Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer, by Jeffry D. Wert, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, $27.50 hardback.
Will the real George Armstrong Custer please stand up? The man who died in a “Last Stand” at the Little Bighorn on June 25,1876, has had his performance that day examined, interpreted and judged in countless publications (see the June 1996 WildWest, which focuses on that battle of 120 years ago). His death may have overshadowed his life, but there certainly has beenplenty written about his life, particularly his Civil War cavalry engagements and his 10 years on the Great Plains before the finalfiasco. But it has been three decades since anyone has tried to cover Custer’s whole life, which makes Wert’s highly readable464-page biography most welcome. (Also out this year is the 554-page The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of GeorgeArmstrong Custer–by Louis Barnett, Henry Holt & Company, $30–which focuses on George’s life on the frontier with hiswife, Libbie, and devotes much space to what happened after the death of Custer.) When it comes to his activities out West,Custer is usually portrayed as either a hero or a villain, but Wert provides some much-needed balance, presenting George’sstrengths and weaknesses as a man and a soldier. His last chapter, “Montana Hill,” begins, “To the Lakota, it was another dayin the Moon of the Ripe Juneberries….” It’s a short but good account of controversial George’s last day, a day in which heachieved immortality.