, Commanding 15th Alabama as he exited the tree line and saw 20th Maine [Chamberlain] lined up “flank to flank” according to his after action report.  See note below for what else this image tells us:


Note: Chamberlain’s men are arrayed on Vincent’s Spur [straight ahead at top of image] facing Oates’ 15th Alabama.  Later in the action, Chamberlain refuses his line creating a very tight “V”, the bottom of which is at the right of the Spur as seen here.  When Chamberlain orders the bayonet charge,  the far side of the “V” swings to the right to form a straight line with the left side of the “V” which has not yet moved.  When the Regiment is in a straight [reasonably] line, they push off the Spur and advance on the position where this camera was located.  Thus we have additional proof of where Oates Regiment [15th Alabama] advanced to this fight: over the ridge on the west side of Big Round Top, not over the peak of Big Round Top.

W. G. Davis

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Remembrance Day Photos, Part 1

Had an early start on Remembrance day and started taking photos before dawn.

Here is the Union Center [Cemetery Ridge] in the distance, from West Confederate Avenue:


Here are the Round tops, from West Confederate Avenue:


The Sun rising from behind Big Round Top, from South Confederate Avenue:


Plum Run Valley from South Confederate Avenue.  Bushman Farm is on the left.


Finally, Elephant Rock and the Slyder Farm behind it.


W. G. Davis

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Stop NPS from Major Mistake

“…because of chronic neglect and underfunding from Congress, the National Park Service (NPS) is set to adopt a very bad idea for our national parks: Corporate sponsorships that run the risk of plastering our most treasured sites of America’s natural heritage with corporate branding and logos.

“The new rules, inserted into an order by NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis that will take effect by the end of the year, would “swing open the gates of the 411 national parks, monuments and conservation areas to an unprecedented level of corporate donations.” We need to flood Jarvis’s office with opposition to this idea and let him know that this is the wrong way to address Congress’ abysmal neglect of our parks.

“Tell the National Park Service: No corporate sponsorships in our national parks.”

I just signed a petition calling on the National Park Service to scrap its plan to start allowing corporations to put their logos and brands on parts of our national parks. Congress needs to give our parks the funding they need, not force them to commercialize our precious public lands.

Join me and sign this petition:


Frankly, the very thought of this is reprehensible.  Obviously the White House and the Congress have abrogated their responsibilities to the Nation, the people and the land [imagine that!].   Help stop this national disgrace.  Teddy Roosevelt is spinning in his grave!

W. G. Davis

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LRT: Defense in Depth

All the maps, and all the narratives have a single line of defense on Little Round Top on July 2nd.  As it turns out, Colonel J. L. Chamberlain’s report, written just four days after the fight on Little Round Top, says otherwise.  Here is what we have knit together.

Chamberlain writes:

“…In order to commence by making my right firm, I formed my regiment on the right into line, giving such direction to the line as should best secure the advantage of the rough, rocky, and stragglingly wooded ground.
“The line faced generally toward a more conspicuous eminence southwest of ours, which is known as Sugar Loaf, or Round Top. Between this and my position intervened a smooth and thinly wooded hollow. My line formed, I immediately detached Company B, Captain Morrill commanding, to extend from my left flank across this hollow as a line of skirmishers, with directions to act as occasion might dictate, to prevent a surprise on my exposed flank and rear.
“The artillery fire on our position had meanwhile been constant and heavy, but my formation was scarcely complete when the artillery was replaced by a vigorous infantry assault upon the center of our brigade to my right, but it very soon involved the right of my regiment and gradually extended along my entire front. The action was quite sharp and at close quarters.
“In the midst of this, an officer from my center informed me that some important movement of the enemy was going on in his front, beyond that of the line with which we were engaged. Mounting a large rock, I was able to see a considerable body of the enemy moving by the flank in rear of their line engaged, and passing from the direction of the foot of Great Round Top through the valley toward the front of my left. The close engagement not allowing any change of front, I immediately stretched my regiment to the left, by taking intervals by the left flank, and at the same time “refusing” my left wing, so that it was nearly at right angles with my right, thus occupying about twice the extent of our ordinary front, some of the companies being brought into single rank when the nature of the ground gave sufficient strength or shelter. My officers and men understood wishes so well that this movement was executed under fire, the right wing keeping up fire, without giving the enemy any occasion to seize or even to suspect their advantage. But we were not a moment too soon; the enemy’s flanking column having gained their desired direction, burst upon my left, where they evidently had expected an unguarded flank, with great demonstration.
“We opened a brisk fire at close range, which was so sudden and effective that they soon fell back among the rocks and low trees in the valley, only to burst forth again with a shout, and rapidly advanced, firing as they came. They pushed up to within a dozen yards of us before the terrible effectiveness of our fire compelled them to break and take shelter.
“They renewed the assault on our whole front, and for an hour the fighting was severe. Squads of the enemy broke through our line in several places, and the fight was literally hand to hand. The edge of the fight rolled backward and forward like a wave. The dead and wounded were now in our front and then in our rear. Forced from our position, we desperately recovered it, and pushed the enemy down to the foot of the slope. The intervals of the struggle were seized to remove our wounded (and those of the enemy also), to gather ammunition from the cartridge-boxes of disabled friend or foe on the field, and even to secure better muskets than the Enfields, which we found did not stand service well. Rude shelters were thrown up of the loose rocks that covered the ground.
“Captain Woodward, commanding the Eighty-third Pennsylvania Volunteers, on my right, gallantly maintaining his fight, judiciously and with hearty co-operation made his movements conform to my necessities, so that my right was at no time exposed to a flank attack…
“…One-half of my left wing had fallen, and a third of my regiment lay just behind us, dead or badly wounded. At this moment my anxiety was increased by a great roar of musketry in my rear, on the farther or northerly slope of Little Round Top, apparently on the flank of the regular brigade, which was in support of Hazlett’s battery on the crest behind us. The bullets from this attack struck into my left rear, and I feared that the enemy might have nearly surrounded the Little Round Top, and only a desperate chance was left for us. My ammunition was soon exhausted. My men were firing their last shot and getting ready to “club” their muskets…”

There are some keys here. “…The line faced generally toward a more conspicuous eminence southwest of ours…” indicating that he was indeed on an angle facing the place where Oates says he came out of the woods lined up flank for flank, which is across the intersection and on the west side of south Confederate and south of Warren Avenue.

Then he says, “…but my formation was scarcely complete when the artillery was replaced by a vigorous infantry assault upon the center of our brigade to my right, but it very soon involved the right of my regiment and gradually extended along my entire front. The action was quite sharp and at close quarters…” So things happened with lightning speed, and the center of the Brigade was immediately to his right [83rd PA] receiving assaults from the 4th and 47th Alabama and eventually the left of the 15th Alabama, which spread immediately across the front of Vincent’s line.

This confirms the defense in depth. The 83rd was the center of the Brigade front. Not the 44th NY and the 83rd, not the 83rd and the 16th MI, just the 83rd.

He goes on, “…One-half of my left wing had fallen, and a third of my regiment lay just behind us, dead or badly wounded. At this moment my anxiety was increased by a great roar of musketry in my rear, on the farther or northerly slope of Little Round Top, apparently on the flank of the regular brigade, which was in support of Hazlett’s battery on the crest behind us. The bullets from this attack struck into my left rear, and I feared that the enemy might have nearly surrounded the Little Round Top, and only a desperate chance was left for us. My ammunition was soon exhausted. My men were firing their last shot and getting ready to “club” their muskets.”

When he describes “…The bullets from this attack struck into my left rear, and I feared that the enemy might have nearly surrounded the Little Round Top,” he was referring to the 4th and 5th Texas having made their way up into the position of the 16th Michigan. They were firing at the 44th NY which had refused its line on its right when the 16th abandoned its position. That explains the firing that was sending bullets toward Chamberlain who was now in the V configuration, and it was the left of this line that was getting fire from the attack on the 44th NY. I would also think that some of the men on the right of the Texans were pouring fire down on the right of the 83rd PA.

Also, when Chamberlain refused his line into the tight V, he requested the 83rd to extend to the left to cover the area on the right of the 20th ME, now moved to their left, creating a sizeable gap in between the regiments, that was previously covered by 20th ME.

Therefore…if they were in a single line of battle, would not Chamberlain have requested a connection on his right from the 44th NY as is shown on all those maps? Hence, further proof that it was indeed a defense in depth.


  1.  There simply was not enough room for a single line of defense.
  2. The flank markers of the 20th Maine, 16th Michigan and 83rd Pennsylvania do not support a single line of defense.
  3. Strong Vincent was too good of an officer to have strung his men out in such a short line.  With his defense in depth, he made the center the strongest, with the 44th New York set in position that should Chamberlain falter on the left, the New Yorkers could easily move to their left to reinforce the 20th Maine.  As it turned out, that wasn’t as necessary as the New York men turning to their right after the 16th Michigan uncovered the right of the Brigade by their withdrawal.
  4. The 44th New York was NOT used in reserve.  If one stands in their position behind and ABOVE the 83rd Pennsylvania, one can easily see they were posted there to provide another regimental line of fire against the enemy by firing over the heads of the 83rd Pennsylvania.

Two confusing points:

  1. “…At this moment my anxiety was increased by a great roar of musketry in my rear, on the farther or northerly slope of Little Round Top, apparently on the flank of the regular brigade, which was in support of Hazlett’s battery on the crest behind us…” Regular brigade? I can only believe he is talking about the arrival of Weed’s Brigade, which is not a regular brigade but volunteer…unless some of Hannibal Day’s [or Burbank’s] men had crossed the valley from Houck’s Ridge, which I doubt.
  2. How far to the rear did the 16th Michigan go?   Why would they not have reformed and retaken their position, or, perhaps, gone to the aid of the 20th Maine?

What do you think?  I know of one non-believer, but this should win even him over to the Defense in Depth.

W. G. Davis

Posted in Battle Geometry, Little Round Top, Tactics, Terrain | 3 Comments

Book Review: Custer’s Trials, by T.J. Stiles

T.J. Stiles [author of Pulitzer Prize winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War] gives us a deep understanding of George Armstrong Custer in his new book Custer’s Trials [Alfred Knopf, in stores October 27, advanced ordering at Amazon].

In “Rise”, the first part of Custer’s Trials, Stiles takes us on a well-crafted journey through Custer’s youth, and through the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled at few things military or academic, and including his court-martial while a graduate awaiting orders. It then chronicles the career of the “boy-General” throughout his meteoric rise in rank and legend during the Civil War. At the same time Stiles, relates aspects of Custer’s personal life and his romances, culminating in his marriage to Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon.

He persevered at West Point, and though he was last in his class academically and first in demerits, he succeeded in passing his exams, thus becoming eligible for graduation. In spite of all of the negatives, Custer showed himself to possess many qualities the military desired in its officers: poise, creative thought, conventional and unconventional avenues to problem solving, the ability to get others motivated, and stature, into which he grew through his activities, mostly in the course of breaking rules…rules by which he abided just enough to get by. In short, Custer, with the assistance of West Point, taught himself leadership. It was not the leadership of someone who proclaims himself the leader, it is the one who leads from the front and succeeds because others willingly follow. And all the while building his repertoire of exploits, he began building friendships with his classmates, and with politicians in hopes of receiving assistance to further his career at his pace.

Stiles relates the details of his first trial: a court-martial before he could leave West Point after graduation. The court found him guilty and ordered no punishment except a reprimand in orders. And thus began the hard fighting and fast promotions of his successful and charmed Civil War career.

Custer’s Civil War experiences were as charmed and full of good fortune as were his West Point experiences. He grew to expect this of himself – indeed, he was fearless in battle, leading from the front of his unit, sword in hand, and not just as a symbol, but a weapon he used with devastating effect in every engagement.

But there was another Custer – a self-serving Custer, who cultivated friends, and curried favor with friendly higher-ups. This was the insecure Custer, as changeable as the times, yet as constant as the sunrise with his contradictions. In this manner Stiles presents Custer as a man who embraced the three main realms of his life – the private, public and professional realms, sometimes mixing them but only to his advantage. In each he was comfortable and moved about in them freely, enjoying the moments to their fullest, yet constantly laying and cultivating the groundwork for advancement in all three realms. Sometimes conniving, and never missing an opportunity to not only extol the virtues of his latest adventure, but enhance them as well.

Custer’s rise through the ranks to generalship is well known. But Stiles laces the telling with personal details often missed in many works of history involving Custer, and details the patronage afforded him by Generals McClellan, Pleasonton, and Sheridan.

Custer & Pleasonton

One measure of Custer’s leadership and how it affected his men in the Michigan Brigade was when they began to copy his affectation of the famous red necktie he wore with his gaudy uniform. But the men both loved and respected him for his personal courage and his innate ability to know the lay of the land on which they fought, and how he would invariably place them in the best position to succeed to victory. Time after time Custer won the hearts of the Union thanks to the newspaper coverage of the war [which he curried], and was a favorite subject of sketch artist Alfred Waud.

George and Libbie Custer - LOC - captionedCuster married Libbie on February 9th, 1864, and when campaigning began again in the spring, Custer took the field under Phil Sheridan, and Libbie moved back to a boarding house in Washington. There Libbie was able to have access to the influential politicians, and even to the President himself. She charmed them all and won favor for her Armstrong, as family called him.

His war culminated in the surrender at Appomattox.

No one amassed the legendary success amid the events of the US Civil War like Custer did.


In “Fall”, the second half of Stiles’ epic biography of Custer, Stiles chronicles the last decade and a half of George Armstrong Custer’s life. What many biographers gloss over or omit entirely is the path to Little Big Horn that Custer followed from the end of the war, but not Stiles.

First sent to Texas to restore law and order in a state devastated by the war, he took Libbie along. Life was different in the post-war US Army. There was no more war, and he was still commanding volunteers. Custer was forced to use a hard hand even at controlling his own troops, including head-shaving, whipping and executions. For a man who’s leadership was repeatedly proven in combat, the lack of it was proven in peace. It was a duty for which he was unsuited, and unable to adapt. Nor would his conservative Democrat views on race suffer the change that the war had wrought. And Libbie shared those feelings.

Yet Custer struggled to come to terms with the new reality of the Freedmen. He began to think about redefining himself. He did so in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Committee on Reconstruction, advocating black suffrage, and the continuation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Custer’s testimony was in line with that of other officers newly returned from the post war South. Collectively, they pointed to the regressive results of President Johnson’s policies. The ensuing Civil Rights bill was vetoed by Johnson, and in effect, was a declaration of war between the conservative President and the Radical Republicans in Congress. But Custer’s testimony belied his personal beliefs. Once again he was currying political favor from those who controlled Congress. Then he went on a political tour with President Johnson, evoking the wrath of Ulysses Grant. Grant ordered Custer to join the 7th US Cavalry at Fort Riley without delay. Custer soon realized how badly he had erred in publicly supporting Johnson.

A year later found Custer facing his second court-martial, this time for absenting himself from his command without the proper authority. He had left Fort Wallace, Kansas apparently to get to Libbie, and traveled 275 miles to Fort Harker when his command was about to launch a campaign against the Indians. Even worse, he had ordered a detachment of 75 men and three officers to escort the ambulance in which he rode. And it continued to get even worse. Custer ignored an attack on some of his men by Indians, sent a detachment out after deserters with orders to bring none back alive, and eventually had three deserters shot, but not killed, and did not allow them to be treated for their wounds – all without a trial. In a rather long proceeding, Custer was found guilty across the board and sentenced to one year’s suspension and forfeiture of his pay. Ultimately the Indians intervened and Sherman and Sheridan petitioned Grant to restore Custer to the 7th US Cavalry. Grant complied, if only to keep Custer in the field and out of politics and out of trouble.

Thus Custer began the phase of his career that would mark him as “Indian Killer.” He operated in Kansas and Oklahoma, destroying Indian villages, and chasing after famous Indian leaders such as Black Kettle.

Unable to rise in rank, Custer attempted to end his Army career and support himself and Libbie in a style more grand than Army pay could provide. Custer took an extended leave, and made a disastrous foray into the world of Wall Street. He sought funds to support a silver mine in Colorado. It failed when the mine failed.

In 1871, Custer returned to the Army, stationed in Kentucky to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and the illegal manufacture of moonshine alcohol. It was boring duty. Custer yearned for the openness of the Great Plains. He turned to writing there, and while he had a market for his work, it was too small to allow him to leave the Army.

In the Spring of 1873, Custer received word that the 7th Cavalry was being reassigned north to the Dakota Territory. He and Libby began packing. Over the next three years, he mounted three great expeditions: along the Yellowstone River in 1873 – fighting battles on August 4th and August 11th; the Black Hills Expedition in 1874; and finally, the Little Big Horn Expedition in 1876.

The noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner who wrote at the end of the 19th century and for 3 decades into the 20th, formulated the Frontier Thesis, which was presented as a paper to the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 12, 1893, titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” It first appeared in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893. He cites the 1890 census report’s proclamation that, “…‘Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.’ This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”

In his paper, Turner presents the role of the frontier as the developer of Americanism, that the farther from the Atlantic Coast one got on the way west, the farther they got from the influence of their European roots. The Frontier was the blacksmith’s hammer, forge and tempering bucket that produced American Exceptionalism and American Identity.

In the fifteen years from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Frontier, as the Census report put it, there was perhaps no other person whose day-to-day life on that Frontier had more influence in the final forging of the American Identity and Exceptionalism than George Armstrong Custer.

Stiles’ book, 472 pages not including acknowledgements, is a most thorough, detailed, and well-supported biography. The cast of characters is rich, and most are well known, but even the lesser known help to paint the portrait, often filling in gaps. The principals are fascinating, and brought down from their legendary status by relating their intimate interactions and thoughts. George Armstrong Custer was a truly great soldier during the Civil War. The absence of war was a large part of his undoing, for it forced him into realms he had not entered before, that he was unable to manipulate to his advantage, and for which he was wholly unprepared.

Custer’s Trials is the consummate biography of George Armstrong Custer.


Stiles, T.J., Custer’s Trials, Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi, New York City, 2015. ISBN 978-0-307-59264.

Available in stores October 27th, 2015. Also available to pre-order at Amazon here.


W.G. Davis

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