The Other Custers: Tom, Boston, Nevin and Maggie in the Shadow of George Armstrong Custer, by Bill Yenne, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2018, $26.99
Most historical figures, particularly those later glamorized in film and celebrated in popular culture, tend to be profiled as robustly independent characters, stand-alone entities distanced from family and other binding relationships that might have otherwise influenced, colored and shaped their personalities and fates. There has always been something romantically appealing about a person fighting adversarial conditions without benefit of support or allies. George Armstrong Custer has invariably been depicted in such a solitary fashion, the tableau of the “Boy General” surrounded by the faceless dead men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry being among the most iconic images of 19th-century Americana. It is the emblematic stuff of great myth and legend, albeit not a very accurate one.
Aside from questionable historical record concerning his Last Stand on June 25, 1876, what is often wrong about the Custer image is this notion of his lone wolf status, for quite the opposite was the case. Custer was in fact the epicenter of a large brood, the members of which largely immersed themselves in his universe, a reality acclaimed historian Bill Yenne explores in this highly entertaining and informative new work that explores his familial connections. Not only was Custer married to someone (Libby) who remained steadfastly at his side through most of his military career, but also Custer had three devoted brothers—Tom (himself a two-time Medal of Honor recipient), Boston and Nevin—the first two sharing his fate on the Little Bighorn, as did a brother-in-law and a nephew.
Yenne, whose earlier books include a 2009 biography of Sitting Bull, became fascinated by the extended Custer clan, noting, for example, how the brothers incongruously shared a strong penchant for practical jokes and were playing tricks on each other almost up until the time fate brought them together with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse on that Montana Territory battleground. He conducted tireless research to document the heretofore little-known personal histories of still other family members, all of whom had either gone unaddressed or been wholly lost beneath the all-encompassing shadow of their martyred relation. Yenne’s research and documentation is as impressive as it is thorough.
Yenne also charted out the Custer line to its present and dwindling descendants, including George Armstrong Custer IV, who provides a winning forward. The Other Custers is a rewarding read on many levels, for both the Custer aficionado and anyone interested in how, as a culture, we mold and shape our legends and how, in the process, some people get left out of the mix.