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George Armstrong Custer, the controversial Civil War cavalier and perennial bad boy of Western history, will not go away. It has been asserted that more ink has been spilled over his famed 1876 last stand, in Montana, than over any other American battle save Gettysburg. That is debatable, but Custer has nevertheless inspired a sizable library of books and articles, as well as some 50 motion pictures and television programs. The 120th anniversary of his death at age 36 has led to yet another boom let of interest highlighted by the authorization of a Native American monument at Little Bighorn National Battlefield, a major exhibit at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, and two new biographies: Jeffry D. Wert’s Custer and Louise Barnett’s Touched by Fire.

Just as the force of Custer’s personality drew men and women to him during his lifetime, it has attracted scores of biographers since his death. Like moths to the flame they have been unable to resist his lure and, while a handful have left works of merit, most have engaged in literary self-immolation. Custer has proven as elusive a target for biographers as he was for Rebel marksmen.

Frederick Whittaker’s 1876 exercise in hagiography, A Complete Life of Gen. George A. Custer, set the standard for 60 years after his hero’s death. It was not until Frederic Van de Water’s Glory Hunter in 1934 that the marble hero was toppled from his pedestal, emerging as a deeply flawed anti-hero, consumed by ambition and ultimately destroyed by his own hubris. Glory Hunter had a lasting influence on all who tackled the Custer story afterward, proving especially influential to novelists, filmmakers, and other purveyors of popular culture. James Monaghan’s solid 1959 biography,Custer, failed to rehabilitate Custer’s popular reputation, although it stood for a quarter of a century as the standard work. Both Van de Water and Monaghan were finally overshadowed by Evan Connell’s surprising 1984 bestseller, Son of the Morning Star. Far more impressive as literature than as history, Connell’s compelling book nevertheless began to restore Custer to his proper place as a bold, experienced soldier of considerable skill who was marked by fascinating contradictions and deep flaws. Robert Utley’s 1988 Cavalier in Buckskin continued this rehabilitation of Custer with a gripping account of his Western career.

Jeffry Wert’s excellent book, the first full biography of Custer since Monaghan’s, continues in this tradition of positive revision. As might be expected from this distinguished biographer of Confederates John Mosby and James Longstreet and chronicler of Union Major General Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, it is in the chapters on Custer’s Civil War career that Wert truly shines. Straightforward, lucid, and concise, these chapters make it abundantly clear why this bold young officer was so highly regarded by his superiors, so worshiped by his soldiers, and so feared by his enemies. Custer, though not without flaws, emerges from these pages as a fascinating and credible commander.

Wert’s mastery of his material, and his sober judgments and modern viewpoint, make his work far superior to the able but dated Monaghan book and the excessively laudatory 1983 work on Custer’s Civil War career by Gregory Urwin. Wert’s assessment that “as a brigade commander, [Custer] had no equal in the army, and when promoted to divisional command, he handled the additional units with consummate skill” will be difficult for critics to assail. Wert, who understands the difference between aggressiveness and rashness, notes, “Custer was neither rash nor careless, but an officer who acted with deliberateness until a weakness in an opponent’s position could be located and exploited. He possessed an insight for combat, a feel for the right moment to assail the enemy.”

Two-thirds of Wert’s book deals with Custer before he heads West, arguably a proper balance. It is no insult to Wert to say that his chapters on Custer’s frontier career and last battle are not as strong as Utley’s work,but they nevertheless make sound use of recent archaeological digs at the battlefield, as well as the careful analysis of Western historian John Gray, to give a clear-headed explanation of Little Bighorn. Ultimately,however, as Wert makes clear in his final sentence, while he recognizes that Custer’s immortality results from that mysterious death on a Montana hillside, it was rather on the killing grounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia that “the measure of George Armstrong Custer must be taken.”

Louise Barnett, on the other hand, quickly dispenses with Custer’s life to1865 in 56 pages, half of which deal almost exclusively with Custer’s wife Elizabeth. In the remaining 500 pages, Barnett expends four chapters on wild digressions that deal only remotely with Custer (the editors at Henry Holt utterly failed to do their blue-pencil duty to improve this talented but undisciplined author’s work), and the final seven chapters concern Elizabeth’s life after 1876 and the evolution of the Custer myth. What finally emerges is part joint biography of George and Elizabeth and part extended essay on the American concept of heroism.

Barnett’s book is sprawling, ill-disciplined, and replete with small but irritating factual errors. The content is sometimes as pretentious as the title. But the volume is also provocative, boldly theoretical, marked by often keen analysis, and beautifully written. Barnett asks big questions and as often as not provides the answers. She writes more favorably of Custer than Wert, Utley, or Connell, and it is clear throughout that she is enamored of her subject. As a romantic feminist she brings a perspective to the Custer story not previously seen, and it often pays rich dividends to the reader. No one who writes on Custer in the future will be able to ignore her book.

The quality Barnett finds most attractive in Custer “was his vitality, his buoyancy and unfailing optimism…always in motion mentally and physically.” She astutely notes how this mightily irritated those of a more sedate temperament, not only then, but also since. Barnett is equally impressed with Elizabeth, painting her in far warmer hues than the often cold, calculating figure of Shirley Leckie’s1993 biography. She accepts the Custers’ great romance at face value,despite his infidelities, and she disdains the easy modern criticism of Elizabeth as a woman working within the restrictive boundaries of the Victorian mindset.

Two authors writing on the same subject could hardly be more different than Wert and Barnett, yet both are remarkable in their determination to rehabilitate Custer’s reputation. The ludicrous cardboard monster of recent popular culture will not survive these books. Custer has always proven a powerful symbolic figure, a man whose image, as Barnett puts it, speaks more “to the contradictory needs of the national psyche than to the contradictory realities of his life.” Custer’s modern redemption in these books, published simultaneously by two major Northeastern houses, speaks powerfully to the end of a quarter-century of national self-loathing and to the final emergence of America from the historical shadow of the Vietnam era.

Paul Andrew Hutton
University of New Mexico