Wert on Custer: controversial, clear

June 09, 1996|By Mike Leary | Mike Leary,special to the sun

"Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer," by Jeffry D. Wert. Simon & Schuster.462 pages. $27.50. Surrounded, three horses shot from beneath him, shrugging off a ricocheting bullet and clutching his brigade's tattered banner, Gen. George Armstrong Custer was confronted by a subordinate about shifting some equipment to the rear. "Yes, by all means," Custer responded. "Where in hell is the rear?"

No, this scene, graphically depicted in Jeffrey D. Wert's "Custer," wasn't the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876 that proved Custer TC mortal and made him immortal, as much symbol as man, the subjects of books, studies and films probably as numerous as the 2,000 or so Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne ranged against him on a sere Montana slope.

No, this was an 1862 Civil War battle at Trevilian Station, Va., in which Custer fought his way free, earning praise for conspicuous gallantry and burnishing his reputation as one of the country's great Civil War generals. Yes, great. Before Custer became the man the Crow Indians called "the Son of the Morning Star," he earned a star as the Civil War's youngest general, the author of audacious, but well-conceived cavalry actions that, had he fallen in battle then, would have earned him comparison to the Confederacy's sainted Jeb Stuart.

It is worth recalling that the oval-shaped pine table upon which U.S. Grant dictated the terms of Southern surrender was presented as a gift to Custer's wife by Gen. Phil Sheridan, who wrote, "There is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband." Sheridan, still Custer's commander at the time of Little Bighorn, sought to distance himself from the Montana debacle, ungallantly speaking of Custer's "imprudence." Grant, by then the Republican president (and a bitter political foe of Democrat Custer) spoke of a "massacre of troops" that was "wholly unnecessary."

"To the country in the midst a centennial celebration ... the deaths of Custer and over 200 officers and men was staggering," Wert concludes.

One hundred and twenty years after Custer fell, Wert, a Civil War historian of considerable note (author of previous biographies of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet and cavalry raider and sometime Custer foe John Mosby) clearly feels an obligation to give Custer his due: "He has become the singular symbol of the nation's guilt over its sad history of continental conquest. The loser at the Little Bighorn has overshadowed the excellent Civil War general."

This is a workmanlike history, carefully documented in serviceable if not elegant prose, that covers Custer's full life, in contrast to many accounts that focus on the Civil War warrior or his days as the buckskin-clad paladin of the Plains or "the Last Stand" itself.

Wert does not stint on reporting Custer's vanity in dress, his glory seeking, his financial speculation, even his sex life, though all foibles are explained in the context of the times, rather than bent through a modern prism. Accounts of his dalliances with various women are scrutinized, but Wert convincingly documents Custer's loving relationship with his wife, Libbie, captured in many letters, some quite frank. "One of the era's great romances," Wert calls it. Indeed, it could border on obsessive. In 1867, Custer was convicted at court-martial and suspended from command of Western troops for leaving his post to rendezvous with her. Libbie Custer, in turn, did much to promote Custer's image as a dashing and courageous warrior in the face of criticism that he was a vainglorious fool.

These depictions were different sides of the same coin. Custer, Wert emphasizes, was consistent in battle - his forte was the daring attack and counterattack, his success typically hinging on the element of surprise. His combat behavior at Little Bighorn was not significantly different from that at Trevilian Station. The difference was that the West was vast and remote, relief was too far away, and a surprise attack failed against the largest Native American fighting force ever assembled on the Montana plains. Custer was a gambler, and finally he lost.

Mike Leary, associate editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote about a 1984 archaeological excavation of the Little Bighorn battlefield when he was the paper's Southwest and Rocky Mountain correspondent.

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