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A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn

by James Donovan, Little, Brown, New York, 2008, $26.99.

At a time when (as this goes to print) it’s at least possible the next U.S. president will be black, it’s hard not to wonder how much more harmonious our country might be had the government made Native Americans partners rather than marginalizing, brutalizing and killing them.

Not that blacks had it easy, but at least we didn’t declare war on them. Indians were enemies of the state from the first battle to the last, one of the last being Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s ignominious 1876 defeat at their hands. Too bad. If nothing else, we’d have ended up with one hell of a military had we made Indians our countrymen; Native Americans were among history’s finest guerilla fighters and cavalrymen.

Donovan’s splendidly written and nicely paced book offers far more than what its title suggests, for it traces Custer’s entire career, providing a fuller sense of a man too easily derided as a fool. Custer was no such thing; during the Civil War some fellow officers considered him the world’s best cavalry commander. Donovan’s account is detailed enough to make it clear Custer was brave, intelligent, talented and all too human, yet it never sinks into the boredom of biographies that begin on the kitchen birthing table and never miss a minute thereafter.

The author seems to have conducted scrupulous research, judging by the book’s extensive notes and bibliography, lending weight to his descriptions of such things as Custer’s cranky and unpredictable relationships with his subordinate officers Captain Frederick Benteen and Major Marcus Reno. There are occasional clangers: “Inevitably, some of the troopers called [H Company trumpeter John Martini] ‘Dry Martini,’” suggests one passage, which was prescient of them, since that cocktail wasn’t invented for another 10 years.

To the author’s credit, this is a book that doesn’t require pages of battle maps and diagrams filled with icons, arrows and pincer movements; we know exactly what’s happening simply from reading his graceful accounts.

There was blame enough to spread around after the massacre at the Little Bighorn, but since Custer was beyond defending himself, most of it was sent his way. Donovan ends the book not with the battle but many years later, after publication of self-promoted “Brevet Captain” Frederick Whittaker’s hagiography of Custer and after Reno’s trial for incompetence—he was acquitted.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here