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.
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.
Custer 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.