Thursday, November 17, 2016

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles (2015)

A fabulous book.

Many of us think we know George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) because we know how he died: at the battle of Little Bighorn, he and his men slaughtered by Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors.  Most people see Custer’s end as a cautionary tale: one of hubris, or racism, or simple tragic miscalculation.  But Pulitzer Prize-winning author T.J. Stiles believes that this end-is-the-beginning approach is overly reductive.  In fact, the only way to make sense of Custer, he thinks, is to embrace the totality of his experience, and to understand how he was both a player and observer in a changing America.

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America argues that Americans saw their world radically remade during Custer’s lifetime.  Custer’s life is the story of the American Civil War, the Westward expansion, and the Indian Wars.  Through it all, Custer was a study in contradictions as he struggled to find foothold in an earth that was ever-changing beneath him.  He was a brave Union solider who sympathized with the South.  He freed countless slaves, but was openly hostile towards people of color.  He was a dutiful and obedient soldier, but he also suffered from a crippling vanity and need for acclaim.  He behaved with reckless abandon and considerable courage on the battlefield, but it is unlikely that he ever fully internalized war’s catastrophic human cost.

Because of these contradictions, historians (and armchair philosophers) have had their way with Custer for decades.  Stiles argues that Custer has been left to be misremembered by each succeeding generation.  Because he is so contradictory a figure, he very much symbolizes to people what they like or dislike about American history.  Is he a hero who died to spread Western civilization, or a murdering racist who targeted Native Americans?  Is he representative of the heroism and valor that is part of the American character, or is he a bully and braggart?

Stiles believes that asking these questions is a losing game:  Custer does not need to bear the full weight of American history, and that his life has significant meaning outside of the narratives told by defenders or debunkers. 

In reading this long and well-argued book, I’ve come away somewhat surprised by how much I liked Custer.   There were many, many things detestable about the man by 21st Century lights, but to condemn (or praise) figures of the past by the dictums of today is ridiculous.  Historical figures need to be seen in historical context, and to do otherwise would make as much sense as a Venusian judging a rural American through his interstellar worldview.  The differing points of reference are so vast as to render the exercise meaningless.

Custer was profoundly needy, troubled by self-doubt, and always hoping to improve himself.  Last in his class at West Point (a position routinely called ‘the goat’), Custer wanted to live up to his romantic ideals of military life.  His romantic ideals are not to be sneered at: they often translated into bravery in battle, magnanimity to captured enemies, and selfless protection of others.  One of the most telling stories in the book is Custer demanding a litter to take a wounded comrade away during a retreat – while his brother soldiers opted to leave the man behind.

Custer was not a bogeyman or devil nor an angel or a demigod; he was simply a man, with all of the qualities and flaws attendant to that designation.  And in reading this excellent book, Stiles allows us to know that man a little better.

Best of all, Stiles tells his tale with a novelist’s dash.  Here is a representative passage: She emerged into a clearing and encountered mayhem.  Custer’s brigade fought amid a sea of enemy soldiers – bullets cracking overhead, artillery shells exploding, mounted Confederates charging here and there with sabers swinging.  The wagon master approached Custer and asked if he could lead the wagon train to the rear.  Custer looked around and said, “Where in hell is the rear?”

This book is highly recommended to students of Custer, the Civil War, or simply American history.

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