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Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer.

Jeffry D. Wert calls his new biography of George Armstrong Custer "the first full-scale study of his entire life in over three decades" (9). This is surely a propitious time for a fresh appraisal of America's most flamboyant soldier. The thirty-seven years since the publication of Jay Monaghan's 1959 landmark, Custer. The Life of General George Armstrong Custer, have witnessed a stupendous outpouring of Custer material. More books, articles, and films have been produced about the long-haired cavalier and his final hours at the Little Bighorn than about Abraham Lincoln or the Battle of Gettysburg. Going beyond the legendary "Last Stand," a small army of buffs and scholars have also written a series of groundbreaking works exploring less familiar aspects of the Custer story.

Drawing on the best of these previous works and fresh sources located by his own research, Wert offers the most accurate account of Custer's meteoric rise in the Civil War yet to see print. This comes as no surprise, as Wert is the author of three popular books on the war in the East, where Custer launched his spectacular military career. Graduating last in his class at West Point in June 1861, the charismatic Ohioan with a love for combat won a dramatic elevation to the rank of brigadier general in only two years. By the war's end, he was a major general commanding the best cavalry division in the Army of the Potomac - and still seven months short of his twenty-fifth birthday. Wert succeeds in portraying the combination of tactical skill and daredevil courage that turned Custer into the idol of his troopers and Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's favorite subordinate.

Custer lived for eleven tumultuous years after Appomattox, but he never again tasted the glory and satisfaction he enjoyed while helping to destroy the Confederacy. Ironically, Wert's coverage of the "Boy General's" post-Civil War career is just as disappointing. This is strange, new ground for Wert, and his discomfort is obvious. Custer's much-debated role in the subjugation of the Plains Indians earned him the symbolic stature that invests his life with historical significance. But while Wert devotes 149 pages to Custer's two years as a Civil War general, he spares only 114 to describe his decade as an Indian fighter. Those desiring a more complete and sophisticated examination of the most important period in Custer's life should consult Robert M. Utley's Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier (1988).

Perhaps the gravest shortcoming in Wert's Custer is its lack of intellectual depth. Wert seems to think that a biographer's task ends with simply relating what his protagonist did and neglects to probe fully Custer's motives or explain why modem Americans should care about a man who was little more than a supporting player in their nation's history.

Aside from quoting some especially salacious excerpts from the general's correspondence to his wife, Wert offers no original insights into Custer's character. Contrary to his book's subtitle, Wert repeatedly shies away from the many controversies that have long been the focus of Custer studies, including his alleged marital infidelities and shady business dealings. Wert evinces no feel for Custer's politics, which damaged his later military career almost as badly as the Sioux and Cheyenne. Finally, Wert fails to recognize or peer behind the various masks this tremendously shrewd, calculating, and ambitious officer donned in his efforts to redefine his public image and climb to the top in both his profession and American society.

Had Wert been more reflective, he might have arrived at a better understanding of the enigma that was George Armstrong Custer. Because of the voluminous research on which it rests, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer is a noteworthy achievement. Like its tragically flawed subject, however, it will be remembered more for its failures than its successes.

GREGORY J. W. URWIN University of Central Arkansas
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Author:Urwin, Gregory J.W.
Publication:Civil War History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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