Interview with George Custer Expert James Donovan | HistoryNet MENU

Interview with George Custer Expert James Donovan

By Johnny D. Boggs
4/2/2009 • Interviews, Wild West

James Donovan at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (courtesy Carolyn Bennett)
James Donovan at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (courtesy Carolyn Bennett)
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could produce a book about George Armstrong Custer and the June 25–26, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn and make it seem fresh and vibrant. Yet most critics (and quite a few historians) agree that James Donovan has done just that with A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West (2008, Little, Brown and Company, New York, $26.99).

Combining a natural storytelling ability, recent archaeological and forensic data and mostly primary sources—including several obscure and unpublished accounts—Donovan has created a 544-page book that is being heralded as “exemplary,” “the new benchmark,” “gripping” and “the most memorable, readable, maybe best, book on [the battle] to date.”

Donovan, who also works as a literary agent in Dallas, spoke to Wild West about George Custer, the Little Bighorn, history and his book.

‘I didn’t grow up with Custer’s infallible beau sabreur fixed in my head, so I wasn’t seeking to defend him as I wrote this’

What drew you to Custer and the Little Bighorn?
Unlike many writers on the subject I’ve met, I didn’t see They Died With Their Boots On when I was a kid and fall in love with Errol Flynn as Custer. About a decade ago, I had written a few small-scale, non-history books, and I wanted to tackle something bigger. A writer I know who had authored several history books suggested we collaborate on a coffee-table book on Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He was busy at the time, so he suggested I write the first half, and he’d handle the second half. I began reading and fell in love with the subject—I couldn’t get enough of it. When I finished the first half, my co-author begged off and encouraged me to finish it. I did, happily, and the book was published in 2001—Custer and the Little Bighorn: The Man, the Mystery, the Myth.

What made you want to delve further into the story?
A coffee-table book by nature isn’t an in-depth examination of a subject. But the more I read, the more I realized that in the past quarter century there has been a great amount of new research, findings and analysis—archaeological findings that have been forensically analyzed to reveal significant information about the battle that we didn’t know before, and enlightening re-evaluation of the many Indian accounts, which had never been taken very seriously for a variety of reasons. The books that used this significant information were either too small in focus or, ironically, too large—David Evans’ admirable Custer’s Last Fight comes to mind. And few of them placed the battle in the context of the times, and no one told the full story of the aftermath, including the fascinating Reno Court of Inquiry two and a half years later. I didn’t see anything out there that achieved what I thought the subject deserved—a synthesis of all those findings with every primary account of the battle to produce a dramatic, accessible narrative of one of American history’s greatest sagas; and a likely and realistic explanation of what really happened to Custer and his five companies.

On what did you rely for source material?
I wanted to look at every primary account of the battle ever recorded, because that’s the only way to do it right. I knew there would be a lot of material, but I wasn’t prepared for how much there was. This is the most written-about battle in our history, after all—more than Gettysburg, which was far more important in the grand scheme of things. And we forget that thousands of Indians witnessed and/or participated in Custer’s destruction, and about 350 troopers who were besieged four miles away also survived; quite a few of them gave accounts. There might be as many as 200 Indian accounts, or even more, produced over the next 75 years—some of the Sioux and Cheyenne lived to ripe old ages. The last known battle participant, Dewey Beard, died in 1955, if you can believe that. But for a century those accounts weren’t given much respect, for several reasons. Many were contradictory, or appeared so, and some of the early ones had been embroidered or altered by reporters who wanted to spice a story up, faulty interpreters or the subjects themselves, some of whom were wary of retribution for their actions. And, of course, it’s a well-known historiographical phenomenon that witnesses to any single event will see and report it in different ways. So most researchers just threw up their hands and used little or none of the Indian testimony.

Many of the Indian accounts are short and not very helpful—lots of variations on, “I was sleeping in my lodge when I heard gunfire, ran out of my tent and jumped on my horse.” But several men in the early decades of the 20th century—primarily Walter Mason Camp, George Grinnell, Thomas Marquis, Stanley Vestal and Eli Ricker—conducted in-depth, intelligent interviews with Indian survivors of the battle. A couple of decades ago a few researchers began examining and interpreting them in greater detail—Greg Michno’s Lakota Noon and Richard Hardorff’s several annotated collections of Indian accounts come to mind. Without their work, I couldn’t have accomplished what I did. The same goes for Richard Fox’s monumental Archaeology, History and Custer’s Last Battle, which analyzes and synthesizes both the archaeological findings and the Indian accounts.

Most of the Indian accounts have been collected in available books, but some haven’t, so I did quite a bit of research going through collections and archives at institutions all over the country, in person, online and over the phone. I even employed a local researcher here and there, but there’s no substitute for looking through archives on your own. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.…I also trolled through seemingly endless pages of old newspapers and magazines. Fortunately. I like looking through that stuff—a major problem was the constant distraction of other interesting stories.

Did you have any preconceived notions about the battle?
No, I don’t think so. I didn’t grow up with Custer’s infallible beau sabreur fixed in my head, so I wasn’t seeking to defend him as I wrote this. Although, ironically, I do end up defending him to a certain extent, I strenuously tried to adhere to what Samuel Eliot Morrison listed as the three principles of good historical writing: vigor, accuracy and objectivity. That’s why there are 83 pages of notes, and they’re in the back—that’s where the dry historiographical arguments belong if you want your story to be dramatic and readable. If you stop to discuss points in the main text, your narrative grinds to a halt.

Ironically, though I didn’t set out to defend Custer, I ended up doing just that, at least to a certain extent. He made mistakes on that Sunday, but several of those he was accused of—attacking too early, disobeying orders—were not true. But in the rush to escape blame in the battle’s aftermath, he was a convenient scapegoat, being dead, and several officers engaged in a disinformation campaign against him. The Army concept of CYA (cover your ass) has been around for a long time.

Bottom line: George Custer, hero or goat?
Both. During the Civil War, he was almost infallible and played a large part in many Union victories. But in the decade after the war, his only combat experience against Indians was a rout of a sleeping Cheyenne village of 50 lodges—Washita, in 1868—and two lively skirmishes on the Yellowstone against the Sioux in 1873, which revealed a developing sense of good Indian tactics. But he wasn’t prepared for what he ran into on the Little Bighorn on June 25, and he took some chances that didn’t pan out.

What was the 7th U.S. Cavalry’s biggest blunder?
A lack of proper reconnaissance, resulting in not knowing the size and exact location of the village, and the terrain, which proved to be a major factor. Another major factor was underestimating the fighting prowess of the Sioux and Cheyenne, and not knowing of their sky-high confidence, a result of their success in checking a superior force led by General George Crook eight days earlier on the Rosebud. All of that led to Custer dividing his regiment into four parts and throwing them into battle at different times with little coordination or communication between them. The result was a defeat in detail. The Sioux and Cheyenne didn’t employ any complex strategy or tactics—they didn’t have to. Their tactics were reactive, and that was enough. And don’t forget that this camp held at least 1,500 fierce and battle-tested warriors of the Great Plains, men who were raised from infancy to fight. The 7th Cavalry, like most of the Army at the time, was under-trained and under-armed. Some of the troopers were still learning to ride their horses, and most of them weren’t very good shots—target practice was almost nonexistent at the time.

How did you arrive at your conclusions about the battle?
I went to great lengths to procure every primary account of the battle available and read each one over and over. That sounds somewhat simplistic, but it’s the only way I know how to do it right. I think that after a good amount of this, in conjunction with common sense and a knowledge of the known facts and weighing accounts against each other, you begin to get a feel for what really happened and for which accounts or parts of accounts are true. (And, of course, you’ve got to avoid selective use of facts and accounts, which is a major problem with so many writers who have an agenda or a preconceived idea of what happened; they ignore the facts that don’t support their version. You’ve got to be on guard against that.) It’s not an infallible method, of course, and there are things that will never be known with a high degree of certainty—such as Custer’s manner of death. But I think you can reasonably infer what most likely happened. Having said that, other researchers might take the same materials and come to different conclusions. That’s what makes this battle so much fun to discuss—there are enough unknowns to allow endless speculation.

What happened on “the Hill” after Major Marcus Reno’s retreat?
The remnants of the 7th Cavalry’s remaining seven companies retreated to a saucerlike swale on the bluffs above the Little Bighorn, four miles south of Custer Hill. The position wasn’t a perfect one for defense, since there were slightly higher points around them, a few hundred yards away. They were besieged for the rest of that day and most of the next, with virtually no water and dwindling supplies and ammunition. They were surrounded by hundreds of warriors and almost constantly under fire and incurred quite a few casualties. Another day or two and all might have been lost….There were some exceptional feats of heroism. Fortunately, the Indians decamped and marched south into the Little Bighorn Mountains when another Army column approached.

Why cover the Reno Court of Inquiry so extensively?
From the start, I wanted to give that event the full treatment I think it deserves, because it’s an interesting part of the story and one that few people know about. The Reno Court of Inquiry was held in Chicago in January and February 1879, two and a half years after the battle. Almost every surviving officer who participated in the battle, a couple of sergeants and a few of the civilians involved—a doctor, a few scouts—gave testimony over a month’s time. What began as a request by Reno to clear his name quickly became an investigation into the entire battle and who was at fault. The result was a fascinating piece of courtroom drama. The Army and the regiment closed ranks, and the truth was very hard to come by—not so much due to out-and-out lying, although there was some of that, but more a refusal to criticize Reno or the regiment or the Army. Reno was found innocent of any wrongdoing, and the classic line from one of the officers of the court was, “The officers wouldn’t tell us anything, and we could do nothing more than damn Reno with faint praise.”

The full proceedings had never been dramatized, though the complete transcript of the inquiry has been published. But you need more than that to make an event come alive dramatically on the page, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find enough details to do so. But the reportage of only two of the half-dozen newspapers that covered the inquiry had ever been published, and when I found out that the Chicago Public Library had the other four Chicago newspapers on microfilm, I borrowed those reels and read almost every word of all four papers in that monthlong run. Fortunately, I found enough details to flesh out the story without resorting to invention.

What impact did Libbie Custer have on her husband’s legacy?
Her impact was tremendous, because even officers who didn’t like Custer—Frederick Benteen, for example—respected her and were reluctant to voice adverse public opinions about her husband. The same went for writers: No one wanted to hurt her or get her dander up, because if they did, she’d call one of her many officer friends, such as Edward Godfrey, who had been at the battle, and get them to write a rejoinder. She also wrote three very well-received books on her life with Custer, and there isn’t a single word of criticism of him. She burnished Custer’s reputation for a long time, until she died in 1933.

What about Frederick Whittaker?
Whittaker, who would later become of the best dime-novel authors, wrote the first biography of Custer, which appeared a scant six months after the battle. It was quite a massive tome, and he liberally borrowed from Custer’s own My Life on the Plains. But Whittaker had been a cavalry officer during the Civil War, and he was an intelligent observer, so his writing on Custer’s wartime activities are the best thing in the book. There’s little sign of an editor’s hand, though, and it’s sorely needed. But he talked to some of the battle participants, and he was one of the first to criticize Benteen and Reno for their roles in the battle; it’s largely due to him that the Reno Court of Inquiry came about. Of course he’s very pro-Custer, and was also influenced by Mrs. Custer, with whom he met and corresponded.

Frederic F. Van de Water?
Van de Water was a novelist and maybe the best pure writer to attempt a biography of Custer. But Glory-Hunter is clearly anti-Custer—the first of many—and a close reading shows that he was selective in his sources. He almost always slants things so that whenever Custer accomplishes anything of note, it seems to be due to luck or happenstance rather than skill. That said, his book, which not so coincidentally was published in 1934, a year after Libbie Custer died, is a smooth read.

Jay Monahan?
His Custer is probably the best evenhanded biography of Custer, at least until two recent ones: Cavalier in Buckskin, which is the best short biography and marvelously written and researched, and Louise Barnett’s Touched by Fire, also excellent and the best full-scale examination of the man.

Evan S. Connell?
Son of the Morning Star is a great book by a great writer—I’d pay to read Connell’s grocery lists, because he’s simply incapable of writing a bad sentence. He uncovered a good deal of original material for the book, but it’s not footnoted, so of course for a historian it’s difficult to use as a source. It’s more a grand meditation on the American psyche and character presented through the prism of one of the great battles in our history and its participants. It’s anything but a straightforward account of the battle, as mine is.

Robert Utley?
He’s one of the best writers ever to concentrate his efforts on the American West. His books are always impeccably researched and elegantly written. I can’t wait to read his next book, which will be the best ever on Geronimo as soon as it’s published. His biography of Sitting Bull, The Lance and the Shield, might be the greatest Indian biography I’ve ever read.

And your own impact on Custer’s legacy?
I go back to Morrison’s three guideposts: vigor, accuracy and objectivity. I strove for all three. Reviewers have been kind, but to use an unavoidable cliché, only time will tell.

On a lighter note, what’s the best movie about Custer and why?
There’s certainly not a great film on the subject. I’m not as high as some are on the TV version of Son of the Morning Star—weak casting and TV’s budgetary restrictions, as I see it. They Died With Their Boots On boasts better casting—Flynn is great as Custer, and Olivia de Havilland is the best Libbie, hands down—but after Custer’s cadet days and the Civil War, it’s not very good, and the battle is complete fiction….I think the material’s there for a great film, provided a topnotch screenwriter and director are involved. Has anyone asked Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie if they’re interested? Or Viggo Mortensen and Natalie Portman? I’m only half-kidding. These days, it almost always takes interested star power to get a big-budget movie made.

What’s your next history project?
I’ve just begun research for a book on another last stand—the Battle of the Alamo. It’s a challenge, because there are not nearly as many reliable accounts, since the defenders, save one or two (a slave and a Mexican whose story is questionable), were killed. But it’s a tremendous story, with some great characters. If that’s a success, I may be branded as the patron writer of last stands. Thermopylae or Masada might be next.

41 Responses to Interview with George Custer Expert James Donovan

  1. Roger Borroel says:

    As for the new Alamo book, there are PLENTY of realiable, military, Mexican side accounts, all written down shortly after the battle, in pen. However, one has to do their research, however, they(the mss) are practically under our noses! These accounts are backed up by Mexican army charts, and official dispatches, papers, and Mexican field reports. No tepee here. Also, I hope that Mr. Donovan does not compare the Alamo and Thermopylae as if they are the same in spirit and purpose. Many people wrongfully do this erroneous comparison, however, they are as different as night and day. For instance, the ancient Greeks were really defending their home ground from an invader, however, the so-called, Anglo-Texans were in the process of STEALING land! See the difference, folks? I know you do.

  2. says:

    Arrogance in abundance. Humility non-existent.

  3. Bill Stalzer says:

    I’m a big fan of the West. It seems that Mr. Donovan has done is
    homework and you must respect that. I agree with Mr. Borroel about the Alamo and Thermopylae.

  4. Dale Decker says:

    Nice article. Haven’t read the book yet, but I agree with one statement he made that kind of makes me want to read it. All too often historians have a specific point they wish to make, and even if unintentionally, tend to search for items that support that particular point, sometimes to the exclusion of other facts that may muddy the waters a bit.

    This is why I don’t think I would read a book by Mr. Borroel. His comment above tends to make one think that he has already reached such a conclusion, and his book would probably support it. I much prefer to get all the facts from all sides, then determine for myself these things. So I will probably get Mr. Donavan’s book.

  5. Jon Heitland says:

    I am a 30 year Custer “buff” and have read dozens of books on the battle, been to the battlefield every year, re-enacted the battle, etc., and I truly believe “A Terrible Glory” is the best book on the subject in many years, maybe the best of all with the possible exception of William Graham’s “The Custer Myth”. He has done an excellent job of synthesizing all the available information, the new with the old, and in a very readable fashion. I think it will be the new “gold standard” among Custer scholars.

    • Mark H says:

      Have you read the Centennial Campaign & Custer’s Last Campaign by John S. Gray? Or Steweart’s Custer’s Luck?

  6. Peter Thompson says:

    Like the life of Sinatra, the full scope of Custer and his accension into the american consciousness will probably prove too big for Hollywood, and too politically incorrect to even attempt to objectify in the wake of the red mans plight in our nation. I would pay to see the definitive portrayal of Custer in an Olver Stone film however, if for no other reason than to just piss off the status quo. I think that alone would have pleased Custer.

  7. Myles Keough says:

    I have yet to read the book, however, many accounts of the resulting battle tend to not include contributing factors.Custer’s hatred of Ulysses S. Grant and his preoccupation with becoming the next President of the USA resulted in his haste, leaving gattling guns behind as not to slow the 7th Cavary down so he could travel to Washington to declare his candidacy. Disentary, among the troops. Being undergunned, single-shot breechloaders vs. the indians Winchesters. The troops carrying 4-months backpay having been paid just before the campaign.

    • , due to te itselfectoral veAlan Johnson says:

      Custer had no intention of running for president in 1876 or any other time. News of his battle at the Little Big Horn did not reach the East until well after the Democratic Convention was over. He could hardly have raced anywhere from remote, roadless SE Montana to declare his candidacy.

      One who thinks Custer figured in Democratic politics in 1876 is ignorant of the history of the 1876 election. Sam Tilden, Democratic Governor of New York, won the nomination that year. He also won the popular vote for President and many argue the electoral vote as well. Rutherford Hayes, Governor of Ohio, is said to have swayed southern electoral delegations by ageeing to end Reconstruction.
      Tilden was a reformer who bucked Tammany Hall. Hayes was seen also as a reform candidate, to save the Republican Party from the taint of the Grant administration corruption.

      Not only did Custer not have presidential ambitions, but he had no one in power in the party that could have given him the nomination.

      • James Ombrello says:

        I agree and thank you for stating your point so clearly. Historical records of the Democratic Convention do not mention his name, so far as I know.
        I can’t tell you how many times other students of this topic have stated to me that Custer bragged (to his non-English speaking Crow scouts) that a victory over the Sioux and Cheyenne would result in his becoming the “great father”. Custer was known to be a supporter of the Democratic Party, but I am not aware of any support of him as a poltical candidate for anything.

        Custer was out of favor prior to the summer of 1876 and it is not unreasonable to believe that victory in this campaign was his way to resurrect his career and reputation.

        My personal feeling is that he and his wife may have had hopes for a life in the east, New York or Washington, after years of hardship at lonely posts. Custer may have had ambition for high office in the War Dept. or Indian Affairs, but the allegation that he planned to use a victory over the Sioux and Cheyenne to gain the White House is not credible to me.

  8. LaMar Stellfox says:

    I have just finished Mr. Donovan’s superb book and want to tell him what a great work of history he produced. I too, like many others have read many of the more recommended books on the subject of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and Mr. Donovan’s book is by far the most readable, complete, and entertaining. Truly a modern classic of history. Well done sir! Thanks for confirming my conclusions as to Custer’s greatest mistakes. I agree that his mistakes were violating the principle of mass and lack of any reconnaissance of the actual objective area. His narrative just feels so complete as to allow the reader to truly reach finality on the subject.

  9. Richard Jesse says:

    I would like to know what clothing, equipment the 7th Cavalry wore at Little Big Horn. We are trying to do an authentic copy of the troopers gear. Thanks, Richard

  10. NorPlains says:

    I have not read Mr Donovan’s book so I don’t know what conclusions he arrives at regarding how the battle onfolded. But of the Custer books and narratives I have read the one I found the most compelling (as far as how the battle itself unfolded) was Sole Survivor by Douglas W. Ellison. I’m not talking about the sole survivor (Frank Finkel) that he presents in this book, but rather the troop movements (Custer’s)and most probable strategies employed. I think archaeological evidence that was later found in the scientific investigation after the grass fire on the battlefield bears his theory out.

  11. don clifton says:

    i have not read mr donovans book but have read all most every book writen about the custer battle the old writers and the new writers a book that every one should read is jack pennigtons book a comprehensive study the battle of the little bighorn then come back and talk to me i,d love to hear from you i,v stayed at the crows nest on 3 differate times been over the battle field many times since 1961 email me at

  12. mike o'donnell says:

    i recently read A Terrible Glory and i loved it. however, the book said that Reno was buried in Washington DC. i was at the burial ground at Little Bighorn in 2007 and found Reno’s grave there. was his body moved ?

    Mike O’Donnell

    • Garbageman says:

      The footnotes indicate after due diligence by Charles Reno, the Major was buried with full military honors atthe Battlefield in 1967.

  13. Jim Loffler says:

    The book was one of the best Custer books I’ve read, having read most of them. The question in my mind currently is how many of the unit flags was he able to account for in his research? There is currently an auction scheduled in October 2010 to sell the “Culbertson flag”. I’ve seen quite a few posts against the sale and some intervention to return the flag to the Army or get it moved to the Smithsonian.

  14. Barry Brummet says:

    I purchased Donovan’s book when I visited the Battle site a few weeks ago and have just finished reading it. I enjoyed the Son of the Morning Star but Glory is far better, the research more thoroughgoing, the presentation more methodical. I was especially interested to read about the role of steam navigation on the upper Missouri tributaries as I think my great great grandfather, James Rooney, might have crewed on one of the boats. He had served in the Civil War on a steam gunboat.
    My visit to the battlefield was quite memorable. I can well believe it’s haunted. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck the whole time I was there,
    I wish I had read Glory before I went.

  15. Ken Hall says:

    Just wanted to clarify a detail on the location of New Rumley, OH., the General’s birthplace. It is mislocated in ” A Terrible Glory”.
    I live in north east Ohio and have visited the village on several occassions. It is actually in eastern Ohio, in Harrison county, about 20 miles more or less directly west of Stubenville, which is on the Ohio River. New Rumley is not in western Ohio and much further from Monroe then mentioned in the book.
    I live in Warren and it is a little more then an hour ride south to New Rumley and the state memorial to Gen. Custer there. It is still a tiny community and part of what would be considered Appalachia in Ohio.
    Sorry, but the mistake stood out like a sore thumb to me.
    I have enjoyed the book, found it a good read. Especially interesting were the detailed movements of the 3 columns. I have visited the area twice and ride cavalry as a reenactor, so understanding how mounted troops dealt with scouting that type of terrain intrigued me.

  16. Eagle Eyes says:

    To Mike O’Donnell,

    Yes. Reno’s remains were moved from Washington, D.C. to the national cemetery, then known as Custer Battlefield National Cemetery – since changed to the Little Big Horn National Cemetery.

  17. Damond Horner says:

    I was born and raised in Monroe… I’m certain any Custer buff, knows of the statue and the museum dedicated to Custer. I visited the battle site, when I was a lot younger. I drive a truck over the road, and was in the area last year… I pulled over to the side of the road to look at the area, and the terrain was what really caught my eye… I can’t fathom what it must have been like to be there.

    After reading the book, I came away with a different thought of the battle… Its clearly not the story that has been told for decades in Monroe. The “local legend” is much worse.

    With the inovation we enjoy today, being in a battle where you relied on others to ride off with reports is something I’m certain nobody would want to have to do, but at the time its the best they could do.

    I want to look into any books that may have been put out with the indian point of view, to see how the stories come together.

  18. Richard Tilford says:

    Custer split his command years before the battle of the littlebig horn
    he split the officer corp with his arrogent additude. My great grand father was second in command on mercy/medical leave and was
    in St.Louis when custer was killed in montana. He commanded Ft. Lincoln 18 times more than custer. Relations between custer and
    Joseph Green Tilford where very cool. The 3rd in command Louis
    Merril hated custer as well as benteen and a few other officers.
    I have a complete website on my relative on line.
    Respectfully yours
    Richard ferguson Tilford

  19. Alan Johnson says:

    Donovan did a great service to those interested in the history. No only is his story highly accurate, but it is written in a superb literary style that will appeal to readers who would not pick up the average historical tome. I loved the article, too, as well as Donovan’s approach to the research. Original material, and lack of prejudgements, is the only to do it right.

  20. Jimmy Willis says:

    Great book! I’ve been a Custer buff all my life. Wish somehow they could make a movie out of this book. I thought Son of the morning star was a good movie as far as accuracy goes, Just wish they would have found someone beside’s Gary Cole to play George A. Custer!

  21. jim says:

    i enjoyed your book “ATerrible Glory, Custer and the Little Bighorn and the research you performed. However on page 276 you wrote Custer received two gun shot wounds to the right breast and right temple and on page 308 you write Custer received two gun shot wounds to the left breast and left temple. I am baffled please hellp.

  22. hank says:

    great book

  23. Mark H says:

    On page 128 of “A Terrible Glory” Donovan talks about the Beecher Island conflict of 1868 which he says took place on the Arikara Fork of the Cheyenne River. It actually took place on the Arikara Fork of the Republican River which is several hundred miles south of the Cheyenne.

  24. Mark H says:

    Oops! On page 188 Donovan talks about the Indian leaders at the Big Horn Fight and calls Low Dog a Brule Sioux while in the picture section his picture is tagged as an Oglala. I believe he was an Oglala.

  25. Frederick JH Bower says:

    GREAT book, Mr. Donovan as I just finished same-look forward to your work on another riveting last stand, that of the Alamo!
    A couple of comments-I still like the TV movie “Son of the Morning Star” best of all the Custer depictions on the screen-casting was excellent & a fairly reasonable battle was depicted. The other Hollywood “schlcok” is just that altho Earl Flynn was a “good” Custer. i have watched every movie abt Custer & generally wind-up laughing @ the battle scenes………….sad! Lastly, my Uncle (many times over), John F. McBlain, rode with the 7th under Bradley & is mentioned in Connell’s SOTMS in the Bibliography section for a paper he wrote in 1896. Once again, great book…..great interview!

  26. michael taylor says:

    how can I contact someone with a point of interest about the battle I heard from native americans when I was a ten year boy? I learned of the fight at the ravine in the 1950s (I believe long before it was common knowledge)? these men were sons/grandsons of participants of the battle.

  27. Captain Obvious says:


  28. Leighton McCormick says:

    In 1998, I read Seize The Sky, Terry C. Johnston’s 1991 book discussing Custer’s Last Stand. His book, supposedly, relied on the latest archaeological finds, as well as written reports of the time by Whites and Native Americans. In his book, Johnston relates that Custer was blown out of the saddle crossing the coulee to attack the Indian village, and from that time on, his brother Tom carried him from place to place, ending up at Custer Hill where the final killing took place. Question to all: How accurate is this account? It’s certainly not Erroll Flynn dying with his boots on!

  29. Robert Miller says:

    Whom could I contact about some Custer memorabilia, namely pictures, from a verified Custer family member.. wanting to try to get ID’d… VERY strong resemblance to Custer’s West Point photo.. owner did not know identity of photo subjects, boy(s) about 10-12 yrs old

  30. Rat bark says:

    (This comment has been edited to remove remarks that violate HistoryNet’s code prohibiting personal attacks by one commentor against another.)

    But Roger is good in that he has chosen a topic that few have researched in great depth from the Mexican documents, but also that few really care about anymore. In the end my day isn’t ruined if Crockett killed 1000 then died or if he was shot in the back by his own side after breaking ranks. Go to Amazon and read Roger’s reviews. Then take all the one star reviews and go and read what is actually going on. The bad reviews are mainly focused at authors that disagree with Roger. Also check out the five star review that Roger gives himself for his book, quoting the publisher who, surprise surprise is Roger himself. It’s pretty bad. Once you see what else he has posted and the harassment he has dished out from behind a keyboard on Facebook and other forums, you will better understand what is going on here.

  31. Ron Hunter says:

    I’ve been interested in this subject since I was a kid, and I’m now 53. A Terrible Glory is a great, well done, historical accurate, portrait of Custer, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. And I agree, there should be a big budget movie made, but be passionate and don’t be politically correct – don’t try and please everyone, just make a great flick that puts the viewer in the saddle and into the time period. Show the fears of the immigrant trooper as he writes letters home to his family. And the seasoned officers trying to keep those new recruits together amid the fear of death by savages among every shadow. There was a lot of thinking going on, because from the time they left Ft. Lincoln to the Crows Nest was 33 days of hard riding and sleepless nights. A Terrible Glory brings its reader to have a understanding of what happened, that hot and bloody Sunday in June of 1876…….P.S. If you would like to learn more on this subject, I found two great sites ( and (custerapollo) the latter has put together a great documentary that everyone who enjoys this subject should see…..

  32. Francis says:

    Just finished the book, I thought it too favorable to Custer in some areas, and some arguments weak; like the hard marching Custer put his guys through, yes, other officers forced similar and worse marches on man and horse, BUT, the difference is, they didn’t fight at the end of it, mostly not even coming into ‘contact’ with the foe. Custer forced his guys, and then not only did they fight – with tired steeds and men- but they also encountered probably the biggest gathering of braves in history who were willing to fight. I guess it was just bad luck, and true Custer would have preferred to rest a day, but was advised not too {which is something that puzzles me, when did he ever bother to accept someone elses advice?}

    Also, he did not send back the messenger to Terry, and did not follow Terry’s orders regarding his scouting for the Indians, missing out areas Terry asked him to scout.

    Another thing that gets me, is that Custer did not learn from Washita, where he was stunned to find the actual encampment was much larger than he at first thought, a mistake he repeated again, at greater cost.

    Custer ordered Reno to attack, and that he’d support him with the whole outfit. Custer did not. I think with the history of Custer abandoning people panicked Reno into thinking he’d been hung out to dry -it seems that Benteen thought similarly when atop the defense. Reno fell apart, I believe, not a crime in itself, and as for charges of being drunk, seems to me most of the command were drunkards; I always grew up with an image of French as this cool guy, under fire coolly unjamming rifles -as I read in an account some time ago- but turns out he was a drunkard and a drug abuser, which answers why he was so cool, he was on another planet lol

    Custer messed up, it’s that simple, he should not have divided his forces as he did, and should have certainly ensured the extra ammo was at hand BEFORE riding to the other end of the village; I can’t, for the life of me, understand how Custerphiles think that Benteen -slowed down with packs- with a smaller command than Custer would fair better with the Indians AND get to Custer with the extra ammo…absolute nonsense.

    He also didn’t tell folks of his intentions, and the only instruction to Reno, he didn’t complete his part of -the support of him with the whole outfit. Leave alone he changed his mind and told no one about it.

    I personally think Custer believed himself ‘immortal’, there is a syndrome -the name escapes me- where people who survive deadly situations think they can’t be killed; happened a lot in Northern Ireland when people survived terrorist bombings and shootings. He probably thought he’d not get a scratch, right until the point of his first wound.

    Is still think that what really happened was out there in the words of the Native folks, but White racism mostly ignored it, because of contradictions, mostly. But we know today that eyewitness testimony is variable -heck, the RBOI and any White man’s testimony after the battle can be explained away mostly by the way the brain works- I can only peak from my own experience, but I have had episodes where I’d swear on my kid’s lives that occurred, but know from others my sequence of events is in error -well, either mine is r all of the other witnesses lol

    I think also, in the case of the Indian histories, we have people trying to remember what happened in the heat of battle, years after the event; so we have failing and false memories, also added to translation errors, some concepts and ideas are cultural and very hard to get over to people outside of an ‘alien’ culture.

    Sorry, rambled… a bit, enjoyed the book though

  33. Dale hunter says:

    I have read the same book and many others by mr. Johnstone. I enjoy his books very much but they are not historical novels. He does write about true events and tries to keep it historically accurate but he also makes a story about it. Dont be fooled that these are historical novels because they arent. Damn good stories but not all historically accurate. He likes to weave fictional characters into the story dealing with real life people and it makes a great read. His work about custer actually features two books there is one (cant remember the name now) that came out right before or after Seize the sky, Have you read some of his other novels dealing with Famous Indian battles featuring the fictional character Seamous Donnegon.

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