To Hell With Honor: Custer and the Little Bighorn, by Larry Sklenar, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2000, $29.95.
Almost 125 years since George Armstrong Custer and members of his 7th Cavalry were hurtled intoeternity and mythology, the Battle of the Little Bighorn of July 25, 1876, remains one of the mostpopular subjects among Western historians, scholars, novelists, filmmakers, summer tourists andhistory buffs.
New books come out every year on the controversial “Boy General,” the Indian participants or someother aspect of the famous battle itself. So what can Larry Sklenar add to the tomes on Custerana thatcould fill libraries? Well, for starters, Sklenar writes that To Hell With Honor is not anotherbiography of Custer, not “a treatise on the injustices done the American Indians,” and not a close studyof their culture. “This is,” Sklenar continues, “the historiography of one relatively small battleinitiated by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry at the behest of the government it served, on behalf of aconfused policy driven by many special interests.” Sklenar uses previously published sources, most ofthem military, and then analyzes and interprets the facts to offer his view of the overmatchedcavalry’s fight against the Sioux and Cheyenne.
On the 7th Cavalry’s desertion rate, Sklenar says that the 7th had its share of desertions before andafter the Little Bighorn, but he adds: “Except for the period of Custer’s early frontier service, when asmany as forty men deserted at one time, the regiment’s record under [Custer] is probably no better orworse than that of other units of the same size.” Sklenar also appraises some of the important people inCuster’s life, such as Captain Frederick Benteen (“stubborn, independent, and cantankerous”), MajorMarcus Reno (“Even Benteen considered the heavy-drinking Reno stubborn and disagreeableand…rated him extremely low on the scale of cavalry officers”) and Custer’s widow, Libbie (“Spiteful,vindictive, and unrelentingly cold to enemies of the general, she was equally loyal and giving tofamily and close associates”). On whom to blame for the cavalry’s fiasco, the author writes: “A goodfield commander or not, Custer had died, in the end, through his own fault.”
Sources are abundant for Custer researchers, but Sklenar reminds us that many contemporaryaccounts by whites are conflicting and that Indian testimony was clouded by interpreters and the”inexactness of Indian allusions to time, army formations, and geographic locations.” Defenders anddetractors of George Custer will find plenty of fodder in To Hell With Honor, and whether or notthey agree with Sklenar’s analysis, interpretations and conclusions, they will want to make room forthis work on their Custer bookshelves.
Johnny D. Boggs