Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - Review

I don’t know whether A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn, the Last Great Battle of the American West by James Donovan is the definitive account of the Battle of Little Bighorn, often called Custer’s Last Stand, but it certainly is a well-researched piece of scholarly work written in a style that’s accessible to the casual general reader as well as the Western enthusiast or specialist. The book is buttressed by 125 pages of notes, bibliography, and an extensive index. For those needing to study further and to check out the original sources themselves, there’s plenty to study here. For general readers who want a detailed account of the campaign leading to the massacre of Colonel George Armstrong Custer along with about 210 of his men above the Little Bighorn River by a mass of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians estimated to be as many as 3500 warriors, this book fills the bill.

The battle represented the high tide of Indian resistance to the efforts of the Grant administration to force them to assimilate, take up farming, and live on reservations. Although counted as a victory for the combined Indian forces under (if that’s the correct word) the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Custer massacre generated a huge push back that led two years later to the massacre at Wounded Knee and the end of organized Indian resistance.

George Armstrong Custer came to West Point from his home in Rumley, Ohio and graduated last in his class in an accelerated program because of the Civil War. The only thing he excelled in at the military academy was horsemanship. He served with distinction in a number of cavalry battles during the Civil War, generating much publicity for himself and garnering sufficient enemies then, and later, to assure lack of support in his final battle. Custer was an attractive, dashing young officer with golden blond hair who became a darling of the war press. He was eventually promoted to Brigadier General during the war, but lowered to the rank of Captain when the war ended and the U.S. army was greatly reduced in size. He was assigned to duty on the plains at Fort Riley, Kansas where the U.S. was busy trying to subdue the Indian tribes. Donovan paints Custer as a difficult and vain man who nevertheless shows tremendous courage and intuitive genius in horse warfare. Custer’s enemies were probably more to be found in his own army than among the Indians where there was at least a modicum of mutual respect.

Perhaps the most useful elements of this book, for me, were the portraits of Indians and the picture of the lives of plains Indians as they fought valiantly to maintain something of their accustomed life against the tide of white population and greed for resources. The dishonesty of the Indian agents on the reservations, the duplicity of the politicians, and the constant pressure for expansion all functioned to doom them. The pictures that emerge of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, the lesser known, but very important Inkpaduta, and other Indian leaders are fascinating, giving a sense of the humanity, courage, and fear of loss pervading their futile resistance.

Two of Custer’s subordinates, Colonel Benteen and Colonel Reno were probably as least as responsible for the death of Custer as were the Indians. By refusing to follow orders or through sheer cowardice, the two officers missed relieving Custer’s beleaguered column in its hours of greatest distress, leaving the entire column of Custer’s 7th Cavalry to its demise. Later military inquiries managed to whitewash both officers’ behavior in favor of protecting the army from loss of prestige and reductions in budget. Much of the military cover up served to show me how little has changed during the ensuing 130 odd years. Donovan, nevertheless, manages to dig deeply enough into the original sources to provide a detailed chronology of the battle as well as rich portraits of the participants.

A Terrible Glory is an intriguing read, enjoyable and fast-paced. Perhaps filled with too many names at first, they eventually resolve themselves into personalities. Published in 2008 by Little, Brown and Co., The paper bound version was released in May. The book is available on line, from your local chain or independent bookstore. This book is well worth the time and energy.