Custer's Trials by TJ Stiles, review by Carl Caton
Custer. The name alone evokes a mental image of a dashing but reckless cavalryman whose impetuousness led to his doom and the deaths of his troopers. One of our country’s most famous soldiers, George Armstrong Custer is both well-known and poorly understood by most of us. Custer is generally perceived as a brave leader but also as a poor soldier, known as much for his failures as for his successes. How, and why, Custer’s life played out as it did is the core of Pulitzer Prize winner T. J. Stiles’ new book Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. Stiles devotes only a few pages to the death of Custer and his cavalry at the Little Bighorn River in Montana in June 1876. The focus of his story is Custer himself, and the self-induced problems he faced from the beginning of his West Point career to the end of his life at age 36. Stiles makes the case that Custer was a romantic figure hopelessly out of time and place in an America that was rapidly changing and leaving him behind.
The title of Stiles’ narrative is significant. Custer’s career was marked by a series of challenges and struggles, interspersed with flashes of glory, all in the waning days of America’s agrarian past and the emergence of its industrial future. Custer’s military career was marked by a series of fortunate circumstances interspersed with episodes of self-destructive behavior. An unlikely candidate for acceptance at the military academy at West Point because of his family’s politics, Custer distinguished himself as a cadet by accumulating a record number of demerits and graduating, at the bottom of his class, only after failing the final exam twice and being court-martialed for failing to stop a fight between two other cadets. Allowed to remain at West Point for some unknown reason, his career was saved by the outbreak of the American Civil War, creating an immediate need for army officers. A serendipitous encounter in Washington, D.C. with Winfield Scott, General in Chief of the Army resulted in Custer’s assignment to the cavalry, despite his dismal performance at West Point.
During the war, Custer demonstrated both an uncommon personal bravery and a disregard for protocol and the chain of command. His battle performance gained him a spot on the staff of General George McClelland, who succeeded Scott as General in Chief. Custer became a devoted McClelland acolyte, siding with McClelland when President Lincoln became increasingly impatient with McClelland’s inaction against the enemy. Years later, when it served his purposes, Custer betrayed McClelland.
Following the Civil War, Custer tried several schemes for success in the civilian world, efforts marked by some success but mostly failure, in which he alienated friends and colleagues and displayed dizzying personal and professional contradictions. Rejoining the army during the Plains Indian wars, Custer continued his erratic behavior. Leading his cavalry on the Kansas plains, Custer left his command near Fort Harker in western Kansas and returned to Fort Riley, 275 miles east, to be with his wife. The result was another court martial and suspension from the army. Saved only be the intervention of a superior, Custer eventually returned to command, and later led his troops to their deaths at the Little Big Horn.
Within this broad summary the story of Custer’s skills, failures, successes, and egregious contradictions, Stiles makes a compelling case that Custer was a man acting at the transition between two times, and unable to find his place in the new world that was dawning. He was a romantic figure caught between the chivalric past and the emerging modern era. His characteristic personality and quest for personal glory ultimately proved too costly.