Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Nathaniel Philbrick - The Last Stand



     “Before Custer became the mythic figure we know today, he was a lieutenant colonel desperate to find a way to salvage his reputation after a run-in with President Grant.  Custer did not stride through history doing what he wanted; he, like any military man, spent most of his time following orders.” (Philbrick, 101)  Custer was on the brink of professional and financial ruin.  If he could catch the Indians all would be well again. In his most hopeful fantasies he imagined a draft Custer for President Movement at the Democratic convention which was to open in St. Louis on June 27.  More realistically he could expect accolades at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and big box office receipts for a lecture tour for which he was already booked. (Philbrick, 119)

     The villain of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876) was General Alfred Terry and his flawed battle plan.  According to Philbrick, General Terry “wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail.”  He says, everyone knew perfectly well what Custer was going to do once Terry, “, in the words of Major Brisbin ‘turned the wild man loose.’”(Philbrick, 99)  General Terry was protective of his own military reputation however and was spinning an invisible and cunning web.  “Terry had a lawyer’s talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it.”  Terry’s ambiguously worded orders to Custer, allowed him to protect his reputation no matter what happened.  “If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had the wisdom to give him an independent command.  If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry’s written orders.”  Philbrick continues, “As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn.  But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces.  Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.” (Philbrick, 102-103)

     In 1886, some ten years after the massacre of Custer and 225 men of the Seventh Cavalry, the well-respected Terry was promoted to the rank of Major General.



For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.







Monday, March 24, 2014

George Armstrong Custer: Manufactured Hero?





Six months after the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876), Frederick Whittaker’s A Complete Life of General George A. Custer was published.  Whittaker’s book made no pretense to objectivity, this was a canonization which presented Custer as a dashing and brilliant military leader abandoned to his fate by lesser, disloyal, treacherous, and cowardly men.  Whittaker borrowed generously from Custer’s own book My Life on the Plains, as well as on his own imagination, which was fulsome, since Whittaker was a professional writer of nickel and dime novel fiction for a leading publisher.


Whittaker quoted (or manufactured) the testimony of one of the Indian scouts, Curly, who claimed to have escaped from the field of battle.  When Curly saw that the party with Custer was about to be overwhelmed, he begged Custer to let him show him a way to escape.  “…Custer looked at Curly, waved him away and rode back to the little group of men, to die with them.”  Why, Whittaker asks, did Custer go back to certain death?  “Because he felt that such a death as that which that little band of heroes was about to die, was worth the lives of all the general officers in the world….He weighed, in that brief moment of reflection, all the consequences to America of the lesson of life and the lesson of heroic death, and he chose death.” 



For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Colonial America mystery writer Andrew Mills



Interview with mystery writer Andrew Mills, author of the Archibald Mercer Colonial Detective series.  Archibald Mercer, America's first detective, solves crimes in colonial and Revolutionary era America.  Books in the series include: (1) The Female Stranger, (2) The Stolen Sash,(3) The Gambler's Debt, (4) The Stolen Election, and (5) The Burning Palace.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Civil War Story of Brentsville, Virginia


“Came to Brentsville, examined the place, found five houses occupied, including the jail. But two men reside in this town; the court-house has but a part of the roof remaining on; the houses are generally in ruins.”  So read, in part,  a letter of March 8, 1864, written by Captain Andrew H. McHenry of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

The Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is raising funds for the Curation and Conservation of American Civil War Artifacts at the Brentsville Jail.

 Brentsville, Virginia has a rich and colorful Civil War story that has largely been lost to history.  The purpose of this project is to re-discover that history and tell it through the interpretation of artifacts left behind by both Union and Confederate soldiers.

-  Brentsville was the county seat during the Civil War. It was at the Brentsville courthouse that citizens met to vote on secession and where they came to enlist in the military. In response to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, the Prince William Cavalry (Co. A, Virginia Cavalry) was formed here on the courthouse lawn in January 1860. The Ewell Guards (Co. A, 49th VA Infantry), were also organized here and drilled on the courthouse lawn.

-  When Union General McClellan began his campaign to take the new Confederate capital in Richmond, southern troops were forced to evacuate their winter camps that were set up throughout much of Fairfax and Prince William Counties. Brentsville, then the seat of local government, was one of the first communities affected by invading Federal forces. Thousands of troops of both sides passed through Brentsville. Churches and private homes became hospitals after battles at Manassas and Bristoe Station. Many of the buildings were ravaged for bricks to build encampments. The roof of the courthouse was partially torn off and the adjacent clerk's office was totally destroyed. Most of the county's records were lost. A Union soldier wrote, “The documentary accumulations of more than two hundred years had been torn out of their files and scattered over the floors of the buildings to the depth of several feet.”


-  Brentsville sat in the midst of “Mosby’s Confederacy” as Confederate partisans harassed union troops throughout the war.  A soldier in the Tenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry wrote, “Guerrillas were all about us, as was evident when a straggling member of the Tenth was fired upon….Oct. 6th, a squad of men went over to Brentsville, shire town of Prince William County, to get bricks for the General’s quarters.  They secured them, but at the expense of the buildings themselves.”




Monday, March 10, 2014

Custer’s Last Stand - Reno’s Charge


On June 25,1876 George Armstrong Custer's Indian scouts identified what they claimed was a large Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River.  Custer decided to attack despite the warning from Mitch Bouyer a veteran scout of French and Sioux descent that this was the largest gathering of Indians that he, Bouyer, had seen in more than thirty years.

Custer divided the regiment into three battalions.  Captain Frederick Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians.  Major Marcus Reno was to charge the southern end of the encampment, and Custer rode north, planning to circle around and attack from the north.

Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village.  The Indians did not flee, but began pouring out of the village toward Reno like angry bees.  Reno halted, had his men dismount and formed a skirmish line.  Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in huge numbers began to flank Reno’s position and he beat a hasty retreat, or as he reported it “a charge to the rear”.  Barely escaping massacre, Reno established a defensive position atop the bluffs overlooking the river and made a successful stand against the attacking Indians.


Custer attempted to ford the river at the north end of the camp but was driven off.  Now, hundreds of warriors pursued the soldiers onto a ridge north of the encampment. Custer’s men were unable to dig in, however, because they had been outflanked by the Indians.




For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.


The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.



Sunday, March 09, 2014

George Armstrong Custer: Hero or Villain?



     Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer.  The earliest works portrayed Custer as a romantic, knightly figure, a paragon of virtue and chivalry.  Custer was the valorous paladin killed in the cause of Christian civilization and American Manifest Destiny.
     Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations.  Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces.  For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values.  Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.  This books presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.
     The broader importance of the controversy that rages around the Battle of the Little Bighorn centers on the nature of truth.  The battle (which by modern standards would be classified as little more than a frontier skirmish) lasted at most six hours, and yet, after almost one hundred and fifty years, we cannot agree upon what happened, why, or who was responsible.  This roiling controversy forces us to ask, “How do we know what we know, and how do we know if it is true?”