Book Review: The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, from the Gettysburg Retreat through the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864


by Adolfo Ovies

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. xxx, 375. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1611216176

Custer and Merritt, Battling from Gettysburg to the Shenandoah

This is the second of Ovies’s three volume study of the lives and careers of George Custer and Wesley Merritt, two young cavalrymen, “who were both promoted to brigadier general on the eve of Gettysburg,” and proved themselves in the field. The two men had different philosophies as to the role of the mounted arm, and both played a part in shaping the U.S. Cavalry during the Civil War and for many years afterwards.

While readers will find the book full of stirring actions by the mounted troops, and also get looks at many other leaders of the Union cavalry, Ovies’s main idea is to explore the dysfunctional relationship between Custer and Merritt, a thread running through all of his three volumes. This is the human story of two individuals who came to detest each other. Where volume one covered their early careers, promotion to brigadier, and roles at Gettysburg, this volume opens with their roles in the pursuit of Lee's beaten army, then follows them through the Overland campaign, the Battle of Trevilian Station, and the opening of the Shenandoah Valley campaign.

As he recounts the tale of the rivalry between the two officers, Ovies looks at how each man handled his press relations, which was a factor in the enmity between the two, because they had different views on maintaining relations with reporters and sketch artists attached to the cavalry.

Ovies throws some interesting light on why the brigades of the two were not able to race down the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1863 to prevent General Lee’s wounded army from reaching Culpeper, and makes an important point about the Union decision to attempt to cut through the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Valley by way of the northernmost gaps. Although these were easily defended by the Confederates, Ovies argues that both officers provided great leadership for their troopers.

Ovies offers a look at how Custer successfully defied Judson Kilpatrick's orders to keep advancing at Buckland Mills, saving the Michigan Brigade to fight another day, and how Custer helped save his men during the Bristoe Station and the Mine Run Campaigns

The author attributes the breakdown of the initially cordial relationship between the two officers, which grew into a fierce rivalry and eventually bitter enmity, to personality. Custer’s resourcefulness, flamboyance, and thirst for publicity, meshed badly with Merritt’s reserved, “hard-nosed disciplinarian” with little interest in “glory”. Ovies also argues that Philip H. Sheridan’s combustible personality intensified the animosity between Custer and Merritt, perhaps most notably when he promoted Merritt over Custer, who believed himself to be the superior soldier yet was subordinated to his rival throughout Sheridan's tenure in command.

This reviewer highly recommends this work to anyone interested in cavalry and Union leadership during the Civil War.


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 A House Built by Slaves, They Came Only To Die, General Grant and the Verdict of History, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 2, Man of Fire, To the Last Extremity, Hood's Defeat Near Fox's Gap, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", Vol. 2, Outwitting Forrest, All That Can Be Expected, Force of a Cyclone, Lincoln and Native Americans, Detour to Disaster, Lincoln in Lists, A Wilderness of Destruction, Twelve Days, The Civil War Memoirs of Captain William J. Seymour, Stay and Fight it Out, Calamity at Frederick, John T. Wilder, The Sergeant: The Incredible Life of Nicholas Said, Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, Brigades of Antietam, Lee Invades the North, From Antietam to Appomattox with Upton’s Regulars, Our Flag Was Still There, and Never Such a Campaign.



Note: The Boy Generals is also available in e-editions.


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

Reviewer: David Marshall   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close