Interview with George Custer Expert James Donovan

By Johnny D. Boggs
4/2/2009 • Battle of The Alamo, George Custer, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, 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storytelling ability, recent archaeological and forensic data and mostly primary sources—including several obscure and unpublished accounts—Donovan has created a 544-page book that is being heralded as “exemplary,” “the new benchmark,” “gripping” and “the most memorable, readable, maybe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.

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