Book Review: Custer: From the Civil War’s Boy General to the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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by Ted Behncke and Gary L. Bloomfield

Philadelphia & Oxford: Casemate, 2020. Pp. xvi, 250. Illus., biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1612008895

A Life of George Armstrong Custer

The object of Custer is to analyze the ideas and judgements that helped shape the man’s military decisions, his behavior in battle and in life, and the failure that caused him to be court martialed in Kansas and arguably killed at the Little Big Horn. It is a study of five decades in the life of this very interesting and heroic American soldier, probing his character development, including lesser-known influences of his life. Behncke and Bloomfield reveal deep emotional and physical scars that Custer carried away from the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Their meticulous research and engrossing writing bring Custer to vivid life, particularly in his relationship with his wife Libby.

Behncke, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with 30 years in varied leadership positions throughout the world has been interested in George Custer since he was seven years old. His co-author Bloomfield is a former Army “Reporter of the Year” and managing editor of VFW magazine.

The authors devote four chapters that cover Custer’s life from boyhood to West Point, his Civil War rise to “Boy General”, his experiences in the Indian Wars, and, an excellent look at the events that unfolded at the Little Big Horn, ending with conclusion. We get to see Custer in numerous battles, from First Bull Run through Appomattox in the Civil War, and the Washita to the Little Big Horn in the Indian Wars. They explain how Custer deliberately sought assistance and mentorship from many generals, including Winfield Scott, George McClellan, Alfred Pleasanton, and Phil Sheridan, as he sought promotion and influence during his military career, though they could have thrown more light on why he failed to gain acceptance from William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, even making an enemy of the 18th U.S. President.

Behncke and Bloomfield note that initial impression Custer had on many fellow soldiers, because of his longish curly hair and uniquely designed uniforms was not always favorable, but that his style of fighting and the results won him acceptance by many, but not all generals, fellow officers, and common soldiers.

They offer a very effectively look at Custer’s relationship with his wife, Libby, to the point where early in their marriage his devotion to her led him to make some critical errors, leading to a court martial.

As they tell the story of Custer’s life and death, Behncke and Bloomfield examine his personal views. While he felt strongly about his southern friends, he fought ferociously to help end slavery, yet did not completely understand the people whom he had he helped free from slavery. Similarly, although he admired Native Americans in many ways, he fought them, often brutally, to crush their resistance, in accordance with his orders.

In preparing this volume, the authors perused, letters between Custer and his Libby, official correspondence between numerous military officers, and many other sources, making for a full bibliography, but the book lacks footnotes, and there are some errors that better editing might have caught.

While very devoted students of Custer will not find a great deal of new information, for those less familiar with the subject, Custer will prove a useful, even challenging read.

 

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Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, An Environmental History of the Civil War, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, Arguing until Doomsday, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign, Defending the Arteries of Rebellion, A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated, Meade at Gettysburg, A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, Grant's Left Hook, The Winter that Won the War: The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778, Gettysburg Rebels, The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, From Arlington to Appomattox: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, Day by Day, 1861-1865, Unsung Hero of Gettysburg: The Story of Union General David McMurtrie Gregg, and The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis

 

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Note: Custer is also available in several e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

www.nymas.org

https://www.nymas2.org/

Reviewer: David Marshall   


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