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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. His death may have overshadowed his life, but there certainly has been plenty written about his life, particularly his Civil War cavalry engagements and his 10 years on the Great Plains before the final fiasco. But it has been three decades since anyone has tried to cover Custer’s whole life, which makes Wert’s highly readable 464-page biography most welcome. (Also out this year is the 554-page The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer–by Louis Barnett, Henry Holt & Company, $30–which focuses on George’s life on the frontier with his wife, 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’s strengths and weaknesses as a man and a soldier. His last chapter, “Montana Hill,” begins, “To the Lakota, it was another day in the Moon of the Ripe Juneberries….” It’s a short but good account of controversial George’s last day, a day in which he achieved immortality.