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Custer: Lessons in Leadership

by Duane Schultz, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010, $23.

George Armstrong Custer was born to be a soldier. He proved that during the Civil War when his hard-charging approach as a brevet cavalry general usually led to success. The same approach ultimately proved his undoing on the postwar frontier; even so, he showed, in the words of General Philip Sheridan, “a superabundance of courage.” Given Custer’s lack of restraint, however, even Sheridan might have suggested he was not born for independent command. His official rank when he died at the Little Bighorn on July 25, 1876, was lieutenant colonel, but many of his men still called him “General.” In any case, George is the 14th leader to be part of the Great Generals Series, following in the bootsteps of the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. No Sheridan yet.

In his foreword series editor General Wesley K. Clark acknowledges what an astounding leader Custer was in the Civil War. And though Clark says the Little Bighorn failure “rested on Custer,” he adds that the fiasco served as a signal warning for future military leadership. “We don’t reward impetuous, reckless behavior, especially not in our leaders,” writes Clark. “It’s not about the glory— it’s about mission accomplished.”

As for Schultz’s compact biography (a shade over 200 pages), it is swiftly paced and well written. Certainly it does more than skim the surface of Custer’s career, though it shouldn’t keep anyone from also reading Jeffry D. Wert’s more detailed Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer or the numerous other biographies that delve into the onetime “Boy General’s” questionable leadership during the Indian wars.

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.